Do you know where your children are?
LAST SUNDAY, I WENT TO 9 O’CLOCK MASS. ALONE.clock Mass.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. We are part of a Catholic community, and Mass is said to be a celebration. These days Mass still represents many good things for me, but celebration isn’t one of them.
What happened? My children grew up. Some of them still go to Mass, sometimes with me on that rare, really good Sunday. But some of them never go. The day just passes, and we don’t even exchange any words about it. Three out of the four—they range in age from 18 to 25—are usually at home, too. Come Sunday morning, there’s this “thing” we just don’t talk about. I’m not sure I know a single Catholic family of my acquaintance that doesn’t experience this sadness to one extent or another.
Too many young people, baptized and educated and raised as Catholics—who still vehemently claim to be believers—just aren’t turning out for Sunday Mass anymore, not even with their parents. Barely 40 percent of baptized, self-proclaimed Catholics attend Mass in the U.S. on any given weekend. Of that number, less than one third are deemed “young people.” In some inner-city parishes, it’s an event to see anyone under the age of 55 sitting in a pew. Sure, parents still trundle off elementary school-age kids with them, but by the time they reach college, the drop-off becomes dramatic.
Catholic Church membership, overall, is not declining. The influx of mostly Hispanic Catholic immigrants has seen to that. It is church participation that seems to be endangered. You can chalk that up to laziness, disaffection, apathy, and a dozen other factors. The results add up to empty pews.
Millions of American Catholic parents with children in or approaching their very late teens or early 20s are going through a similar experience in which their children are exploring the boundaries and the permanence of their faith. The parents I used to sit next to on gray folding chairs at noisy school meetings from kindergarten on are experiencing the exact same dual crisis—of the soul and the family.
My friends Joe and Pat Burton live just a couple parishes away from us. They’ve been forced to accept the reality of grown children making their own choices, too.
“If they’re at home, I sort of know what they’re up to,” says Pat, “but they all have lived away at school at one point or another, or still do. There’s no way for me to really be sure what happens then.”
When they’d call home, she would ask if they’d gone to Mass. “ ‘Sure, Mom.’ That was all I ever heard. Then I’d say, ‘OK. What was the gospel about?’ Then there’d be this silence. Finally I’d hear, ‘The Prodigal Son.’ Once, I told my son, ‘It can’t be the Prodigal Son every other week, honey.’ ”
Although they can’t control what their adult children do away from home, when they’re under their parents’ roof, it’s a different matter. “At home, if they don’t get up for Mass, I get them up. I don’t care how late they were out the night before,” says Pat. “And don’t imagine it isn’t a fight to get them to go with Joe and me when they come home for breaks or vacation. But I know it’s a fight worth having.”
Other parents disagree.
“We have plenty of other things to fight and argue about,” explains Mary Kelly of New Jersey, “I know my children are basically good kids. This is a stage. It’s rebellion, in a quiet way, and a life passage. This is how they show their independence from their father and me. It will pass. It may take until they think about having children of their own, but I know it’s not a permanent rejection of the values they grew up with.”
Growing up is hard to do
About the only times I can count on seeing my children all together at Mass are on the largely social occasions of weddings and funerals. That’s something at least, but it does very little to make me feel better or any less culpable. Rightly or wrongly, I still assume responsibility for their actions, spiritual and otherwise. Not that they want me to. In fact, they hate it when I do this. It robs them of their “grown-upness.”
Sometimes I sit in the pew by myself now, glancing longingly at the younger families in which the kids are still little enough to be brought to Mass. What a sweet pleasure that was—getting them dressed, settling them in the car, and making them behave at Mass. That used to be us. Then, they grew up on me.
Pat Burton also sees the situation as an issue of growing up. “They make choices. We all have to make choices for ourselves. I can’t live their lives for them. I know what we taught them. But in the end, it has to be their decision,” she says.
There is nothing particularly new about growing up and making decisions on one’s own. Other generations have been through this as well.
Rosa Burns, now well into her 80s, spent most of her life in the tough, struggling coal towns of upstate Pennsylvania, where faith was an unquestioning and accepting belief. There were certain things you did not take for granted.
“It just makes me mad to see these smart, well-educated young people taking it all so for granted. They should be proud to practice their faith. That’s what they were taught—to be Catholics,” she says. “I saw it then, too. People forgetting who they are. But they come back. If you’re raised the right way, that stays with you.”
Ultimately Pat Burton must believe her children will come back as well. “I refuse to believe it has anything to do with their fundamental faith,” she says. “What happens is they let unimportant things get in the way. They establish foolish priorities. It’s part of growing up, growing up spiritually, too, and that’s different for everybody. My husband really lets it bother him. He gets mad. I’m trying to have patience and pray for them.”
