Life & Soul

The American family who gave me a glimpse of Catholicism’s future

A pro-lifer at the March for Life in Washington DC. 'The Sylvesters are not untypical of the American Catholics I have met through the pro-life movement.'

“Daddy, what’s concupiscence?… How was the baptism of John the Baptist different from our baptism?… What happened to St Paul when he was blinded?”

It is Saturday morning in the Sylvester household and we are eating a breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup, eggs and hash browns. We are in a suburb of Phoenix, in a single-storey, tardis-like house that seems to branch in all directions, and which has olive and grapefruit trees on the front lawn.

The Sylvesters are not untypical of the American Catholics I have met through the pro-life movement. Mom and Dad are so young and energetic. You would never believe that the youthful-looking woman with her sylph-like figure and the boyish man had a 13-old-son, let alone two more, and three daughters, not least because their huge responsibility does not seem to have in any way diminished their energy or joie de vivre. Their children are clearly a joy, not a burden.

We have just come home from morning Mass. The kids are all home-schooled, so several days a week Mom takes them to Mass at the local parish, where the oldest boy serves with that innate reverence that cannot be taught. Today, Dad has just come back from his men’s group at church. Given that it is only 9.30 and he has already started cooking breakfast, it must have been an early start for a Saturday morning. With great enthusiasm he explains how they discussed St Joseph, and that he has not really appreciated before that God the heavenly Father entrusted the spiritual formation of his Divine Son to St Joseph. It is very beautiful because one can almost see his thought process at work as he reflects on his own vocation. As he speaks about this, so the children begin to pipe up with their questions. He is able to answer them all with confidence and consummate knowledge.

He and his wife found their way to solid Catholic formation when they were dating and continued it after they married in their early 20s. Some of this formation is connect­ed to their parish in various study groups. Quite a lot of it is their own home-schooling using recorded materials from Scott Hahn or Fr Robert Barron. It is clear that they have a sound grasp of apologetics. Both are also involved in running activities in the parish, including a course on natural family planning. Their lives revolve around the Catholic community, but this has always been because of apostolic rather than social needs.

The children are delightful, exploding the myth that home-schooled children tend to be socially isolated and unable to mix. It is app­arent to me, spending some time with them, that the children still inhabit a children’s world. For long periods of time they play to­gether in a huge den, the six children dividing into smaller groups. Every so often you hear them singing together as they play. I do not hear a single argument that ends in anger or tears. They are curious and expressive, com­ing up to interact in the most natural way for a time with the adults. But they do not need to be the constant focus of the adult world in the way that seems to characterise so many children who are supposedly “socialised”, nor are they plugged into any electronic med­ia at any point. One or other of them comes and sits awhile on their mother’s lap quietly for a cuddle, asks a question or says something, before going back to their own games. There was such a peace about the home.

It occurred to me that a family synod already famous for its focus on Communion for those in second marriages and a softening of attitudes towards homosexual relationships itself highlights the existence of a serious problem. I had been privy to a beautiful domestic church, full of life, hope and self-gift which enshrines the Church’s future. Yet the premise being spun seems to be that the rigid insistence on such an exclusive ideal in the face of some people’s experience is what constitutes the crisis in marriage and family life. Ten minutes with the Sylvesters would force one to frame the crisis differently. It is my fervent hope that the concerns and voice of people like them come to the fore, for the future of both marriage and the Church are inexorably bound up with them.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/02/14)