I would guess that most Catholics, old and young, are struggling to attain the “personal encounter with Jesus Christ” that Pope Francis repeatedly preaches. Me too. So what am I to do to facilitate “introducing” my kids to Jesus Christ, when my own spiritual life is so often dry? And how do I approach such a task from the right “platform”?
It cannot be a platform of: “This is a test of my parenting persuasion skills.” It should even less be: “Are you kidding me? I’m going to end up a statistic? Another baby boomer whose children left the faith?” It should rather be: “This is the place—at the feet of Jesus Christ, by his side, in his arms—I want my child to be in order to know reality, freedom and ‘the words of everlasting life.’”
Never have I wanted anything so badly, and never have I felt so badly equipped to make it happen. I confided this once to a brilliant parish priest—who had seen a lot of life before he got to the seminary. He replied abruptly, “So there is nothing left for God to do in this elaborate program you are formulating for your son?” He had a point. It turned into my Step 1: “Ask God every day to give my son the gift of faith.” But on the theory that God did not make me a hyper-problem-solving-type for nothing, I have been thinking a lot about Step 2 and beyond.
Maybe because I’ve always sensed that my Catholic vocation involves standing on the border/bridge/precipice between the institutional church and the world beyond, my kids are plentifully out in the world. At the same time, they are about 1,000 percent more likely (justifiably) to respond to any conversation we’re having with the question, “How did we get to the subject of God, again?”
Add to this that the son in question at the moment is an artistically gifted teenager, sensitive to the material world, visual culture and music. I have anecdotally noticed that his world is populated by a higher than average number of people who feel out of sync with dominant social norms.
I have a chance—because he is giving it to me—to have a religious conversation with him four or five days a week for the next few years. What will I do? I have a few ideas but am always listening for good advice (hint).
I think first (after Step 1, of course) I will start with his own deep-seated longings for meaning and happiness—the longings manifest in every song, poem and drawing he creates. These include longings to be encountered with ordinary kindness and with at least some openness to his gifts, longings for a friend who listens and who shares self-revelation in return. I will start too with his appreciation for beauty.
I will explore with him where these longings came from and how they did not come “from nowhere.” How they appear to have a “divine” quality by themselves. They point toward a divine soul within him, which (as he’s already learned, I think) can’t be satisfied with only material things. I will explore with him how these longings point also toward someone—a Creator who implanted these in his human heart. I will propose that this same Creator offered him a reply: Jesus Christ. Here I will be dipping heavily into Luigi Guissani’s The Religious Sense and The Kingdom of God Is Like, by Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. Unlike his schools’ religion classes, I won’t be demanding a ton of reading and memorizing. But we’ll reflect together on the few paragraphs or pages we’ll read together each day.
I will further tap into his sympathy with the outsider. Knowing his sensitivity on this point, I’ve started in on this “lesson” already over the last few years. When we encounter someone who seemingly doesn’t “fit,” I’ll make a point to tell him how much I love the Christian discipline, so gorgeously articulated by Pope Benedict XVI in “God Is Love,” to give each person “the look of love which they crave” (No. 18). It reminds us of our radical equality with everyone we meet and invites us to encounter them with that mind. My son and I will also be reading parts of that document and reflecting on what it means for God’s love for him too.
There’s a great deal more I have to think through, especially respecting a balanced approach to material culture and respect for the girls he’s meeting—so many of whom have too little respect for themselves already. But the school year is just beginning, and I’m full of hopes and plans.