Tapping into creative solutions
As a Catholic parent, I anticipated all sorts of problems and challenges and trials as our children got older, but I never prepared for this. Not too many—if any—parents from our generation have. We are, for the most part, men and women who spent much of our childhoods in the right-versus-wrong absolutism of the pre-Vatican II church days of faithful obedience under Pope Pius XII.
Nothing we learned by rote, from Stations of the Cross every Friday afternoon to marching around the parish church and school for May processions, remotely prepared us for something like this. My brother and I, and my wife and her brothers and sisters would not have even considered not attending Sunday Mass with our parents. Sure there were the occasional exceptions, if you were away for the weekend or on vacation with your friends—but not that many. You went to Mass on Sunday. That was it.
Some shrewd parishes are taking action in surprisingly innovative ways. Take St. Denis Parish in Havertown, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, for example. Their fall 2006 parish activities calendar includes St. Denis Theology On Tap for ages 21 and older. This unique, non-church-based event runs regularly in what are called “4-packs” from 7 to 9 at night. The location is a popular Irish pub that packs in the college and after-work crowd. This is the way they explain it: “Come and discuss our faith, the codes of DaVinci, and much more!” It’s also promoted via e-mail.
One of the organizers told me, “If we can’t bring these young adults into church, then we decided to try to go where they will show up, at McGillicuddy’s Pub. It’s not the same thing as taking the Mass to them, but it is taking a spiritual message to them.”
Pick your battles
I still mutter a word of encouragement to my children here and there about Mass attendance. For the most part, though, I guess my wife and I have gone through whatever stages you go through in confronting a situation like this: lecturing them, screaming at them, threatening them, pleading with them, and ultimately becoming resigned to sitting alone in the pew.
I have attempted to remove all the fighting and arguing about Mass from our lives, after having been reassured in the dark certainty of the confessional that Mass is never supposed to become a divisive factor in the life of a family.
Time is much too short. We have had this pointed out to us by more than one sympathetic priest. As one of them said to me, “Driving them away from the family is never going to bring them back to church. Your example, whether they choose to follow it now or later, is still the thing that counts the most.”
Many parents in my position draw some very definitive lines.
For Mary Kelly and her husband, it all comes down to marriage and children. “What they do or don’t do now is their decision,” she says. “But once they decide to get married and bring children into this world, the ceremony better be in a Catholic church, and if they put up any kick about baptizing the children and raising them as Catholics, I’ll baptize them myself and really begin to butt in.”
When asked about taking a pass on Mass, my children and some of their friends are quite vocal about their reasons for not going:
• “The homily makes no sense; who does he think he is talking to? Not to me.”
• “We never missed with you and Mom. Our quota’s filled.”
• “It just doesn’t feel the same anymore; it’s not like it was when we were little.”
• “I prayed so hard for [fill in the blank], and look what happened. What’s the use?”
• “I have to get up too early for work.”
• “I’ll go at school.”
• “I pray every night. Don’t worry about it.”
• “I don’t need to be inside some building to talk to Jesus.”
And so it goes. Some of the excuses do have a twisted logic to them, but that’s hardly the point. Sunday Mass is still Sunday Mass, and to me missing on purpose is still an old-time sin.
Joe Burton, Pat’s husband, sees this as part of a larger issue.
“When the schools and the theologians and the whole society downplay the concept of sin, this shouldn’t be all that surprising, I guess.” He grew up at the very end of that pre-Vatican II era.
“These kids can’t conceive of themselves actually being in a state of sin, even with missing Mass. I’m all for getting rid of the guilt we grew up with, but now it’s totally unbalanced. Personal responsibility should still count for something.”
Is being good enough?
“But are they good people, really nice, kind, compassionate people?” A woman in a situation nearly identical to ours recently posed this question to my wife and me. I don’t think she has ever missed a Sunday Mass in her life.
It is with a sense of relief and pride that I can readily answer this friend that, yes, indeed, our kids are good, caring, very kind, and sensitive people.
Maybe that should be enough.
I do know that Gen X, Gen Y, and the even younger kids who will soon be reaching their 20s will continue to make up their own minds, regardless of anything their parents tell them.
Mary Kelly may have the best perspective of all. “We can love our children and try to guide them and keep them out of trouble. But it’s not our job to judge them, not even as their parents. That’s up to God. And all we can do is ask God to help them.”
I plan to keep on doing just that.
Mike Mallowe is a writer and educator who lives in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. His last book was The Meatman, published by William Morrow. This article appeared in the October 2006 (Volume 71, Number 10; pages 18-21) issue of U.S. Catholic.
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