Christina R. Zaker weaves her lens as a woman and mother into every class she teaches at Catholic Theological Union, but that lens is particularly helpful in teaching a handful of different family spirituality classes. When she started teaching at the school of theology and ministry on the South Side of Chicago, she was one of the only lay professors—meaning she was one of the only professors with the experience of being a spouse and parent. A colleague who was a religious sister recognized a need among the students preparing to serve in ministry to be formed in family spirituality so they could better serve the families in their future parishes. She encouraged Zaker to lead the way.
While Zaker doesn’t consider herself an expert on family spirituality, she finds great value in exploring the topic alongside her students. Each brings a unique experience of family to the table. For Zaker, it’s less about providing answers and more about asking the right questions together, whether we’re talking about a conversation between a parent and child, pastor and parishioner, or teacher and student. Through being reflective together, we can better recognize the sacred in our relationships and lives.
What is family spirituality, and why is it important?
Many definitions you’ll see out there in terms of spirituality deal with an individual. One is a sense of something greater than yourself and a desire to be in touch with the transcendent. You have this sense of something strong within you and your surroundings, and you want to relate to that and build a relationship with that sacredness. So you respond to it.
Family spirituality is how you do this together as a bonded family unit. I say a “bonded family unit” because I like to let families define themselves. Families don’t always include children. They could be a married couple, or a single mother and child, or an LGBTQ family. There are lots of different ways that people will define families for themselves, and we have to allow that. A bonded family unit is in touch with each other day to day versus spread out across time and space.
How does a family have a sense of the sacred that’s happening in the midst of their lives? What is their value system, and how are they intentional about how they act on it? How do they embody it in family life?
Family spirituality is the love that animates family life, the intentional awareness of that love, the vision to name it as sacred, and the response that embodies that sacred love.
Are there elements of spirituality that are inherent to the experiences of families?
In the Catholic tradition, we try to make sure people understand that a spiritual relationship doesn’t just impact you and God. Rather, it is also a relationship with the community—the people of God.
In a family, you have a much more required sense of being in touch with one another and in relationship with one another. It is in those moments of relationship that we feel the presence of God.
Families are hardwired to notice God in the world in the way they interact with one another. We have to be intentional about naming that as sacred. If you take out your cell phone and look at the last photograph you took, you can name where you see God there because you are hardwired to notice things of joy, beauty, and abundance in the world. We can begin to pause and notice why we grab our camera in a particular moment and ask ourselves, “Can I see God in this moment?”
Noticing that can be part of anyone’s individual spirituality, but then as a family we are challenged to have conversations together about not only the photos we take but also the things we do. What’s important about our bedtime routines? What’s important about our holiday rituals? What’s important about why we go to church together or separate on Sundays?
Those must be intentional conversations. Too often people leave that out and live their lives without really being intentional about why they do what they do. Family spirituality reminds us to be reflective. When people are reflective as a family, it impacts the community around them.
Are there ministries particularly suited to a family spirituality approach?
It doesn’t matter what ministry you go into, you have to be prepared to deal with families. You’re going to be dealing with families or family baggage or sorrow or mourning a loss of family. There isn’t a person who doesn’t have some experience of family. I encourage my students who are going into ministry not to narrow themselves to just one aspect of ministry but to broaden their thoughts to ask how family systems play a role for any individual with whom they work.
Whether it’s in a catechesis classroom with one child, during marriage preparation with one couple, or while visiting the hospital to see one elderly sick person, they all have family dynamics that need to be understood to help them process what it is they’re experiencing. Family dynamics play a role not only in what’s going on emotionally in the person but also in who’s going to be able to support the person. It’s helpful for ministers to know what support networks are active or not.
Families are hardwired to notice God in the world in the way they interact with one another.
A director of religious education might focus on the children in the classroom, but they should also consider providing resources for the parents to continue classroom conversations at home. Children have the most profound questions—they really do. Often parents are completely unprepared, or think they are completely unprepared, to answer those questions.
So ministers should prepare the parents to accompany the children, because spiritual wisdom comes from all kinds of directions. Parents aren’t the only leaders in family life. Children lead us as well in so many ways. Their questions are incredible. I want families to feel prepared to accompany them as opposed to just shushing the question and leaving them to ponder it on their own or lose interest in it altogether.
How can parents be better prepared for their kids’ questions?
We all need to be more reflective. When we’re reflective with our lives, we ask questions. The questions we ask are just exploratory. So when children are reflective and ask questions, parents don’t necessarily have to have the answers. They need to be good at asking more questions together and unpacking the answers.
Have intentional conversations. When you talk about holiday traditions like baking Christmas cookies, ask, “Why do we bake Christmas cookies? Who will we give them to? Why do we give them Christmas cookies?” Follow the line of questioning. Rather than just baking cookies and giving them away as an item on your to-do list that stresses you out, be intentional about what it is you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how it makes the world a better place. Then you can get into conversations with kids about how any food we share with another is similar to sharing the Eucharist.
At my parish, when we do community-wide service projects, we follow up with theological reflection and conversations. I send parents home with resources like “How to help your child keep reflecting on this experience,” which suggests different ways of incorporating stories about the people you met that day into your bedtime stories. I’m constantly giving people resources for how to be reflective in life so they are more intentional in recognizing God in the world and naming that as sacred.
What difference does it make to think about ministry with family spirituality in mind?
