Mary Stommes

It ought to be against the law. Eleven children! Can you imagine? I was sitting in one of my college writing classes, listening to my classmates’ responses to an essay someone had written about a family of 11 childrena typical Catholic family, a pathologically dysfunctional family with a rigid father who called all the shots. It was the end of class, so I didn’t have time to add my retort. Indignation rose within me, and my commute home provided me time to give words to my thoughtsthoughts that had been evolving for over 20 years.

This large family topic used to come up fairly often when I was in high school in the 1970’s. (I had not been in college since the 70’s, but I recently started back as a nontraditional student.) Anyway, while in high school, I would at times be asked by my peers, Don’t your parents know what birth control is? I ignored the question, feeling deeply ashamed because the size of my family15 childrenoutnumbered any other I had ever heard of. I saw my siblings and myself as the result of my parents’ ignorance. Didn’t Mom and Dad know that there were ways to control the size of your family? I felt like a rabbit.

I have eight sisters and six brothers. Yes, all from the same parents. Yes, all single births. Yes, we are all living. Yes, we all know one another. Yes, we all are together for holidays. No, we do not rent a hall. Yes, it is crowded. Yes, we are Catholic. Yes, we are Catholic. Yes, we are Catholic. (The Catholic connection came up more often 20 years ago than it does now. It usually did not come in the form of a question, but rather an assumption: You must be Catholic. What a brilliant deduction, I’d think. You must be a genius.)

Being Catholic among my mostly Protestant friends was yet another part of my identityalong with having so many siblingsthat caused me to feel so different. I secretly longed to share a house with only a few other family members, to attend a church where Sunday worship was not a Mass, but a service, and it was not an obligation, unless it was the Sunday of the month known as Communion Sunday. Fate had dealt me an awful hand.

But that was long ago. Feelings of shame and embarrassment over my family’s sizeand my Catholic Churchhave given way to an ineffable gratitude for who I am because of both of them. I have become increasingly aware that my being Catholic and my being part of a large family are inextricably linked. In each case, I am just one among many. And in both church and family, there is sometimes a chasm that separates our individual political, social and religious views. But the sense of community that unites us is stronger by far than the differences that divide us.

This change of heart did not happen overnight. Parenthood certainly has given me a greater appreciation for both family and faith. So too have the joyous occasions we celebrate as family and faith community: weddings, holidays, births, sacraments. Times of deep sorrow make me wonder how we would bear it if we did not have one another. My dad died at the age of 57. My nephew, Jacob, died at the tender age of 9just two-and-a-half weeks after being diagnosed with brain cancer. My sister’s husband suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack at the age of 48. We are so lonesome, Elaine wrote to us following Larry’s funeral, but we do not feel alone. That’s because of you. Fate dealt me an awful hand? No. God has greatly blessed me. Silence about my identity is no longer possible.

I realize that what prompted It ought to be against the law was a more intellectual and less visceral objection to large families than the objections I heard from my peers in the 1970’s. Our planet is so precious and so overpopulated that each additional person depletes further our natural resources and adds to the problem of pollution. Perhaps. But not exactly. I drive through the suburbs and see the sprawling developments with massive homes, homes that are easily twice the size of the one in which I grew up. How many people live there, I wonder? Likely a lot fewer than the square footage could comfortably accommodate. It doesn’t take a large family to waste energy.

I am also reminded of our need to reduce, reuse and recycle. We tend to think that if our recycling bins are at the end of the driveway each week, we are doing our part to save the earth. This does not, however, fulfill our obligation to reduce. Our habits as consumers (and I include myself in this) are often unconscionable: clothes and jewelry and cars and fast food and gourmet coffee, all in abundance. One individual can bear more guilt in this than an entire family, small or large. And whether we like to believe it or not, our materialistic greed is responsible for someone else’s poverty.

Ours is a culture where individualism is held in high regard. Perhaps some see large families as obstacles to finding one’s own path. This has not been my experience at all.

