Throughout my ministry I have run into countless mothers and fathers who share with me their sorrow as they see their children abandon their faith and follow the ways of the secular world. It is a theme I keep running into over and over again. Of course, by the time they come to me there is not much that can be done since their children are already adults or well beyond the formative years. In seeking to offer guidance I have often found myself reflecting on my own formative years. No parents are perfect, but somehow my parents discovered some sort of receipt for giving the gift of their Christian faith. All of their 9 children have strong and vibrant faith lives and are in turn transmitting this on to their children. What did they do right and what lessons can be gleaned? Here are some thoughts from that reflection.
1. A Faith Filled Marriage: I was always struck by the fact that my parents only had one picture of their wedding. They were not that big into taking picture and capturing memories; which is reflected also by the fact that there are no pictures of my Baptism. It was always a statement of simplicity, a focus on the substantial and less on the superficial. I think this has been a crucial part of their success both in marriage and in raising a family. A faithful marriage is the first sign of faith we give to our children.
2. The openness to Children and the practice of Natural Family Planning: This is the subterranean stream that feeds the faith and virtue of the whole family. An open availability to the gift of life cultivates a spirit of generosity in the whole family, a spirit of self-denial, a school of poverty and simplicity of life. It is not merely the formative experience of living with many siblings, which is not always possible or advisable, but it is the spirit of self-denial that the couple lives and the hidden witness that marks the couple’s life that the fast and easy ways of the world are not the ultimate criterion for living one’s life.
3. Sunday is nonnegotiable and daily Mass is something you should try and attend: At one point my family could not pay for car insurance due to a series of unfortunate events; so for many months we were without a vehicle. So, we got out the map and discovered that the nearest church was 3 miles away. So every Sunday, and sometimes weekdays, the whole family walked 3 miles there and 3 miles back for Mass. Of the many life lessons my parents gave me, this one was one of the best. Our obligations to God and Church are not a hobby but a sacred trust. Attendance of daily Mass, when possible, is also a great way to inform the faith of your children.
4. Do not be afraid to discipline your children, even in Church: A matter of pride for our family was the fact that all the children were so well behaved during Mass. Now, this was not always the case; a few of the toddlers got away from the fold on occasion and made a scene on the Altar. However, we were generally well behaved, and I think my parents secret was the fact that they were not afraid to discipline their children, even at a young age, to let them know that this is something important and sacred. Be careful not to use the cry room and day care as your default approach to handling unruly children. Don’t bring toys and don’t bring food; but with a firm hand and voice let them know that this is serious, and take them outside and reprimand them if necessary. The first duty and prayer of a parent at Mass is the formation of their children. Teach them the signs of reverence in the Church and if you have to use the cry room make sure that you are following the Mass and giving an example to your children of proper posture.
5. Read to Your Children: Faith is best transmitted through story and example. My mother read to us many stories of the saints and the history of the Church. She would also read to us from the Baltimore Catechism. When I was 5 or 6 my mother read us the Story of Soul, the autobiography of St Theresa. There were no pictures, but I still remember that story to this day. When we were in elementary school we took turns reading the Bible while the dishes were being done. We started from Genesis and got tangled up in Leviticus, and that is where it ended, but was a fruitful experience.
6. Moderate the Use of the Media: One of the best things that my mother did was to get rid of the TV. Our family would go through cycles. We would be without TV for a few years and then we would bring it back, then after a few years we would get rid of it again. Through that experience I can say that the years without the TV were the most fruitful and rewarding. We discovered the joys of books and games. Now days TV is the least of our media outlets. While getting rid of all media may not be possible, regulating it and having periods of abstinence from it is one the best things you can do for your children.
