In this final part of her series on passing down the Faith to younger generations, Peggy Pandaleon offers several practical strategies. From displaying unconditional love to reviewing the catechesis children are receiving, she explains how to ensure children embrace and retain their faith.
All of life’s challenges can be addressed through believing in Christ and living as his disciple. So the way to pass down the faith to future generations is the same – believe, know, and live the Faith. To conclude this series on the book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengston, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions for parents and parishes.
Numerous studies besides Dr. Bengston’s have concluded that like many things in life, the role of parents is the most crucial part of fostering the faith of the next generation. Bengston references many of these studies and quotes one particularly strong conclusion:
“Contrary to popular, misguided, cultural stereotypes and frequent parental misperception, we believe that the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.” (Smith and Denton 2005)
Comments about prior articles in this series on our Facebook page often supported this conclusion that the primary responsibility falls to the parents. For example, when many people commented on Facebook that “bad catechesis” is the reason faith is not transmitted, Tana Cab replied:
“Poor Catechesis can only shoulder so much of the blame. Do you review the texts they use? Are the texts truly conformed to the guidelines of the USCCB? To the Catechism? No children’s programs? What are YOU doing to fix that? Are you praying with your child(ren)? Reading the Bible with them? Reading the Catechism with them? Countering the events, circumstances of our times with Church teaching? Are you forgoing sports on Sunday for Mass? Have you abdicated your role as the first teachers of the faith to RE teachers? You don’t need to be taught how to pass on the faith. Live your faith and your children will learn it. Faith is not taught but caught. Quit being lazy.”
So we as parents cannot pass the buck. If we truly want to pass down the faith, we should pray deeply about that goal, and then consciously commit to take whatever steps are necessary. A few ideas include:
Look hard inside yourself and ask, “Do I really love my kids unconditionally?” Do I love them more if they agree with me or if they do things the way I would do them? Pray that Christ’s truly unconditional love will be transmitted through you each and every day to your family. Seek forgiveness when you fall short of Christ’s example.
Be loving and united in marriage, providing unconditional love to each other, so as parents you can model and provide unconditional love to your children as a team. Take time for marriage enrichment retreats and for meaningful conversation about your desires and approaches to parenting and to passing on the Faith.
Be prepared to answer their questions. Pray and study. Know the faith. Read Catholic books. Attend a Bible Study. Seek out good, Catholic resources to get your own questions answered. God is infinite, so we can never stop learning about him or about our Faith.
Take the time to review the catechesis they are getting. If you feel your children need more depth, work with them at home or work to improve their formal, religious education.
Be patient and loving if your kids balk and walk away from the Faith. Bengston found many “rebels” became “prodigals” and came back to their childhood faith because their parents had laid a good foundation and were careful to be patient, accepting, and open while their kids wandered. “Acceptance and affirmation,” he writes, “rather than judgment and preaching, are the keys.”
There is one idea in Bengston’s book that bears mentioning here for parishes. Based on his study and successive interviews with religious leaders, Bengston suggests that faith communities should offer more programs that focus on strengthening families across generations. Start moving beyond segregated programs for different age groups to offer truly intergenerational programs where parents and their children come together in the same place (in addition to Mass) to experience the Faith together.
Bengston cites the Mormon “Family Home Evening” as one of the main reasons the Church of the Latter Day Saints had the highest level of faith transmission in his study. One night a week—usually Monday—is set aside for family interaction that includes prayer, games, scripture and conversation. The LDS leadership provides free, online resources for these evenings and avoids scheduling other church activities on Monday nights.
Yes, the culture and the Church have their faults and limitations, but parents need to realize that they are the most important religious “transmitters.” So take heart and remember Blessed Mother Teresa’s advice: “God doesn’t require us to succeed, he only requires that we try.” Or as my husband’s grandmother said when we had our first child, “You do your best and then you wait 20 years.”