In 1989, as parents of four (soon-to-be-five) young children, the busyness of their young family was taking its toll on the marriage of Brian and Mary Thelen. When a bulletin announcement from St. Thomas the Apostle in Ann Arbor invited interested families to learn about the Christian Family Movement (CFM), Brian and Mary Ann decided to give it a try.
Mary Ann says, “Our marriage wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t excited to let anyone know that. CFM seemed like a safe alternative, since its focus wasn’t just on marriage, but on family. Its mission is to support Christ-centered marriage and family and promote actions of love, service and education to improve society. Small groups of five to eight couples were opening their homes each month to talk about issues families deal with every day.
“Our discussions centered on themes presented in guidebooks carefully developed by CFM to include people at all life stages and circumstances. We explored the themes using the Jocist Method in which participants:
- observe what is happening around the chosen topic or theme in our families, communities and in the world;
- judge the circumstances in the light of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching; and
- act in bold or simple ways as the Holy Spirit guides us to transform our own immediate situations, as well as those in larger society.
“We started going regularly to our small-group meetings, and actually considered it our date night. We were often surprised to hear each other’s thoughts as we talked about current issues affecting family, society and the world. These were important topics that affected all of us, but they weren’t the urgent things that regularly monopolized conversation at home.
“CFM discussions meet people where they are,” Brian continues. “Issues and topics are presented in the light of Christ’s teaching, but there is respect and compassion as people are free to explore their experiences honestly by sharing what’s on their minds. We have met people who are very different from ourselves, people from a variety of experiences and ethnicities as well as income and education levels. We have made deep friendships and learned much from each other.”
Mary Ann adds, “In addition to the monthly discussions, groups usually meet other times to socialize. Entire families gather for fun and/or service projects like raking lawns for the elderly, baking pies at Thanksgiving for the needy or singing in nursing homes. Other times, CFM groups might do spiritual activities together such as prayer, Stations of the Cross or the living rosary.”
“I was a shy, small-town girl when we were first married,” Mary Ann admits. “My biggest role as a stay-at-home mom was to get my children, husband and myself to heaven. I was comfortable behind the scenes, but CFM made me stretch above and beyond what I would normally have done.
“For several years, members of our CFM group volunteered at a summer camp for at-risk families from New York City and Detroit. I found it a challenge to relate to people so different from me. One year, I was asked to make welcome signs. As the bus pulled up to the camp entrance, I was comfortably standing behind my sign, wildly waving it back and forth for the arriving guests. I remember one of our CFM members running up to me. She said, ‘Drop that sign! Get over there and give them hugs and help them carry their things!’ Mary Ann laughs at the memory. “So I did, and I learned what it really means to welcome someone!
“Another year, this same woman had me driving her car behind a moving truck in Detroit to help a family who had lost their home. It was pushing me way beyond my comfort level,” Mary Ann pauses as her smile fades. “But it made me different – more understanding. I wanted to be different.”
Her voice cracks, “She changed me. I wonder if she knows how much.” She smiles softly at Brian through tears. “When our CFM families asked me to do these things and lead groups, they inspired me to think: ‘OK, they believe in me. They think I can do it, so maybe they’re right.’”
Brian smiles, “In a sadistic way, we’re getting to like going above and beyond our comfort zone! When we step out in faith we’ve learned to trust God and say, ‘Come Holy Spirit.’ I’m always amazed at how God uses these things to touch others’ lives when we get out of ourselves. We’ve both come in contact with people who’ve made us better and have become our role models.”
“That’s true for all our family,” Mary Ann adds. “Growing up, our children had a lot of experiences that were formational. Our oldest son is now a priest and our youngest daughter a religious sister. Our three middle children are married, and they joke that they are the meat of the religious sandwich. We believe a lot of the blessings on our children came through CFM.
“And our life as a family is always evolving. Now that our children are grown, we share our experience by mentoring younger CFM families. And we learn from them and others about grand-parenting, parenting adult children and engaging in societal issues in general.”
Brian leans forward, “I think it’s really important for the Church to look for concrete ways to support families. They need to call something out of us for the growth to happen. Every time we stretch through CFM, we see the fruits in our own lives and in the lives of others … way more than we’ve put into it ourselves.
“CFM helps parishioners get to know each other, talk about things that matter and serve together. Its members become lectors, ushers, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, small group leaders, catechists – and generally are inspired to serve where God might call.”
“It organically fosters leadership,” Mary Ann says. “Growing in confidence, Brian and I felt God was asking us to share this blessing with others. Over the years, we have supported the formation of several groups in local parishes and throughout the diocese. At one point, someone from CFM invited us to help review a couple chapters of the topics for upcoming discussion guidebooks. This exposed us to the national level of the Christian Family Movement. We started meeting people dedicated to helping even more folks live as intentional Christian families. Now we serve as vice president couple of CFM-USA.”
“We as Catholics think too small,” Brian exclaims. “We need to think bigger! There is such a wealth of gifts that people have to share at every stage and circumstance in life. The Christian Family Movement has helped Mary Ann and me live our faith and strengthen our marriage since we answered that invitation in 1989. It could do the same for you.”