On the Feast of Saint Monica, I was reminded of all those parents who truly suffer when their children lack faith and break from the Church. This is true suffering in the sense that suffering is our ability to sense when we lack required goods, whether they be physical, psychological, social or spiritual. If suffering is truly a message from God to be heeded, what is the message to the devout parents whose children have strayed from the path? That it is the parents who are suffering and not the children gives us a clue that it is the parents that need to change their behavior.
Most parents who grieve at their children’s lack of faith worry about two things. First is their concern about their children’s spiritual health and well-being. Second is their concern that they themselves are at fault for their children’s lack of faith. While both can have an element of truth, they are likely not decisive issues in most cases.
The simple fact is that everyone has their own faith journey, including every child, and we cannot take that journey for them. We cannot make someone else believe in God and His Church any more than we can make someone like spinach or, in a better analogy, any more than we can make them love somebody we love. If we are particularly strident and the children are passive or worse, afraid of us, they may go through the motions of having faith without much conviction but they will immediately fall away, like the plants with shallow roots that Jesus discusses in the parable of the sower in the field (Mt 13:1-23).
Does this mean that parents should be passive about religion, letting their children form their own opinions based on whatever information they acquire from society at large? Far from it. In fact, it is a Catholic parent’s responsibility to counteract many of the images seen in the media which disparage religion in general and Catholicism in particular. What is at issue is how this is to be done.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are reminded that “through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children (CCC, 2225). We are further advised that “we should associate them from their earliest age in the life of the church” and that “a wholesome family life can foster interior dispositions that are a genuine preparation for a living faith and remains a support for it throughout one’s life.” Parents also bear the first responsibility for education of their children, both through example and through training (CCC, 2223). Family catechesis proceeds, accompanies and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith, primarily through parish catechetical programs (CCC, 2226).
Sadly, many of today’s parents were themselves poorly catechized and do not carry out these responsibilities. Many do not know the faith well enough to do so and do not value it enough to pass it on to their children. If the parents do not practice their faith, it is not reasonable to expect their children to do so. The fact that the second largest religious group in the country is ex-Catholics bears witness to the extent of the problem.
This does not in any way mean that all children lose faith through some failure of parental upbringing and in fact, most of the parents who lament their children’s loss of faith did their absolute best to raise their children in the faith, providing a wholesome family life to their children. If you have done this and your child still has turned from the faith, remember that God reaches out to all of us and that includes our wayward children. Have faith that God’s plan is never thwarted and that many who apostatize will come back to the faith in time with the zeal of a convert.
So what is the devout parent of a faithless child to do? Joyfully witness to the faith and trust in God to do the rest. If your child is pre-teen, then insist that they go to mass with you and attend religious education and, by all means, take an active role in their religious education. Once they reach puberty, though, forcing them to practice a religion will be detrimental and counterproductive because at this age, they are actively developing their independence and you don’t want the rejection of your religion to be the centerpiece of their declaration of independence. Instead, you must make being Catholic desirable by showing the joy of living faithfully. Being a nag or a scold about practicing the faith does just the opposite, which reinforces their decision to leave the faith.
Suffering has four tasks to bring us from sin to salvation. The first is to build the moral virtues (temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence) and with them, proper self-love through simple feedback loops of undesirable behavior causing distress, which causes one to stop it. For instance, if you drink too much, you get sick, which is uncomfortable and motivates you to drink less. This also applies to social activities where if you treat someone wrongly, they resist, making you uncomfortable. This can often be the dynamic when a parent tries to force anything on a post-pubescent child and is a clear message that your efforts are counterproductive. If it gets to the point where you feel true suffering, then God is telling you to back off and He will do the rest.
That brings us to the second task of suffering, which is to reorient us to God. Remember, God wants your children to come to Him more than even you do. Trust in that. If your wayward child is not actually wayward, just finding his or her way, then eventually they will learn prudence through the first task mechanisms, which are basically aligning their actions with God’s will so that all goes well. Once they reach this stage, they will quite likely understand that God is the source of this goodness. If this isn’t enough, God may shake them up with a loss, injury or illness that cannot be resolved by anyone but Him. While this might seem cruel or harsh and not something we would wish upon our children, it is in reality a great grace for God to reach out and save someone in this way from an eternity of unhappiness. Many saints have benefited from such correction, including St. Francis of Assisi, St.Ignatius, and even Saint Paul, who had to be thrown from his horse and blinded before he could see the light.
Keep in mind that these four tasks of suffering apply to everyone, even parents who see themselves as devout and they all serve to perfect our ability to love as Jesus did, unconditionally. Going to mass weekly and regularly partaking of the sacraments provides grace to progress along this path, but only if we are properly disposed, motivated by love of God and not just going through the motions. If we are not properly disposed, our children will notice and may take the final step away from the Church that we resist only out of tradition. This can be the shock that God uses to bring us back wholeheartedly to HIM.
The third task of suffering is to unleash our love of neighbor when we see someone in need. This is what many of us feel when we see our children in need of God and it is natural to want to fix the situation like a doctor healing a wound. The problem is that love must be freely given and freely accepted. Your child, however old, must want to love God and the Church. It cannot be forced on them or it won’t be real enough to sustain them in times of trial and hardship.
So, what is the answer to the parent’s suffering for their child’s suffering for lack of faith? To work on our own faith. Increase our devotions, partake in Church ministries, learn to love better by reading the lives of the Saints, practice charity whenever possible and do whatever you can to keep communications open with your children. This will lead to joy and it will be noticeable by everyone. People want joy in their lives, the feeling you get with spiritual attainment, and if you achieve it, people will want to do what you are doing, including your children. In the interim, rest peacefully knowing that God loves us all, and that He is at work on your children’s salvation as he is at yours. But also, be cognizant that He uses suffering to direct us to Him, so when it occurs, don’t despair, just heed it and follow where it leads.
Editor’s note: Dr. Paul Chaloux is the author of Why All People Suffer: How a Loving God Uses Suffering to Perfect Us. We also recommend our interview with him on the CE Podcast, which you can stream below or find Catholic Exchange on your preferred podcast app.
We also reccomend the article, “I Still Have Hope That Christ Will Bring My Kids Back to the Faith,” which is an excerpt from the book, The St. Monica Club.