Theologian Thomas Groome knows firsthand the difficulties of being a parent to a child that isn’t always thrilled to attend Mass.
In this web exclusive excerpt from his interview with U.S. Catholic, Groome discusses some of the questions parents face in trying to teach and hand down the Catholic faith to the next generation.
What do you say to parents who say, “I don’t want to saddle my kids by bringing them up in a certain religion. I just want to let them make the choice when they’re ready to do it”?
I say baloney! I say you’re shirking your responsibility.
I’ve always loved the phrase from John 14:2, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” In other words, there are many homes within God’s family. But I think we all need to start out in a particular home – if we are so blessed. To start out not knowing where your home is, without any sense of being at home in God’s family, is not a good foundation in life for a child. Everyone needs grounding in the particular, even as we may later reach beyond it, toward a more universal perspective.
Now the challenge is to ground young people in a particular faith without implying that this is the only home within God’s family. And it is desperately important not to say, “If you don’t belong to my home, then God doesn’t love you, and we could even buy guns and shoot you.”
I grew up in Ireland with that kind of dreadful sectarian Christianity. Our very Christian faith in the universality of God’s love demands that we realize that we’re not the only people among whom God’s self is revealed or God’s grace is mediated. God’s love is universal, not just for Catholics. And yet people need a particular home within God’s family, and we’ve got a fantastic one to offer.
Also, it doesn’t work to say, “I won’t give my kids any faith because it will impose values.” You cannot parent children in an objective way. It’s literally impossible to parent a child without influencing their values, their outlook on life, their understanding of themselves, their way of being in the world. So why not let it be good Christian values that we share with them; there’s none better. And most of the great Christian values are universals anyway. So why not share them through the great stories and symbols and creeds of Christian tradition?
Have you had experiences of talking to parents about these kinds of issues?
I met a young, prominent movie star once as I was bumped to first class coming across the Atlantic. I was the envy of the whole plane to be beside this very beautiful, young woman who is quite famous, but I didn’t even recognize her name. Everybody in first class was agog and abuzz with the fact that she was even in our midst.
We had this extraordinary conversation after the pleasantries passed. She came from a Catholic background and confessed that she still loves her faith in many ways, believes in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, occasionally would sneak into Mass herself, but would never, she said, rear her 2-year-old daughter in this tradition and certainly hadn’t had her baptized.
I gently began to say to her, “What will you give your daughter instead?” And she had very little to replace what she was leaving behind. She was mad at the church because it doesn’t ordain women; she said it doesn’t really respect gay people—all of the push button issues. I said, “But what values and outlook on life and self understanding will you give her instead and what will you draw upon to raise her as a wonderful human being?”
When she started to dig into her values, many of which were deeply Catholic, she began to realize that it would be terribly unfortunate if, because of her anger at the church, she would leave her daughter bereft of the great positive influences of Catholic faith. She began to recognize again that the great values, the deep structures of Catholicism, are tremendously life giving. By the time we arrived in Boston, she said to me, “Please send me a copy of your book,” Will There Be Faith?, which I did.
I’m always greatly saddened when I meet a Catholic who has left the church. I want to protest, I want to take them aside, I want to argue with them, I want to explain to them what they’ve left behind. It breaks my heart when I meet a Catholic who was raised Catholic and went through Catholic schools and good parish programs and now is no longer a Catholic.
And yet I also have a certain kind of gratitude for the fact that they felt free to leave, that we did something right, that they have a certain deep freedom in their faith life that allows them to walk away. I often say that every good faith community has a big welcome sign and a big exit sign, leaving people free to come, free to stay, and free to leave. Because if you’re not free to leave, you’re not really free to stay. Anything less than a deep freedom in our faith is unworthy of the gospel and of our friend Jesus.
He always left would-be disciples tremendously free—to come or go. I always love, in John 6, when the disciples come to him and say, “Lots of people are going away and will walk no more with you.” And Jesus turns to them and says, “Would you also like to go away?” I always hear Peter saying, “We’ve thought about it.” But then he says, “You have the words of everlasting life.”
There are faith traditions and communities from which people don’t feel free to leave. All of our religions have negatives, of course. But I think that’s a deep negative in any tradition, if you shun or condemn or ostracize people for leaving the faith community. Such ostracizing is antithetical to any genuine faith and life-giving faith community.
What’s the best way to know if our religious formation or religious education is working?
Well, the social scientists tend to depend upon the empirical data: Are the people still going to church? Do they still maintain good Catholic practices and values? I think there’s probably a spectrum between the ultra Catholics and the people who have gone out the door.
I met a couple recently who have raised four children. Two of their children, they would say, are devout Catholics. According to the parents, “The other two are not, but they’re very good people.”
They went on to praise all of their adult children’s values. They’re deeply committed to social justice and to care for the poor, to respect for diversity, and to all kinds of great Catholic values. I said to them, “Well, how do you know that two of them are no longer Catholics?”
Could we say that morally they’re all Catholics? Two don’t go to church, and I wish they did. And I’m not saying it’s irrelevant that they don’t.
But I think parents often don’t give themselves credit when they say, “Well, two of them are still good Catholics, but the other two are not. But they’re very good people.”
A lot of the deep Catholic values that the parents shared with their children are precisely what explains the fact that they’re now very good people.
Has our understanding of what makes someone a “good Catholic” changed?
Catholicism has always been a big tent. At least that’s the tradition. There are ways in which we seem to sin more boldly against our “catholicity”—that “all are welcome”—at this point in time.
Augustine was right, way back when he took on the Donatists, because they were saying that only the saints, only the really devout could belong. And of course Augustine knew from experience that if that was the norm, he himself would never have been let in.
So Augustine made the argument, I think successfully, that the church is always Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, but also a corpus mixtum, a mixed body.
So the saints and sinners, the devout and pious, the lukewarm, the questers, the questioners, the ramblers, the rovers, I think they all are welcome and should be welcome. Catholicism at its best is at least as broad as Protestantism, and there are literally hundreds of different Protestant denominations.
I think Catholicism has to allow for a great deal of diversity and different levels of belonging. One of the best Christians I’ve ever known was a monk in a community with which I lived for a time decades ago, who was extraordinarily committed to the works of justice and compassion. Yet he struggled all his life with faith as a confession and in fact could not recite the Creed when called for at Mass. I remember him telling me one day that he used to stand at Mass with his community, but he could not recite it. So he had a very functional Catholic faith. But the cognitive/belief aspect of faith was absent to the man. Are we to say he wasn’t a Catholic? I don’t think so.
This article is a web-only feature that accompanies Show me the way: an interview with theologian Thomas Groome which appeared in the February 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 2, pages 18-21).
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