You probably know the pattern. A smart and gifted boy leaves home for school. He makes new friends. They spend most of their time partying, chasing girls, and embracing new philosophies. The son becomes drawn to a trendy religious cult. Eventually, he moves in with his girlfriend and they have a child, without being married. The boy’s mother can only sit by in despair, heartbroken over his choices and helpless. The only thing she can do is pray.
That’s the story of many Catholics today – and maybe your story. Parents think they’re alone in facing these sorts of troubles, but this pattern isn’t a new one. It stretches back for centuries, and in the case above, even more than a millennium. It’s the fourth-century story of St. Monica and her young wayward son, Augustine. We’ll celebrate St. Monica’s feast day tomorrow, so it’s worth remembering how she led her son back to the Faith.
Monica was raised as a Christian, but like many people today, she married someone from a different faith. In her case, the man, Patricius, was an atheist politician. They had three sons together but their marriage was rocky. Patricius was a violent man and regularly abused her. He also was unfaithful to her throughout their marriage. But Monica remained patient. Other wives with marriage problems came to her for advice and she became a source of comfort for anyone suffering through difficult marriages. She served Patricius with selfless love and devotion, and she prayer for him every day. Eventually, her prayers bore fruit. A year before Patricius died, he converted to Catholicism—due mostly to Monica’s prayers and powerful example.
Although the conversion of Monica’s husband pleased her, she still worried about her son, Augustine. Though brilliant and gifted, he spent most of his time carousing the streets with friends, stealing food, and living promiscuously. He even fathered a son out of wedlock. Yet Monica refused to give up on her son, just as she committed to her husband. She prayed daily and intensely for Augustine, fasted for his sake, and begged God to help him return to faith. When Augustine traveled to Rome and Milan for his education, Monica followed him and continued praying.
While in Milan, she met Ambrose, the local bishop who would later be canonized a saint. Ambrose became a spiritual guide to her. He noted her restless longing for her son and the hours she spent praying for him. He promised her, “Surely the son of so many tears will not perish.” His prediction would eventually prove correct.
Augustine and Ambrose struck up a friendship and began discussions about Christianity. Ambrose was the first high-level Christian thinker Augustine had met. As a result of their many back-and-forth dialogues, Augustine finally decided to convert to Catholicism. Ambrose baptized the 32-year-old Augustine, who would eventually grow into one of the most influential thinkers in Western history, and one of the greatest saints in the Catholic Church.
Monica could hardly contain her enthusiasm after Augustine’s baptism. She and her son began sharing beautiful conversations about God and heaven. As she lay on her deathbed, content at having seen both her husband and her son come back to the faith, she felt her whole life’s mission had been accomplished. Today, the Church celebrates St. Monica and St. Augustine right next to each other in the liturgical calendar, with her feast day on August 27 and his on August 28.
St. Monica exemplifies the power of a praying parent. She wasn’t able to convince Augustine with words, and in fact, whenever she tried to talk to him about religion, he brushed her away. But through her daily, committed intercession, over more than fifteen years, Augustine was able to journey into the Church.
What can we learn from Monica’s example? First, don’t stop praying for your child. When Monica complained that Augustine would not listen to her admonitions that he become a Catholic, Ambrose urged her, “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” She took his advice and never gave up, even when things looked dark. Eventually, her persistence paid off.
Jesus tells of a widow who was upset that a judge refused to hear her case. The widow kept coming to the judge with her request, over and over, until he finally relented, saying, “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” Jesus explained the parable, saying, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them?” (Lk 18:1-8). In other words, God loves persistent prayer. He never tires of your requests, even if you bring the same needs to him every day.
Joan Hamill knows that from experience. Joan prayed weekly for 15 years for different family members to return to the Church. “I prayed for St. Monica to intercede for our family members,” says Hamill. “As a result I had two brothers come back to the Church as well as my sister and brother-in-law.”
So don’t give up praying for your child. Like St. Monica and the persistent widow, have confidence that God will reward your perseverance. The more resilient your prayer, the more likely God will answer it.
The second thing to learn from St. Monica is not to just pray for your child—you should also pray for an “Ambrose” to step into your child’s life. Perhaps there is just too much baggage between you and your child so that he will no longer hear truth from your lips. That’s understandable. Pray that God will bring someone else into his path, someone with just the right combination of personality, interests, motives, and heart. Just as Ambrose stepped in to help Augustine, so you might need someone to nudge your child along.
(Also, keep in mind that while you’re praying for someone to step into your child’s life, other parents are praying the same thing for their child. And you may be that person! Even if your child tunes you out, don’t be closed off to helping other children return to faith. You could be the Ambrose for someone else’s Augustine!)
The third takeaway is that you can ask St. Monica’s intercession for your child. A recent survey asked Catholic parents, “When you pray, how often do you pray to or ask the intercession of…” and then listed several options. By far, the most common responses were “God the Father” (74% prayed to him always or most of the time), “God the Son, Jesus Christ” (59%), and “God the Holy Spirit” (45%). But you know what the least common response was? The saints. Only one-in-five Catholic parents regularly asked the saints’ intercession. That means the most Catholic parents are missing out on some of the greatest spiritual support available to us.
For Catholics, the saints are not dead and gone. St. Monica didn’t cease to exist when she died in 387. Her body may have stopped functioning when her soul departed, but she remains alive in Christ, residing with him in heaven for all eternity. And because the Church is one, indivisible body (1 Cor 12:12), which neither death nor life can break apart (Rom 8:38), we can still connect with those holy men and women who have already passed into the next life and ask for their prayers.
Among all the saints in heaven, few know the gut-wrenching pain of a wayward child more than St. Monica. Reach out to her and ask her to pray for your child, just as she did for Augustine. We regularly ask our friends on earth to pray for us, and we can do the same with the saints. In fact, the saints’ prayers are generally more powerful than ours here on earth since they are closer to the mind and heart of God—the saints are already in heaven! So next time you pray, offer a short request to St. Monica such as this:
“St. Monica, I need your prayers. You know exactly how I’m feeling because you once felt it yourself. I’m hurting, hopeless, and in despair. I desperately want my child to return to Christ in his Church but I can’t do it alone. I need God’s help. Please join me in begging the Lord’s powerful grace to flow into my child’s life. Ask the Lord Jesus to soften his heart, prepare a path for his conversion, and activate the Holy Spirit in his life. Amen.”
In all these ways, St. Monica offers not only example but help in drawing our children back to the Church.