“It’s very important for parents to remember that, even though God might give you the great responsibility to be the primary educator of your child with regards to the faith, He also gives you the corresponding grace to actually do what must be done.” Fr. Eric Mah is a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto. His Trinity Sunday homily addresses the important subject of parents’ responsibility to hand on the Catholic Faith to their children.
In today’s Gospel (Mt 28:16-20), we hear what is most commonly known as the so-called “Great Commission”. After the Resurrection, Jesus appears to His disciples and says to them: “Go forth, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). But we often forget the line which comes immediately afterwards, which gives the first line some context. Jesus says to them: “[Yes], go forth and make disciples of all nations; [but at the same time, teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
We might say that the Lord is saying to them this: “Yes, introduce these people to the divine life – the life of the Trinity – the life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – by introducing them to the grace of the sacraments, whether we’re talking about Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, Confession, or whatever the case might be. But in order that the divine life might take hold, and in order that the grace of sacraments might actually flourish and develop, make sure that these people actually know their faith!” In other words, it’s not enough for people to simply receive “valid sacraments”: they actually have to know how to live their faith in a very real and practical way – lest they actually lose their faith in a matter of time.
To illustrate the point, let me give you an example: imagine a child who is born and then is baptized a few weeks later. This is followed by the important period between the date of the child’s baptism and Grade 2: the year of First Reconciliation and First Communion. Now, the question is this: “What kind of faith formation will this child typically receive during this period of time?” I would suggest something like this: “Be nice. Be kind. Be obedient to your parents. Be obedient to your teachers. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Be a good little boy or girl.” We might perceive, though, that there’s something lacking with this type of approach: it’s not sufficiently rooted in the Ten Commandments, and it’s not mindful of a certain relationship with God. It’s basically all about trying to be a good citizen in the midst of secular society: there’s nothing really distinctively “Christian” about it. Now, one might say: “Well, that’s just because of their particular age group: they’re just in Grade 2 after all!” And let’s presume that we give you that. And so, the child receives First Reconciliation and First Communion.
But then, what happens after that? This is followed by that crucial period between Grade 2 and Grade 7 or Grade 8: the year when the child receives the Sacrament of Confirmation. What kind of faith formation will the child typically receive during this period of time? I would suggest something not too far off from what he or she received just before: “Be nice. Be kind. Be obedient to your parents. Be obedient to your teachers. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Be a good person.”
The child then receives the Sacrament of Confirmation. Then the child goes off for further studies, reads a few secular books, meets a few secular friends who perhaps challenge the child very aggressively about his faith. The child begins to question his or her faith. Then eventually, perhaps not right away, the child will probably lose his or her faith. The child might continue a certain superficial practice of the faith: he or she might continue going to Mass on Christmas and Easter, with a few smattering instances of Sunday Mass attendance in between. But for all intents and purposes, he or she will probably become a so-called “practical atheist”.
Why does this happen? Perhaps because somewhere along the line, the child will come to the conclusion that the Catholic faith just isn’t up to much, that it’s too childish, not sufficiently intellectual, and that it’s not sufficiently rooted in right reason to deal with the sophisticated, adult problems that he or she faces every day. And so, perhaps he or she will say to herself: “Well, it’s not as if I really want to stop being a practicing Catholic; but it’s just that my faith seems completely inadequate to deal with the many problems that I’m facing in my everyday, adult life!”
The reality, though, is not that the faith lacks a certain substance: the reality is that the child stopped learning about the faith back when he or she was in Grade 2, if not even before! In other words, the child may have received a number of “valid sacraments” over the course of his or her life, but this was not met with a corresponding growth in knowledge as to how to live the faith in a very real and practical way. And the end result was a total loss of faith. I’m not sure if that’s surprising or shocking, but that I would submit to you is the typical “faith journey” of your average Catholic child living in the world today.
