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Catholic Family Fuel: Strong Catholic families make strong Catholics

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September 12, 2011

By Sean Reynolds, Colleen Gerke and Ken Gleason


This article is the first in an ongoing series written to assist and support parents in their vital role as leaders of their domestic churches.  If our children are to grow up as strong Catholics, it will most likely be because of the faith, efforts, prayer and love of their parents.  As parents, let us pledge to keep one another close in prayer in this great and humbling mission that we share.

Strong Catholic families make strong Catholics. This is hardly news. The church has an unbroken tradition declaring this fact.



So when the “National Study of Youth and Religion” — the gold standard of research into the faith of young people — revealed the direct and powerful link between the faith of young people and that of their parents, it was no surprise. What was surprising — shocking in fact — was the poor showing of the Catholic young people in the study. 


The first wave of this groundbreaking longitudinal research was published in 2005 in Soul Searching — The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America’s Teenagers, in which the authors said  “…Catholic teenagers, who represent nearly one-quarter of all U.S. teens, stand out among the U.S. Christian teenagers as consistently scoring lower on most measures of religiosity…” and “Catholic teenagers tended to be particularly inarticulate about their faith…” and “On most measures of religious faith, belief, experience and practice, Catholic teens as a whole show up rather weak.”


If strong Catholic families make strong Catholic kids, then apparently we don’t have many of them. Ouch.


The second and third waves of the study, published in 2009 in Souls in Transition, confirmed the earlier research and went on to say that the faith trajectories of teens into young adulthood tended to be remarkably stable.  In other words, the faith that’s planted at home (whether strong or not) in the first decade and a half of life establishes the basic pattern of faith on into the twenties and likely far beyond. And we’re experiencing a widespread and troubling exodus of young adults from the church, which points back to what happened (or didn’t) at home during those years.


If we want our kids to have faith on into their 20s and beyond — to be strong Catholics as adults — we need strong Catholic families, with parents actively shaping the faith of their kids from their earliest years.


“Wait a minute!” you might say. “We were a strong Catholic family as our kids were growing up, and none of them goes to church any more.”


 In this the research is clear: there are no guarantees. As a parent, you may have done all the right things and it didn’t work out. There are undoubtedly forces at work in the lives of our kids that are far beyond our control, and powerfully influence them in ways contrary to our wishes as parents.


Yet, despite no guarantees, the research is irrefutable: the best predictor of the faith of children is the faith of the parents. That finding is ironclad. 


It’s worth considering that maybe what we’ve been assuming are “all the right things” to make for a strong Catholic upbringing in fact are not the right things, or at least not enough of them. For instance, if we’ve been assuming that simply getting our kids to Mass on Sunday, or to Catholic school, will get the job done, once again the research suggests that we may well be sadly disappointed. That’s not to say that these aren’t important. They, in fact, are, but they pale in comparison to the kind of faith that’s lived and modeled daily at home, in “the domestic church,” especially by parents. 


So what does this kind of faith look like? The great thing is that it’s not a matter of turning your life on its head, or your family’s for that matter.  There are some very simple, practical things you can do that can make a really big difference over time. Here are some ideas:

• Have dinner together at least several times a week, and take the time to really talk with one another at the dinner table about important things, including faith.

• Pray together daily as a family, not just at mealtimes but at other times as well. Establish family traditions of daily prayer, and stick to them especially when life gets busy. Pray the liturgical seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas with your kids.   Depending on their ages, different forms of prayer will be appropriate. 

• Share your personal faith with your kids every day. This can be as simple as briefly sharing a “God moment” you had that day, or as elaborate as reading aloud the upcoming Sunday Gospel reading and having everyone share a reflection.

• Pray individually with your kids, especially when they’re going through rough patches. Just put a hand on the shoulder and speak aloud a few words of heartfelt prayer and love for them.

• Volunteer in your parish and community, and bring your kids along to help.  Look for ways to serve together as a family, and stay committed to service even when family life gets hectic. 

• Model how to prepare for and celebrate the sacraments, especially Sunday Eucharist. Be firm in your commitment to regular Sunday worship, even when athletics or work schedules make family life complicated.

• For small children, make sure you have and regularly read to them children’s books of bible stories and saints. For older children, use sacred Scripture and other inspirational readings, especially during our holiest days of Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas.

• Bring prayer and faith into family celebrations and gatherings like birthdays and anniversaries, as well as big events like graduations and getting drivers’ licenses. 

• Keep a sharp eye on your family schedule, and limit the number of kids’ sports teams and seasons, as well as other extracurriculars.  Rule of thumb: if quality family time is suffering, so is family faith.

• Make sure the walls of your home carry inspiring art reminding you and your children of what’s most important in life and faith.

• Participate in faith formation, especially if it’s offered for the entire family.  Look for “intergenerational” faith formation, and if your parish doesn’t offer any, ask for it.


This kind of list can feel overwhelming, especially if it’s taken as a series of “shoulds.”  It’s better to think of it as a list of opportunities that can bring more life, love, sparkle, spirit and friendship with Christ into your family. 


The earlier in the life of a family that these kinds of experiences find their way into daily and weekly schedules, the easier it is for parents to model and maintain them. If there’s little or no history of these in a family with older elementary children, or teenagers, it can be challenging to start, since introducing change into a family with established patterns typically generates resistance. As God is gentle, accepting and forgiving with us, so we must be with one another as we strive to live our faith “out loud” for the sake of our children.


A final note: it’s especially challenging for a parent to model and impart faith if his/her spouse isn’t interested, or even worse, in opposition passively or actively. We need to pray for and support our friends in such situations, and help them be gentle with themselves. 


Reynolds is director of the archdiocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. Gerke is the director of the archdiocesan Family and Respect Life Office. Gleason is the director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.

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