Will your kids' faith fly when they leave the nest?

WE STAND TOGETHER ON THE SIDELINES OF OUR SONS' SOCCER MATCH. A gaggle of parents stamping our feet against the creeping cold, huddling under umbrellas away from the drizzling rain which began just as the referees signaled the start of the game. Out on the field, the boys begin to look more and more alike—dripping hair, jerseys plastered to soaked backs, mud-encrusted socks that once were white.

As the game slip-slides away, we become not parents of opponents, but parents facing a single opponent—the weather. The desire to see our team win is gradually replaced by the desire to get the boys—all the boys—out of the rain, into dry clothes, and safely home.

I think of that image sometimes when I see families at church. We enter the doors of the church as individual nuclear units, but underneath our differences we have but a single desire: to see our family out of the rain of the troubled world, into the dry clothes of redemption, and safe in our heavenly home. But how do we bring our desire to fruition? On the soccer field all it takes is a referee's whistle to signal "end of game," but in our spiritual lives, there are no referees and no whistles. So what can families do?

All of us who are parents are poignantly aware that raising a Catholic family in the waning years of the 20th century grows increasingly difficult. The pressures and issues surrounding family life are unique in the history of humanity. Never before has the very nature of the word family been challenged. Never before has a pope had to speak so openly about "irregular situations" as did Pope John Paul II in his 1994 "Letter to Families." Never before have family values been used as a weapon for both sides on issues as controversial as same-sex marriages and eliminating welfare. The challenges facing families today, especially Catholic families, have not existed before, and our conventional and collective wisdom have not prepared us to brave their difficulties. We are, in fact, blazing trails into an unexplored wilderness. And like explorers, we must learn to cope creatively with the challenges as they arise.

While there are many different ways to brave the wilderness, here are five suggestions we as Catholic parents can employ to help our children keep the faith. But first, a warning. They are not the answer. There is no such thing as the answer. But they are places to begin.

1. So your family isn't perfect
The first point is particularly essential in this age of increasing polarization: no family is inherently better suited to pass on the faith than any other. It doesn't require a "Leave It To Beaver" family with a dad who works outside the home and a homemaker mother to raise good Catholic kids. One only has to look at the lives of the saints to see that such a pattern is more often the exception than the rule.

Take, for instance, Saint Francis Borgia, a 16th-century single father, whose Auntie Lucretia's dinner parties were to be avoided as if your life depended on it (which it probably did). Or Saint Teresa of Portugal, dumped by the husband she loved to become a hardly happy divorcee of the 1200s. Or Blessed Margaret of Castello whose parents were so embarrassed by her physical handicaps they boarded her up in a cell attached to a church in the hopes she would die quickly. Or dozens and dozens of other holy men and women who had anything but perfect homes. Yet sometimes we cling to the myth that because we don't have a "perfect" family, we can't effectively pass on the faith. We imagine if we could just get our family life in order, the rest would naturally fall into place. It doesn't work that way.

In their pastoral message "Follow the Way of Love" the U.S. bishops rejected the fallacy of perfect homes being required to transmit the faith when they wrote, "Some of us lived in single parent families; others were adopted children. Some of us grew up in alcoholic homes. We came from affluence and families where money was scarce." That's today's reality. In fact, it has been the reality of Catholic families since the beginning of the church. Catholic families come in all shapes and sizes. Two-parent homes. Blended families. Mixed marriages. Widows and widowers. Divorced and separated. Single parents. Large families. Small families. Rich. Poor. Middle class. Immigrants. Native-born. Moms who stay at home. Moms who work. Dads who stay at home. Yet we are all Catholic families with one thing in common—the desire to live our lives in such a way so the Good News of salvation is accepted by our children.

So if your family doesn't fit the stereotype of having a dad with a successful career, a stay-at-home mom, and a house full of happy, well-adjusted children who pull taffy together on Saturday nights with Gregorian chant echoing in the background, it doesn't mean you can't successfully transmit your Catholic faith. (And if your family does fit the image, consider yourself blessed beyond measure!)

Most of us, however, must learn to relinquish our expectations of the way things should be and begin to accept things the way they really are. Once we accept the fact that our families, as imperfect as they may be, are the crucible Christ has selected to refine the faith, then we can truly begin to pass our faith on to our children. Which brings me to point number two.

2. Get into the spirit
It sounds almost too self-evident to mention, but sometimes even self-evident truths need to be expressed: to raise a Catholic family we must have a deep-rooted and active spiritual life of our own. We can't be wishy-washy in our faith and expect our children to embrace it enthusiastically. But just as Catholic families vary, so too does the way Catholics live out their convictions.

