When you have children, everyone tells you that your life is going to change. They mean this in both the best and the worst possible ways: There are the predictable losses (lost sleep, lost money, lost time) as well as the wholly unexpected gains of loving a child beyond reason, beyond yourself.
What people do not tell you is that your children are bound to make unexpected and sometimes bewildering choices—and those choices have the power to change you. Children will shake your sense of identity, challenge your beliefs and fundamentally alter who you are.
Anyone who has tried to pass on their religious faith to their children knows this to be true: You can be a good Catholic and raise a passel of atheists. You can be a strident ex-Catholic and raise a priest—like I did.
Your children are bound to make unexpected and sometimes bewildering choices—and those choices have the power to change you.
My son would tell you that I have had a big influence on him. He dives into the world in the same way I do, with the firm intention of changing it. He works out his thoughts by writing them down. He believes in the healing properties of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on a rainy day. But when it came to making the biggest choice of his life—to convert to Catholicism and become a Jesuit priest—I was left to wonder what influence I had had on him or whether I had wielded any influence at all.
Many of the good Catholic mothers I have talked to are just as bewildered. They did everything in their power to raise children in their faith only to see them adopt other religions or reject God altogether. Some say they were defeated by a culture that increasingly values the material over the spiritual, or they point to the rigidity of doctrine, failures of individual priests, sexual abuse scandals, boring services and bad music. Many blame themselves, although they struggle to say where exactly they went wrong.
Those whose children remain practicing Catholics have some ideas about why that may be the case, but they, too, are well aware that things could easily have turned out differently.
You can be a good Catholic and raise a passel of atheists. You can be a strident ex-Catholic and raise a priest—like I did.
In a recent survey of more than 1,500 U.S. Catholic women, commissioned by America and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 73 percent of women who are mothers said their children remain in the church. Fifteen percent indicated that none of their children are now Catholic. The remaining 12 percent reported a mixed result: Some of their children are Catholic and some are not.
Those results closely mirror an informal poll of America readers for this article conducted by social media. Just over 25 percent of the more than 500 respondents said their children have left the church—a number that trends suggest will increase as the young children of many respondents grow up. Nationally, nearly half of all children leave the faith of their parents once they reach adolescence.
Creating a Catholic Identity
Many of the mothers who wrote to America sounded wistful about that reality. Kathleen Baxter, who lives in rural New York, said her youngest son stopped going to church during his sophomore year of high school. On Sunday mornings, he would stay in bed with the covers pulled up over his head, and no amount of cajoling could convince him to go to Mass. She did not take it well. “My first reaction was: I’m going to force him to go, whether he likes it or not,” she said.
She and her husband are now trying to let him find his own way, hoping that the example they set will tip the balance. Her husband is in the church choir, and Ms. Baxter serves on her parish’s pastoral council. Both serve as lectors and are involved in the adult Christian initiation program (R.C.I.A.).
“I figure if I set a good example, maybe someday he’ll come back,” Ms. Baxter said before adding hopefully, “Maybe he’ll meet a Catholic girl!”
She has reason to be encouraged. Study after study makes it clear that parents—perhaps most especially mothers—do have an enormous influence on their children’s religious choices. The vast majority of adults who adhere to religion were raised in households where religion was valued and practiced.
When I asked Ms. Baxter about why she thought it was important to raise her children Catholic, her response was simple: “I was raised Catholic,” she said. Nearly half of the women in the informal America poll referred to the same thing, often using these exact words. They want their children to be raised in the same faith they grew up in. They feel the strong pull of a tradition that has defined their families, often for generations. Being Catholic is a big part of who they are.
“I figure if I set a good example, maybe someday he’ll come back,” Ms. Baxter said. “Maybe he’ll meet a Catholic girl!”
That is certainly true for Kristina Ortega, a Los Angeles mother of two young boys, whose father immigrated to the United States from Mexico. “So much about being Catholic is cultural for me,” Ms. Ortega said. “I don’t know how to separate my Catholic-ness from my Mexican-ness.”
Catholicism, for her, includes assembling altars for the Day of the Dead with her children and praying novenas after the death of a loved one. The family is part of a mostly Latino parish, another way of keeping the children connected to their culture, and the boys, who are 5 and 8, attend Catholic schools, as she and her husband did.
But the family is also intent on introducing practices of their own. “Part of Latino culture is that religion is something women do,” Ms. Ortega said. “It’s important to me that my children see my husband is engaged.”
