Dennis J. Geaney
From May 7, 1960
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The winter business meeting of the Christian Family Movement has neither the excitement of its circus-type annual convention nor the power-charged atmosphere of a smoke-filled room. It is more like a New England town meeting, where there is a noticeable absence of prepared speeches and the presence of people who know each other well enough to speak their minds without fear of offending. This intramural, give-and-take atmosphere offers a fine opportunity to assess the movement after a decade of its existence.

The 1960 meeting at the Fatima Retreat House on the Notre Dame Campus was officially the semiannual meeting of the movement's governing body, the Coordinating Committee. This body is composed of a couple and a priest from each diocese in the United States and Canada in which CFM exists. About fifty couples and fifteen priests were in attendance.

True Strength

At one session each couple gave a short report of the movement in their diocese. These reports were largely a recital of projects of local groups. In Portland, Ore, the main concern was the World Refugee Year. They considered the thirteen families which they had resettled to be only a start. In Omaha, Neb., CFM represented the diocese at hearings of a Congressional subcommittee on indecent literature and in preparation for the White House Conference on Children and Youth. In the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., they were arranging a God-and-man lecture series and an art exhibit. Richmond, Va., reported on its racial integration efforts and its work on behalf of lay missionaries. The Detroit groups were involved in projects dealing with foreign students, retarded children and a citizens' committee on religious liberties. Chicago's CFM had sponsored a lecture series on politics and lent support to projects dealing with migrant workers, film forums and urban renewal. It is difficult to think of a single facet of American life which did not become the concern of some CFM group across the country.

Unless one has had experience with CFM at the local level, the detailing of reports can be quite deceptive. Actually, the strength of the movement is not in its projects, in spite of their impressiveness. CFM is basically a couple-centered form of Christian witness. Through its concern with every facet of life that even remotely touches the family, it helps members to live an integrated Christian life.

CFM specializes in producing good neighbors. Its best work is done in the apartment building, the block or the rural community in which the couple lives. Nevertheless, it is hard to conceive of a San Francisco layman boarding a plane for South Bend on Friday morning to tell the national committee that families who hardly spoke to each other are warm and friendly, that parishioners are more cooperative, or, that 28 people in one parish attended their first city council session after a meeting on political life. These are pedestrian things that every Christian should be doing, so on the plane he searches his mind for sensational projects to report—adopting Korean babies, for instance.

Is true Christian friendship or love pedestrian? Can it be taken for granted in the enchanting land of suburbia, where the "cult of togetherness" finds its midday, ritualistic expression in coffee-klatches? And where does friendliness gush forth more than in our own living rooms, when the unctuous and toothy ad man tells us about his soap? Or is there a compulsiveness about our "togetherness" which betrays our deep-seated insecurity and consequent distrust, loneliness and neurotic clamors for constant support and approval? Maybe this explains the high incidence of alcoholism among both men and women in upper income suburbs.

Erich Fromm writes trenchantly in The Sane Society: "There is not much love or hate to be found in human relations of our day. There is, rather, a superficial friendliness, and a more than superficial fairness, but behind that surface is distance and indifference."

In all human relationships, whether in an apartment building or an office, Fromm's distinction between superficial friendship and Christian love can be recognized. It is something sensed rather than defined. It is this inability to assess and verbalize the quality of Christian friendship that makes it difficult to spell out the goals of CFM in terms of brotherly love.

In the 'thirties Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin dramatized the need we had of Houses of Hospitality for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless and the naked. Unfortunately, these love centers expanded and contracted with the business cycle, as though love and friendship were subject to market fluctuations. In an affluent society there is little drama in, or patience for, the storefront Christianity of the 'thirties.

We would like to think that every time a couple stand before a priest and pronounce their marriage vows, another family-style House of Hospitality has been established in some neighborhood. Because the couple standing at the altar is so enmeshed in our secular culture, there is little hope that they will rise above their surroundings and create an oasis which will bring peace, light and refreshment to all who come in contact with its members. It is to this task that CFM addresses itself. CFM is a school for teaching the art of loving through the present-day realities of family life. With every couple joining CFM there is the prayer and hope that, given two or three years under the discipline of the movement, love will find a trysting place in another neighborhood.

CFM Procedure

Probably the greatest thing the storefronts did was to teach the meaning of love to the staff and volunteers. It helped close the gap in communications between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Somehow the affluent must come to a firsthand knowledge of the people in our pockets of poverty and our racial islands. A graph or a table plotting incomes and places is not enough. Ordinarily there must be some emotional experience supporting the knowledge if love is to flame. This CVM attempts to provide by its discussion-action method. Slowly and haltingly it leads people through a feet-wetting process to discovering Christ in others.

CFM is aware that if its concept of love is genuine, it must reach beyond the patio and the barbecue pit. Without divorcing themselves from the challenge of love in their own backyard, each couple must see a neighborhood in the context of the entire metropolitan area and widen their vision to a concern for the blacks in the Union of South Africa. With our residential areas stratified according to incomes, the eliciting of this emotional experience of the needs of other categories of peoples demands creative programming and discerning local leadership.

