In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Future evangelization will depend largely on the domestic church” (65). This couldn’t be more accurate to our times. As pandemic-stricken institutions like the parish and Catholic school exert less influence in faith formation, the family has taken on a primary role in introducing the faith, making it incumbent on us that parents are encouraged, instructed, and supported as they undertake the great task of handing on the faith.
Religion sociologist Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame has been arguing for years on behalf of what various data routinely prove: the best guarantor that children will practice the faith is whether their parents are practicing the faith in meaningful and integrated ways and, most importantly, talking about religious matters at home.
That may seem an obvious point, but one not sufficiently attended to in a Church accustomed to relying on institutional programs (or now social media campaigns) for passing on the faith. But instruction in living as Catholics needs more than classes or campaigns. Parents most influence the religious lives of their children, both in positive and negative ways, especially in how they talk about religious matters. Given that parents are able to spend a lot more time with their kids at home these days, we need to do a better job of equipping parents to discuss religious matters with their children in intelligent, constructive, and meaningfully lived ways.
Let me give you a couple of anecdotes that, to my mind, confirm Christian Smith’s findings as a teacher and have been borne out in my own life.
When I taught religion at the high school level, I used to give my freshman and seniors the same test, covering the basics of the faith. Obviously, this was not a perfect way of determining the impact high school religion class had on their knowledge of the faith, but I thought it would give me some insights. I gave the test to freshmen at the beginning of the year and to the seniors at the end of the year. In both cases, I found that there was not much of an improvement. The students who came through the doors knowing the basics of the faith, left knowing the basics. And those who didn’t know much, left the school still not knowing much. I do not attribute this to bad teaching but to the relatively minor influence religion classes make on the faith lives of the students; those students with a fair knowledge of the faith had parents who valued their religion and talked about it at home.
As a religion teacher, it was humbling to realize that any illusions I had that I personally would transform their lives and become the main catalyst in their religious conversion were just that: illusions! What a bunch of presumptuous bunk! No matter how varied and thoughtfully prepared my classes were, I had only a slight influence on the religious lives of my students. Parents, whether they realized it or not, were the main influencers of their children’s understanding and practice of the faith.
I recall a father of three of my students, all of whom knew the faith rather well, telling me that every night he and his wife read the Bible together with their kids. That year, I had taught his son Bobby, and I told him how impressed I was, not only with Bobby’s understanding of the faith but his overall good character. His father thanked me and shared that he often found his son praying with the Bible, by himself. Like any parent, he was proud that some of the practices he had cultivated in their home had taken root. He also shared a concern. The kids came home one day to discover that the dog had eaten the family Bible. The incident did not inspire them to name the dog Ezekiel, but it did get them discussing how, through consuming the Word every day with family Scripture study, they were, in turn, consumed by the Word. That’s not bad theology.
Attention to religious matters in the home plays a big role in children becoming religious as adults. Children have to see that the faith is a source of meaning and hopefulness within their parents’ life. It is not enough to simply teach the content of the faith. The kids need to see the living witness.
This played a major part in my own development in the faith.
When I was a teenager, my dad and I would often talk about the grounds for believing in Christ’s Resurrection and the credibility of the first Christian witness. This was around the time of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and many of my classmates, knowing I was religious, would tell me that Christian martyrs were just as fanatical as those terrorists, though less deadly. When I relayed this to my dad, it initiated a conversation about the motives of the first martyrs such as Peter, Paul, and the martyred Apostles. Dad asked me to consider what possibly could have motivated them to travel across the world proclaiming not just religious wisdom but the cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, to which they bore witness, if such things had not happened. This gave me a desire to more deeply consider the faith and become a witness myself.
Additionally, my grandfather died around this time. Although not a religious man throughout his life, he became so near the end. My grandparents lived very close to my house, and so I was often with him during his dying days. I witnessed his transformation, and, in a way, participated in his death, asking the ultimate questions about vocation, redemption, and the last things. These topics were openly discussed in the family, showing me that there isn’t any better hope than that proclaimed by the faith.
Let’s go back to John Paul II, who understood the contribution parents make to the faith life of their children. On the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination, he reflected on the faith in his family. He wrote:
My preparation for the priesthood in the seminary was in a certain sense preceded by the preparation I received in my family, thanks to the life and example of my parents. Above all I am grateful to my father. . . . Day after day I was able to observe the austere way in which he lived. By profession he was a soldier and, after my mother’s death, his life became one of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church. We never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.
As a young boy, John Paul II saw that the faith had real meaning in his family. His parents’ witness informed him for a lifetime. And so it goes today: parents are the main influence on the faith life of their children. Plant the seeds of faith at home, water it with practice and conversation, and thank the Lord as you watch it grow.