In writing and speaking about the life of the domestic church, I often encounter a version of the following question from earnest Catholic parents: How do we effectively pass on our faith to our children?
It’s certainly not a new question. We’ve been collectively working at it for centuries. Many read the story of St. Monica’s actions and prayers on behalf of her wayward son Augustine with a knowing sympathy. But not all similar stories of parental faithfulness through history have produced the same end. We hear many times of children coming of age, leaving the Church, and losing their faith in God.
I have witnessed flawed responses to this disheartening fact. There are well-meaning individuals who sincerely want their children to develop a relationship with God and love for His Church as they walk toward adulthood. Because of this desire, they strive after a “system” or “formula” that will ensure this result. Catholic parents can so often fall into a problematic mindset of religious “box-checking”. We can easily forget that our children belong to God, and that He—not us—is directing their journey. We are asked only to be faithful (not perfect) stewards of HIS children while they are under our guard.
With this foundational truth in mind, I want to offer a life-giving framework (not a system) for how we may go about being parents who are stewards of God’s children. How can we be faithful in our responsibility to pass on a knowledge and love of God, while ultimately leaving our children in God’s hands.
I would like to adapt the marvelous “Teacher’s Motto” established by British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923): “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” I would offer that spiritual formation (religious education) is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Let me explain briefly what Mason meant by these terms. The atmosphere is the environment, that which individuals take in and absorb all around them just as one breathes in a breath of air. What is part of one’s atmosphere becomes part of oneself. Discipline has to do not with aspects of punishment (as some may attribute the word), but rather with the formation of habits. And finally, the “living” component refers to the life of ideas. I would offer that we Catholic parents are called to both model and moderate these three vital elements in our domestic churches.
Let’s look first at being models of the faith to our children:
- Let us consider the atmosphere that we cultivate in our own individual lives as parents and/or as spouses. Is our faith life one that exudes the fruits of the Spirit? Do we walk in peace and order as we experience both joys and sufferings in our lives, or are our lives chaotic and lacking healthy rhythms?
- Next, we should look at our habits. How do we practice our faith? Have we made prayer, the sacraments, Mass, etc. primary habits in our daily and weekly lives of faith? How do we habitually respond to others? What are our reflexes when we encounter suffering or difficult things?
- Finally, need to consider whether we are filling our minds and hearts with the living ideas of our faith. Have we settled for unimaginative or “packaged” explanations for our faith, or have we dug in ourselves to the original sources of truth in Scripture, the Catechism, and primary church writings and documents? Are we spiritually and intellectually curious people who take joy in discovering for ourselves God’s truth wherever we might find it?
Now let’s examine our role as moderators of these vital elements in our children’s lives:
- First, we must consider the atmosphere we parents create in our homes. What family and faith culture are we cultivating in the lives of our children? What are they taking in to be part of themselves and their lives of faith as they would take in breath?
- Second, we are to provide habit-building opportunities for our children. How are we helping them to practice their faith? Have we made space for building the habit of prayer gradually as they grow older? Have we considered how to replace the bad habits of their lives (vices) with the opposite good habits (virtues)?
- Third, we are to be spreading living ideas of faith before their minds and hearts. Have we thought critically about the books we allow to form their understanding of the faith? Have we offered them watered down ideas or ready-made answers for their questions? Or have we put in their path the most beautiful and well-articulated ideas of our faith and respected the minds God has given them to discover truth, whereby learning to love the discovery of it?
At best, I’ve laid out a skeletal framework here; but these ideas and questions should hopefully lead us toward a deeper and more life-giving consideration of what our true role is as parents in passing on our faith to our children. I believe that God would have us take heart in what He has made us capable of doing and experience peace in what is ultimately in His hands.
 Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. Home education. p. XI