In short, no. There is no full-proof spiritual vaccine against unbelief.
Sorry, I know that’s not the answer you want to hear. But that’s life in a fallen world. You can be the wisest, most loving, most faithful parent on the planet, and there’s still no guarantee your children won’t walk away from God.
And the temptation to walk away will come.
A few weeks back, Our Sunday Visitor asked me to take a look at the emerging trend of young atheists. Which I did.
On one level, what I found was disheartening. From the story:
“Nationwide, young people are leaving the Church and religion altogether at a record-breaking pace, with the Pew Forum’s most recent study on religious affiliation finding that 16 percent of young people now subscribe to atheism, agnosticism, or no organized religion at all, the highest percentage of any demographic group.”
So, that’s the depressing part.
There is, however, a not depressing part: Young people have an innate desire to believe in something greater than themselves, and if parents approach questions of belief rightly, there’s much they can do to channel that desire in the right direction.
Because of word count limitations (the bane of my existence), I didn’t have room in the OSV story to share all that I learned on that point. But that’s the glory of blogging—more room, no editors.
So, what do the experts say you, as parents, can do to strengthen your child’s spiritual immune system?
1. Love Jesus.
That’s where it starts. If you know Jesus as your God and Savior, if he’s your greatest love and closest confident, it shows. It makes your witness more credible and your catechesis more effective. And if you don’t? Well, that shows too.
2. Know why the Church teaches what she does.
You can’t hand on what you don’t know, and you can’t answer the questions about God and Heaven, good and evil, truth and suffering that your children bring to you if you’ve never looked into those questions yourself. The Catholic Faith is suffused with mystery, mysteries that go beyond reasons. But those mysteries don’t go against reason. They don’t contradict it. There are good answers for why Catholics believe what we do, answers that have satisfied some of the greatest minds the world has known. Learn them now…before the questions start.
3. Live the Faith in your home.
The Catholic Faith isn’t an ideology. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of seeing the world and living within it. It’s a way of being and loving, working and praying, eating and dressing, playing and dancing. It’s also a beautiful way. When done rightly, nothing else compares. So, strive to do it rightly. Bring the rhythms of your work life and your home life more and more into accord with the rhythms of the Church’s life. As a family, volunteer at a food pantry; pray outside an abortion clinic; say those rosaries; love your spouse; be open to life; invite the lonely and the suffering into your home; look for little ways you can serve one another daily. Truly be Catholic, every day in every way, and, odds are, your children will be too.
4. Build a trusting relationship with your children.
Listen to them. Look at them. Be interested in who they are and what they think. Honor your promises and commitments to them. Be there when you say you will. Say you’re sorry when you fail. When they fail, be just but merciful. Be firm but gentle. Create a climate where they know they can bring any trouble, any struggle, any mistake to you and find help and forgiveness. Have a monthly Jubilee Day, where any confession of wrongdoing will be met with a hug and not a punishment. In essence, strive to model the Fatherhood of God as you experience it every time you go to Confession.
5. Don’t dismiss their questions about the Faith.
Or condemn them. Doubt is a normal stage of adolescence. It’s often the first step in owning one’s faith as an adult. So, when the questions come, tell your child those are good questions that others of deep faith have also asked. Answer the questions if you can. If not, tell them you’ll find the answers. Then find them. Maybe suggest reading books that address those questions together, as a family. Whatever you do, just show your child that you take him and his opinions seriously.
6. Don’t compromise on Sunday Mass.
If your child announced he no longer believed in good hygiene, you wouldn’t allow him to stop bathing. If he announced he no longer believed in education, you wouldn’t allow him to drop out of school. And if he announces he no longer believes in God or the Church, you shouldn’t allow him to stop going to Mass. A parents’ job is to lead and guide—calmly, wisely, firmly. So, for as long as they live under your roof, you need to lead and guide your children to Mass every Sunday. There is grace to be had there, grace that can’t be had any other way. Getting them to Mass doesn’t have to be a battle. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Some things in family life just aren’t optional, and when that’s made clear, kids know it and don’t fight it (much). Make sure Mass is one of those things.
7. Don’t panic.
God loves your children far, far more than you ever will. He wants them for himself far, far more that you ever can. And he will spend every day of your children’s lives moving heaven and earth to accomplish that. Which is why so very many of those who wander from the faith of their childhood eventually return. Know that. Trust that. Have faith in that. Pray without ceasing for your children as they struggle and fall. But never panic. It’s not over until it’s over…for anyone.