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August 12, 2009
How to parent your children’s faith
By Julie Filby
This is the first of a two-part series related to children and young adults leaving the Catholic Church and ways parents can support, encourage and strengthen the faith of their families.
Americans change religious affiliation early and often. About half of adults have changed religious affiliation at least once—and most leave their childhood faith before age 24, according to a survey last spring (“Faith in Flux: Change in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April 2009).
While the reasons Catholics leave the Church are as numerous and complicated as the people involved, the reasons given most often in the survey were “spiritual needs were not being met,” “found a faith I liked more,” and the most-cited reason: “gradually drifted away.”
“Quite often, those who leave the Church don’t know ‘what’ they’re leaving, they just drift away,” said Jim Anderson, director of pastoral care for The Coming Home Network, a lay apostolate that supports Protestant pastors and laymen interested in the Catholic Church. “They don’t know the faith. They know some do’s and don’ts—but not the why’s of the do’s and don’ts.”
Don Schneider, director of evangelization and catechesis for the Western Slope, Northern Area and Eastern Plain parishes of the Denver Archdiocese, said it is critical for families to have an “active faith life, especially from the earliest years through adolescence.”
The most important things parents can do to nurture their children’s souls and build a strong faith foundation are: (1) live as faithful Catholics themselves (2) educate them about the faith, (3) encourage questions and provide answers, (4) pray, (5) help them get involved and (6) be patient, loving and compassionate.
Live by example
“Children and teens don’t learn faith from books as much as they ‘catch it’ from their parents,” Schneider said. “Even the best of religious education programs or Catholic schools can only support what’s going on in the family.”
Parents set a good example by attending weekly and daily Mass, participating in parish activities and adult education programs, reading Scripture and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” going to confession and spending time in eucharistic adoration. At home, simply praying before meals and at bedtime, and blessing children as they leave for school can have a lasting impact.
“Kids need to understand parents do these things because they want to, not out of obligation,” said Anderson. “If they live their faith in an inviting way, children will want to live like that as well.”
Teach the faith
The catechism says, “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (No. 2223) and further instructs them to “…initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith” (No. 2225).
Parents help children learn the Catholic faith through religious education classes, youth activities, spiritual reading, retreats, and family and peer faith discussions.
“The most critical witness we give as parents is teaching our children that faith isn’t just for kids,” said Schneider. “Learning and growing in faith is important throughout our entire life.”
It’s natural for children to question their faith—it is an essential step in coming to a mature, adult faith, said Jeremy Rivera, director of communications for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
“I’d be more concerned if kids weren’t asking questions,” said Rivera. “I’d be afraid their faith was stagnant—not living, growing and active.”
When children present questions, assure them God is “big enough” to handle any questions or doubts, encourage them to seek out answers and help them find the answers. If a parent is not comfortable responding to a specific question, contact a parish priest, youth minister or director of religious education for help.
Parents have a model in St. Monica. Her son, St. Augustine, was not always a saint. History tells us Monica spent 17 years chasing her wayward son around the Roman Empire and praying for his conversion. Ultimately, he was baptized and went on to become one of the Church’s greatest fathers, bishops and saints.
“I’m convinced it was through St. Monica’s encouragement and prayer that Augustine finally found his way,” Schneider said. “Pray for your children—pray as only parents know how to pray.”
Rivera suggested doing everything you can to get your kids connected to a Catholic community of young people alive in their faith.
“When you drive your son or daughter to college, drive them not only to their dorm but to the local Catholic parish, and get connected with a local FOCUS team,” Rivera said. “They’re going to need friends who will challenge them to remain faithful to Jesus when the culture around them entices them to abandon their faith.”
Encourage activity in parish life, such as youth group, youth choir, social events and community outreach.
“Kids need ‘content’ as well as ‘experience,’” said Anderson. “If they only have content without the experience, then you have a skeleton without flesh and blood—a skeleton without flesh and blood is dead.”
If a child chooses to not live out the Catholic faith, parents must be patient, trust in God and believe the Holy Spirit is working in the child’s life.
“There’s an old saying that ‘God has no grandchildren,’” said Schneider. “This means our children are ultimately responsible for their own spiritual journey and their own adult faith life.”
He went on to say the worst things parents can do are nag, alienate, or exclude a child from the family.
“Show them your relationship is more important than their willingness or unwillingness to go to Church,” said Rivera. “Show them the love that God shows us, so their faith can be motivated by love and sincere desire—not by fear, guilt or shame.”
Look for a follow-up story in an upcoming issue of the Denver Catholic Register.