Reaching out to single parent families...

As part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy instigated by Pope Francis, the community at Brentwood Cathedral have had a series of Masses where they have made a special outreach to the stranger, the wounded and all those searching for spiritual sanctuary to join them in the presence of our all compassionate God.

On Sunday 10th July, the special outreach was to all those in single parent families. This is a really important area for ministry in the current social climate. You can read Fr Martin's full homily here.

I spotted the link to the homily on Facebook and, despite misgivings I have about matching Masses to various forms of human brokenness, this comment literally melted my heart:

This brought my mind straight to Mt 18:12-14 and the rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. Surely, if even one soul is welcomed back into the Church because of this special effort, going out to the peripheries, it is well worth it, the Father's work is being done!

I mentioned this to a devout Catholic friend who is also a single mother and we got into an interesting discussion: she had quite a lot to say about it, which I found very interesting, not least because the best way to understand a difficult situation is to talk to someone who has first hand experience. This is something she wrote about the initiative, which I found very instructive:

My pregnancy was carefully discerned and planned in advance and anticipated with excitement and love. Becoming a single parent wasn’t included in all of that planning.

So when I saw that there was going to be a special Year of Mercy Mass for single parents I was pleasantly surprised. Single parenthood is probably not high up on the list of things people would initially think of when putting together these special Year of Mercy Masses but I think it is one issue that is badly misunderstood. It is so often a by product of the divorce and remarriage discussion that is such a hot topic at the moment but it is, and should be looked at, as a separate issue. So I was really pleased to see that it was going to be addressed in it’s own right.

One risk of having Masses with a particular ‘theme’ is that those who are directly affected by the issues being addressed are going to be looking at what is said scrupulously especially when the homily is published online. I couldn’t make the Mass but when I read this homily I couldn’t help but feel that it was a real missed opportunity. 25% of families with dependant children are single parents. A quarter of the families in any parish. In a Church which openly, and quite rightly, promotes marriage as the ideal for raising children, this just didn’t get to the heart of the barriers they face at all.

My gut reaction was to notice that the focus is on the mistake that the person has made. We must be nice to them, they’ve got to work extra hard because of a mistake that they made. It fails to speak mercifully and instead lands on pity. Sweeping generalisations about ‘choosing the wrong person’ are insultingly simplistic.

In the case of a breakdown of marriage; sometimes on some occasions, it is possible to say the person you married was not the right person and that your choice of partner was your mistake. However, in 99% of cases it’s way bigger than that. Did I choose the wrong person? Or was I the wrong person? Or, heaven forbid, is the Church failing young families and couples preparing for marriage with their lacking catechesis? Was my mistake falling in love with the wrong person? Or was it before that, was it an earlier mistake that set me on a certain path? It’s always dangerous territory to talk about the mistakes another person has made and should mostly be avoided. Especially when talking to people in such varying circumstances who have probably agonised over pinpointing that very thing.

In the case of women who have found themselves pregnant after a one night stand or a casual relationship the courageous decision that they have made for the life of their child is thing we should be focusing on, as Pope Francis did in the example given. They should be highly praised. How many of us would chose to be defined by one sin we committed, one time. They chose life for their child in circumstances that we, on the outside, cannot comprehend. It is not too far to say that these women are heroic and that this one choice has propelled them along the path towards heaven.

The other thing that is missed here is parents who have been widowed. I can’t speak on behalf of those people but it's not difficult to imagine the sheer difficulty of raising a family on your own whilst enduring the feeling of inadequacy in comparing yourself to the Catholic ideal, coupled with the grief of losing your spouse is only reinforced by the assumption of those around you that being a single parent is your fault.

In a lot of cases the ‘mistake’ that a single parent has made is not sin. You cannot confess to having conceived a child within marriage. There can be no renunciation of past ways, no choosing to turn away from what has been. Our ‘mistakes’ may be many. Our ‘choices’ may have been wrong or misinformed or they have been made with the utmost good faith and we may have been left heartbroken and betrayed. However we got here, our common feature is not our mistake.

