Awakening Faith in Children

I get a kick out of discussions that devolve to complaints about the state of Catholic religious education. Now or some time in the past, so-and-so discouraged traditional piety and wrecked everything. Fill in your favorite blank: priests, nuns, liturgists, DRE’s, Pope Paul, pro-choice politicians.

Don’t people pay attention to the vernacular in the infant baptism rite?

On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring them up in the practice of the faith.

My mother was not a Catholic when I was a young Catholic lad. But she fulfilled her role as best she could in exposing us to the Christian faith and encouraging our involvement. She acquired a family Catholic Bible, just like the KJV’s in the house. She brought us to church to help change missalettes. My sister and brother and I were invited (if we agreed to work) on her pilgrimages to Canadian and other shrines. Billy Graham was on tv–once, even when a priest came by to do a home visit. Interesting, that last one, I’ll tell you.

The raising of children in the practice of the faith is not a responsibility that can be delegated. The word “practice,” if not intentional in the rite, is a blessed accident. Because practicing faith is exactly what parents should do with their children. Practice is almost always more efficient and inspiring than teaching.

That said, I can easily concede that in some places and times, schools and religious education programs failed to live up to their full billing. I’ve experienced it myself: a lay brother telling us ninth graders in the Lent of 1973 he could forgive our sins. That one didn’t pass my sniff test, let me assure you. But blaming others when we ourselves fail to take full advantage of our resources: that’s outright stench.

On the other hand, here’s a basic checklist of ways in which families can “practice” faith together. I’m gong to assume you have the basics: going to Sunday Mass, praying before meals and bedtime. How many others have you nailed, either with your parents or with your kids? What would you add of your own?

- Signing and blessing one’s children before school or sports or another activity
- Bringing kids early to wander around a church, looking at windows, statues, furnishings, the organ or other instruments (Age two and up on this one)
- Daily Mass on the child’s patronal feast, or the parents’ anniversary, or the child’s baptism anniversary
- Home festivities on these feast days, especially bringing out the baptismal candle and garment on the baptismal anniversary
- Including religious sites when on vacation: monasteries, shrines, places not only of historical but religious interest
- Befriending men and women religious: inviting them for dinner and visiting their homes, motherhouses, convents, and monasteries.
- Volunteering for the work of charity as a family: cooking meals for the homeless, working on a clothing drive, visiting the elderly.
- If the parish musicians give a concert or bring in a performer, attend.
- If a museum or church offers an exhibit on sacred art, attend.
- If a nearby college or community group offers a sacred music concert, attend.
- For teens, attend religious lectures at a nearby college, attend Mass on college visits
- Going on a religious pilgrimage as a family, even as a day trip. One example: get up way early, drive a few hours to the cathedral or a basilica or a monastery. Attend Mass. Come early or stay late and look around the building. Maybe introduce yourselves to the monastery guestmaster and ask for a tour. Have a nice meal. Visit another religious site. Pray the rosary or the way of the cross. Visit a Christian bookstore. Browse, read, buy. Take a walk in a park and offer up your own planned prayer. Or just have a little fun. Drive home happy, and talk about the faith experience in the car.

I can’t emphasize the importance of starting this kind of practice very early in a child’s life. For a three-year-old, these can be fun and enjoyable experiences. Very early in life, they will get the idea that faith is an adventure, not an obligation. Faith should inspire curiosity and wonder, not rote boredom.

I had a young man approach me in church this morning, a confirmation candidate looking for “service.” He suggested he could lead the procession carrying the cross, and I agreed. But I thought, what if he were looking for a serious project to engage his faith. I could see a teen planning a family pilgrimage, a day trip. Use the internet to find two or three religious sites, plan to arrive for Mass or conduct a prayer service for his or her family on site. Find a nice restaurant for a family meal. Invent a game or two for younger siblings in the car or at some location.

Or maybe that would be a too-high expectation.

My bottom line is this: we parents sometimes assume that because our children are baptized and are fairly active as child Catholics, they have faith. Some kids do not. I say this not as a criticism of their parents, clergy, or catechists, but just as a statement of fact. It’s true today. It was true decades and centuries ago.

Baptism does not put a child on spiritual autopilot. Faith is a divine quality that God can awaken, but it is helped when we parents expose our daughters and sons to the full catholicity of faith. It is not a right that some say was stolen thirty or forty years ago. For us adults, the practice of faith is a responsibility we must take seriously. We must constantly work on it. And our kids should be provided with a variety of experiences, the obligatory and the optional, the rote and the robust, the interior and exterior, the sublime and even the ridiculous. According to their own gifts and abilities and temperament, God will awaken something of faith in them, especially if we parents are prepared to cooperate. But we will need to attend to the all-important quality of constancy.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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