I’ve found that being a parent is about learning to embrace your inner hypocrite.
~ Tom Kenny
The word is out from Rod Dreher that “Catholicism is failing in America.” Dreher looked at an interpretation of the recent Pew Research Center report on American religiosity, and he paints a pretty bleak picture. Roman Catholics are already falling behind Evangelicals in terms of conversion and member retention, and within a generation or two we’ll be a sorry minority. “If current trends continue,” Dreher writes, “Catholicism would come very close to collapsing in this country.”
What to do? To the ramparts! Look at the Evangelicals – they’re winning! So, we need more programs! More marketing! More jazzy youth meetings and young adult encounters. Guitar Masses and drums – or no-guitar, no-drum Masses, depending on focus group results. “Become all things to all men,” as Paul modeled, and then some! More internet! More streaming video! More tweets!
And Catholic families? All this hubbub is especially troubling to conscientious parents who strive to form their children in the Faith. Given the troubling stats and trends, it’s understandable that we’d be reduced to hand-wringing and agonizing. “My teens are bored,” we opine. “They want something…else,” followed by the kicker question: “How are we going to keep our kids in the Church?”
But that’s the wrong question.
This might sound callous, but I just don’t think it’s our job as parents to keep our kids in the Church, even in the short-term. That’s God’s job and, frankly, the job of our kids once they’re making decisions for themselves. Our job as parents is a lot more prosaic – and, consequently, a lot more challenging. “Parents have the most grave obligation,” reads the Code of Canon Law, “to do all in their power to ensure their children’s physical, social, cultural, moral and religious upbringing.” In other words, our grave obligation as far as the Faith is concerned is comparable to our obligations regarding food and shelter: Provide what is necessary for our children to thrive and flourish – to give them a good start on making it on their own. “Why?” Fr. John Hardon asks of this grave obligation to form our kids in the Faith. “In order to prepare them for eternal life in heaven. The only reason under God that parents even should bring children into the world is to prepare them for heaven.” Thus, it’s not my job to keep my children on the straight and narrow trajectory toward eternal life, but rather to prepare them for undertaking that task themselves.
For insight on how to carry out that grave duty, let’s turn to Dreher again. He writes that the average American Catholic worshiper “may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because what he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.” This might be news to Dreher and the folks at Pew Research; it ain’t news to the Church.
Indeed, it’s been that way from the beginning, starting with the Apostles themselves – including especially St. Peter, the first pope and betrayer-in-chief. There’s always been a disconnect between the visible Church – the one we ourselves inhabit in the here-and-now, the one with fallible, petty, sinful human beings in it like you and me – and the invisible Church “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners,” as C.S. Lewis described her. Using the voice of Screwtape, a senior demonic tempter, Lewis goes on to characterize the Christian’s experience of that disconnect in this way:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
Sound familiar? Of course! It’s a great description of what the average Catholic has to go through every weekend, and it’s precisely why “exercising his imagination and will,” as Dreher puts it, is so crucially important. We’ll always come up against hypocrisy and dryness in the practice of the faith, regardless of location or epoch. Yet if, with God’s grace, we persevere – imagining that God might succeed in making even us saints and willing to seek after truth no matter the cost – then neither circumstances nor setbacks can ultimately deter us. “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully,” the more seasoned Screwtape warns his demon apprentice regarding a young Christian, “they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”
A religious upbringing thus rooted in both a moral imagination that aspires to holiness and a will determined to affirm even unpopular truth becomes a lifeline of grace that keeps even the most wayward Catholic tethered to God – and can help him find his way home again. Chesterton’s Father Brown, relating his mediating role in helping restore a sinner to virtue, describes that lifeline as a “thread:”
Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
That thread, I think, should be our goal as parents: A thread of solid formation in morals and Church teaching that will keep even our most errant kids tethered to God – and which God himself can twitch to bring them back someday.
Let’s say I’m right, and the thread is the thing. Then the appropriate question to ask is not how to keep our kids in the Church, but rather this: How do we go about creating an ecclesial thread of imagination and will, and then getting our kids connected to it – particularly if, as sometimes happens, it might seem like our own thread is fraying. Speaking as a Catholic dad to other Catholic dads, let me cut to the bone with an answer: If nothing else, we need to daily attend to what the Catechism calls the “indispensable minimum” – otherwise known as the Precepts of the Church:
The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.
The precepts are certain obligatory behaviors and attitudes that our families, young and old, should take for granted because we ourselves, through our words and actions, take them for granted. They include the obligation to attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days (without exception and no excuses); to receive the Eucharist at Mass when properly disposed and at least annually, and to receive the sacrament of Penance at least once a year as well (just standing in line for confession is a public testimony that we take responsibility for our screw-ups, so the more frequent the better for our kids); to observe the laws of fasting and abstinence during Lent (again, this is priceless public testimony that we take the Faith seriously); and, finally, to provide “for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities” – that is, we tithe, even when the money is tight.
Even when we don’t feel like it. In fact, especially when we don’t feel like it. And that goes for all those precepts and duties.
Ought we do more than this indispensable minimum? No doubt! Certainly, vigorous and thorough catechetical instruction along with full sacramental initiation is also required for proper religious upbringing. Plus, daily prayer, even daily Mass; family Rosary and other devotions; the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – these are just a smattering of suggestions, but they all rely on the bedrock of those precepts and duties. When we enforce those, for ourselves and for our families, we silently, subtly, and powerfully shape the way our children navigate their worlds.
This was beautifully expressed by R&B singer Aaron Neville last week at Notre Dame. Neville was this year’s recipient of the University’s prestigious Laetare Medal that is bestowed on American Catholics who have made distinct and lasting contributions to the well-being of our society and the Church. “I hope I’m worthy of standing next to the people who have received it before me,” he said. “If it’s for me trying to get my life on the right track the way God wanted me too, then I am worthy, because I know, and God knows, that I’ve tried.” Neville went on:
My early life has been a preview of where I am now. It took who I was and where I came from to make me who I am. For that I have to thank my late parents, Arthur and Amelia Neville. They, along with the nuns at St. Monica’s Catholic School, especially Sister Damien, taught me morals and guidance. My Catholic upbringing helped me in some dark times.
Dark times? Yes, dark times that included drugs, larceny, and jail. Ah, but the thread was there, thanks to Sr. Damien and Neville’s parents – his parents who undoubtedly worried about their rebellious son and wondered how they could get him back to the Faith. It would probably come as a shock to them, but they had, in truth, already laid the necessary groundwork for that return years before simply by doing their job as Catholic parents: Teaching their son right from wrong, for instance, and, guiding him to respect the Church and Sr. Damien, not to mention the Blessed Mother and our Lord.
Then, in time, twitch! – and he was home.
Aside from continual and fervent prayer, I’m convinced that nurturing such an organic connection to the Church – however threadlike it might be, and no matter how threadbare our own connection may be – is the best gift we can give our kids. We hope and pray that they stay in the Church their whole lives, but if they stray? Let’s do everything we can now to ensure they can find their way home.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on God Haunted Lunatic, the author’s personal blog, and is reprinted here with kind permission.