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Raising Catholic Kids: You Should Read This

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Jason, thanks so much for writing on this book. I haven’t read the book, but I did read the brief essays (maybe they were abbreviated) that appeared in Commonweal under the same title. It struck me that one thing each of the authors had in common was that they did not accept the entirety of Church teaching, and they consciously sought to teach their kids “to think critically” about Church teachings. Many of them were quite blunt with their children about their own dissent on various topics, and I don’t find it surprising that their kids grew up to discount not only x and y teachings, but the whole entity of the Church altogether.

    It was interesting to me that Commonweal called this project “Raising Catholic Kids.” It seemed a deceptive title for the contents of the essays I read. Maybe “Raising Good People” would have worked or “Raising Kids Who Come to Their Own Conclusions Rather Taking Faith on Faith.” But to me, a collection entitled “Raising Catholic Kids” should be written by many of the acquaintances I’ve made in the last few years…the ones who did raise Catholic kids, who became fully practicing Catholic adults. What these parents had in common was accepting all of Church teaching (that is binding), forming and educating their children in the faith as expressed in the Catechism, making Catholicism really fun by celebrating important feasts well, imparting a Catholic view as to the value of suffering and mortification, emphasizing God’s mercy as a response to repentance, and fostering an authentic prayer life relying on long-standing practices. And most importantly, the parents modeled this for them, just as they are now modeling it for their children.

    • Maria,

      Thanks for the comment! I am such an optimist when reading that I often miss some of the elements that you pointed out in the essays. I agree with you that I feel like there is still a need for more reflection on the kinds of practices you noted above to help share the faith with our children.

      Jason

  2. Jason,

    Thanks for drawing attention to this beautiful collection of personal testimonies. I found these accounts to be incredibly moving. All of the authors so clearly loved their faith. They saw its profound beauty and embraced its counter-cultural demands. They tried so hard to model faith and pass it on to their kids, yet their kids often made other choices.

    The problem is not not new (Generations of Christians have struggled to awaken the faith of less-than-enthusiastic children), but today’s young adults are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than ever before, and there is strong evidence that Catholics are especially vulnerable.One of the essayists notes that of course his children are good people, but Christian faith is about much more than this, and he had so wanted his children to have all of it.

    Seeing my own teenaged children find paths other than the ones I would have chosen for them has been difficult for me as well. I try to embrace this time as a period of “suffering and mortification” through which I hope I’m learning to let go and trust God. Sometimes I am surprised at what happens when I do. In and through their questions, criticism, and struggles to become their own selves, they are grace to me.

  3. Given the formation I received in the early years of my life I never thought would say this, but perhaps God is calling us to raise “good people” with roots in scripture and tradition, more than God is calling us to raise “Catholic kids” with strong institutional ties. I realize the theological difficulties this will raise for some, but then I recall that Jesus’ ministry seemed to focus on forming people whose lives were pleasing to God, rather than forming people who were closely aligned with to the Judaic structure of his time. Sometimes the call of God comes from outside the institution. Many who condemned Jesus failed to appreciate this.

  4. Nice review, Jason. I’ll look forward to reading these essays. While I am sympathetic to your concerns about the role of the parish, I wonder if there really is a good “top-down” solution. My experience with parish life, which is overwhelmingly positive, reflects more the role that informal groups emerge from the life of the parish to meet its member’s needs, rather than from a parish-wide program or fundraiser. For example, I am in a rosary group which has become my primary network for socializing, not only for me but for my daughter. The women in this group work hard to support each other in raising kids (praying, teaching, finding much-needed clothes/furniture/money, bringing meals to new moms, etc.). In addition, our “7:30 am Sunday mass family” is very much a family to us. We sit in the same place for mass every Sunday, around people who also sit in the same place, and many of them we have gotten to know on an intimate enough level that they help us in our time of need and we help them. Several of the mom’s I have gotten to know through Sunday mass are primary mentors in my own parenting efforts, especially the one’s who have succeeded in raising Catholic kids.

    I think a lot of parish life is what you put into it, and no parish program is going to change that. For example, busy families often make whatever mass time they can make on a given weekend, or even miss mass at their parish all together because of other commitments. Is it any wonder that they have trouble getting involved or drawing life from the parish? And for many, many families, there is no effort at all to make the members of the parish a primary community, especially with the way in which school, work, and extracurricular activities consume family life.

    Raising Catholic kids requires, I am convinced, a deep immersion in parish life, but this requires a heavy commitment from parents while their kids are still young, and it requires that other goods get sacrificed in order to move the parish more to a central location.

  5. Jason, I think that you hit the nail on the head in looking to the role of the parish. While cognizant of Beth Haile’s concern for a “top-down” solution, I do think that there are constructive ways for parish’s to engage institutionally. I firmly agree with Pope Francis who, in Evangelii Gaudium, said of the parish: “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few.” (#28)

    In my parish here in Chile, I watched our youth spend six month selling food after mass to raise funds to go to Rio for World Youth Day. I watched our scouts spend a month raising funds to go to camp. I went to the pastoral council and finance council and asked, “What can we do to help these kids remain practicing Catholics as adults? Are they going to long for those days selling ice cream outside the parish? Or will the experience of faith and service leave a more lasting mark?” We decided that we would assume their expenses as a commitment of the parish, but, in return, we would ask them and their parents to assist with the ministry of the parish. Rather than sell ice cream or food, they occasionally will accompany the volunteers in our soup kitchen to bring food to those who live on the streets around the parish. We believe that the embrace of the parish and labors in service to solidarity are far more valuable to their faith formation, and, even though we are a poor parish, we will back that up with our limited resources.

    No doubt, the efforts of the parents are key, but the parish, if it engages young people in a deep and real way, can be a valuable partner in developing the faith of young people.

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