Families are very busy these days. Husbands and wives work outside the home. Many feel that two incomes are mandatory if they are to make it. This lifestyle choice must be balanced with childcare needs and schools. I have detected from some parents a below the surface resentment toward the homeschooling families where the wife and mother (but more rarely the husband and father) stays home to teach and to care for children. Similarly, a number of homeschooling families are negative about couples who both work and send their children to public or even parochial schools. There should be a common respect toward all and the basic decisions that Christians make while still preserving their Catholic identity. There is no one perfect formula for raising children. This is not to ignore the many wrong roads that families might pursue, especially when faith is eliminated as a factor in their lives. Children may have been baptized, at the urging of grandparents, but millions have experienced no faith formation. Such families do not pray together and if they go to Mass it is limited to Easter and Christmas. News of scandals in the Church is taken as validation for the distance they have made with the Church, thus subduing any latent guilt. The children know little to nothing about Jesus and the saints. I knew one young woman who was raised in such an environment. She came to see me as a priest when she wanted to get married. Everything was about the accidentals of the ceremony; she knew nothing about the value of marriage as a sacrament that pointed to the covenant of Christ with his Church. I eventually stopped everything to ask a basic question, “Who is Jesus?” She looked at me with a blank expression on her face and said, “I suppose he was a nice man.” That was all she knew. She had no relationship with the God who came down from heaven, was made man by the power of the Holy Spirit, and who surrendered his life so that she might know the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Her baptism was treated as no more than magic or spiritual insurance. No follow up had been made for faith formation. It would be a long process for her to appreciate the third to get married— that Jesus must be the third ring linking the other two in her marriage if it were to be a sacrament. Much would have to be unlearned and the vacuum of ignorance would have to be filled. I did my best to bring her up to speed so that she would know the Lord as she should. She had yet to appreciate that Jesus Christ was more than a nice man. He was the Christ and our Savior. Couples sometimes complain about the six month waiting period before marriage and the preparation required. However, I not only think it is essential, it is probably not enough. Pope Francis has suggested that given the impoverished faith of people, that marriage preparation should be more lengthy and in-depth, like RCIA and adult catechetical instructions. We have to break the cycle of ignorance breeding another generation of ignorance.
One of the most devastating errors of modernity is that religion is peripheral to our lives. No one has time for prayer and worship but there is always time for work and play. Sporting activities take precedence over Sunday Mass. Hundreds of dollars will be spent on concerts and ball games but there are complaints about the five to ten dollars that might be placed in the church collection plate. Make people mad or say what they do not want to hear and even those few funds disappear. If that were not enough, the Church has literally shot herself in the foot with the scandals surrounding clergy.
Not only must families make time for the religious formation of their children, by rights, they should be the principal educators in the ways of faith. The question must be raised, “When do you as parents talk about faith with your children?” While there are parents doing what they are supposed to do, the response from others is often convoluted and unclear. Why? It is because this necessary discussion is rarely or not taking place.
How can we resolve this? I think it is important for families to earmark time to talk about the faith with its members. Let us look at some suggestions:
While Jesus and the apostles walked from place to place, people today drive almost everywhere. We also spend a lot of time each day in automobiles. Hours are spent by many commuting back and forth to work. There are carpools for children going to school. Families drive to sporting events, concerts, to vacation sites, etc. While driving in the car, families can do more than listen to the radio, play on their tablets or list out-of-state license plates. Families can turn off the gadgets and take out their rosaries. Praying together is always a fundamental way of growing in the faith. The mysteries of the rosary are literally signposts to the saving works of Christ. Families can also talk about how things are going in their lives. It must also be said, especially given accidents, that we should pray for safety before a trip and render a prayer of thanks at the end. When I bless cars I invoke the Madonna of the Streets, sometimes humorously retitled, Our Lady of the Highways. There are also customs that need to be kept while on the road. When encountering a funeral procession, my father would pull over and we would say a decade of the rosary for the poor soul. When we saw an ambulance, we would offer a quick Hail Mary for the sick or hurt person. Whenever we drove before a Catholic church, we would make the Sign of the Cross. Who knows, if such habits returned, maybe we would see a decrease in dangerous road rage? If we must turn on the radio, there is nothing wrong with adding religious or Christian music to our driving experience.
