Here is how parents can help form their children in the faith, to lasting effect.
After watching our friends’ two grown kids go off to college and stop going to Mass and the disappointment it’s caused their parents, I was wondering if you had some advice for me and my own son, who will be leaving for college in two years. He’s already grown disinterested in coming to Mass with us and I imagine once he’s on his own he’ll probably stop going, too. What should we be doing as his parents to minimize the chance that he’ll stray from the Church?
M. in Wichita
Dear M. in Wichita,
There are a few things I always like to suggest to parents who express these concerns about their older children. While there is no surefire guarantee, I tell folks the main objective is to build a solid foundation of faith that our adult children can come “home" to, similar to having a balanced and functional family life. An analogy would be children who come from dysfunctional families may have severed relationships with their parents and as a result have little interaction with their families as an adult. Children from stable homes will continue to have healthy relationships with their families well into adulthood. The Church then is our spiritual family.
So while I say there is no guarantee, there still are some things we can do as parents to help establish these roots of faith in our children.
Don’t disparage the Church
I have a rule in my house that we don’t criticize the Church or disparage our priests in front of my son. It’s a vocation killer and a spiritual cancer spreader when speaking negatively of the Church. If a conflict arises it’s important for your children to see it resolved in a mature and respectful manner. Priests are people too and not immune from error, but also by their role in the priesthood they are are deserving of our utmost respect. It’s important that we instill in our children this sense of respect for the Church and her servants.
Encourage your children to have relationships with priests and religious
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a few priests in my son’s life who have mentored him in personal and spiritual matters. If my son asks one of his typically inquisitive questions that I can’t properly answer, I have no problem with telling him to email or call Father. If he needs someone talk to other than his old mom, my son goes to them for advice and council. When was the last time you had Father over for dinner?
Have your children get involved at their church
Middle school and teenage children should be required to volunteer in the parish. This builds a character of service but also puts kids in direct interaction with their spiritual fathers on a more personal level and beyond the weekly Mass interactions. Volunteering and being an active youth also helps establish a sense of belonging to the Church. In the same way household chores emphasize that children are members of a household, volunteering at church as an altar server, usher, nursery worker, pew polisher, whatever, reinstills the fact that they are functioning members of their parish. Our relationship with the Church should be give and take, as in any healthy family.
Don’t encourage ecumenism too early
Probably one of my more unpopular opinions, but I think it’s a huge mistake to let our children go to other denominational worship services or youth functions. Young children and even teenagers are not spiritually mature enough and knowledgeable enough to defend their faith articulately if they are challenged by heretical views. Bible youth groups are highly popular in the South and my son is often invited by his friends to go to their church camps or youth group meetings. I know from experience that these events are used to lure members to their church. To a young kid or a teenager bored with their church these youth camps can be alluring temptations. Instead have your children build their own church friendships by attending Catholic camps and to participate in their parish youth groups.
Let the Catholic church be their only childhood influence so it can put that indelible mark on their souls. Then later in their lives should they stray, Catholicism will hopefully be the only place that genuinely feels like home. There’s lots of time to support efforts at ecumenism in adulthood, from a place of mature understanding of one’s own faith.
Don’t leave your faith in the pew
Bring your Catholicism with you home. Don’t leave it in the pew Sunday morning. Let your Catholic faith be the foundation for what you say, do, and think in your own lives. Be that example for your children. Don’t be embarrassed of being Catholic and don’t shy away from sharing your faith. Be bold. Be happy Catholics and happy to be Catholic. Let your children see your gratitude for the sacraments of the Church and thankful for the graces they provide. Make your home a Catholic one with a visible crucifix on the wall and religious imagery.
Above all else, pray
Pray. Never stop praying. Pray for your children and with your children. Seek the intercession of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pray without ceasing. Take them to adoration. Pray the Rosary with them. Read the Bible together as a family. Refuse to let them be lost by putting your faith and trust in Christ. I know it can be fearful to think about our children leaving the Church. It’s a worry that is beyond our control as parents. Adult children will often do as they please and roam where they wish. This is a fact that is beyond our control. We can; however, control how much we pray for them. Use the story of St. Monica as an example when her son, a Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, was himself wayward and spiritually lost. Let her be a prayerful example to parents to never stop praying for our children and never lose hope.