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The secret to raising kids who stay Catholic

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/08/22

Is there a magic parenting formula to ensuring your children practice the Catholic faith as adults? Here's what I've learned.

To say yes to something, to give yourself to it, is a dangerous agreement. And yet, all of us, every single one of us, make agreements. We give little pieces of ourselves away to marriage, parenting, friendships, passions, and dreams. It’s dangerous, but necessary. Self-gift is what it means to love. Without giving ourselves away, we’re nothing.

One of the most reckless endeavors I’ve personally undertaken was becoming a father. The instant that first, squishy-faced child was born, she had me wrapped around her finger. I was a goner. Taking up the challenge to love my children has drawn an entirely new man out of me.

My children are still young. All of them live at home, each in their own way busy stretching their legs and shaking the moisture from their wings. They’re still very much under the influence of the domestic life their mother and I have created for them, but once it’s time for the first one to leap from the nest I suspect I’ll be a wreck.

When I was a young father, I would ask questions of more experienced fathers. I wanted their parenting secrets. Now that I’m more experienced myself, younger fathers ask me those same questions I once asked. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m comfortable with at least identifying the mistakes I’ve made and explaining what not to do.

In that sense, I feel more certain than 15 years ago. However, there’s still one question I regularly ask of older parents, those who have adult children: How did you raise children who are still faithful, practicing Catholics?

This, to me, is the most important question. I’ve become less interested in questions of parenting technique, educational options, preparing for career, sports, and so on, and am more interested in how to help my children become happy.

For a Catholic, the question of happiness is the same as the question of sainthood. How to remain faithful and one day become a saint? This is the path to happiness, so I’m keen to understand how to instill in them the desire to love God.

My friend Bill is quick to caution, “Parents get too much credit when their kids turn out good and too much blame when they turn out bad. I’ve seen too many parents who seem to be doing everything right and they still have at least one who goes astray.” Another friend, Janet, agrees, answering my question cryptically, “My immediate reaction is to say there wasn’t a secret.”

In other words, there’s no single parenting technique that assures our faith will be passed on.

It isn’t a question of enrolling them in the right religious school, putting the right books in their hands, a specific religious curriculum, going to the “right” kind of parish, or hiding them away from pop culture. One of the great frustrations of Catholic parents is that the process of passing on the faith remains a mystery.

However, with the parents I’ve asked over the years, there actually is a consistent theme to the answers they’ve given.

Janet, for instance after expressing skepticism, says, “If we had a secret ingredient, our secret ingredient was that we were Catholic.”

Bill says, “There’s no substitute for having them see you work out your own salvation with fear and trembling and not just going through the motions.”

Denise points to her husband, Tony, who actively led their children in prayer at home; “We prayed two novenas for some hard decisions we needed to make and the kids watched Tony lead them each night without fail. It showed them that he depended on God.”

Carolyn talks about how their family didn’t just believe the faith; they lived the faith. “Living according to the church’s calendar,” she says. “The incredible beauty of the seasons and of her teachings and of truth itself. This is what keeps people in love with our Lord.”

So, here’s the irreplaceable factor in raising children who practice their faith: their parents actively live it. Kids must see us actually being Catholic in our daily lives. This means more than a single hour for Mass on Sunday and a mid-week catechism class. It’s prayer in the home, celebrating feasts, keeping fasts, meatless Fridays, celebrating saint days, religious art on the walls, leaving stories of saints sitting around, lots of love and joy and happiness — never forcing the kids into our beliefs, but letting them witness the happiness of their parents as they live it, and allowing them to see the difficulty of living the faith, too.

That said, children grow up and make their own choices. Some, in spite of our best efforts, might not grow up to become practicing Catholics as adults. It doesn’t mean our parenting was a failure. We did our best. But the parenting task is never over. Continue to pray for your children, live the faith, and love them. It’s all any of us can do. That’s the risk of love.

I don’t think any of the parents I’ve ever talked to regret having welcomed children into their lives, even if their children have since wandered from their faith tradition. Partly, I suspect, this is because parents come up close and personal to the miraculous, transcendent power of love. My daily prayer is that this love will change me first and then, through me, affect my children.

Faith is always a leap, and I’ve been prodigally wasteful with God’s blessings more times in my life than I can really count. Somehow, today I have a strong faith. Who really knows how? God calls to each of us in his own way. As a father, I’m but an instrument of the Maker’s voice, so I’ll endeavor to allow him to sing through me clear and strong.

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