During the sacramental rite of Matrimony, there is a questioning of the couple that precedes their consent. The priest or deacon questions them about their freedom to choose, their fidelity, and then he asks, “Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” There are two components to this question. First, children are understood to be a gift from God of the fruit of the marital love. Secondly, Catholic family life is oriented at the pursuit of following Jesus and seeking holiness.
Jesus elevated Matrimony to the “dignity of a sacrament” (CCC 1601). One of the graces that this sacrament would entail is the educating of children in the ways of the faith (CCC 1641). This means that when Jesus chose to elevate Matrimony into a sacrament, parents teaching their faith to their children was part of what Jesus had in mind. While in other sacraments, sacramental prep classes are offered for the one receiving the sacrament, the Church envisions some kind of preparation process for parents choosing to baptize their child (Canon Law 867 §1); as we will see in the Baptismal Rite for the infant, there are high expectations for Christian parents.
At the start of the Baptismal Rite, the minister will say, “You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him in the practice of the faith…Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?” He then turns to the godparents and asks if they understand that they must be “ready to help the parents…in their duty as Christian parents?”
In the moments immediately preceding the act of baptizing the child, as they prepare to renounce sin and make a profession of faith on behalf of their child, the parents will be instructed that they “must make it” their “constant care to bring him up in the practice of the faith.”
After the child is baptized, the white garment and baptismal candle are given. The minister will pray over the mother. Then, he will be pray over the father. The prayer over the father speaks directly to this ministry of parents:
“God is the giver of all life, human and divine. May he bless the father of this child. He and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
There are no less than three major takeaways. First, parents are recognized as the first teachers of the faith. Whether good or bad teachers of the faith, a parent’s choice of living and passing on the faith or doing nothing, will impact that child. Second, the Church asks for God to help parents in their journey to become the “best of teachers” of the faith. Let that sink in for a moment. Lastly, this is done by word and action.
It is important to note that whenever the Church speaks of the role of parents in instructing children in the faith, the Church always includes the need to use words (oral instruction) and action (model of faith). This intentional discipleship within the home should include catechetical instruction about the liturgical feasts we celebrate, explaining the importance of celebrations when someone is baptized or gets married, or the hardship of someone dying; but then Saint John Paul explicitly states, “But that is not enough: Christian parents must strive to follow and repeat, within the setting of family life, the more methodical teaching received elsewhere” (Catechesis in our Time 68). Parents continue to learn and then pass on what they have received to their children.
This instruction does not end when children go to school. It should “begin in the child’s earliest years,” but it must continue; “Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith” (CCC 2226).
After committing to live out the faith, it can be easy and a bit of a time saver to see faith instruction as the responsibility of the priest, or the school, or the Religious Ed program. Yet, this is not what God has planned for them, it is not what the Church asks of parents, and it does not work. It is the parents that are called to become the “best” teachers of the faith for their child. The Ministry of Parents is, according to Saint John Paul II and the witness of history, “irreplaceable” (Catechesis in our Time 68). This can be very intimidating, but the important thing to know is that parents simply need to begin somewhere, and reading this article is a start. Now it is time to continue to grow in faith, understanding, and prayer, in order to continue to impart what has been received to those that have become God’s adopted sons or daughters through the saving waters of Baptism (CCC 1265).