Faith Formation Series: What’s Your Role?

When approaching the project of passing on the faith to our children, whether we be parents or catechists, we often wrongly conceptualize the teacher-student relationship. Our mindset has been influenced by decades of various educational systems that approach pedagogy from the perspective that teachers deposit information into the brains of children (a very modernist and anti-Catholic understanding of knowledge and the human person, by the way; but I won’t unpack that idea here). This perspective wrongly assumes, among many things, that the transmission of knowledge is moving in one direction—from teacher to student; and operating from that starting point, what other incorrect assumptions might we make? I can think of two problematic ones that we need to root out. 

#1: There is little that children will teach me. 

To be honest, I don’t expect that many adults would come out and say this; but I do see plenty of evidence from our teaching methods, our posture, and our tone that we interiorly hold this expectation. We don’t behave as if we expect children to teach us about God. But why not? We can’t have read much of the gospels if we believe that to be true. Jesus says:

 “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:16-17).

Jesus is saying that we have everything to learn from children. We have to actually become like them to be part of his kingdom. I would say that he intends us to gain much knowledge of himself and how we are to love him through our interactions with children. This ought to be a fundamental starting point for our posture as parents or catechists who want our children to know and love God. Moreover, it seems that it is in those interactions of passing on the faith to them that we learn with them and from them what loving God looks like. 

#2: I am forming the children.

Many adults have come to believe that the parents and teachers are the “molders” of children, taking them in their ignorant state and transforming them into enlightened human beings. But if this is our mindset, then we have forgotten who is the true Potter (Jeremiah 18:6). It is not our hands on the clay, but our Lord’s hands. It is not our spirit and mind being transferred or duplicated in them, but rather the Holy Spirit giving them the mind of Christ. Our role is important, but we are not the molders; we are simply faithful tools in the Potter’s hands. Children are born whole persons, created in the image of God, and as such they are able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and respond directly. It is He who is forming the children.

By being responsive to the Holy Spirit ourselves, we can correct these wrong assumptions and see our role as parents and teachers with fresh eyes. If we have a great deal to learn from and with children, and if we see ourselves at the service of the Holy Spirit, then how should we describe our role in the formation process? 

British education reformer, Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), offers us her teacher’s motto of “guide, philosopher, and friend,” which I find to be just as applicable to religious education as it is in any classroom (Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 32). In passing down our faith we can be guides, because we have navigated the road of faith before them. We have valuable experiences to share. We are philosophers because we should be introducing to them the fundamental questions, directing them to the fundamental truths that are discoverable about God. (This question and answer model is, after all, the format that the child’s Catechism takes.) Finally, we are friends with the children. And the use of the word “friend” should not mistakenly convey any lack of authority on the teacher’s part; quite the contrary, we have been deputized with authority by Christ to follow his example of friendship with children (Mason, Parents and Children, p. 14). 

Let us prayerfully consider what a difference can be made in our re-imagining of our role in passing on the faith to the children in our midst. It is a privileged position indeed; and I am convinced that it is one that will return the greatest blessings to ourselves. For through this relationship with children we will better know our Father.  

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Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. A philosophy of education.

Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. Parents and children.

Models & Moderators: Parenting to Pass on the Faith

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.”[1] 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.


[1] Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. Home education. p. XI

More Present Than the Pain

“Life is pain, highness!” replies Wesley with a hardened expression to his sweetheart in The Princess Bride. While the melodramatic exchange between Wesley and his love takes place on-screen within of a comedic fairytale, sincere words of such despondency have been uttered up and down the centuries, from ancient to postmodern times. Life involves great pain, and one does not need to look far for suffering.

I recently heard this sentiment expressed during a conversation between Bishop Robert Barron and Alex O’Conner, of Cosmic Skeptic. Toward the end of their moderated discussion, titled “Christianity or Atheism?”, Alex made the comment that suffering—not evidence of God—was the most obvious phenomenon in our experience of the world. For that reason, he said that you had to start with the question of suffering, from which he has not found a path to evidence that God exists. Bishop Barron disagreed with that metaphysical starting point, explaining that there are various problematic philosophical conclusions to which it might lead.  

However, aside from this philosophical line of argument, which is most important to such a discussion, there begs a vital experiential question—is suffering actually more observable than the presence of God? It is to the perception of this atheist; and, in fact, he is arguing that such a conclusion is objectively true. What would a Christian say? A Catholic? The question stayed in my mind for quite a while after viewing this discussion.

What would most people’s experiential knowledge reveal? Do people in general experience suffering more frequently than they experience the presence of God? Is the experience different for the average person who believes in God? Other than saints like Catherine of Siena who spent regular hours a day in ecstasy, would most Catholics agree with Alex O’Conner that they feel the presence of suffering more often than they do the presence of God?

About the same time, I was reading The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom with my Well-Read Mom book club.  Corrie wrote in that autobiography of her horrific experiences with her sister Betsie in Nazi prison and extermination camps after their arrest for hiding Jews and participating in the underground opposition to the Nazi party in occupied Holland. If we want to talk about suffering, we don’t get worse than Nazi atrocities. So, with this question fresh in my mind, I asked it of Corrie and Betsie as I read their incredible story. Did these women experience the presence of human suffering to a greater degree than they experienced the presence of God? No. Shockingly, No! I don’t think a reader could come away from Corrie’s account with any other honest conclusion. These women witnessed God at work in the midst of the worst kind of human pain.

But why this discrepancy of the human experience? Why does Alex O’Conner (and others with him) have one experience and the Ten Boom sisters (and others with them) have another perception? I certainly can’t draw universal conclusions about people’s personal experiences (or lack thereof) of God; nor can I make theological claims for why God seems to make himself known to some and not to others. But I can look at Corrie and Bestie’s experience and draw one conclusion quite confidently for myself. They looked with eyes of faith for God to be present in their suffering, and they saw Him.

If we start with the expectation that suffering is meaningless and devoid of God’s presence. Then, not only will we continually seek to avoid it, we certainly won’t look for God in it. And if we are not looking for Him, I doubt highly that we will see Him. What I saw over and over in the Ten Boom’s story, and what I see continually in similar accounts of so many faithful Christians, is that they look for God in all circumstances, especially in suffering. If “life is pain,” and we are averse to looking for God in it, then perhaps we modern Catholics may come to the same conclusion that pain is more present in our world than God. But if we look for God in all the pain, both small and great, that we are sure to experience in this life, perhaps we will discover to our astonishment that He is more present than the pain.