Every time someone says that a single parent is doing the work of two I cringe. It sounds nice and I’ve never met anyone who says it with anything but good intentions and often actual admiration but it is the most meaningless platitude. Especially within the Church. The truth is that the ideal way to raise children is with a mother and a father and to suggest that one person can do it by themselves, albeit with a bit more hard work and sacrifice, completely undermines this and the irreplaceable role of mother and father. Not only that, but it places an immense amount of pressure on them. We can see the gaps in our children’s upbringing and to say that we can fill them is just not fair. Because we can’t.

To suggest that the difficulty a single parent faces is about the extra time and effort that is required is also drastically inaccurate. All good parents give 100% effort and the struggle that single parents have is that even if it were possible to give more, to do more, to work harder, to sacrifice more, it would not be enough. I can never be a father. The role of father is absolutely vital to every child as is the example of marriage between their parents and there is nothing that can replace that. It is missing and there isn’t anything I can do about it.

We can do our best to be mother or father. If we try to do more than that we will fail to do any of it well. We can, as mentioned, find support networks elsewhere (which is usually not the church community) we can find ways, and our children are bright, caring, intelligent people and assets to their society but you cannot deny that a two parent family is the ideal way to bring up a child so we will never stop wondering what they could have been?

In order to welcome people back to the Church, to show mercy to those who feel unwelcome because they are a single parent we have to speak love into the reality of their situation not undermine it with platitude. You cannot shirk around the ideal. I appreciate that with one homily you cannot speak to every person’s individual circumstance but you can speak to the heart. It would be very liberating to hear someone say; we can see what your struggle is, it’s a mess, it wasn’t supposed to be like that but you do what you can, trust that the Lord will fill the gaps that you can’t and you don’t have to do it on your own, our community will help you.

God is always in control. We should all offer every one of our struggles to Him but until you are forced to admit that there is no way you can succeed on your own, that you have to lay at the foot of the cross in blind faith the one thing most precious to you, your child’s future, you finally realise just how true it is. You learn how to give everything to God and you learn that he'll never let you fail. You learn how to trust God. What a gift that is!

It is also not difficult to speak to a single parent of God’s mercy because our relationship with our children is the perfect image of it. Whatever the reasons we find ourselves here we have living breathing ‘evidence’ of our past. Whether that is a reminder of a different, rather forgotten time or a reminder of our hopes and dreams that were broken beyond our control, single parents are not afforded the luxury of forgetting. We are, instead, given the grace to see beyond. To see how God transforms our mess, or mistakes, our sufferings. His mercy transcends. He doesn’t take away our past, that which makes us who we are right now, He doesn’t alleviate difficulty or suffering He goes beyond that, He makes it into the very best part of us. We only feel such disconnect, such pain, such failure because we love our children so much that we want what is best for them above all else and we know that whilst we give them the best we can, it isn’t the best possible. The constant mingling of sadness and joy of pain and sacrifice and of redemption coming directly from that suffering is firmly God’s territory. It’s what He does, and if that comparison is made plainly we allow people to come to realise that we are in a blessed position to be so close to Him.

Our God takes something broken and puts the joy, beauty and innocence of childhood in the midst of it. He shows us that we are beautiful and we are loved by giving us something beautiful to love and be loved by. The only way most single parents cope is because of the undeniable connection of love a parent has for their child and this is a mirror of the Father’s love for us and even in the blackest of moments, we still love our children, so we remember that He still loves us. There are times when that’s all I have to go on when it’s nothing more than a sure conviction that offers no comfort. But it is always enough.

Making single parents, or anyone, feel as though it is up to them to make it work is the greatest disservice, even if you're commending them for doing so. It is the difference between piling on added pressure to perform miracles on our own and showing us that the very best we can do for our children is to offload all of that burden and carry the easy yoke of Christ instead.


Popular posts from this blog

Pope Francis: we planned it all before the conclave

Pope Francis: Dismantling Marriage

Establishing a New Object of Worship