It helps ministers understand that no matter who they’re dealing with, that person is in a family system and that family system impacts them.
I also help ministers know how to deal with different age groups. Within the challenge to think about family, you’re thinking about adults and children and how to address a family’s diversity of age groups, systems groups, and cultures. It’s important for ministers to broaden that perspective and be prepared to minister to a whole family.
What are the decisions you make? What are the stories you tell?
How are you making sure you’re incorporating the active presence of youth in your usual rituals and blessings? Don’t just say, “We need one teenager to read the second reading in the Easter Vigil liturgy.” Explore how you can have teenagers’ active participation in the voice of what is being celebrated.
What’s an example of someone successfully integrating family spirituality into ministry?
There are a lot of people trying to get at this from many different angles. They’re figuring out how to provide different blessings or different things that mean something to a family and not just to themselves. They’re expanding their own brains as to what we call a family, how we rely on each other, and how we provide accompaniment of families in these moments.
I had a student who wrote a penitential service for an entire family to honor and reconcile with each other. Another referenced their sports team as a family unit for a fun way to do a blessing. One wrote a blessing for overwhelmed nurses in a hospital unit who rely on each other in the way a family would.
One student who was part of a military family had an older sibling who struggled with depression. He felt like they never had the resources in their parish community for their family to deal with that. So he put together a blessing that included family members, the counselor of the person with depression, and the parish priest. It was almost like a peace circle where everyone sat around and had a conversation. They were able to name what was going on and were willing to accompany each other.
What are the rituals you embody? What are the traditions you love?
Two other students designed an interreligious marriage ceremony for a Catholic and a Muslim. They asked themselves, “If you were the minister in that conversation of marriage preparation, what would you ask the couple?” Some questions they suggested asking were: What do you want to see as part of a ritual from your tradition that would be part of this ceremony? What would your parents want to see at this ceremony? What might your grandparents want to see? These questions make the couple think broader than just what they want in that moment. And the minister wants them to think broader than what they want in that moment because they’re trying to make sure that everybody attending is celebrating together as a family.
What problems come up when trying to develop a family spirituality today, and how can the church help resolve them?
One of the biggest problems is the reality that families are painful places at times. That affects how you address a family and how you accompany families. What do you do when families are experiencing trauma, or are not speaking to one another, or are experiencing domestic violence?
I tell my students, “You never know who will walk through your office door on any given day and ask to talk to you. You have no idea what they’re going to need to talk to you about, but you need to be prepared and anticipate all of the possibilities.” That’s a hard thing for ministers. Many of them would like to just say, “I got my degree in this and that’s the tunnel I’m following.” But any good minister is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People know who you are, and they come and find you. They ask for help. They want to talk. You have to be ready to walk with them. You have to have resources.
When you start in ministry in a new community, you need to find out who the counselors in the area are who work with Catholic families or Catholic people. Find out who works with adolescents, who works with depression. Get your resource book ready so that whenever someone comes in, you’re prepared to accompany them. I don’t expect church ministers to be completely trained to walk with everybody, but they need to know where their point of referral is and how to accompany someone in those moments of referral.
How can families build foundations of spirituality in their homes that are sensitive to different traditions, cultural contexts, and family structures?
Ask four questions: What are the decisions you make? What are the stories you tell? What are the rituals you embody? What are the traditions you love? Those are things about which we need to be intentional.
What impacts the decisions you make? Who has a say in the decisions that get made in the family? What do those decisions mean? How do we talk about decisions like the decision to put finances in a social choice account or to purge toys kids have outgrown? How do we explore them as a family?
What are the stories that get told, and why do we tell them again and again? Which ones rise to the surface regularly in the little stories we tell among ourselves? My kids tell funny stories from when they were younger. Why do we keep telling those stories? What do they keep enlivening in us?
You ask and think through the questions together.
Each ritual or routine has a meaning-making system for us. Do we tap that meaning-making system or just go through the motions without paying attention to it? My husband teaches high school theology, and my kids always rode to school with him. They always listened to NPR on the radio on the way in. That was their routine. When my son was a freshman in college, he texted me, “Mom, I don’t know how to get through my morning without listening to NPR.” I just asked, “Why can’t you get through your day without NPR?” He replied, “Because it has such good news.” So I asked, “Why is it important that you get good news to start your day?” You just ask questions and talk about why this routine is important to you. What’s the meaning-making behind it?
The same is true with the traditions you hold. You could take any tradition in our society, like high school or college graduations, or commemorative events, like 9/11 or the Fourth of July. How do we as a family remember this situation, and why? Whom are the important people we would bring together for this type of celebration? Why is it important that grandparents are at it? Why would we want to include the next-door neighbor? You ask and think through the questions together.
How does better supporting families benefit the whole community?
Families are vital pieces of a community. When we sustain, support, and encourage them, they’re then able to better impact the world around them.
As families become more intentional about naming the sacred in their lives and trying to respond to that sacredness, it begins to become something bigger than themselves. There begins to be a sense of abundance that needs to be shared, or a sense of joy that needs to overflow, or even a sense of sorrow and compassion that needs a bigger response.
In the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family), Pope Francis says, “The family lives its spirituality precisely by being at one and the same time a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world.” That has been critical for me. How does a family see themselves in their own rituals and traditions—whether they are religious or not—touching the sacred in their lives? How does that strengthen them to impact the world around them?
This article also appears in the January 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 1, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Catholic Theological Union