I just finished reading the ebook, Commonweal on Raising Catholic Kids. It is a collection of short essays by Catholic parents reflecting on their parents and themselves as parents. It is a fascinating read that points to the stresses and anxieties that Catholic parents face.
What seems to be the root of the stress is that parents seem to have little control over whether or not their children adopt the faith. The early church father John Chrysostom insisted that parents were totally responsible for the children’s salvation.
This, then, is our task: to educate both our children and ourselves in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment seat? If a man with unruly children is unworthy to be bishop [Titus 1:6], how can he be worthy of the kingdom of heaven? What do you think? If we have . . . . unruly children shall we not have to render an account for them? Yes, we shall, if we cannot offer to God what we owe Him, because we can’t be saved through individual righteousness. (Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life, 44)
From the essays in Raising Catholic Kids, this seems like an impossible standard. The parents in these essays attended weekly mass, prayed in their homes with their children, introduced them to great thinkers in the tradition, had them involved in youth groups and community service. Some of the children grew and continued to practice the faith, and others did not. Almost every author whose children were no long practicing attempted to figure out why. Was it their failure? The disposition of the child? The failure of church leaders? The surrounding culture? The lack of friends with a shared faith? The lack of a Catholic subculture? None of these answers sufficed.
Yet, many of the authors noted that their children who were not practicing carried with them much of their formation. They were committed to the vulnerable in their community. They took their civic responsibilities serious. They had a strong commitment to do what was good and right in their personal and professional lives. In “Passing on the Faith in an Era of Rising ‘Nones’” (a 2013 presentation at the College Theology Society Annual Meeting), Julie Hanlon Rubio asked if this was the standard by which parents might hold themselves? We might hope for a committed faith, but, perhaps, we should be happy if our children grew up to do good and avoid evil.
I can hear my younger self criticizing this attitude, “one should not expect that a religion holding up the cross to be easy.” Of course, then I did not have three children nor realize how difficult it is to navigate the contemporary world. Two incomes are assumed to be the norm. Living near friends and families seems an impossible ideal. The culture seeps in through every nook and cranny of a household unless one cuts out TV and computers completely. But if one does this, the children are isolated from every other child in their school, a burden difficult for elementary school children to suffer and Christianity becomes the cause of this negative experience.
It seems like parishes should be of support here, helping parents deal with and better respond to these feeling of being overwhelmed and beleaguered. As is noted in the rite of baptism, it is the whole church’s responsibility to raise children in the faith. Yet, parish support is conspicuously absent in Raising Catholic Kids, an absence, I think, that points to the reality of parish life.
I was recently at a meeting of my parish’s Youth Group Steering Committee, chaired by two wonderful directors of youth ministry and composed of parents of children in the youth group, parents of children who graduated from the youth group, and even former members of the youth group. In short, they were some of the most committed people to the faith and the community. The committee was brainstorming ways to raise money for the youth group’s activities. I suggested that for some of the major activities, like the March for Life and the annual service trip, that we just ask the parish as a whole to sponsor these activities. My suggestion was met with the response, “well, we really do not want to bother people by asking too much of them.” To me, this said it all. These people’s experience was that it was their responsibility to care for their own, the parish as a whole had little connection to it, and, too often, the youth seemed like a burden on parish life.
I say all of this to note that Raising Catholic Kids expresses the anxiety that so many parents seem to feel. It is not a “poor me” anxiety but one born of wanting to share the priceless gift of faith with those whom they dearly love. It is an anxiety also born of not knowing what to do in a culture that so effectively marginalizing faith, when extended families live far away and parishes provide more programs than community. Most importantly, it is an anxiety that moves one to make things better when and where possible and, ultimately, must rely on God whose love far surpasses our limitations and imagination.
This is the part of a periodic series—You Should Read This—on works worth reading. Use the search phrase “you should read this” to see the others.