Of course, the question is: “What do we do about it?” To preface everything we’re going to talk about from this point on, it’s very important that we pray, we trust and we believe. In other words, we must always remember that God is ultimately the author of conversion; such that, if a person makes even the slightest movement back towards the Lord, it is always primarily by the grace of God. And so, we must pray, we must offer sacrifice, and we must trust and believe that in the fullness of time, in His own particular way, God can bring anyone back from the brink. Again, no matter what the stage of your child’s faith journey, even if you’re living in an “empty nest” situation, it is very important that you pray, trust and believe.
But what might we do on a practical basis to actively cooperate with God’s grace? I would recommend three things. First of all, parents must always remember that they are the primary educators of their kids with regards to the faith (cf. CCC 2221). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents come up to me and say: “You know, Father, I really wish someone would talk to my kids about the Catholic faith!” Quite honestly, I say to myself many times: “Well, how about you?” Now, I appreciate the value of sometimes having a third party talk with your kids about the Catholic faith; and so, if you want me to talk to your kids, I’ll talk to your kids! But the whole point is that parents simply cannot abdicate their responsibility to be the primary educators of their kids with regards to the Catholic faith.
Now, there might be any number of interested parties or groups, such as the government, Catholic school teachers, youth ministers or even Catholic priests, but these groups and persons are meant to help, they’re meant to assist, but they’re never meant to replace. Parents are always meant to be the primary educators of their kids with regards to the faith.
These persons or groups might know more than you about the Catholic faith. And so, if you find that you have certain gaps in your knowledge of the faith, you should definitely take the appropriate steps to rectify the situation, perhaps by reading, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, both of which are readily available free of charge on the Vatican website.
But there is always something very special and unique about the parent/child relationship which simply cannot be duplicated in any other relationship in the modern world. When mom or dad says to their child: “Do this. Don’t do that. This is right. This is wrong. This is true. This is false,” the child receives that information and is transformed by it in a way that simply cannot be duplicated in any other relationship in modern society. It’s very important for parents to remember that, even though God might give you the great responsibility to be the primary educator of your child with regards to the faith, He also gives you the corresponding grace to actually do what must be done.
The second point is this: repetition, repetition, repetition. A few years ago at my last parish, a parent came up to me and started giving me tips about how to visit the schools. She basically said: “Father, when you visit the kids in the schools, you really have to teach them how to go to the Sacrament of Confession – and not just once! You have to teach them over and over again, because that’s how they learn to really appropriate the concept!” I remember thinking to myself: “Well, yeah, you’re right! But don’t put this primarily on me! This is primarily on you as the primary educator!”
I’ve gone to the schools many times to teach them how to receive the Sacrament of Confession. But I believe I speak for priests everywhere when I say that a constant source of frustration for all of us is that, when we go to the schools to hear kids’ confession, many times they don’t know the Act of Contrition; and many times, they actually get up to leave before you can say the words of absolution! Think of it like this: if you go to Confession and you don’t expect to say “sorry” and you don’t expect to be forgiven for your sins by Christ through the words of the priest, then what’s your notion of Confession? Confession becomes an empty ritual! And what’s the grace that one obtains in that situation? I would submit: not that much!
That’s the great value of repetition! In the case of the Sacrament of Confession, for example, the point is to not simply develop a “basic familiarity” with the ritual, but to actually make going to Confession normative – such that Confession stops being a “weird thing” that we do, perhaps, once or twice in our whole life; but rather, it becomes something that we’re just completely familiar with because it’s something we just talk about all the time as a Catholic family, and it’s something that we actually do all the time as a Catholic family!
Obviously, we can’t talk to someone in Gr. 2 in the same way that we’d talk to someone in Gr. 8. We have to tailor our message to the particular age group that we’re addressing. But, again, that’s the great value of repetition! Because, even though we might be talking about the same topic repeatedly, we can approach it from several different angles depending on with whom we are speaking.
