There is a well-known (and probably apocryphal) saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Proclaim the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” It is an apt summation of how my husband and I have approached the transmission of faith to our four children, who now range in age from 11 to 19. Although I would like to say we had a master plan, it is not so. We never sat down and mapped out a strategy. We have just tried to live lives of faith as well as we could, which means often imperfectly, and hope that our witness rubs off.
As I look back over the past two decades, I can identify four practices we have engaged in to proclaim the Gospel within our own little domestic church.
Constancy. Meal after meal, we begin with grace. Night after night, we sit on the side of the bed and say prayers (until the inevitable moment, usually somewhere around the dawn of the teenage years, when we are gently told: “Mom, Dad, I think I’ll say prayers by myself”). Perhaps most important, Sunday after Sunday we go to Mass. It is not optional; we go always and everywhere, whether the roads are icy or it is 99 degrees outside or people are tired.
Of course there are the usual sartorial arguments (the definition of a nanosecond is the amount of time it takes my oldest son’s shirt to be untucked when Mass is over) and grousing about the length of the homily, but somehow, complaints notwithstanding, we persevere. We have had to juggle Mass times to accommodate travel schedules, sports events, even sleepovers, but somehow we have managed to keep everyone going. Even when we are traveling during a vacation, we find a church; this summer my children heard Masses on successive Sundays in French and German. It was a wonderful embodiment of the church’s universality.
Such regular churchgoing does not feel glamorous or heroic. It does not qualify us for sainthood or even a parenting award. Rather, it demonstrates in concrete terms that commitment is important even, or perhaps especially, when practicing the faith seems boring. Some things you just keep doing, even when you would rather be doing something else, because that is part of the deal.
Involvement. This entails deepening the commitment and investing time and energy. In our current parish, I have given a series of talks on Scripture a nd with my husband have lent support to both the music program and various building projects.
In our last parish, I was both a eucharistic minister and a lector (and got regular critiques on the latter: “Mom, you were too quiet” or “Mom, good job”). I established a Christmas pageant and founded a Bible study group, both of which are going strong nearly 15 years on. Perhaps most important, for several years (until we moved away) I took Communion each Sunday to a group of older Catholics in a nearby assisted-living facility. My children almost always accompanied me. They prayed with us, stood by quietly while I distributed Communion, then handed out bulletins and chatted with the small, predominantly female congregation. We visited the rooms of those who could not make it downstairs for the group Communion service. The kids said hello to Camilla, who wept easily and often; happily visited Frances, who was liberal with the candy; and enjoyed seeing kind Mildred, who loved to read. They saw tired, old eyes light up when they entered the room on a Sunday morning. And they witnessed the profound gratitude of these older Catholics both for the human connection with us and for the gift of Christ in Communion.
Intellectual engagement. Although embarrassing to admit, as a one-time Episcopalian who converted to Catholicism in her mid-30s, I was once something of an intellectual-religious snob, assuming that Catholics did not think for themselves but just mindlessly obeyed whatever Rome said. Then I became friends with a few Jesuits and quickly learned otherwise.
Since that time, and throughout my continuing spiritual journey, I have been irresistibly drawn toward engagement with ecclesiological, theological and spiritual questions. My kids watched me pursue deeper understanding of these during the four years I recently spent earning a master’s degree at the Yale Divinity School. They know that I think hard about issues of church and faith. They expect that I will query them over Sunday lunch about the Gospel reading or mention a prayer that especially struck me. And while they may roll their eyes when I launch another screed about the role of the laity, I hope they are getting the subliminal message that such questions matter.
Honesty. As a corollary to intellectual engagement, I share my views on matters ranging from liturgy to the role of women. I have been known to explain, expand upon or take issue with statements made in a homily. Although I try to offer a balanced view, I will also be forthright about how important I think it is for priests and bishops, as well as the rest of us, to follow the Gospel.
I love the Catholic faith. When I was confirmed as a Catholic, I felt I was joining in on a great starry conversation that started in the early church and has been carried on by the likes of Augustine, Teresa of ávila and Thomas Merton. But I do not always love the actions of the institutional church. I do not pretend to my kids that I agree with the church’s continued opposition to women’s ordination or that I am not angry about the continued obfuscation surrounding the sexual abuse scandal. I want them to engage with these issues, not just shrug their shoulders and drift away.
My Children’s Church
So far, my children have not only toed the line but appear to be Christ’s own. My two older children have kept up regular Mass attendance even while going to an Episcopal boarding school. The younger two have faithfully gone to Mass with us, received the age-appropriate sacraments and tucked in their shirts.
But my oldest child is off to college this fall, and I am newly aware of the contingency built into the raising of children. Like all parents, I do not know which of my efforts will actually pay off, how many of my lessons will stick, whether my kids will resent me for the tucked-in shirts or thank me for instilling habits of faithfulness. How can we predict which aspects of their upbringing our children will remember, which they will jettison?
My expectation, based on experience from my own life, is that each one of my kids will journey forward from the same starting point on a unique and different path. One of them may turn out to be more of a mystic, one a skeptic. Maybe one of them will even be a saint. I simply have no idea, and after nearly 20 years of parenting, I have learned enough to know that I have no real control over it. I suspect that more than one of them will end up at some point in a spiritual wilderness as they go through the process of making their faith their own. I pray that they will find their way back. After all, I did my time in the desert in my early 20s, and it ultimately led me to Catholicism. So I can be patient if they wander.
My concern as the century wears on is that the church may be losing its identity as the Promised Land. Its own lack of internal justice (regarding the treatment of women, among other things), its disproportionate focus on what a late friend of mind called “pelvic orthodoxy” and the encroaching clericalism that can strain relationships between pulpit and pew are among the factors that may render the church either irrelevant or repellant to my children’s generation. Is the great beacon still going to be shining if my kids need to be led back home from the wilderness? I hope so, I pray so. I will do what I can to help.
I remember talking to an Episcopal priest who was a friend and mentor to me during my desert period, afflicted with true spiritual anomie. I finally mustered up the courage to confess to him that I was not sure God existed. This wise fellow replied with a smile, “That’s okay; he doesn’t mind.” With this gentle reply he conveyed to me that doubt was permissible while also reassuring me that it lacked any actual external destructive power. My struggling faith did not mean that God was dead. I think about that comment now as I watch what is happening in the church and try to imagine what the church of my children’s future will look like. I trust that the Holy Spirit, operating at a level far above my own worries, is at work in ways that transcend human thought.