7. Resist the Dictatorship of the School System: Schools are not an absolute authority and to make them so will kill the your child's faith. In 5th grade my family returned to Texas from Washington State and we had to make a decision. In Washington State we had attended an excellent Catholic School where we had received superb formation. Now that we were back in our home town the only option available to us was the public school system. It is at this juncture that my mother made the decision that she would home school us. At that time home schooling was not very common, and being so different the children were resistant, but we soon became comfortable with the ideal. Now, to be honest our experience with homeschooling was not all flying colors; but our faith was cultivated and placed on a solid foundation. My main point here is not to advocate for homeschooling but that when it comes to a question of school, education, and the gift of faith; the gift of faith should have priority. It would be better that our children were ditch diggers then to have them loose their faith. We should all ask ourselves, “If school was corrupting the faith of my children, at what point would I be willing to take my children and educate them at home?” If I do choose to use the public school system; have I invested heavily in supplementing their formation with a solid spiritual and catechetical formation? On the same note; we should be very mindful of the priority that is given to extracurricular activities such as sports. Sunday Mass, Catechetical formation, Confirmation retreats should always have priority over Sports and extracurricular activities.
8. Openness to Vocations: Every good Christian parent should tell their children that they would be happy if their children gave their life for the service of God. Simply expressing this changes so much in terms of the horizon of their Faith perspective; and every young man or woman should consider this as a possibility for their Christian life. Whenever possible take them to encounter religious communities and their way of life. This is one of the best ways to cultivate their faith life.
9. Do not under estimate your child’s capacity for spiritual things: Too often we dumb things down for our kids or given a flowery, entertaining faith without any challenge to it. While we do not want to press them too hard, we do want to encourage them to go the extra mile. As an example, I went on my first silent retreat when I was 15. I was the only teenager there among all these other adults. If your teenager is a step above the other teenager, or finds the youth group unappealing; then take them to the adult faith formation programs for a change.
10. Your own faith formation is critical: My mother would attend faith formation classes all the time and do spiritual reading on her own. You cannot give what you do not have and your children will not respect what you do not invest in yourself.
11. Come early and leave late: Come early to Mass, sit in prayer and silence, leave reverently, after a moments prayer, and then spend some time mingling with others after Mass. These are crucial elements to celebrating the Mass well and grounding yourself in the faith community. And whatever you do, do not leave the Mass early because your children are rowdy, and for any reason for that matter short of an emergency.
12. Pray together as a family, especially with Dad: Let’s face it men, we too often avoid prayer with the family or prayer in general. Prayer is for women and children. However, when Dad got on his knees and prayed we took it seriously, and it is a powerful witness for children when they see their Dad pray.
13. Traditional prayers are great, but are not always the best: There are many ways of praying and celebrating in our Christian tradition. At the root of these celebrations are the Sacraments; but connected to the heritage of faith is a diverse array of pieties and devotions: the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Stations of the Cross, etc. . . While every child needs to be familiar with these devotions so that they can be connected to the shared heritage; not all of these devotions are the best for children. Prayer is work, a work of love, the hardest work we will undertake; and we should familiarize are children with that sacrificial element of prayer. We should teach them that prayer and feeling good are not necessarily always connected. However, there is no reason why we have to be unreservedly tied to a certain act of piety, especially an act of piety that is repetitive and monotonous. There is a real danger that our disproportionate attachment could be the death of a child’s faith; that we can drown it with Hail Mary’s. However, which a little imagination, prayer can be engaging. The use of ritual, images, story, and song can help the child engage in the continuous prayer of the people of God.
14. Be slow to anger and rich in Mercy: This is the hardest one to define, and it’s hard to find that balance. Every parent should remember that a child’s image of God is often profoundly impacted by their parents. Every parent should ask themselves if they are approachable; if the child has ready access to the father. While a child needs parameters, a sure place to rest in hope; a faith that is constantly based on fear and discipline is no faith at all. It will simply dissipate. They need to be inspired, shown the richness of their faith, the example of the saints, to hear the radical call of the gospel, and to contemplate the things of God. Without discipline they cannot enjoy heavenly things, they cannot enjoy virtue. Likewise, a faith that does not challenge is a hobby, a social club, and will soon be unappealing. On the other hand a faith that is not understood, that is associated with oppressiveness, is equally unappealing and will be resented.
What are your thoughts about this work of giving the faith to your children?