When Mike and Alicia Hernon started their podcast on marriage and family in 2015, they didn’t think anyone would listen, outside of their family and maybe a few close friends.
Both from big families - Alicia the second of 10 siblings, and Mike one of six - and parents of 10 children themselves, the Hernons would often get asked for parenting advice at extended family gatherings.
At the urging of their siblings who were benefiting from their advice, the Hernons started a marriage and family podcast.
“At the beginning if you listen to our first two or three episodes, we kind of start off by saying something like, there are probably just like five of our brothers and sisters and their friends listening,” Alicia told CNA.
But over the past three years, the podcast grew from a small fanbase of friends and family to 10,000 listeners per month.
“We literally did zero marketing! We didn't do anything” to promote the podcast, Alicia said.
“We didn’t have time,” Mike added. They were too busy with work and with their own family life.
Sensing a growing need among parents and families for guidance and support, and with the support and partnership with Our Sunday Visitor Institute, Alicia and Mike have decided to expand their podcast into a full-time marriage and family ministry called The Messy Family Project.
In addition to the podcast, the Hernons will now offer their advice, support and encouragement through videos, downloadable resources, and live events such as retreats and workshops.
“One of our taglines is: 'we're not experts' because neither of us have counseling degrees, we're not professors, we're not doctors,” Alicia said. “We are really just older parents who are ahead of most of the people who are listening to us, so what we want to do is just kind of give that encouragement, that practical advice, but without being dogmatic.”
They’ve gained their wisdom from their own families of origin, from years of experience raising their own children (who are now ages 6-23), and from the teachings of the Catholic Church, and from interacting with families through various ministries over the years.
Their mission: “to empower parents, strengthen marriages and bring families to Christ.”
This mission has been on the hearts of the Hernons for a while, Mike said, because “we believe it’s more challenging to raise children today than maybe it ever has been.”
They offer their wisdom as older siblings who have been there, rather than as parents of a different generation, Mike said.
“There are challenges that our parents didn't have,” he said, “everything from technology to all of the cultural issues that are bearing on our children and our family life.”
They wanted to offer their support and advice for Catholic families to build their own unique cultures instead, which will look different depending on the individual family, Mike said.
“We don't try to say - this is the perfect plan. We try to share experiences, also the principles from the Church, because we believe the Church is an expert in humanity, an expert in real living.”
Creating a strong, welcoming and unique family culture, built on a Catholic identity, is one of the best ways to combat the cultural messages that are antithetical to Catholicism and family life today, the Hernons said. “The best defense is a good offense,” Mike said.
“Our ‘offense’ is creating your own family culture,” Alicia said.
“Families need to not allow their children to be influenced by the world's culture more than by their own family culture, because when you create your own family culture...that culture is a very powerful influence on our children because it’s an unspoken set of beliefs and expectations.”
A strong family culture also allows parents to enforce values without being judgmental of other families, Alicia said.
“Because when a child says, ‘Oh well Susie is allowed to wear that dress to prom,’ you can say ‘Yeah, but Susie's not a Hernon, and this is who we are,’” she said.
Family culture is communicated primarily through relationships, the Hernons said - the relationship of the parents with each other, the relationships parents have with individual children, and then the relationships children have with each other.
“The grace for your family flows from the sacrament of marriage,” Mike said.
“More is caught than taught, and kids need to see what that marriage looks like, and you model for them in so many ways what true love is, what it means to lay down your life, what it means to have a vocation, a mission of service.”
The Messy Family Project offers resources that cover a wide variety of topics related to family culture - including discipline, growing spiritually as a family, managing screen time, fostering sibling relationships, strengthening marriages, and building community with other like-minded families.
These resources include downloadable worksheets for parents to work through together, because spouses are each other’s own best parenting resource, the Hernons said.
“One of our themes is that parents need to work together and listen to each other as the experts,” Alice said. “More than they listen to us, more than they listen to anybody else out there, they need to listen to each other. So we have worksheets for parents to go through and have conversations with each other.”
Much of the Hernons' inspiration comes from Pope St. John Paul II, and his teachings on marriage and family.
“Each family finds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored and that specifies both its dignity and responsibility: family, become what you are!” Pope John Paul II said in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio.
That quote “sums up the goal” of The Messy Family Project, Mike said in a press release.
The Hernons said they are also inspired by St. Mother Teresa and the Little Flower of Therese, who found joy and holiness even in the little things of life.
They are also inspired by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who said in a 2017 address: “When young people ask me how to change the world, I tell them to love each other, get married, stay faithful to one another, have lots of children, and raise those children to be men and women of Christian character. Faith is a seed. It doesn’t flower overnight. It takes time and love and effort.”
Alicia said she hopes Catholic families can find inspiration and hope, even in troubling times in the Church and in the world, through The Messy Family Project.
“I think a lot of times, Catholics look at the (Church sex abuse) scandals and say - ‘How can we change the Church?’”
“That's important and we need to do that, but start with your family. That's the most influence you can have, is over your family, and I think that people forget that.”