We often look at sick time as time wasted. We lose work hours and children miss school. God frequently draws good from evil. No one likes being sick, but we can still extract something positive from the experience. Indeed, it can become a graced time for spiritual reading, prayer and bonding with children in faith. It is also an occasion to ponder the sacrifices that Jesus made to redeem us. Children often think that they are as invulnerable as the superheroes of comics. However, in truth our mortality and dependence upon God is worthy of reflection and a discussion with family members.
It is said that instead of talking, families become comatose in front of television sets. As an alternative to the latest sleazy cable show or formula comedy, parents could be more selective about their viewing habits. Not only do they want to avoid bad witness in watching shows that degrade human dignity; they can deliberately find worthwhile programs and films that depict elements of faith and values for discussion as a family. Indeed, some families even develop libraries of DVDs and put together their own discussion questions based upon them. These films do not all have to be strictly religious like The Passion of the Christ or the The Song of Bernadette. I have given retreats where we have discussed secular films with important messages: The Boy Who Could Fly, The Mighty, The Perfect Game, Paper Planes, Spare Parts, etc.
There are also traditional times for prayer and gathering that should be utilized in forming the youth in faith. Grace Before Meals and Prayers of Thanksgiving afterwards remind us that all we have is a gift from God. Sitting together at the dinner table is not a time for texting on phones or playing on tablets. Families should share a fellowship meal and share something about each other. Often imaged as a place of confrontation, the family supper table should be viewed as a precious time for bonding. That is why inviting a guest to dinner is more than just setting an extra plate. It is an invitation to come into the intimate circle of the family. The one guest that should always be there is the Lord. Another traditional time for prayer is prior to going to bed. A child should have the habit of saying prayers before going to sleep. When children are young, parents should help them and pray with them. When their children become teens it is still good to pray with them from time to time and even to discuss needs to be brought to the Lord. Especially important in these discussions is the meaning of prayer itself as diversified communication with the Lord. Too many reduce prayer to petition and neglect praise, thanksgiving and contrition.
Almost any time can be made a time for prayer, spiritual reflection and discussion on themes of faith. Vacations are especially good because of the control families then have over the schedule. Indeed, fun in the sun or skiing on the slopes can also become a retreat time with bible reading and special devotions. Some families make a habit of visiting other churches and praying at religious pilgrimage sites. Families should not worry about becoming religious “fanatics.” That is a label or charge imposed by those with little to no faith. You cannot love the Lord too much. We belong to him. He is a jealous God. All things in this world are passing. Faith in Christ assures our place in eternity.
One of my favorite “old time” television programs is The Andy Griffith Show. Not only were the characters sometimes shown at church or praying or singing hymns, but there were also beautiful scenes of one-to-one time between Andy and his son Opie. The fishing scenes were particularly memorable. When I think back to my own time with my father, a number of conversations come to mind. My father was a simple man and yet he was a dedicated Catholic. His faith was black and white with few grays. He passed on his clarity to me. He said, “Either get married or be a priest— that is it. Never abandon the Church. It would be better to die than to ever betray your Catholic faith!” His views became my own. My mother complemented his faith with her own values for modesty and prudence. Together, they taught us to be good and to treat others with respect.
My parents loved each other and sacrificed for their children. They were dedicated to each other. No matter what fights or discouragements came their way, they were utterly committed to each other. They would have as many children as God would give them. Marriage was until natural death. Divorce was never an option on the table. Our home became a real and secure refuge from the challenges to faith and the changing values of our society.
My father encouraged my vocation. I became a priest. I remember my father’s great joy on my ordination today. Parallel to his views about the permanence of marriage, my father remarked, “You belong to the Church now. You will be a priest, forever.” My parents taught me to honor the dignity of persons and the sanctity of life. They also modeled for me an abiding honesty in all my dealings. They did not have much in the way of money and stuff to share, but they gave me and my siblings the gifts that most mattered— our lives, our faith and our values.