Also posted at Catholic Insight.
When you teach two classes of First Reconciliation and First Communion candidates on most Saturday mornings, you learn a lot about other families’ prayer lives. It doesn’t take long to see who prays at home and who doesn’t. I have come to the point where I am not surprised but remain disappointed that so many of the children can’t make a proper Sign of the Cross and don’t know the words to the Our Father and Hail Mary. Little children are not to blame for their lack of knowledge in the basics of the Catholic faith; the fault likes squarely with their parents. When I point out to some of them that they need to pray at home regularly with their young children, I am often met with excuses, embarrassment, or indifference.
It would be easy to look down on Catholic parents who don’t teach their children to pray, don’t bring them to Mass, don’t teach them about our glorious Faith, and don’t follow Church teachings, but what would that gain for the universal Catholic family of faith? We are all part of this family, all parts of the Mystical Body of Christ with our unique part to play. Just as the physical body is only as strong as its weakest organ, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so is the Mystical Body of Christ on earth only as strong as its weakest members. Among its most fragile members are Catholic families who don’t fully embrace the Faith.
As a catechist, my role is very clear: prepare the children of my parish to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. But we who try to daily live in Christ are all catechists and it is our brothers and sisters who are only nominally Catholic that we need to catechize first. Instead of criticizing, condemning, and abandoning these Catholic families, let’s do something different: let’s gently and charitably show them what they’re missing. By our prayers, and the life in Christ we try to live in our families, we are a beacon of light illuminating Catholic family life as good, noble, and attainable.
Even the strongest Catholic family is imperfect. Devout families may have to deal with a crisis of faith in one (or some) of their children, or in one of the parents. If we address these crises in a spirit of humility and trust, if we storm heaven with our prayers, and if we are charitable to the person undergoing the trial of faith, then this too is an example and a sign of hope and strength for other families.
Our churches ought to do more to reach out to families who are weak in the practice of the Faith. My archdiocese (and I suspect many other dioceses) pours money into youth and young adult ministries but often the parents of our young people are not given the same encouragement, opportunities and resources to strengthen their families. Parents need homilies that inspire and support them in their role as their children’s primary educators in the Faith, and parish programs ought to catechize parents so that they can catechize their children. Parish priests, encourage families to attend Eucharistic Adoration that is scheduled for easy access by families; instead of Youth Masses that separate children from their parents, inspire families to attend Holy Mass together. A very wise former pastor observed that the family, the Domestic Church, is the foundation of the Church and he made it his mission to support his parish families. Even now, my family continues to benefit greatly from his legacy of strong leadership.
On the Feast of the Holy Family, Pope Francis addressed the Italian Association of Large Families. He quoted this passage from Pope Saint John-Paul II’s encyclical, Familiaris Consortio: “Families should grow in awareness of being ‘protagonists’ of what is known as ‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society; otherwise families will be the first victims of the evil that they have done no more than note with indifference.” (Familiaris Consortio, 44) A strong Catholic Church depends on faithful families. In our parishes and in society, the first people we ought to transform through our prayers, resources, and actions are Catholic families where God has largely been forgotten.
Drawing: Family During Common Prayer by Philipp Schumacher (1866-1940). In the public domain.