My wife Maureen and I do what we can to pass on the ABCs of the Catholic faith to our children. We require them to learn their catechism, memorize Scripture verses, and participate in the sacred liturgy and family devotions.
It gives me great joy to see my children fulfill these requirements enthusiastically and well. All the same, I wonder sometimes how much of all of this is really sinking in. What will they do when they are older, when Mommy and Daddy aren’t watching, when catechism class is no longer in session?
My family lives just off the road that connects the major highway to the main street in Steubenville. For this reason, ambulances frequently pass by the house en route to the nearby hospital. I don’t even notice them most of the time. However, every time an ambulance passes by, my children sometimes together, sometimes individually will stop what they’re doing and offer a prayer for the person in the ambulance.
I realize this is a small matter, perhaps not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. However, I find such episodes very encouraging. They tell me that the faith is “breaking through” into the whole of my children’s lives.
Christian “formation” is more than merely getting high marks in religion class. Rather, the goal of all Catholic parents, and the reason for all the Catholic education and all the accompanying sacrifices and activities, is to form the next generation of God’s beloved children. No task is more important or more fulfilling (not to mention challenging). Christianity is not simply a body of knowledge or a moral code, but an all-encompassing way of life rooted in the person of Christ.
We homeschool our children. We have one daughter in particular who struggles with laziness. We really have to stay on top of her. Left to her own devices, she will frequently rush through the “boring stuff” (i.e., schoolwork and chores), doing a less-than-adequate job in the process, so as to maximize her play time. We try to instill in her the virtue of diligence and at the same time help her to view her day in a less fragmented, compartmentalized way. In a sense I can’t blame my daughter for thinking this way. We are, after all, the “Miller time” generation. We can’t wait to finish our labors, grab a cold one, put our feet up, and turn on the TV ק as though that’s real living, the “good life,” and all the work that preceded it was some sort of necessary evil. If that’s what we communicate with our actions, we can’t fault our children for developing similar habits.
Even as we become more serious about our spiritual lives we still tend to compartmentalize our day. If we’re not careful, we end up assessing our spiritual development based solely or at least excessively on explicit religious observance. In other words, we might look to whether we “got in” our Rosary, chaplet, holy hour, or whatever other devotion(s) we set out to do each day. These things are very important, but they’re means, not ends.
I used to listen to a talk radio host who would say, “In the department store of life, sports is, after all, the toy department.” Surely that’s a useful message for us “weekend warriors.” But let’s take that comment a step further. In the department store of life, is our faith merely a department and a “boring” one at that, such as housewares or women’s clothing? If so, then what about the rest of the store? Are there parts of our life that our faith doesn’t affect?
Before ascending to His Father, our Lord instructed His Apostles to go “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). This call goes in a special way to bishops as the legitimate successors of the Apostles. Yet the call goes out to all of us. And when it comes to the family, parents are, in the words of Pope Pius XI, “vicars of Christ” within the home, the “domestic Church.” The various duties of parents described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2221-31) all point to the vocation of Catholic parents to make disciples of their children. “Disciple” comes from the Latin word discipulus, which means “learner.” But just as being a disciple is more than mere “learning,” making disciples is more than mere “teaching.”
As Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have emphasized in recent decades, teachers must first and foremost be witnesses. In other words, they must already be disciples themselves. But what are the hallmarks of a disciple, a true follower of Christ? One concise response was given by our Lord Himself when He said: “Anyone who wishes to be My disciple must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk 9:23).
What kind of disciples are we raising if we spoil our children, deny them nothing, and soften the daily requirements of Christian living when they seem inconvenient or burdensome? As far as that goes, what kind of disciples are we?
The word “discipline” comes from the same root as disciple. Discipline is not limited to correcting inappropriate behavior. It’s more about instilling virtue, self-control, and a sense of order in our children’s lives as well as our own. As Scripture says, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it” (Heb 12:11). Discipline is hard work even in the intellectual realm, as sound catechesis requires some memorization. At times it’s easier to give in and let the child do what he or she wants, but such myopic solutions in the long run lead to ruin. But we don’t merely discipline we “disciple” our children as we draw them around Jesus in the Family of God (Catechism, no. 542).
Our children are watching us like hawks. Sure, they watch me when I’m praying with them or explaining Church teaching to them. But they’re also watching to see how I respond to conflict or disappointment, how I treat strangers, how I use “free time,” and where I turn for refreshment and meaning in life. What do they see? Our children are God’s, not ours. Yet He entrusts these treasures to us for a time. Therefore, making disciples of our children must always be the top priority. We need to bring our “A” game when it comes to their religious education, beginning in the home. What excuse could we possible have for doing less?
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the publisher of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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