VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has urged mothers and fathers to remember the weight of their example in forming their children in faith, reminding them that whether praying or arguing, “your children are always watching you.”
Speaking to parents last Saturday in Milan, the pope was asked by the mother and father of three children how to transmit the beauty of the faith to them.
Calling this one of the “key questions” facing parents, the pope invited them to use their imagination “for a few moments, to become children again, and to remember the people who helped you believe.”
“‘Who helped me to believe?’ Your father, your mother, your grandparents, a catechist, an aunt, a pastor, a neighbor,” he asked. “We all remember a person who helped us believe.”
The pope confided that the person who helped him grow most in his faith was a good priest. “He baptized me, and then throughout my life I would go and see him; sometimes more often, other times less…; and he accompanied me until I entered the [Jesuit] novitiate.”
“I never forget that priest,” he said. “He was an apostle of the confessional, an apostle of the confessional. Merciful, good, a hard worker. And so he helped me to grow.”
“The children are watching us”
“You might wonder what the point of this exercise is,” Pope Francis said to parents.
“Your children are always watching you; even if you don’t realize it. They are observing us all the time and taking it all in.”
Recalling the 1943 film by Vittorio De Sica, The children are watching us, he said: “Children watch us, and you cannot imagine the anxiety a child feels when his parents argue. They suffer! And when parents separate, they are the ones who pay the price. When you bring a child into the world, you have to be aware of this: we are responsible for making the faith of this child grow.”
“But do not forget,” he repeated, “when you argue, your children suffer, and they do not grow in faith.”
“Children are aware of our joys, our sadness and our worries,” he continued. They pick up on everything; they notice everything and, given that they are very, very intuitive, they draw their conclusions and take in their lessons. […] That is why one of the first things I would say to you is: take care of them, take care of their hearts, their joys, their hopes.”
“Your children’s ‘little eyes’ gradually memorize and interpret with the heart that faith is one of the greatest inheritances you have received from your parents and ancestors…. And if you hand on the faith and live it well, that is where the transmission happens.”
“Showing them how faith helps us to go forward and face challenges and tragedy, not with pessimism but with trust; this is the best witness we can give them,” he said.
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Spend Sundays together
Pope Francis also praised the “very beautiful tradition” among many families of going to Mass together, then going to a park or on an outing so that their children can play.
In this way, he said, “faith becomes a family commitment with other families, with friends.”
“This is beautiful and can help us to live out the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath,” he said. “In my country this is called dominguer, i.e. ‘spending Sunday together’.”
But the pope also encouraged parents to play more with their own children, saying that “wasting time” with a child shows him something about God’s love for him.
“I always ask parents, when they tell me they lose patience with their children, a first question: ‘How many children do you have?’ — ‘Three, four,’ they tell me. And I ask them a second question: ‘Do you play with your children? … Play?’ And they don’t know how to respond.
“Parents these days … have lost the habit of playing with their children, of ‘wasting time’ with their children,” he said. “A father once told me: ‘Father, when I leave for work they are still asleep, and when I return home in the evening they are already in bed. I only see them on weekends.’ This is awful! This kind of life takes away our humanity!
“Keep this in mind,” the pope told parents, “playing with your children, ‘wasting time’ with your children, is also a way to transmit the faith. It is graciousness, the graciousness of God.”
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Family formation in solidarity
Lastly, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of family formation in solidarity and teaching children the works of mercy.
“The words of mercy make faith grow in the heart. This is very important,” he said. “There is no celebration without solidarity. As there is no solidarity without celebration, because when one shows solidarity it is joyous to pass on the faith.”
To illustrate the point, the pope told a story from his days in Buenos Aires.
“A mother was having lunch with three of her children — ages six, four and a half, and three; then she had two others. Her husband was at work. They were having lunch and were eating veal Milanese, yes, she told me, and each of the children had one cutlet on his plate.”
The pope continued: “There was a knock at the door. The oldest went and opened the door, looked, and turned around and said: ‘Mamma, there is a poor man and he’s asking for something to eat.’ And the mother, who was wise, asked: ‘What should we do? Should we give him something to eat or not? — ‘Yes, Mamma, let’s give him something!’ There were other cutlets there. The mother said: ‘Oh, very good: let’s make two sandwiches: everyone cut his in half and we’ll make two sandwiches’ — ‘Mamma, but there are those!’ — ‘No, those are for dinner.’ And the mother taught them solidarity, but the kind that costs, not the kind that’s left over!”
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