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September 2, 2009
Tips and tools for parenting faith
By Julie Filby
This is the second 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. Part one appeared in the Aug. 12 Denver Catholic Register.
One in 10 American adults describe themselves as a former Catholic. Nearly half of lapsed Catholics said they left the Church before they turned 24. These facts, from a 2009 study (“Faith in Flux: Change in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April 2009), are disheartening.
“That’s a large and distressing number for anyone who loves the Church,” said Don Schneider, director of evangelization and catechesis for the Western Slope, Northern Area and Eastern Plain parishes of the Denver Archdiocese. “It also speaks to the crucial importance of an active family faith life, from the earliest years through adolescence.”
Survey findings pointed out key differences between former Catholics and lifelong Catholics in their level of religious commitment between the ages of 13-18. Former Catholics were less likely to have attended Mass regularly, or to have had strong faith as teenagers.
How can parents help children develop and maintain a strong faith foundation?
React, don’t overreact
“Many kids go through a period of rebellion,” according to Jim Anderson, director of pastoral care for The Coming Home Network, a lay apostolate that supports Protestant pastors and laymen interested in converting to the Catholic faith.
“Don’t think it’s the end of the world,” Anderson continued. “Be patient—pray for them, love them and keep the lines of communication open, no matter what.”
He said parents should gently make it a rule as long as children live at home they are expected to go to Mass.
"But don’t nag them,” he said. “That’s always counter-productive.”
Jeremy Rivera, director of communications for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), said that as a child he was expected to go to church.
“Like a good parent, my mom didn’t give me the option of going to Mass on Sundays,” he said. “I went begrudgingly and God blessed my mom’s stubbornness by planting seeds of faith in my heart, even though I was pretty uninterested at the time.”
Defend the faith
Parents should be ready to explain and defend the faith under all circumstances—educating themselves with Scripture, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” Catholic books, magazines and Web sites, and religious education programs. Seek out age-appropriate materials to help explain Church doctrine. When needed, enlist the help of a priest, youth director, director of religious education or missionary in campus ministry.
“It’s important to show children that growing in faith is important throughout the entire life cycle—it doesn’t stop with the sacrament of confirmation,” Schneider said. “The Catholic faith is a relationship with God in Jesus and his Church, and like all relationships it requires time and attention if it is to mature and develop.”
Parents must help children see that Catholicism is much more “broad and deep” than what they experience at any particular parish.
Proclaim a strong message
Catholics may leave the faith for a different denomination when they marry into another religion or experience a perceived energy or fulfillment at a service outside the Church. Leaving Catholicism for another denomination can be a difficult reality for parents to deal with.
“As Catholic parents, we treasure our faith and want our children to treasure it as well,” Schneider said. “When a child chooses a different denomination, it can make parents feel like they failed.”
When Rivera, a cradle Catholic, was a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Protestant Christians on campus reached out to him.
“I was ‘looking for love in all the wrong places,’” he said. “I didn’t think the Church was the place I could get what was looking for. What I really wanted was the love of Jesus (fully present in the Eucharist)—I just didn’t know it yet.”
He ended up leaving the Catholic Church and spending the next 10 years in Protestant ministry. Eventually Rivera discovered his Protestant community couldn’t provide the depth he craved.
"For me, the Protestant community did a better job of getting the message across that God wanted to be in a personal relationship with me,” he said. “But it didn’t have what my soul longed for after I had entered into that relationship.”
He learned firsthand where the Protestant church ends, the Catholic Church begins.
“I began to investigate…to follow the trail,” he said. “Much to my surprise, it led me back to the Catholic Church.”
Schneider agreed that Catholicism runs deep in those born and raised Catholic—and sometimes adult children re-connect with the Church later in life, prompted by a conversion such as Rivera’s, or by an event such as the birth or baptism of their own child.
Many parishes have programs for adult Catholics who have been away from the Church and are considering returning.
Trust in God
On the other hand, Schneider explained, if an adult child follows God’s voice the best they can and it leads to involvement in another denomination, parents must let go, entrust their child to God and believe the Holy Spirit is working in the child’s life.
“Active faith can never be forced—it is always an invitation from God,” he said. “If adult children are sincere in their efforts to discern God’s call in their lives, then Catholic parents can find comfort in that, if not outright enthusiasm.”
He suggested celebrating commonalities shared in Christian baptism—and no matter how old children are or what path they choose, parents must remain a constant source of faith and strength in their children’s lives.
“In all cases, Catholic parents must be there for their children and their children’s families,” he said. “Continuing to model what it means to be a Catholic Christian: generous, open, faithful and always unconditional in love.”
Parents should not place blame when adult children make a choice they do not agree with.
“Naturally, we’re disappointed if our children don’t value Catholicism like we do,” Schneider said. “We simply try our best in the formative years to instill a vibrant Catholic faith in our children...and later in life we can’t blame ourselves, our Church, the catechesis or the homilies when adult children make choices we wouldn’t make ourselves.
“The bottom line,” he emphasized, “is that every adult is responsible for their own faith life.”
Parents can look to their parish for support.
“Your parish might have a group, or be willing to start a group, for families struggling with these same issues,” Schneider offered.
Have you experienced the successful return of a child to the Catholic faith? If so, the Denver Catholic Register would like to hear what worked for your family. Send story to: firstname.lastname@example.org.