Spiritual Growth within a Catholic Family
If you’re a Catholic Mom or Dad, chances are good that you might be striving to make your faith a hallmark in your family. That’s a great goal. But what that looks like day-to-day and year-to-year may shift and grow along with your family. Last month this column discussed how spiritual growth of individual family members takes place within the context of a life of grace, particularly within the graces found in the Sacrament of Matrimony of the husband and wife who are the faith leaders in the household. After all, at their Catholic wedding, the future parents vowed to raise their children in the tenets of the faith. The context for spiritual growth of children presumes that the parents enjoy a relationship with Christ and his Church, and are trying to grow in their faith as well as lead their families in the same.
The family of God is the Church at large, but it is built family by family. Vatican II dubbed the family “the domestic church”. Therefore, build your domestic church with the same care that you would create a home.
A Catholic life is more than “Church on Sundays”. It is a daily life, a way of being and a way of doing. A Catholic life is a response to the relationship we have as God’s sons and daughters – the rich heritage we gain in and through our baptism. A Christian life a witness to our identity; it is filled with virtue, especially the basics of faith, hope, and love. It is also a moral life that exalts the dignity of the human person and is, still, foundationally built upon the Golden Rule: Do to others, as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31.)
The Church considers you the primary educators of your children in matters of faith, not a Catholic school or a parish religious education class. If you look around, you can see that this is not a very popular responsibility, given the rampant neglect of this precious duty, but it does belong to you nonetheless. So even if you are the only parent on the block who believes this, it is worth doing, and worth encouraging the other Catholic parents you know to do the same.
Encourage the Sacramental Life of Grace
If there was a “Catholic Growth Chart” with spiritual milestones, the most obvious tasks of parents is to not only see to the upbringing and nurture of their children, but to make sure this care extends to the spiritual needs of children, and helping them live a life of grace. This includes bringing infant children to the Church to receive the Sacrament of Baptism, and to continue to shepherd children through each of the Sacraments of Initiation, (Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation), while not forgetting about the important healing Sacrament of Reconciliation. Parents of teens and young adults should have regular conversations about the sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders as they navigate the years of vocational discernment.
Sacramental prep guides, books, and religious education programs are plentiful so I won’t spend time on those lessons here. They are needed and they are among the big “to-do’s” in a Catholic parent’s life. Rather I’d like to spend a few moments reminding you of the value of your own witness to your children with regard to the sacraments.
The Sacraments are special occasions of high-potency-fuel-injected moments of divine grace. We all need them, but they are essential for the formation of our children. So just as we would set aside time to bring a child to batting practice or piano lessons, and then make time to watch a ball game or recital, we must make sure we are leading them, coaching them, preparing them for their big sacramental celebrations and the life that follows them.
Whether you home-school, or send your children to a local school, the responsibility for your children’s religious upbringing and faith initiation rests with you, the parent. This means whether or not your children are enrolled in a church or school program for their sacramental prep, this instruction should be in addition to what you already provide. If these things are a priority for you, they will be a priority for your child. If we abdicate our responsibility in this area, our child will sense that the sacraments are no big deal. The attitudes we own have a trickle-down effect. What’s important to us will get communicated to them. Where there is an absence of faith in the home, other things will fill the void in your child’s life.
Pray. Pray at regular times and spontaneously.
When our children were small we taught them simple prayers: The Our Father, The Hail Mary, The Glory Be, and the prayers used in the Mass and the Rosary. We prayed at every meal and with each child at bedtime. We often encouraged their own spontaneous prayers during the day – prayers of adoration and supplication. Turning for a moment of prayer when a fire truck or ambulance rolls by, or when someone with boo-boo needs consolation are all simple moments fit for a simple, spontaneous prayer from the heart for the one in need. Of course, we pointed out when prayers got answered, even when unpleasant answers were hard to accept.
When our children were little we read Bible stories and held simple devotions on Sunday nights to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Each child had a patron saint that they were named for, and we found others that fit their interests as they grew.
By the time they were in grade school and the teen years, family prayer centered on the formal prayers of the Rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet, with different family members leading each decade. Introducing an occasional, short bible reading for meditation before a meal can be good practice, especially in Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. But those moments of spontaneous prayers are still needed, at meal times, at celebrations, and especially in hard times – in private with them – like when a break up occurs with boyfriend or girlfriend, or when strength is needed to overcome an obstacle. A child can learn to offer a prayer anytime throughout the day… but easy suggestions include praying before doing homework, or before starting a race in a track or swim meet, or offering a prayer before they begin a test.