From the beginning, my parents instilled in my siblings and me an awareness of our individuality: elainejanejackiemikekellypatmaryshannonerinbridgetpeggy susieseanpetercory is different from Elaine, Jane, Jackie, Mike, Kelly, Pat, Mary, Shannon, Erin, Bridget, Peggy, Susie, Sean, Peter, Cory. In actuality we are a rather motley crew. We are tall and short, blue-eyed and brown-eyed. We are blondes and brunettes, but mostly redheads. The husband of one of my sisters is Ethiopian, so we are also black and white and biracial. Some people think we siblings all look alike; lots of people think we sound alike and share the same mannerisms. But with all that we have in common, we go forth on very different paths. Among us are a nurse and teachers and at-home mothers. There is an electrician and a professor and an aspiring theologian. Some of us are climbing the corporate ladder, while another has left that rat race to fulfill a dream of owning a small business. My family, being so much the same while at the same time so different, is a lot like my faith community, only on a slightly smaller scale.

But faith communitiesand familiesshould be cautious of isolating themselves in their own homogeneous group. It was within our family that my siblings and I came to realize that our individual giftedness was not for our benefit alone (and that our giftedness, though different from that of others, was not superior). We learned that we are morally obligated to use our gifts for the betterment of society and the world. If my large family were against the law, as my classmate suggested it ought to be, I think of what our larger communities would be missing: hospice volunteers, public school board members, foster care providers for troubled children, missionary workers in Brazil, Habitat for Humanity volunteers, to name just a few. Notice that this service goes outside the boundaries of family and church and into the larger world of politics and social services. It is perhaps a model of Catholic social teaching in action.

How does that happen, the sense that we as individuals are part of something much larger than our individual selves? Again, family and church have led me to this in a similar fashion. In my family, with the exception of my oldest sibling, who always walked the straight and narrow, most of us took a somewhat circuitous route toward healthy and responsible adulthood. We were to some extent prodigal sons and daughters. But my parents’ love for us never wavered; we were always welcomed home with one of my mother’s feasts set before us. And my dad, who to outward appearances was the cold and rigid head-of-the-house figure, would eventually warm up, the icy outside giving way to the river of warmth flowing deep within. Over and over again we were fed, and we were loved. And as a result, we are able to share that love with others.

We did not always do it willingly. Sometimes, as kids, we were forced to share our table with others we thought unworthy. My dad battled alcoholism for years. Once on the road to recovery, he readily opened our home to those who had not yet had the grace and good fortune of sobriety. My dad saw to it that there was a place at our table for guys who needed it, guys whose wives told them not to come home, guys who had no place to call home. And we kids each silently hoped the place would not be next to oursor facing ours. These guys were dirty, and they were drunks. And we should eat at the same table with them? Yet what my dad was teaching us was tolerance, and he was modeling love. And how much like church it was.

Eucharist. We come to the same table. We are each unworthy and at the same time very worthy. We share of the one body and blood of Christ, Christ who is love par excellence. Over and again we are fed, and we are loved. We are then sent forth to be that love in and for the world around us. Not a gift we are given to hoard within, to use for individual gain, but a selfless gift of love that beckons us to do and to be no less. What I once saw to be an obligation imposed on me, I now see as sustenance and gift: Eucharist. Deo Gratias. Thanks be to God.

I make no claim that either my large family or the Catholic Church is the perfector onlymodel of community and selfless love. On the other hand, I think it is a false generalization to say that a typical Catholic family is dysfunctional, unless dysfunction is synonymous with imperfection. Then I would argue that all families and faith communities are dysfunctional to some extent. But if dysfunctional means that large families and the Catholic Church make it impossible for one to function normally in today’s world, I hope my words here serve to debunk the myth.

My family and my church have been instrumental in helping me to discover that I am part of something a whole lot larger than just me. Being one of many is really who I am at my core.

What, I wonder, is unlawful about that?

Mary Stommes is a theology and written communication major at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. She writes homily hints for the Loose-Leaf Lectionary (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.).

Comments

Jim Conniff | 11/30/2003 - 2:43pm
This lady's take on her large family reminded me of sitting with Lowell Thomas's speechwriter at the Dutch Treat Club luncheon where Ike became a Republican and announced he'd run for president. The speechwriter was father of 17 kids, as around then was also a member of Fordham's lay faculty. God know how the latter made ends meet. We'd love to have had 15 but made it to "only" seven.
Jim Conniff | 11/30/2003 - 2:43pm
This lady's take on her large family reminded me of sitting with Lowell Thomas's speechwriter at the Dutch Treat Club luncheon where Ike became a Republican and announced he'd run for president. The speechwriter was father of 17 kids, as around then was also a member of Fordham's lay faculty. God know how the latter made ends meet. We'd love to have had 15 but made it to "only" seven.

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