We all know the grim statistics: a mere quarter of Catholics attend Mass each Sunday. Half of those do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The three-quarters who do not go are essentially unchurched; their understanding of the faith is shaped mostly by childish caricatures and distortions from media and pop culture.
Taking these facts alone, the odds of our children and grandchildren navigating this gauntlet and remaining practicing Catholics are not good, to put it mildly. Kids, as we know, are disproportionately influenced by what their peers do – and do not do. Couple this reality with the fact that nearly all their activities – from their hours on screens to classroom instruction, sports, and extracurriculars – occur with no reference to God. It’s not hard to wonder why kids don’t think religion is “cool” – none of their friends or the people they see in media seem to even think about it.
How can parents keep their kids Catholic in this environment? After God’s grace, the answer, typically, is to lead by example – to show their children how to be faithful by living out your own faith.
That answer is true. Up to a point. We cannot give what we do not have. Kids have a special knack for smelling out authenticity. If we do not believe what we preach, or, worse, if we undermine what we preach by contrary actions (e.g., we follow a household sermon denouncing lying by telling the clerk that our twelve-year-old is really ten so we can get the child discount), our children will see first hand that we are Pharisees who “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” (Matt 21:4)
In our culture, being an example in living the faith is not enough. We have often heard the line attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (but probably not his), “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” Well, words are necessary, very necessary, if our actions are to make sense in an a-religious world unaware of how to understand them.
Our children are bombarded with individualistic, licentious, and anti-religious messaging constantly, far more than we realize. If anyone thinks that an example of praying earnestly at Mass and following the commandments alone will be enough to counteract the world’s seductive powers that flow to our children every waking minute via smartphones, he will be the only one surprised when his children stop going to church.
Fathers, in particular, tend to prefer setting a silent example and passing the duty of explanation to mothers, priests, or teachers. This move might have worked sixty years ago in Catholic neighborhoods, but no longer. Given the tremendous influence that fathers have on children’s religious practice, dads have to take the initiative as children’s first – and most intense – religion teacher.
So, in addition to our example of sincere Christian living, we must teach our children – and teach repeatedly – two kinds of lessons.
First, since the best defense is a good offense, we must constantly point out the falsity of secular dogmas and explain why they are wrong. And it’s never too early to start: a five-year-old can learn that babies should not be harmed in mothers’ wombs; that boys are boys and girls are girls (period); that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that all other arrangements are wrong. All these sins, parading around as secular dogma, transgress nature itself, and children have an intuitive sense that what is natural is normative.
When children reach the appropriate age, parents have to do what they dread: teach the birds and bees. The world has actually helped us by concocting a self-centered and indulgent vision of human sexuality that contrasts sharply with the self-giving and sacrificial vision of the Church. It’s not hard to show how the Church’s deeper vision is more attractive, and there is no shortage of resources available to help us if we are not sure where to start. All it takes is a little time to look for them.
If teaching these topics sounds daunting, consider that many teenagers drift from the faith because they learn through media and in school – in middle school and earlier – that abortion is a woman’s right, that gender is a choice, that “love is love.” As they buy into these lies, they will come to see the Church as not only wrong, but as an enemy for opposing a person’s desires. And who wants to follow the enemy’s religion?
The choice is ours: we can teach our children the correct view, or let the world teach them.
The second kind of lesson concerns the faith itself. We have to teach children what we believe, why we believe it, and how faith’s promises exceed those of secular pseudo-dogmas in truth and grandeur. Here, too, there are various resources to help teach children as they grow from toddlerhood to adulthood. The lessons have to be repeated constantly for them to sink in: think not seven times, but seventy times seven times.
Both kinds of lessons, of course, have a goal that is not simply academic: they help our children form a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship is the essence of faith, the reason for our existence, our reward in Heaven. This relationship transforms our lives to see ourselves, in the words of the late Gerald Russello, as “warriors and adventurers” in Christ’s army.
And it is this relationship that, as the corrosive allurements of secularism try to seduce them, will keep children Catholic.
*Images: Christ among the Doctors by Giovanni Serodine, c. 1625 [Louvre, Paris]
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