CFM usually starts in a parish unostentatiously. Following the outlines suggested for beginners, the couples begin to explore a new way of life. It is an exciting adventure for a couple who, after years of married life, have tended to take each other, the children, the home and all they have in common, for granted. Conversation has a tendency to descend to
the trivial, except in moments of crisis. Without being aware of it, couples can be growing apart. In the early meetings they look through new lenses at themselves, their spouses, their children, the other couples in the group, the chaplain and their neighbors. It is simply a reassessing of established human relationships in terms of the Gospel teaching on love.

When, in the quiet of the evening, after the children are in bed, a couple prepare for a meeting by discussing what our Lord means in a particular passage of Scripture, they are really probing the deepest issues of life and getting to know each other again at ever deeper levels. During this first year or two in CFM, they are putting their spiritual house in order. Family prayer, more frequent and intelligent participation in the liturgy, spiritual reading and more service to the neighbors become woven into a new marriage garment. Once a couple has experience in living this integrated Christian life, there is the promise that this new-found life will continue to unfold, expressing itself in ways undreamed of and giving their children a faster start toward an understanding of Christianity.

After CFM brings its couples though this preliminary training course, it exposes them, in its annual programs, to every facet of the social teachings of the Church. This year, the theme is political life. Next year it will be international life. At each meeting of the coordinating committee, there is an endless and agonizing reappraisal of the effectiveness of these programs.

Some cannot understand why a family movement concerns itself with mental health, racial problems and international affairs, when we have mental health societies, interracial councils and a United Nations. CFM claims that families who wish to be modern apostles of the family must be exposed to all facets of family living. Couples are more effective witnesses for Christ if they know how to deal with disturbed neighbors or with rumors which give rise to racial disturbances, or if they see their responsibilities to neighbors abroad in terms of foreign visitors and lay missionaries.

CFM does not produce experts in these fields. It merely does what a political party or any large organization does for its precinct captains or field representatives. It gives them an understanding of or a feel for the issues, so that they can relay the information to the rank and file. The pronouncements of the Popes and bishops have little meaning until they can be explained and implemented by the people in the neighborhood. It is from such specialized programs that the projects reported at the Notre Dame meeting came. If CFM embarked on such programs without insisting on elementary forms of charity, it would run the risk of turning out experts and actionists in the social field at the cost of making them poor spouses and parents.

The question mooted most at the executive meeting was the future of the movement. Although CFM is still growing nationally and internationally, in a few dioceses where it has been established for more than a decade, the membership has crested. The dropouts become pronounced after couples have been members a number of years. The leaders of the movement continue to ask themselves whether a high rate of turnover is good or bad.

One view holds that two or three years in CFM gives a couple sufficient time to reorientate their married life along apostolic lines. When couples drop out of CFM, they will have more time to implement Catholic social principles in organizations which bear no Catholic label. It is in this latter type of organization that effective institutional change can be best advanced. In this view, CFM is a training course with a flexible but definite terminus for most couples.

The opposite view holds that people will not maintain an intense level of spiritual life and an interest in the social apostolate without the support of apostolic group life in the CFM. Parish life without a pervasive liturgical orientation and groupings for the mutual encouragement of apostolic-minded parishioners is hardly sufficient to support a high level of crusading endeavor. They hold that members must retain at least some connection with the movement to maintain their effectiveness.

Obviously, this question will not be settled by a consensus of delegates. It will be settled locally by individual couples assessing their spiritual needs, their apostolic responsibilities and what the movement has to offer. The most hopeful omen at the meeting, for CFM's future development, was its relentless spirit of self-criticism. Its continual re-examination of goals should dictate the changes necessary for both survival and effectiveness. One can, of course, become overly serious about survival. Only the Church must continue among men. Organizations which the Holy Spirit inspires come and go in response to cultural settings and the generosity of men. "The Spirit breathes where It will."

Pictured above: Patty Crowley, co-founder of CFM.

Dennis J. Geaney, O.S.A., is author of Christians in a Changing World (Fides, 1959). His booklet CFM and the Priest was published by the Christian Family Movement.

Comments

ed gleason | 10/13/2011 - 1:31am
We were members from 1955 on in San Francisco. It was the best ever laity formation process as this article shows, but what happened to CFM needs to be examined/explained. Crowleys were on the Papal birth control commission and they and the majority voted for OKing the pill. The blow back came after Humanae Vitae and  put CFM on the defense. Our pastor said in his homily that CFM stood for the Communist Front Movement so 15 couples bailed to other parishes.
Then the gradual scarcity of couples where both partners were  on the same spiritual/religious track began to take a toll. CFM brought in Marriage Encounter,at Notre Dame,  staffed it's founding in expectation that after the weekend experience couples would become CFMers,. This did not happen as ME would not 'pass-on' couples to CFM but started weak "love circles' instead and they  just became pious circles with NO formation. In the Spanish speaking this did not happen as Encounted couples were recruited into the Movimiento.
The initial clerical support was needed and done well but the gradual withdraw of clerical support also weakened the movement. Which of the above viruses was the crippling problem is still debated.