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The Gift of Siblings

According to recent headlines, the population explosion so alarmingly projected 50 years ago has not materialized, and we may well consider whether it’s time to rethink attitudes toward children.
 
Notwithstanding those who long for children but because of life circumstances or infertility find themselves unable to have them, there is a view of children in modern culture as burdensome.
 
A 2014 Pew study reported that nearly half of Americans (48 percent) say two is the ideal number of children, and fewer than 14 percent of women today have four or more children, compared to 40 percent in 1976. Sixty-five percent of Americans surveyed cited the costs associated with raising children for the preference for smaller families and the difficulties associated with finding childcare. Some argue that it is in the best interests of children for parents to limit family size in order to concentrate emotional and economic resources on existing children.
 
But are they right? Loving parents work hard and sacrifice much for their offspring. What if it turns out that the best insurance of future happiness parents could give their children, beyond any material benefit, is that of siblings?
 
In fact, evidence is mounting that larger families may be essential for the survival of society itself. Ten years ago, theologian George Weigel warned that Europe was destroying itself, and America would soon follow. He wrote, “By the middle of this century, if present fertility patterns continue, 60 percent of the Italian people will have no personal experience of a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a cousin.”
 
Today, America indeed appears to be headed in the same direction. For the first time in history, the United States population is below replacement rate. In an interview on PBS News Hour, Economist Todd Buchholz, author of Siblings “The Price of Prosperity,” stated bluntly why wealthy nations like the U.S. endanger their future by having too few children: “You need somebody to support the retirees. You need to pay into the pension plans. You need people to work at the hospitals, at the nursing homes.”
 
At the local level, a family of many siblings may provide an optimal training ground
for life. The Catholic Church teaches that children are a gift.
 
On their wedding day, Catholic couples are asked: “Will you accept children lovingly
from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church?”
 
This precept is, of course, subject to interpretation. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” states, “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.”
 
Pope Francis himself has counseled prudence in discerning family size, and the Church has become a champion of Natural Family Planning as a way to morally space pregnancies.
 
But, not infrequently, adopting an attitude of “generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” often leads voluntarily to larger-than-average family size, as parents discover that negative stereotypes about large families are untrue and fears about depriving children of material goods are exaggerated.
 
Patrick and Stacey Guinee, parishioners of Holy Family-St. Lawrence Parish in Essex Junction, are one such family, with nine children, ages 1-14. Both come from large families, something they say has influenced their desire to have many children. As adults, their siblings “...bless us as we grow as a couple. (They) continue to challenge us as adults and remind us of our roots, of our faithful parents and of our mission to raise strong, faith-filled children in our holy little church,” Stacey said. “As I reflect on my own relationships with (our siblings), I see the future laid out before me, and I desperately want my children to develop lifelong friendships with their siblings like ours.  The support and love that come from shared history and faith make life more enjoyable.”
 
Jenn Smith of St. Mark Parish in Burlington, who with her husband, Bill, has five children ages 2-11, and is expecting her sixth, agreed. “Having a big family made me realize how much I missed growing up as an only child.” She said her children, “...experience childhood with the all the joys of having babies and younger siblings growing with them.  It gives them a bigger picture with different ways of looking at things instead of just their own outlook.”
 
Mary and Paul Niekrewicz of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Williston, parents of six children ages 5-18, said they view their home as a earning ground to prepare children, “…for the spectrum of life through the immediate needs of how to resolve a conflict over who gets to take a turn riding in the middle row seats of the family minivan, to growing fruitfully into faithful, independent adults. Above all, they learn how to love one another unconditionally just like Jesus loves them. Family life gives them a daily opportunity to meet Jesus in each other.”
 
The Catholic attitude of “welcome” to the gift of new life may be key to why families have found joy in choosing the countercultural and sometimes challenging path of parenting many children.
 
My own experience as one of eight siblings and the mother of five children bears this out. Today, more than ever, I appreciate the gift my parents gave me by “accepting children lovingly from God.” I’m sure it wasn’t always easy for them, and I won’t pretend that life in a large family wasn’t often messy and loud and complicated.
 
When my mother was widowed at age 46, with five young children to raise, it was her Catholic faith that sustained her. Despite the hardships of those years, my mother always had an optimistic view, and before she died at age 90, she remarked many times how grateful she was that God had blessed her with children and grandchildren.
 
As I have grown older, I have discovered the joy of having a group of people who share my history, mourn my losses and have my back like no one else ever could. I hope my own children will come to experience this gift in the same way. Comparing the considerable effort of raising a large family to the lifelong treasure of having siblings, I can only say to my parents, from the bottom of my heart, “thank you.”
 
 By Carrie Handy, respect life coordinator for the Diocese of Burlington.
 
  • Published in Diocesan

Our Elders Are Lonely: Do We Care?

Recently I’ve been asked to speak about loneliness in the elderly on numerous occasions. I was even quoted in a recent article by Catholic journalist Mary Rezac, entitled “Our Elders Are Lonely – Do We Care?” As we look forward to Christmas, let’s hope we can all say, “Of course we do!”
 
The issue of loneliness in the elderly may not be as clear-cut as it seems. While one recent study reported that nearly half of people over 60 said they feel lonely on “a regular basis,” another asserted that only 6 percent of American seniors said they “often” feel this way. Contradictory statistics aside, in our country roughly one third of those over 65 and half of those over 85 live alone.
 
Sociologists see this trend as a sign of social progress. Improved health care, increased wealth and the emergence of retirement as a relatively long stage of life, they say, have created more choices for seniors and enabled them to live independent of their adult children. This situation, often referred to as “intimacy at a distance,” respects the life choices and autonomy of both older persons and their adult children, fostering more positive and supportive emotional bonds for all.
 
