I recently made my way through Mary Ellen Konieczny’s The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics as part of my attempt to think outside the “ministry” box and explore how the social sciences can inform my service in the Church.
Konieczny’s work centers on an attempt to “better understand religion’s role in how ordinary Americans have become divided around contemporary cultural conflicts about he family” (p. 5). Her thesis involves the importance of the role local congregations, congregational cultures, and cultural processes play in shaping, supporting, and sustaining polarizing tendencies (p. 5).
Okay, so what did I learn? The most striking aspect of reading this book, which used many detailed interviews with parishioners at two Chicago-area parishes, was me as a minister/theologian (of sorts…I use the words loosely) being hit by how so many nuanced theological topics were seemingly dealt with in black and white terms by the faithful Catholics being interviewed. Reading sociology can be a good reminder of how people really think and speak about their faith lives and beliefs (outside of a seminary/university setting).
Another good reason, I discovered, to explore sociologists’ accounts is the inside look it can give into the practices of other parishes–the kind of stuff that isn’t always front and center on a parish’s website. For example, in one of the interviews, a father explained how:
“the [parish] priest had approached him when his son was not much more than five years old and told him that he thought his son might be ready to receive his First Holy Communion, even though the customary time for the reception of First Communion is in second grade, about seven years of age. Father James [the priest] then sat down with the child to ask him what he knew about the mass. Despite the boy’s lack of formal religious education, he had absorbed enough knowledge about the Eucharist from going to mass and family religious practice to correctly answer everything that Father James asked him. Father James determined that the boy was ready.
Father James’ practice of noticing when children are ready to receive the sacraments and telling them so affirms parents’ perceptions of their children as naturally capable and self-drive learners who actively seek knowledge of God and the church” (p. 160).
Now that was encouraging to hear! Liturgical and Canon Law offer more leeway than many parishes actually allow when it comes to determining the most fruitful time to receive sacraments. The attention given to an individual child and his/her readiness also reminds me of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd practice of children opting-in when ready, rather than being pushed forward at a certain age/grade.
Note: The Spirit’s Tether is an expensive book (and unless you’re in sociology, I wouldn’t recommend buying it). I used my local public library’s interlibrary loan to borrow it–go that route if you’d like to skim read it 🙂