Parents, you have what it takes to raise your little ones in faith -- and these strategies can guide you along the way.
Many Catholic families benefit from enriching, thoughtful religious education in schools and parishes to help pass on Church teaching to their children. But what happens when these resources aren’t available due to pandemic closures? Parents looking ahead to the coming school year may be wondering about the best ways to teach the faith in the home, especially nurturing their children’s loving friendship with Christ.
Aleteia spoke with Christine Gomez, a homeschooling mother of six and a trained catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) Montessori-based religious education program, which places emphasis on helping children to know and love Christ as their Good Shepherd. We asked her about key strategies to pass down the treasures of the Catholic faith within the family home. Here are 7 steps for parents to follow to give children meaningful religious formation.
1Set an example of love for God.
Children learn more from observing and imitating the actions of their parents than from any advice you could ever give them. “Kids learn to love of God and develop strong relationship with the Father through their relationships with their own mother and father,” Gomez said. “Show them what it looks like to love Christ through your words and actions.”
2Follow the rhythm of the liturgical year.
Families can follow “natural organic rhythms in our days, months, and year to pass on the faith,” Gomez said. The beauty of following the liturgical year is that parents don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but can teach the faith through simple customs that have been handed down for generations. “We live in a time when a lot of that has been lost and is not part of our tradition anymore, but these things families did in their homes were really beautiful, and the kids learn to expect it after so many years of doing it,” she said.
She suggested some of these ways to “bring the traditions of the whole Church into the domestic church”:
- During Advent, sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as you light the candles on the Advent wreath.
- During Lent, every time children make a sacrifice, they can put a bean in a jar; on Easter Sunday, the jar is full of jelly beans, representing how those sacrifices can be redeemed.
- In November, the month of the holy souls, look at Mass cards from deceased loved ones and pray for them in a special way.
- Celebrate your child’s baptism day or saint’s feast day. Gomez said her family celebrates baptismal anniversaries with a special dessert, lighting the baptismal candle, and singing a hymn.
- Pray as a family in the morning, at night, and before meals.
Each of these traditions form your children’s souls even into adulthood, become part of their identities, and give them treasured memories to last a lifetime. They also help you and your spouse become the parents you want to be. Gomez said,
“Your children will remember those things. Cultivate those memories in their hearts and minds of their relationship with God and their parents, so they grow up to naturally have that strong relationship with Our Lord. Little things like that throughout the year, that become part of your family culture, are so powerful because they become locked into children’s hearts and influence who your family is, and also you as a parent.”
3Read the Gospel together on Sundays and put yourselves in the scene.
Every Sunday, families can do something special to honor the Lord’s Day, whether it’s a big family brunch or dinner, a favorite dessert like “ice cream sundaes on Sunday,” a picnic, or another way of setting the day apart. During her family’s tradition of Sunday brunch, Gomez said, her husband reads aloud the Sunday Gospel, encouraging their children to listen carefully to how God is talking to them through His Word in Sacred Scripture:
When he’s done, instead of telling them, “This is what Jesus said,” he asks, “What did you hear?” That’s a CGS approach, to ask things like, “What did you hear? What do you think God is saying to you?” This is not a lesson in doctrine but a prayer, and guiding the children to listen to God in prayer. We don’t correct them; God speaks to us through the Gospel in different ways. Your child might say something you never thought about before, but they said it because God is actually speaking to them. The Gospel reaches you whether you’re 1 year old or 99 years old. It speaks to all of us.
Another CGS approach, Gomez said, is to encourage the children to think about what it would have been like to be there with Jesus, to close their eyes and picture themselves in the Gospel scene, asking questions like “What was the weather like? What did it look like? What did it sound like?”
“There’s something so special about reading the Gospel and talking about it as a family,” she said. “And then at Mass, everyone has heard the Gospel already and prayed about it and talked about it, so they get more out of it. I’ve seen a lot of fruit over the years doing that in our family.”
4Set aside time and space for prayer.
One wonderful old custom Gomez mentioned is to set aside a space in the home for prayer. “In CGS we have a prayer corner the children can go to,” said Gomez, “and in the home, that ‘little oratory’ becomes an anchor.” (There’s a book called The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home with information on how to set it up). You might change out items on the prayer table seasonally, such as putting funeral Mass cards or old family photos on the table in November, images of the Nativity during Christmastime, pictures of Our Lady in “Mary’s month” of May, or images from the Stations of the Cross during Lent.
Besides making a physical space to pray, parents can make times of prayer a natural part of everyday life. “Pray throughout the day and point out good things God has given us. At night before bed, talk over the day and the gifts, graces and blessings God has given today,” she said. “When you do these simple things when they are little, it gets ingrained into their hearts and who they are as persons.”
5Read together from the Bible, lives of the saints, and classic children's stories.
The lives of the saints inspire children to imitate their examples, and stories from the Bible help children get to know Jesus and the stories of God’s People. Classic children’s literature plays an important role as well, as many good books celebrate virtue and give examples of heroic actions to emulate. All of these things form a child’s moral imagination, the understanding of right and wrong.“Most classic children’s literature will speak volumes to your children in a much more powerful way than any lecture,” Gomez said.
6Memorize verses from Scripture.
Gomez suggested saying a Bible verse right after the prayer before meals every day for a week or two, until your children know it by heart. “They will have that in their hearts and carry it with them throughout childhood and adulthood. Those words of Our Lord will come back to them in hard and happy times,” she said. Parents might start with Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd…”
7Help them make heavenly friends.
Drawing children’s attention to the abiding presence of God, the saints, and the angels is an important part of faith formation. Parents can help a child grow closer in friendship with a particular saint and his or her guardian angel. “We talk about our ‘team’ in Heaven: God, Our Lady, and our patron saints. ‘They are always with you,’ I tell my children all the time,” she said. She suggested this daily practice during bedtime prayers:
“When you go over things you’re grateful for that day, ask the Holy Spirit to recall a moment from your day, then close your eyes and remember God was with you. Your team was with you. Whether it was a moment of frustration or happiness, God was there in that moment. His arms are around us all the time protecting us and caring for us.”
Little by little, each of these small acts of love and prayer add up to a thriving and joyful family culture and domestic church, gently forming children into the saints God has called them to be.