Both she and her husband firmly believe that a big part of being Catholic is not just believing in something but acting on those beliefs, something Ms. Ortega credits to her Jesuit education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. They know their family is, in her words, “incredibly privileged,” and they want their children to “see what the rest of the world is like.”
The Jesuit church they belong to sits in the midst of a public housing project, which helps drive that lesson home. During Lent, for example, parishioners leave the church to pray the Stations of the Cross in the streets of the community. All four Ortegas take part.
Lauren Schumacher of Centennial, Colo., who has sons almost the same age as Ms. Ortega’s, is just as adamant about the importance of “doing Catholicism.” “You want them to know it’s not just about the prayer,” she said. “You also have to help those who are poor and help [your children] realize how fortunate they are.”
This is something she and her husband frequently remind their sons in conversation, but it is also something they put into practice in small ways, like visiting nursing homes, distributing blankets to the homeless and joining other parishioners who take gifts to disadvantaged families at Christmas.
Perhaps more important, Ms. Schumacher and her husband try to set an example by curbing their own materialism. “We try to live within our means. You can say that all day long, but if you’re not giving to the poor or if you’re living some elaborate lifestyle, it doesn’t resonate as much,” she said. “I work on my materialism so they don’t see me buying stuff all the time, stuff I don’t need.”
Ms. Schumacher and her husband teach their faith in other ways. They follow the rituals of Lent and Advent, using calendars to help their children follow along. They place the figure of baby Jesus in their Nativity scene on Christmas Day. Their boys collect statues of saints. The saints, Ms. Schumacher said, are a big hit, especially St. Jude and St. Michael the Archangel, who occupy places of honor on her sons’ nightstands. “Every time they go to the church store, they want a saint statue,” she said. “I have to rein it in.”
But most powerful, she said, is prayer. Ms. Schumacher remembers praying about what now seem to her like “ridiculous things” when she was a child. “I think back now and say, ‘Was I really praying about my bad skin?’ But at least you’re talking to God. That’s what I want for my kids.”
“You want them to know it’s not just about the prayer. You also have to help those who are poor and help [your children] realize how fortunate they are.”
Each night before bed, her children say their own versions of prayers, which draw out concerns they rarely voice in other ways. “I can ask my 7-year-old about his day at school, and he’ll say he liked recess, and that’s about all the elaboration we get,” she said. “But before bed, he might say, ‘Oh, God, could you have Jamie be nice to me tomorrow?’ or ‘Please don’t let me have that dream.’”
Sometimes these prayers prompt her to ask questions, but just as often, she leaves the matter up to her son and God, confident that the prayer itself is the comfort he seeks.
‘You Want to Share Your Joy’
Sophie Byrnes of Streamwood, Ill., has three grown children she raised on the importance of prayer—prayer she describes as being as essential as breathing and eating.
She was brought up in a home where her mother insisted on the family rosary every day. Sophie says she remembers feeling a little resentful on summer days when she was kneeling inside the house while her friends played, quite audibly, outside. “But I always knew at a young age that your faith will help you in life,” she said.
Later, during an abusive marriage, Ms. Byrnes prayed just to get through each day, and she taught her children to pray, too—not formal, rote prayer, but the kind of prayer that consists of talking to God. These conversations took place at all times of the day. “We never left the house without praying,” she said. “If we left at three different times, we said a short prayer each time. Whenever we got in the car, we prayed to get home safely.”
During an abusive marriage, Ms. Byrnes prayed just to get through each day, and she taught her children to pray, too.
The most important conversations, though, took place in the evenings as the children got ready for bed. Each of her children had a list of people they prayed for each night. One of her daughters got so caught up in the practice that her list grew to 50 people. “When someone got on her list, they never got off,” Ms. Byrnes said with a laugh. “It was tiring.”
She said not going to church was never an option for her children, but she does not think once-a-week Mass was the most important part of their Catholic upbringing; it was making God part of their everyday lives. Ms. Byrnes taught religious education and got involved in her parish and insisted her children do the same. They were altar servers and lectors, sang in the choir and went on mission trips.
“It can’t be just sometimes,” she said of the practice of religion. “What doesn’t work is telling your children about God and not practicing it by your own example. What doesn’t work is if you don’t make God real in your life and your children’s lives.”
