This the first of a series.
Any bishop will tell you that one of the most heartbreaking parts of his job is meeting with elderly parishioners who lament that their children no longer participate in the life of the church.
Parents in my own generation, whose children are perhaps not yet teenagers (my oldest is nine), often face the future with some anxiety. Will our children continue on in the life of faith we have begun with them, or will they drift away like many in the generations before them?
It is easy to get discouraged when we see and hear about the decline of the church in the west at every turn. On the other hand, Catholicism remains the fastest growing religion in the world and there are signs of life even here in the west for those with eyes to see. One of those signs of life is the young Catholic families dedicated to passing on the faith to their children. It may be too early to tell how successful these families will be, but there is reason for hope.
While there is no silver bullet that can guarantee your kids will stay in the church (God created them as free beings after all), there is much we can do. In my own family, I am the only one of five children who still practices the faith. My wife Flannery is one of four children, and three of them (including her) continue to practice as adults.
A key difference between Flannery’s upbringing and my own was that Flannery’s family recognized from early on that the culture was not going to help them raise faithful children. I have seen this pattern repeated. Families that assumed the basic support of a Christian culture thought that going to mass and prayer before bedtime and meals would suffice to pass on the faith. It had seemed to work in the past. Families that consciously strove to raise kids Catholic over against an increasingly post-Christian culture did things differently. And while it is no guarantee, they tended to have greater success keeping their kids engaged in the church.
Today’s young Catholic families are more aware than most of our parents were that we are raising kids in a post-Christian culture. Raising Catholic kids is now widely recognized to be a counter-cultural activity. I believe that is step one. Given that reality, what kinds of things can we do as families and communities to help our children appropriate the faith given to them in baptism?
Over the course of this series, I want to focus on a few key ideas. Today, I want to talk about faith formation in the family. Next week, we will look at the kinds of things we can do in our parishes and communities. The week after that, we will explore some of the specific challenges that today’s culture presents to our children and how we can be ready to respond.
Our parents were right to focus on attending mass and praying together as a family at bedtimes or mealtimes. This life of prayer in the parish and the home is the foundation for anything else we do. On the other hand, many in my generation did not experience these practices as much more than boring obligations. Is it possible to raise children who love going to mass? Who loudly protest any meal or bedtime that skips out on prayer?
One of the things we have learned as parents trying to take kids to mass is that, far from being boring, there is always something happening at mass. There are readings to listen to, responses to recite, hymns to find in the hymnal. We have been able to engage our kids at mass by practising things like noting the readings aloud (quietly) to the kids (“oooh, Amos, this is gonna be good!”), getting them to help us find the right page in the hymnal, asking if they know this response yet (when they’re drifting off and miss a response), or making subtle comments on the homily (“that’s a neat idea, I’ve never thought of it like that before”). We talk about the readings and the homily after mass as a family and ask the kids what they found interesting or even strange.
Our nine-year-old is now a homily enthusiast, paying careful attention to how the pastor treats the thorniest questions that emerge from the readings. Our four-year-old listens carefully to each reading to see if she knows the book, once loudly and excitedly announcing, after the gospel acclamation, “I thought it would be Luke!” When we tell her she can stand for the consecration because she is too short to see over the pews, she immediately kneels to show us that, if she really stretches, her eyes can just reach over the top.
This kind of active participation at mass is built on a foundation from home. Our family prayer time is often built on the lectionary, so the kids know about readings and how they work. This familiarity helps them see what is happening at mass as something meaningful they can engage with. Daisy could not have expected Luke if she didn’t know there is always a gospel reading as the last reading, and that means one of four names.
Other things in the home also make a huge difference. Prayers before meals and bedtimes slowly take on a shape that is meaningful to the kids as we pay attention to their spiritual needs. There is need for order and regularity (kids love structure and predictability) as well as need for expressing what is going on in our life today.
One of the most important things we do as a family is to take prayer as an opportunity to apologize to one another at the end of the day and pray for the grace to be better to one another tomorrow. Few things can have an impact on the heart of a child like an apology from a parent. Children naturally assume they are in the wrong and grownups are in the right. To learn that grownups make mistakes and need God’s grace as much as or more than kids is a great freedom that makes faith attractive rather than merely obligatory.
There are many more things families can do together — like paying attention to the liturgical calendar or participating in the sacrament of reconciliation as a family. Because these things start to overlap with our life in the parish and broader Catholic community, we will begin the next piece by exploring some of them.
Salkeld is archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina where he is responsible for the academic formation of diaconate candidates. He serves the CCCB on the national Roman Catholic - Evangelical Dialogue. Salkeld lives in Wilcox, Sask., with his wife, Flannery, and their family.