My mother is the kind of person who bounds out of bed at 5 a.m., prays the rosary, and attends early morning Mass. I'm one apple that fell far from the tree. I consider remembering there is a God before midmorning a major spiritual breakthrough. I couldn't find a rosary before breakfast, much less pray one. As for daily Mass at that hour, I'd be asleep in the pew unless there was a particularly rousing hymn being sung (and even then it would be questionable). But that doesn't mean I don't try to maintain an active spiritual life. It's just my mother and I have selected different ways of expressing our spirituality and connecting with God.

I read the medieval mystics, for instance, and pray while I take the dog for a walk. And when I attend daily Mass, it's at 5:15 p.m., as I wait for soccer practice to end. The key lies not so much in what we do, as in our commitment to the gospel. Without commitment none of us can ever hope to pass our faith on to our children. As anthropologists will tell you, we do not transmit culturally what we do not value.

Let me share a mundane example. I loathe squash. I don't care if you put brown sugar and butter on it. I don't care if you saute it in virgin olive oil. As far as I'm concerned, it's a repulsive gag-in-the-back-of-the-throat vegetable. As a result of my hostility toward squash, my son is not regularly exposed to it. (Let's be honest: he's never exposed to it.) If he develops a fondness for the vegetable, it will either be because someone else (and I can't imagine who) takes it upon him- or herself to introduce him to it or because (miracles do happen) he has a natural taste for squash and takes to it at first bite. In somewhat the same way, if we do not expose our children to our faith on a regular basis, we can't expect them to find any value in it.

Research by the Search Institute, an organization that examines religious issues as they pertain to youth, indicates that of all the factors leading to a mature acceptance of religion, parents and family top the list. Parents are more important than religion classes, Mass, friends, homilies, or priests. The institute cites three key elements that make a definite difference in the transference of beliefs: talking about your faith; letting your kids see you practice your convictions by Mass attendance, daily prayer, and scripture reading; and taking time to live your beliefs through service to others. It comes down to a simple truth: if we want our children to have faith, we must practice our own. We cannot expect our children to embrace that which we ourselves do not value, be it squash or religion.

3. Life is a trip
The third suggestion is perhaps the most difficult, especially for those who have returned after a period of "wandering in the desert." We must respect our children's journeys, even when we would prefer to have them bypass the desert and join the caravan heading directly for the oasis. Because we as adults have lived longer, have seen more, and are often more aware of our own mortality, we are in a different spiritual space than our kids. We may long to have our children avoid some of the mistakes we made. We may want them to know the joys of mature faith and skirt the meanderings of adolescence. However, while we can do many things for our children, we have to let them find their own way to God, even if means watching them try things we ourselves have tried and know lead to dead ends.

One way parents can make an entire family miserable is to assume just because people are related and live under the same roof, they are in the same place on their spiritual journeys. In one family, the mom underwent a profound spiritual transformation in the fall and at Advent decided the family would not exchange gifts at Christmas. Instead they would spend Christmas day contemplating the mystery and miracle of Christ's birth. While her desire to try to relinquish the grasp of materialism was admirable, springing the change on her unsuspecting family didn't work. After all, when you are 6 years old and dreaming of Malibu Barbie or the latest Street Shark, an hour on your knees before the nativity scene won't build a deep love for religion. It won't work when you are 16 and hoping for a CD player and probably not when you are 40 and dreaming of a new chain saw, either! The family still refers to that one Christmas as the "year Mom wigged out" and rank it as one of the worst Christmases ever.

One reason we sometimes are tempted to leapfrog our families over the struggles that come with developing a mature faith may stem from looking at the saints. We tend to see them only in their finished, hagiographi-cally refined versions, forgetting most of them had to engage the world before they were able to move beyond it.

Consider Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most radical of all saints. We focus on his remarkable acts of simplicity and poverty, but sometimes we fail to remember before he gave up his wealth, he was a materialistic playboy—a genuine let-the-good-times-roll, do-what-feels-good bon vivant. When he finally transformed his life, he was giving up something he had experienced to the max. He was ready for the radical life change; it wasn't forced upon him. In fact, near the end of his life he is quoted as saying, "Don't make me into a saint yet. I am still perfectly capable of fathering children."