For example, let’s consider the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shall not kill”. If you’re talking to your toddler, you wouldn’t want to lead by talking about murderous psychopaths roaming the countryside! That’s just not prudent, and it’s probably just bad parenting! Perhaps what you might do instead is to speak, at least indirectly, about the dignity of the human person (cf. CCC 1700). You might begin by talking about how everyone comes from God, and is ultimately destined to return to God (cf. CCC 1700). And what this means is that everyone is special: everyone deserves respect. This might lead to a discussion of what it means to actually treat people with dignity and respect, and what it means to treat even yourself with dignity and respect.
Later on, you might talk about self-defence. You might say: “Yes, if someone attacks you with physical aggression, it is a legitimate thing in certain cases to defend yourself even using physical force” (cf. CCC 2263). But, at the same time, you might bring in issues of proportionality (cf. CCC 2267) or proximity (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II.64.7). Later on, you might start bringing up certain “hot topic” issues like euthanasia (cf. CCC 2276-2279), abortion (cf. CCC 2270-2275) and suicide (cf. CCC 2280-2283). And after that, you might bring up more complex topics like the principle of “double effect”, formal vs. material cooperation or the “just war” theory (cf. CCC 2309). In every instance, we’re still talking about the Fifth Commandment; but every time, we’re doing so in such a way that is appropriate to the particular age of the child that we’re dealing with. And so, again: repetition, repetition, repetition.
The third and final point is perhaps the most important one: live the integrated life. For example, I remember years ago reading about a study that dealt with the question of what was most influential in the formation of children’s particular notion of sexual morality (cf. Ford, 2005). You might expect that a study like this would simply say that parents were most influential in the formation of their kids’ opinions with regards to sexual morality, as opposed to friends or teachers; and it certainly said that. But the study went one step further by suggesting that what was most influential in the formation of kids was not so much what parents said; but rather, it was what parents actually believed! In other words, if parents talked to their kids without really believing what they actually said, the implication was that their kids might listen politely to what their parents were saying, but they wouldn’t ultimately be changed. On the other hand, if the parents actually believed what they were saying, and this was backed up by what they actually did, then their kids would be changed. Then they would be transformed!
One of the best examples of this is to reflect on the life of St. Paul. As you might recall, St. Paul often said that he “preached nothing but Christ crucified” (cf. 1 Cor 1:23; 2:2). And there are moments in his letters when St. Paul was merely raising the historical fact that Christ suffered and died on the Cross, and then came back from the dead. We’re certainly not discounting any of that. But, if we really want to understand what St. Paul means when he says that he “preached nothing but Christ crucified”, we have to look back on who he was before his conversion: back when he was known merely as “Saul”. Because, when he was simply “Saul”, St. Paul was not a good person; he was actually a very evil, wicked person. He was actively involved in the work of genocide because he was killing the early Christians (cf. Acts 9-1-2)!
But then, what happened? He encountered the crucified Christ on the road to Damascus who said to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me” (Acts 9:4). That’s when he started to become this person who was all about love, communion and personal sacrifice. That’s when he started to become the so-called “Apostle to the Gentiles”!
At a priest seminar a few years ago, I heard a great analogy which underlined this point about St. Paul. And so, the speaker said: imagine if someone like Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein (people who were actively involved in mass genocide) had a massive conversion experience, turned from their evil ways, and then started preaching all about love, communion and personal sacrifice – and then even wrote a sonnet about love that would be used in weddings throughout the world and throughout human history!
Well, that’s St. Paul! “Love is patient, love is kind…” (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-8). When people saw this, they would remember: “Hey, weren’t you the guy who used to go around killing Christians?” But then they would see that he was now completely different. And so, at the very least, they would listen to him, not so much because of what he said, but because of who he was! In other words, they would listen to him because of his integrated sense of Christian witness. That’s the value of living the integrated life.
I realize that there’s a lot here for us to consider. But if we can try to implement even a few of these points: to remember that parents are the primary educators of their kids; to remember the value of repetition; and to remember the value of living the integrated life, then we can go a long way towards building up the Christian family; and thereby, at least begin to “Christianize” modern society.