All three of Ms. Byrnes’s children, now in their 20s and 30s, are practicing Catholics. She has seen seven grandchildren baptized—baptisms she no longer posts pictures of on social media or tells many friends about because so many would find it a painful reminder that their own grandchildren are not being baptized. “I’m sure,” she said, “that would be the greatest hurt in the world.”
“What doesn’t work is telling your children about God and not practicing it by your own example.”
Nancy Berube of Spencer, Mass., does not yet have grandchildren to be baptized, but she has been thinking about it. Her oldest son and his wife are practicing Lutherans, her daughter attends Mass occasionally, and her youngest son “professes to fear that lightning will strike him if he crosses a church threshold.”
Raising her children in the Catholic faith was extremely important to Ms. Berube, who once seriously considered becoming a nun. Her husband, although not Catholic, was supportive of her commitment and got involved in their parish as much as she did. Several years ago, he converted to Catholicism, completed an online Catholic study program, joined the parish council and began serving as a eucharistic minister.
Ms. Berube, meanwhile, has become an associate of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, the order of women religious she considered joining as a young woman. The lay associates gather for prayer, Bible readings and retreats, and they work to promote a variety of social justice and human rights causes across five continents. The work gives Ms. Berube, a family physician, a Catholic community beyond her parish and a way to practice her faith in ways that are meaningful to her.
Ms. Berube has tried to talk to her children about the central role that Catholicism plays in her life and that of her husband, but these attempts make them uncomfortable. Despite the fact that two of her sons are in the U.S. military, which “gives them orders all the time, they don’t like being told what to do by their mother,” she quipped. Besides, she does not believe in a “hard sell for religion,” and she does not want to drive a wedge between them and herself and her husband.
So she waits.
“I find the church [to be] a source of great joy and would love to be able to share that with them. However, it has to be on their own terms,” she said. “They’re thinking people; they’re very moral and upright, and I think their Catholic upbringing has affected their sense of what is right and what you can and can’t do in the world.”
These mothers have learned that we do not control our children’s choices; we only control our response to those choices.
While Ms. Berube waits, she considers what St. Monica could have done to make St. Augustine behave himself during most of his early adulthood. “He came around, and he was way more messed up than my kids are,” she said with a laugh. “But I understand her wanting him to be part of something that gave her joy because you want to share your joy with them.”
These mothers have learned what we all learn at some point—that we do not control our children’s choices; we only control our response to those choices.
When my son, Patrick, announced that he had decided to enter the Society of Jesus, my husband and I were incredulous. “If you want to be a priest why not become an Episcopalian priest?” I asked him. “That’s the church you were raised in, and you could still get married.” I did not need to finish the sentence. Patrick already knew that what I really cared about was not some hypothetical daughter-in-law; it was grandchildren—preferably lots of them.
I have always thought Patrick would make a great husband and dad. Like his father, he is playful and loving and thoughtful. He actually likes to talk about his feelings, and he never asks much for himself. He is the kind of guy who will take your hand without warning and hold it close and tell you that he loves you.
No matter where he is, he notices babies. We can be in line to order coffee, walking through a museum or pushing a cart through a grocery store, and he will spot one in a mother’s arms or peeking out of a pack strapped to a dad’s back. His reaction reminds me of the stuffed toy glowworm he had when he was small—something bright and warm lights up inside of him.
I have come to realize that, as a mother, I have two choices, and both involve letting go.
He does not often approach these babies—that is too creepy for a single man, especially for a priest in these tendentious days—but you can tell he wants to. And when he is around his friends’ or his sisters’ babies, when he does not have to worry about what people think, he will get down on the floor with them and play like a kid and hold them so close it’s as if he’s inhaling them.
I know now that there was something else calling my son, something even more compelling than babies, and that is the call—the vocation—he ultimately heeded. It took me several years to accept his decision; I am still working to fully understand it.
We have spent countless hours talking about what it is like to be a Jesuit living in a community of religious men, the spaces he seems to fill in the lives of other people and what he hopes to accomplish. I ask him—often—whether he is happy. And I have begun going to church again, this time with a lot less willfulness and a great deal more humbleness. I am giving Catholicism a second chance.
I have come to realize that, as a mother, I have two choices, and both involve letting go. I can surrender my son to a choice I would not have made for him, or I can acknowledge what I do not know and what I cannot control and walk with him.
Patrick would put it this way: Motherhood, like any vocation, is a calling—the voice of another calling us to something more. Sometimes the voice that is calling is God’s. Sometimes it is that of your children. Sometimes it is hard to tell them apart.