The teen years bring less micro-managing of children and more of a parent’s consultative guidance. It’s hard to sometimes know what’s going on inside of a teen’s mind and heart sometimes. This one question always helped unlock that door for us as parents, and so we would often ask our children: “What do you want us to pray for?” And then we would let them tell us what it was. That’s often a window for us to see what’s really important to them at the moment. If it was something serious, we told them that whenever they were ready to talk about it, we would be, too. Our teens were reassured that what we prayed about, we held in confidence. Equally important was asking our teens to pray for us. We need them too!
Pray for your family in your personal prayers. Pray for each one by name. Ask God to inspire you to lead each one according to his or her needs.
Nowadays, many teens carry smart phones and there are many Catholic apps that encourage prayer or moments of inspiration for their day. Discover these together!
Finding “teachable moments” rings true at every stage of parenting… whether its finding new ways to share toys, or share a bedroom… from forgiveness over what’s said, or screamed, to talking about the wins and the losses… especially the losses. Talk about the themes of the books and facebook statuses you read, the movies and TV shows you watch. Talk about what’s laudable, what’s objectionable, and why. Talk about fashions for men and for women and what modesty means. Talk about what’s being said on the phone, in texts, on Facebook and elsewhere. Talk about the power of words and the power of time face to face versus virtual communications. Talk about what good clean fun is, versus sarcasm and dirty jokes. Talk about the dangers of porn and the virtues of chastity. Talk about the power of a good idea, and of good works, especially for those less fortunate.
When it comes to the teen years, your limit-setting and house rules will flow more naturally out of conversations like these, as a way of priming the pump for a teen’s sense of what is expected of them.
When our young teens were prepping for Confirmation we taught them the principles of the Creed straight out of the Catechism. (The YOUCAT, or youth catechism, was not available back then.) We did this one on one and with their peers around a dining room table. Teaching them as we would adults brought them to a level of maturity that I don’t think they would have reached on their own. Calling them forward as young adults lets them rise to the occasion. (Sometimes, we were learning a concept right along side of them. Don’t be afraid of sharing your own need for growth in the spiritual life.)
Find opportunities for Youth Retreats and Service.
Catholics cannot live in a vacuum. We need community. To grow in the faith, we need the church. Over the years we took time and effort and financial resources to help our children attend teen retreats that were faith-builders and designed as a call to making a personal commitment to Christ. Events and experiences like these build on the graces of the sacraments our children have already received. Special events like the youth conferences at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and a local summer camp ministry, were instrumental in adding momentum to our teens’ Christian lives, and providing them with peers who also tried to grow in faith.
The high schools our children attended were also avenues for finding ways for them to serve those in need. Whether it was working in a soup kitchen, tutoring a younger student, and helping to rebuild homes in a disaster area, getting a teen to focus on another’s needs, instead of their own, always paid off in spiritual dividends. Many parish youth organizations also offer these opportunities.
Tell them the good you see in them, and God’s plan for them, as you’re filling their joy tank.
Father-son outings and Mother-daughter outings are very helpful. They give individual attention to a child and they can be fun or work-together events.
One of the perks of my husband’s work is that he gets to keep the frequent flyer miles he earns. While we really would prefer that Dad get to stay home more, we’ve used those miles to help those in need, and to take some amazing family trips, once the airfare obstacle goes away. For each one of our three children, as they finished 8th grade and were preparing for high school, we were able to afford a 10-day trip to Europe in the summer as they finished 8th grade.
The trip was one part pilgrimage and one part educational, visiting places around the pilgrimage areas. It was a time to pray with that child in some of the great shrines and holy places we visited, as it broadened their education. Another side benefit was the trip was an opportunity to have a child help plan a special event in a place that interested them, and learn to navigate a foreign country with our help.
