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Lessons from St. Monica for those whose children and grandchildren have left the Church

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Hundreds of thousands of young adults filled the streets of Lisbon, Portugal, for the 2023 World Youth Day in early August — gathering together for Mass, eucharistic adoration, prayer, and fellowship. The event was powerful and moving, but for some Catholics reading or watching the news coverage of World Youth Day, their interest may be tinged with sadness that their own children or grandchildren don’t share the exuberant faith of the young WYD attendees.

This scenario is a very common one, as religious disaffiliation is rapidly on the rise: Nearly one-third of U.S. adults identify as nonreligious, and in particular, more than half of those who were raised Catholic end up leaving the Church at some point in their lives. Four in 10 never return.

Parents and grandparents whose loved ones have left the Church often seek out the prayers of, and find inspiration in, the example of St. Monica. Although she lived more than 1,600 years ago, her story is remarkably familiar to many Catholic parents today.

St. Monica was the mother of St. Augustine, who is today one of the best-known theologians and saints of the Church. But for a long time, it didn’t seem like he was headed for holiness. Monica’s non-Catholic husband wouldn’t let her baptize Augustine as a child, and while she yearned for her son’s conversion, he resisted joining the Church as a young man for 17 years. Monica never stopped praying (and frequently weeping, legend says) in hopes of his conversion, and sure enough, he was eventually received into the Church just a few months before her death.

If this story sounds familiar, a new book from Ascension Press might speak to your heart and offer hope and consolation. It’s called What Would Monica Do?, and its authors, Patti Maguire Armstrong and Roxane Beauclair Salonen, are themselves mothers who offer guidance, practical advice, and prayers for navigating the difficulty of losing a loved one to the world through their reflections on St. Monica.

“What Would Monica Do?” recently earned first place in the Family Life and Pastoral Ministry/Parish Life categories at the 2023 Catholic Media Association’s Book Awards.

St. Monica’s inspiration

Armstrong and Salonen seek to bring hope and solidarity to parents grieving their child or grandchild leaving the Church.

“We saw the book as a way to extend the support of friendship to others in the same situation and to offer understanding, support, and hope,” Armstrong said.

“So many of Patti’s and my prayer swaps had to do with this shared heartache,” Salonen added.  “We knew we weren’t the only ones. We were very prayerful about whether we would venture out with this heartache, but in the end, felt that God was calling us to bring it into the light to bring hope to others.”

St. Monica was a natural inspiration and example, so much so that she came to feel like a friend to them.

“The more we learned about her, the more we realized that her life is not so different from what many parents today are dealing with,” Armstrong said. “Her husband was not Catholic, although he converted before he died. Augustine went away to school and came back at age 17 with a girlfriend and out-of-wedlock son and following a New Age religion. Her perseverance and faithfulness can be an inspiration to others praying for someone who seems far from the Church.”

“St. Monica had become our friend,” Salonen said. “How could she instruct us on how to deal with the suffering of loving a child who seemed to be rejecting the life of grace we find through the Church Jesus founded?”

Monica’s fourth-century world is remarkably similar to our own; she lived in a time when Christianity was just beginning and paganism still had a hold. She felt alone at times and was unsure about how to handle her wayward son, but her example in these difficulties offers a way forward to parents in similar situations.

“The love of Christ carried her through,” Salonen told CNA. “She took that love and poured it into others.”

St. Ambrose, who served as bishop of Milan from 374–397, told Monica to “speak less to your son about God, and more to God about your son” — advice Armstrong and Salonen took to heart.

“She had to learn the art of letting go — of her desire to control her son’s soul, and place her worries for him into God’s heart,” Salonen said. “We all seek the peace with which she ended her life, knowing her son had reclaimed Christ. But in the meantime, we can do what Monica did, deepening our faith, bringing others who are ready to Christ, and living in hope.”

Many parents think they are alone in this suffering, but it’s actually remarkably common.

Armstrong and Salonen host a private Facebook group called “Catholic Parents: What Would Monica Do?” where loved ones of fallen away Catholics share resources, triumphs, and sorrows. “We’d love to have [anyone] join us and pray with us as we walk through this journey together, with St. Monica and Our Lord ever near,” Salonen said.

Advice for parents

Armstrong and Salonen offer parents in similar situations the following advice:

  1. Surrender yourselves and your children to God: The book includes many tools and examples to draw on so that parents need not feel helpless, such as Scripture, saint stories, ongoing stories from other parents, and many interviews addressing issues such as anger, forgiveness, our complicated culture and Church, worry, guilt, and more.
  2. Allow yourself to grieve what you feel has been lost — your hopes and dreams for your child in terms of living a vibrant faith life — but don’t stay there: Through daily surrender, parents can place that sorrow in more capable hands, remembering their children are God’s first.
  3. Be open to inner growth and transformation: “If we’re open to it, God will transform our hearts through this process of feeling rejected and help us see that it’s not us they’re rejecting, but him,” Salonen said.
  4. Love your child deeply: While parents wait and pray for their child’s return, they can love them deeply. “Love must rule our actions in every way,” Salonen said.
  5. Take an eternal perspective: There are ways of reframing that can help parents view things from the eternal perspective. “We need to not set deadlines for God,” Salonen said. “Let him do the great soul work that he did in St. Augustine, as Monica continued to pray and hope, focusing on enlivening the lives of others.”

Above all, Armstrong said, she hopes parents remember that children have free will and cannot be controlled, and it’s not going to help to beat yourself up about the past. “Go to confession and apologize to God and whoever you need to for your failings,” she encouraged parents. “Then move on and trust in God as you go deeper in your own faith.”

Salonen hopes readers know that the book isn’t just for parents and grandparents.

“It’s really about carrying the cross of any kind of loss,” she said. “What do we do when our hearts are breaking, and we realize we have no control? We need to find a way to pick ourselves back up and begin to have hope again.”

Armed with help from God, the Blessed Mother, and many saints, parents and grandparents can step into difficult situations with grace and help make a pathway back for their loved ones.

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Lessons from St. Monica for those whose children and grandchildren have left the Church