There's a saying, "God doesn't have grandchildren," which reveals a profound truth. God has a personal and individual relationship with each of us. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born saint of the United States, obviously had a intense relationship with God, yet her sons were, by her own admission, wanton and misdirected. It's clear from her letters she gladly would have sacrificed anything if she could have given her sons faith. As Seton's life shows, we can provide a nurturing environment, but we cannot bestow faith on our children. That's something only God can give. Moreover, we can't accept God's gift in our children's name. At some point they have to accept the gift themselves.

4. Don't turn 'em into nerds
Assuming we have worked through the first three points, a particular pitfall lurks at point number four. Point four's inherent danger lies in the fact that it is based on a valid concern. As scripture teaches, Christians have to be set apart from the world to live with one foot in this world and the other in the kingdom of heaven. But the fact that we are called to be both part of this world and the next doesn't have the right to turn our kids into religious nerds.

A priest friend of mine told me about a family who decided at birth one of their sons was destined for ordination. At age 6, they began teaching him Latin. At age 7, they began making sure he was reading theology. The priest didn't know whether or not the kid had a vocation, but he was sure having to spend Saturdays conjugating Latin verbs while the rest of the kids in the neighborhood were shooting hoops set him up for ridicule and ostracization and probably killed any vocation he might have had.

For some reason, we sometimes catch what I call the "Saint Simeon Stylites Syndrome." Stylites lived in increasingly tall towers for 37 years, partially as an act of extreme penance, but partly to escape the world below. It's hard to tell which motivation was more compelling. As parents, we may be tempted to try to isolate our children from the world, ostensibly as a means to holiness, but in reality, to keep them isolated in a symbolic tower. The problem is Stylites' "way of life provided a spectacle at once challenging, repulsive, and awesome," as The Oxford Dictionary of Saints says.

While we are called to live in such a way that we stand apart from the values of the world, we aren't called to be so removed from the world that everyone thinks we are repulsive. Jesus himself was so attractive he was invited to enough parties to be branded a drunk and a glutton by his enemies. Jesus wasn't a religious nerd and he doesn't call us to become religious nerds, either.

So how do we find a balance between our spiritual values and the world's allure? Let me share one example. A friend came to me recently asking advice about a swimsuit her daughter wanted. Now giving advice, even when asked, is one of friendship's major dangers, but I agreed to listen to her dilemma.

Her daughter wanted a new "stylish" swimsuit and her mom had reluctantly agreed, listing the criteria she deemed necessary for a suit for a Christian daughter. It had to be a one-piece. It couldn't have legs cut "up to there!" It had to cover everything, and she meant everything.

After going to every store in town that sold swimsuits, the daughter had found one meeting all her mom's requirements and was still "totally rad." The problem? The suit cost $60. My friend admitted the suit met her requirements, but she was shocked at the price. She was tempted to tell her daughter she couldn't have it, but asked me what I would do. After taking several deep breaths, I said, "Buy the suit."

Her daughter had done everything her mother had asked. She had fulfilled all the requirements of modesty and now her mother was changing the rules at the last minute. If her mom refused to buy the suit at this point (there was no price limit in the original requirements), the daughter would not learn the value of money but rather that she could do everything right and still be wrong.

Fifteen years from now she might not remember she got the suit she wanted, but if her mother refused to buy it, she would definitely remember not getting it. She would probably remember only that her mother wanted her to look like a loser and, in the worst case scenario, equate loser with Christian.

And that is perhaps the major reason we must not try to remove our children from the world. Not just because such action usually turns kids off to the whole idea of religion once they get old enough to express their individuality but because one of the goals of raising strongly committed Catholic families, perhaps the major goal, is to bring others to the faith.

Those people who live in the world, who partake of its joys, but who are not of the world, are the ones who really bring Christ to the world. It comes down to one simple fact: if you want people to want what you have, it's got to be wantable. We have a solemn duty to show our children that following the way of Christ is the most joyful, the most fulfilling, the most wantable way to live.

5. Everybody wings it
Which brings me to my final point. No matter what happens to our families, no matter how our children turn out, as journalist Hodding Carter says, "there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings."

Living our faith, showing our children the importance of faith in our lives—these things will help develop deep roots. But along with the roots come wings, and sooner or later our children will try their wings. For some of us that will mean despite having done everything right, things will still turn out wrong. A daughter may get pregnant out of wedlock. A son may chose to live with his girlfriend. A child may use drugs. Another may leave the church in an angry huff quarreling over an issue like the ordination of women.

When our children's wings take them away from the safety of the nests we have built, that's when our own faith has its toughest test. It is then we must turn over our children, our families, over to God. They are God's anyway.

It's only when we love our kids enough to let God love them more, that we can come in out of the rain, change into dry clothes, and rest safe at home.

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