Most especially, and this is the main point: it brought days of uninterrupted “face time” to say the things we needed to say as this young person got ready for high school, and to tell them what virtues, good habits, and compassion we saw in them. It helped to equip them for high school by knowing that we knew their strengths and weaknesses. As we talked about those ideas, our threesome was outlining a path for their personal growth, both spiritual and developmentally in the coming years. It also gave us an opportunity to share what freedoms and responsibilities would be theirs in this new phase of growth. We reinforced our parental affirmation and affection. And we reminded them in no uncertain terms that no matter where they went, no matter what they did, we would “be there” for them. Not just during that 10-day “love bomb” of fun and travel, but always.
This is also a great time, if you haven’t already, to begin the vocation question with your child. This is a conversation to have more than once: To talk about the plan that God might have for their lives in terms of religious life or a future spouse and family.
(Of course I know a trip to Europe or elsewhere may not be feasible for every family… but a special weekend away, like a camping trip, or a boat trip with a young teen and their parents have been some of our most treasured memories.)
A pilgrimage plus other sightseeing adventures all rolled into one makes for a joy-filled, memorable event, and a starting point for treating sons and daughters more like the young adults they are becoming.
Be real about suffering.
While we love the joyful side of our faith, and the sweet anticipation of the promise of heaven, there’s a lot we need to deal with in the meantime. The choice to walk “the narrow way” ultimately belongs to each person. Watching a child make choices for Christ in little things will help them do so in the big things. We’ve been up front with our kids about the Cross and the role of suffering in our personal lives, and sadly, when it strikes them (especially once they reached the middle school and teen years). Watching our children suffer is probably the hardest parental affliction. However, we’ve reveled in the blessing of seeing a child make some hard decision, and endure a hardship by looking to Christ. Of course, we also know how quickly and how often the opposite choice might be made. So we’re happy to be here to cheer on and encourage the right ones for the right reasons when we see these moments of flourishing.
The fact is, even with the new evangelization, and with so many good parents and good youth ministries out there, it is still hard to be a faith-filled Catholic kid. If your child is a believer and trying to walk the narrow way, they will deal with troubles that come from that. And it is important to stand with them when they do. This way, when they get to college, or the military, or the workplace after high school, they have some understanding of what it means to make their own decisions with a well-formed conscience, and not with the relativism of the secularized culture. Remember that good decision-making and disciplining takes years of practice; it is the fruit borne after many years.
It is only now, as my children are in their twenties that I can see how the adversity they learned to overcome as children and teens is helping them live as capable, productive, happy, loving Catholic citizens today.
There’s been a lot of trial and error with our children. There’s no magic GPS down the parenting highway, other than a lot of prayer and sweat and recalculating when needed.
For the solo parent without a spiritual spouse.
Finally, I’ve been talking about many of these ideas from the vantage point of a two-parent family, both who are committed Catholics. But what if you are reading this and there is no spiritual spouse in your life? Perhaps you are in a marriage where only one spouse is dedicated to Christian values. Perhaps you are single parent raising your children alone. In these cases, a great amount of prayer and discernment is needed, just as it is in a two-parent home. Even if you are alone, or if your spouse “leaves the spiritual training” to you, a great deal of communication, cooperation, and fortitude is needed to foster the moral and spiritual growth your children need. You show yourself a loving witness to Christ when you love your spouse despite your differing religious views. That respect alone will speak a daily sermon to your children – far better than your words ever will.
I’ve met several single parents who put my husband and I to shame in their reliance on the Lord as the spiritual head of their homes. These widows, widowers, and divorced Catholics have shown us, time and again, that cultivating a spiritual heritage within one’s home can be grace-filled even when such adversity or hardship prevails. Even a solo parent can model and teach the Christian walk. And the Christian community around these solo parents should extend the hand of friendship in building connections between families and within the local church.
Walk the talk, be a holy influence.
Joining with other Catholic parents, taking part in your local Christian community can be a boon to any parent raising children. Just as we seek out Godparents for our children when they are baptized, we should seek out the holy influence of other strong Catholic adults, and their families, within our community to get to know. I have been grateful to grandparents, aunts, and uncles who have reached out to my children. And I’m indebted to several families from our local church that have been good examples for my children in terms of faith practice, marriage, and commitment to the Christian life.
In the end, we all must, individually, work to witness to our children in thought, word, and deed. But we are fortunate indeed when we can find that kind of support and lend that kind of support to one another.
Image credit: mconnors, Morguefile
©Patricia W. Gohn