Families Local

Communio: Building up parishes by strengthening families

Travis and Elizabeth Ryan, members of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, talk to a couple at a Community and Family Ministry event at the parish. The Ryans have been involved in the ministry for more than a year. The ministry follows the Communio framework. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Who wants a stronger marriage and deeper involvement in their parish?

Just about everybody, that’s who.

When Travis and Elizabeth Ryan heard about Communio at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, they were interested.

The Ryans, married for seven years and with two young children, got involved a year ago and have been reaping the rewards ever since.

The Communio framework — renamed Community and Family Ministry at St. Joseph Parish — is a way of using parish ministries and events to strengthen marriages and families, build parish relationships and reach out to the broader non-parish community.

“We decided to get involved because we wanted to build our relationship with the parish as well as with God, and we felt it was the right time in our lives to do that,” said Travis.

“We’ve been looking for a ministry to join,” said Elizabeth. “With us having small children, we felt this gave us the flexibility to be integrated into the parish but also not sacrifice time with our kids, which is the most important thing for us.”

Rebecca Browns, right, the coordinator of marriage and family ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, welcomes Meghan and Adam Burns to a recent marriage event. She runs Communio at her parish, which goes by the name of Community and Family Ministry. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

Community and Family Ministry offers a buffet of things to choose from. The Ryans have filled their plates with volunteering for the large-scale community outreach events sponsored by the parish and participating in two seven-week marriage courses.

“We attended both and came out as a stronger couple,” said Travis.

The first seven-week course in March and April was about marriage enrichment; the second dealt with building a eucharistic marriage in September and October.

“It taught us to set aside dedicated time to be with each other to talk and pray,” said Travis.

“That put our marriage back in the forefront,” said Elizabeth. “When you have full-time jobs and children, you can forget to prioritize each other and having that time each week really was impactful for us.

“We took it a step further and started doing Spouse Development Nights at home after the courses concluded.”

Lauren and Sam Walton participate in an activity through Shawnee’s St. Joseph Parish Community and Family Ministry. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

The Spouse Development Nights are every other Wednesday after the kids go to bed. They spend an hour or more talking about things, cleaning the house or even answering questions in marriage enrichment workbooks.

“We’ve also dialogued a lot,” said Travis. “It has really strengthened our marriage. . . . It’s not something we thought we wanted to do or needed to do. It’s amazing what the courses and that ministry have done in building our relationship with each other and God.”

 “We encourage other couples to [take the marriage courses] because you grow and change throughout the years,” said Elizabeth. “Sometimes, you have different opinions from what you had five or ten years ago. Having that time to talk really reshapes each other and instead of growing as an individual, you grow as a couple.”

Date nights

The Ryans also have another kind of set-aside time: date nights.

Unlike Spouse Development Nights, where the emphasis is serious relationship-building, date nights emphasize fun.

Date nights tend to be on Fridays. The couple might get a babysitter and go out, but usually date nights are at-home activities after the kids go to bed.

“One of the things we took away from the courses, besides the one-on-one Spouse Development Night we do, was that you need to date each other through the ages and through the stages of life,” said Elizabeth. “Even though we went on dates [before], we didn’t actually sit down and plan.”

A date night might be a trip to the Overland Park Arboretum, a walk, playing a board game or a video game like “Mario Party.” It’s anything fun they can do together.

“We thought scheduling things might take away the spontaneity, but actually we learned from the course it’s OK,” said Elizabeth. “We need to schedule these things. We need to put it in the calendar and those nights are off-limits. It gave us permission to schedule something.”

Rebecca Browns, coordinator of marriage and family ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, chats with a couple during a recent marriage event at the parish. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

The Community and Family Ministry has improved the couple’s communication skills, but also has given them tools and methods to face challenges together. It has helped them get to know other parishioners as well and build friendships with them.

“We drove from Lee’s Summit (Missouri) to Shawnee for seven years to go to Mass,” said Elizabeth. “That’s one of the big pulls for us to join the Community and Family Ministry. People knew we went to Mass every Sunday, but we wanted to be part of the community, and it was hard to do because we lived so far away.

“When we moved to Shawnee, the first thing we wanted to do was get involved in a ministry. Now, we show up for Mass and we have so many people saying ‘hi.’ We know their names and they know our names and our kids’ names.”

Strengthening the family leads to strengthening the parish, and in turn, stronger parishes can support families to make them stronger, too.

“Society doesn’t support families the way we think it should,” said Elizabeth. “I feel like the Community Family Ministry does. It provides the parish with support and it provides families and relationships with support. I think that can only be positive in a world where marriage isn’t as revered as much as it used to be.”

Communio: Equipping for ministry

To understand Communio, it might be helpful to start with the really big picture and work your way down.

The organization Communio is an ecumenical, nonprofit church consulting entity that trains and equips parishes to use events and ministries to strengthen marriages to prevent divorce, promote healthy families, build and strengthen relationships within parishes and reach out to evangelize the greater community and grow the parish.

Since summer 2022, the Communio framework — sometimes using a different name — has been implemented in 11 archdiocesan parishes for a three-year period. The Communio framework uses several parish ministry events and programs throughout the year to accomplish its goals.

Rebecca Browns is coordinator of marriage and family ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee. She runs Communio at her parish, which goes by the name of Community and Family Ministry.

“The target audience starts with marriage and family ministry,” said Browns. “Largely, it helps marriages and families, but the longer-term goal is that parishes, once they get the central hub of relationship health running in a parish . . . start forming the youth and young adults in relationship health and also in vocational health. [The intention is to] help them — even before they get married — to be working on the things that lead marriages to divorce, that couples don’t end up working on.”

Next comes the big picture: community outreach events.

To evangelize and build community in the parish, and with the greater community of Shawnee, St. Joseph Parish hosts three large outreach events a year. They are a fall festival, a summer family fun night and a Christmas event. (This year, it was pancakes with Santa.)

“With the outreach events, it’s not just about serving our parishioners but also tapping into our evangelizing mission we have as a church and baptized Christians,” said Browns. “I think we really need to tap into our evangelistic identity as churches and dioceses. I think Communio is a really great partnership, and we are training more of our volunteers and staff to be aware and have a heart and skill set to go out and evangelize.”

Next comes the medium-sized picture: parish ministries and programs.

These, although they are not large outreach events, can also be open to the wider community of Shawnee, said Browns. These include such things as Financial Peace University classes, the Alpha marriage course, date night events with babysitting for couples, a mothers’ group, a men’s ministry and more.

And then comes the small picture: families and couples doing things with each other under the auspices of Communio. These are things such as couples taking marriage courses together, going on date nights at or away from the parish, or holding a spouse development night at home.

“Ultimately, this is the fundamental answer to all of the problems we are dealing with on a daily basis in America today,” said Browns. “That’s a big claim, but I wholeheartedly believe that Communio, if done well, with hearts that are open to evangelization and God’s will, could really transform all of Kansas City into a hub of health, a beautiful, thriving community.

“[It can be a place] where all our families are working toward happiness and healthiness and have community, and nobody’s experiencing loneliness. . . . That’s the real end game.

“I firmly believe . . .  that kind of society and culture can happen working with Communio.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

Leave a Comment