As COVID downshifts from the pandemic phase, families should look to “recultivate a sense of community” at home and in society, said a local pastoral expert.
“There’s a need for reintegration into the structures that were supporting us through our parishes and our dioceses,” said Mary Beth Yount, associate professor of theological studies at Neumann University and a member of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Media.
Yount recently returned from the 2022 World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in Rome, where she served as a lay delegate for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Postponed a year by COVID, the June 22-26 gathering adopted a hybrid format, with some 2,000 families and clergy attending in person by invitation, rounded out by diocesan-level events worldwide.
The scaled-down conference, which covered a broad array of topics, helped on-site participants feel like “a global family,” said Yount.
In contrast to previous WMOFs – including the 2015 event in Philadelphia, of which Yount was the director of content and programming – the Rome version integrated adult and youth sessions, with “families hanging out together all day long,” she said. “People would be there with their little babies, kids playing together and moms passing each other diapers.”
That communal dynamic needs to be broadly recaptured, especially as the long-term impact of the pandemic is compounded by gun violence and a generalized sense of uncertainty, she said.
“People are already in a heightened state of anxiety from COVID,” said Yount. “And it becomes a continually shifting landscape as they hear alarming news stories, bringing the level of anxiety up even higher.”
According to mental health professionals, those levels have skyrocketed in teens and young adults – and “a process of resocialization” is essential for restoring balance, Yount said.
“My hope is that parishes, schools, libraries and other institutions really take the need for having social events seriously, and rise to meet the challenge of connecting families and communities,” she said.
Shortly after WMOF 2015, and well before the pandemic, Yount took on that task herself by creating the Catholic Family Fun Club, an online platform for spreading awareness of area family-friendly activities.
While she no longer directly manages the effort due to her increased academic responsibilities, Yount said the club’s aims have continued.
“It became less official, but many families are still connected,” she said.
The club also showed how social media, often blamed for promoting isolation and division, “can do a lot of good for us,” Yount added.
“During COVID, social media helped people feel they weren’t alone, it helped expand our perspective, it helped us feel connected, and it helped us to learn a lot of things,” she said. “But like anything, it should be used within limits.”
Ultimately, the true source of connection lies in “the Trinity’s self-giving love,” which informs the “theology of the family,” or “the study of how the family reveals and lives out the divine love of the Trinity,” she said.
“This reflection of the love of God that happens in the family brings you closer to God,” said Yount.
The transformation takes place amid the mundane moments of daily life, she added.
“It’s an encouragement to focus on loving with your whole self,” said Yount. “Especially when you’re feeling like, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to do this extra thing for this person,’ and you’re exhausted because the fourth child in a row has asked for something.”
At such times, “you stop and reflect on what it means to be completely loving,” she said. “What can I do in this situation so that you know … we’re putting God first, and that includes engaging with each other.”
Despite the many acute difficulties facing families, Yount said she has “great hopes” for the fundamental unit of human society.
“I think families generally love each other,” she said. “Families are most often lifting each other up and helping each other live their best lives. … Do we do it perfectly? No, we do not. But we’re doing it out of love, and ultimately I think that wins out, and we help each other along the journey.”
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