(CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
Someone asked me to
give a talk about the family’s role in transmitting faith, and I agreed. Claiming
no special expertise on the subject, I simply sat down and thought it through
in a common-sense way. The results, possibly surprising in some respects, were
along the following lines.
The first thing to be
said about transmitting faith is that it can’t be done.
For one thing, it isn’t
just passing along a body of doctrines and rules and pious practices. These
things can and should be transmitted. But faith, rightly understood, is
something else. Faith is a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.
Without that, you might
perhaps be successful in transmitting doctrines, rules, and practices. And
having done that, it’s at least hypothetically you’d have a child who knew the
catechism by heart and went to Mass every Sunday without complaining. But you
wouldn’t really have formed a person of faith.
The act of faith is a
commitmenta very large, personal, free choiceand people can only make free
choices for themselves. When it comes to forming children, the most we can doand
it’s very muchis create circumstances in which they are more (or, if we botch
the job, less) disposed to make a commitment to Christ for themselves.
This helps explain
the seemingly mysterious fact that children of good Catholic parents sometimes
abandon the Church while children from dysfunctional homes sometimes grow up
devout. How can that happen? Easy: it’s free will at work.
Anyone claiming to
have a surefire, never-fail system for transmitting faith can safely be
ignored. Where freedom is in play, there is and can be no certainty how a person
will choose. If there were certainty, it could only be because the choice
wasn’t free. And in that case there would be no real commitment, even if the
individual were to go participate in some sort of public commitment ceremony
meant to seal and herald his or her choice.
Now, at this point
someone may be asking: does all this matter? Isn’t all this talk about freedom
and choice and commitment just quibbling over words, with no relevance to
anything in the real world?
I don’t think so. For
one thing, the notion that faith itself can be transmitted, when in fact it
can’t, appears to have been behind the kind of formation whose consequences
became alarmingly visible in the great wave of departures from the priesthood
and religious life around the time of Vatican Council II.
Many of these men and
women, I believe, were formed in a more or less superficial manner suited to the
formation of cultural Catholics (doctrines, rules, and pious practices again)
but inadequate for forming committed Christians for whom faith is grounded in a
personal relationship with Christ.
These people generally
were faithful to the system in which they’d been formed. But with the collapse
of the old Catholic culture that started in the 1960s they were thrown back on
their own faith resources, with unhappy results. The best description of what
happened is in Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968, a memoir by ex-Jesuit and longtime Chicago journalist
Jim Bowman (available online at Amazon.com and Lulu.com and by asking
booksellers to order it).
I don’t question the
sincerity of these former priests and nuns. My point is simply that the
inadequacy of their formation set them up to quit the priesthood and religious
life when the system that had sustained them in these ecclesial roles abruptly
began to collapse. Mutatis mutandis,
much the same could be said of the many lay people who have quit the Church
during these years.
But what about the
formation of children?
My wife and I did our
child-rearing from 1960 into the early 1990s. During that time we witnessed a
cultural revolution in society and something very like a cultural revolution in
the Church. Those thirty-odd years were especially difficult ones for raising
Still, I don’t think
things have gotten any easier for parents since then. Some things no doubt are
better than they used to be, but many other things are just as bad if not worse.
One thing that’s clearly
worse is the situation created by the rise of new mediathe social media, as
they’re called. Recently I read a piece urging parents in no uncertain terms
not to give kids iPhones. The writer explained that these technologically
remarkable hand-held devices give children immediate, unsupervised access to
the world of pornography.
Imagine what that
means for a 13- or 14-year-old boy attempting to adjust to the changes in
himself that 13- and 14-year-olds naturally experience: unlimited access to pornography
whenever he wants it. I can hear that boy now: “All my friends have iPhones.
Why can’t I?”
I asked a Catholic
man who together with his wife works hard at the religious formation of their kids
what he considers the key elements. He mentioned two things.
First, daily family
prayer. I was a bit surprised by how much emphasis he placed on it. He also
offered an interesting practical example: read and discuss the Sunday gospel
with the kids on Saturday evening so that they’ll be familiar with it before
hearing it in church the next day. Good idea, I’d say.
The second thing was
harder to put in a few words, but it comes down to helping children grasp that
the whole of the faith is far greater than the minuscule parts present in their
ordinary everyday experience. Good movies and videos can be useful in doing
that, he said.
Another thing of
utmost importance, we agreed, is socializing with other couples and families
who share the same religious values and outlook on life. Social isolation is frequently
a major problem today for conscientious Catholic couples who want to raise
their children Catholic in the face of the many obstacles to doing that which
they confront. Frequent, supportive interaction with like-minded families is
imperativeand serious parents may have to go out of their way to find it.
Finally, there’s a
point made by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei: “Listen to your
children. Give them your time, even the time that you have reserved for
yourselves. Show them your confidence; believe what they tell you, even if
sometimes they try to deceive you. Don’t be afraid when they rebel, because at
their age you yourselves were more or less rebellious. Go to meet them half-way
and pray for them.”
If they do that
consistently, parents are already halfway there. But remember: the rest of a
child’s journey of faith must take place in the free will of the child.