AS the Catholic Church in Ireland gears up for the World Meeting of Families later this year, with Pope Francis expected to say Mass at the Phoenix Park, a Cork-based Ursuline nun, Sr Karen Kent, is keen that this major church event isn’t just a Dublin one.
Her second book, 55 Ways to Connect with Families in your Parish was recently published by Veritas and she hopes it will leave a legacy “in our own parishes in Cork”.
Sr Karen, who is the co-ordinator of pastoral development based in Ballyphehane, writes resource material all the time. Having previously published The Journey, which dealt with young people and prayer, Sr Karen’s new book aims to “draw people to reflect”.
“Every idea begins with the scriptures and invites people to reflect why we do this. It ends with a reflection from the papal document that Pope Francis gave us, ‘The Joy of love.’ That’s about how people can make this come alive in their parishes.”
Sr Karen initially sent in ten ideas to Veritas. “They came back fast and wanted more. I just started writing and came up with 55 ways to connect and broke them down into the seasons. There are secular things in there too. It’s not all to do with the church calendar. There’s everything from Advent and Christmas to Ice-Cream Sunday, organised by the Down Syndrome Society. The idea is parishioners have ice-cream after Mass and that it’s a day that people celebrate with families who have someone with special needs. We invite them to engage with the liturgy on that day.
“World Book Day is another idea. Why not invite local celebrities such as a local sportsperson, the mayor or the bishop to read their favourite Bible story in a hall or a bookshop or a café? It doesn’t have to be in a church. Sometimes, you have to go out and take faith into the streets.”
Social media is definitely not included in Sr Karen’s suggestions for connecting with families.
“Pope Francis talks about our parishes being a family of families. And families need to meet and sit and eat and talk and share. You can’t do all that on social media. So I say to people, put the phones away and engage body, spirit and soul in some of the ideas in the book.”
So-called blended families, where there may be a divorced person and stepchildren, are all part of the thinking.
“Everyone can engage in the activities suggested. We’re not here to judge how someone lives their life. We’re asking people to come and encounter Christ in a faith-filled community. Everyone is welcome. No person in a second union and a blended family is excluded. They’re all God’s children.”
Sr Kent, originally from England, is co-ordinator of pastoral development in all 67 parishes in the diocese of Cork and Ross. Her job deals with faith formation and training and resourcing parish councils.
“We have various ministry groups in parishes. We have parish baptism teams that go out and meet families preparing for their child to be baptised. We have people who go in visitation teams to families whose children are preparing for first communion or confirmation. The visits are pre-arranged and very short but they build connections which is at the heart of my book.”
What of parents who want their children to be baptised solely because it will give them entry to certain schools?
“That’s always going to happen. The church will not deny the sacraments to any child. That’s not our way. We say to the family that they need to actually think about this a little more before we proceed. But we will always offer a way.
“I would hope that we can do more to help these families and see that these sacraments are not just moments in their child’s life, that they just become a secular day out.”
Baptism is about bringing the child into the Christian community, says Sr Karen.
“Yet sometimes, it’s just a ritual that parents go through. We want families to see what’s at the heart of baptism. That’s what my work is. I would never say it’s about getting people back into church although when I go out, I do formation and training with parish pastoral councils and assemblies. I always say that it’s best to start where people are and create unity with them.”
Sr Karen says there’s a need to celebrate community.
“Then other people will notice something special happening. First communion, confirmation and funerals will draw a certain crowd. How do we connect with them on those occasions so that they feel they want to return (to church) next week?”
Are people living isolated lives?
“I think lots of people feel they’re quite self-sufficient, that they don’t need anyone else and they don’t need God. And yet, in the midst of it all, there’s another set of people that are searching for something. There’s the whole mindfulness movement, meditation, Buddha, wellness, spas and relaxation.” While many people are quite happy to pursue the trends mentioned above, Sr Karen believes that: “God is reaching out to each and every one of us, all the time. It’s always his initiative, looking for us and seeking us out. If God is looking for us, we need to be awake to him.”
Sr Karen says if people choose and are satisfied with different types of spirituality or ritual, that’s ok.
“We can all live side by side as good living human beings. There’s a need to live in peace and harmony with one another.”
The notion of women priests is not something that concerns Sr Karen.
“I think there’s a role for women in the church. And there’s a very serious role which Pope Francis talks about. It’s at the decision making level. That’s where we need to start seeing movement. I’d like to see women take their rightful place in the church... Maybe we will see women priests. But it’s not something I’d be jumping up and down about. What we need is laypeople, men and women, to take their rightful place. The church is about lay people. The priests and bishops and the Pope are servants of the people who are the church. It isn’t for everyone to be bustling around inside the church. It’s to be out there living the Christian life in their work, be they banker, teacher, nurse, doctor, road sweeper or bus driver.”
55 Ways to Connect with Families in your Parish by Karen Kent is published by Veritas at €12.99.