In his book, “Being Mortal,” surgeon and author Atul Gawande wrote, “The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated….The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. It demoted the family. It gave people –- the young and the old –- a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by the veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.”
 
The problem is that our exultation of personal autonomy over family and community fails to acknowledge that sooner or later each of us will need the help of others to survive and enjoy a meaningful life. This brings us to Christmas. What is Christmas without family and community?
 
And yet this season can also be a time of stress for those who are estranged from their loved ones, those who cannot afford to fulfill their children’s wishes, those whose holiday joys are but a distant memory and those who find themselves alone in this world.
 
Christmas is the perfect time to begin promoting (rather than demoting) family and practicing what our Holy Father asked in his apostolic letter for the closing of the Year of Mercy, “Misericordia et Miseria.” As we gather in our families, social circles and faith communities –- even at our office parties -– may we look around to see who is standing on the periphery, who is at risk of being excluded from the joys of this season. Inspired by mercy, let us offer a word of consolation and begin restoring joy and dignity to those who feel left out. God’s mercy, Pope Francis suggested, finds expression in the closeness, affection and support that we offer our brothers and sisters and in the strength of family. “The drying of tears is one way to break the vicious circle of solitude in which we often find ourselves trapped,” he wrote.
 
Mercy leads us to see each person as unique. “We have to remember each of us carries the richness and the burdens of our personal history;” Pope Francis wrote; “this is what makes us different from everyone else. Our life, with its joys and sorrows, is something unique and unrepeatable that takes place under the merciful gaze of God.”
 
If you are young, you can share God’s mercy this Christmas by patiently listening to your grandparents’ stories or offering them a hand in a way that says, “You are important to me.”
 
If you are a grandparent, look to see which one of your children or grandchildren is waiting for your affirmation or your words of wisdom.
 
Even if you are infirm or in need and feel that you have nothing to give, you can still offer your smile, your thanks or a word of kindness to those who help you.
 
Our Holy Father reminds us that God never tires of welcoming and accompanying us, despite our sins and frailties. Let our loving presence be the gift we give others this Christmas.
 
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 
  • Published in Nation

Advent is a time for awakening to the divine mystery of Christmas

“The supreme trick of Old Scratch is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music
and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ.”
--Father Edward Hays

It’s amazing how fast things can be done today.

I ordered some photos from my local pharmacy through their on-line sight and was in the store picking them up 15 minutes later. Another customer came up behind me and asked about a passport photo. Five minutes later she was done, and while paying for the picture she struck up a conversation with me.

“Sometimes I think things move too fast,” she said, admitting that while she was happy her errand did not take too long, she often felt a great need to slow things down. She was especially feeling rushed into the Christmas season: “I’ve been seeing Christmas decorations and ads in the store since October so I keep thinking I’m falling behind in my preparations and need to get my tree up and my house lit as soon as possible. Then I remember we haven’t even celebrated Thanksgiving yet.”

We agreed that time is truly the thing we need to treasure if we are to hold on to the true spirit of Christmas.

In his book, “A Pilgrim’s Almanac,” Father Edward Hays, reminds us, “Take time to be aware that in the very midst of our busy preparations for the celebration of Christ’s birth in ancient Bethlehem, Christ is reborn in the Bethlehems of our homes and daily lives. Take time, slow down, be still, be awake to the Divine Mystery that looks so common and so ordinary yet is wondrously present.”

It’s a beautiful thought, we might say, but how are we supposed to make it happen?

Enter Advent.

There’s no better opportunity to reclaim our time and our focus than this prayerful four-week period of spiritual preparation for the Prince of Peace, who seeks to enter not only our homes one day a year, but to live continually in our hearts.

But first we must make room.

This can happen, as Father Hays suggests, through a daily Advent examination. "Are there any feelings of discrimination toward race, sex, or religion? Is there a lingering resentment, an unforgiven injury living in our hearts? Do we look down upon others of lesser social standing or
educational achievement? Are we generous with the gifts that have been given to us, seeing ourselves as their stewards and not their owners? Are we reverent of others, their ideas and needs, and of creation? These and other questions become Advent lights by which we may search
the deep, dark corners of our hearts.”

When we strive to leave the light on for Christ, we are better able to transform the commercialized Christmas that plagues us into our own experience as shepherds, kneeling in wonder with Mary and Joseph at the manger, before running with joy to all who will listen to tell
them our Savior has been born.

That’s one of the reasons why I look forward to the beginning of Advent. It’s the time we put up our large homemade manger on our front lawn. Coming home each day I am continually reminded that I am – we are – part of the Nativity story.

It helps me keep things in perspective.

Mary Morrell is a freelance writer, editor, syndicated columnist, blogger and religion consultant at Wellspring Communications. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Twitter @mreginam6.
  • Published in Diocesan

Rice Memorial High School students provide families with Thanksgiving baskets

SOUTH BURLINGTON—Students and members of the Rice Memorial High School community helped 21 families have a happier Thanksgiving this year by providing them with baskets of food for a Thanksgiving meal.
 
They also engaged in a bit of competition with first place basket awarded to religion teacher Patrick Welsch’s class for a Snoopy "basket,” and second place going to History teacher Christian Frenette's class. Third place went to religion teacher Marti Burt's class.
 
Every first-period class was responsible for putting together the fixings for a Thanksgiving meal. Students are encouraged to be creative in their presentation and often go above and beyond what is asked.  
 
  • Published in Schools
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