'Now and Then I Feel It's Working'

Part 1 of 'Raising Catholic Kids'

Several years ago, in an effort to find some spiritual fellowship, I decided to join our parish men’s group. Then in my early thirties, I was generally the youngest man at the meetings, often by two or three decades. I suppose it is a sign of the times that, now in my mid-forties, I am still the youngest man at our meetings.

As I grew to know these men, I discovered that many of them shared a common pain. Despite their best efforts, their children were not practicing Catholics. Some of their children had married in the church or had their own children baptized, but no longer attended Mass regularly. Others had not done even that much.

In those early months of participation, I was warmly welcomed but also treated as a kind of curiosity. Here was someone the same age as their children (or, in some cases, grandchildren) who attended Mass, was active in the parish, and, to all outward appearances, was a “serious” Catholic. What magical secret to passing on the faith had my parents discovered?

[Editor's note: Go here to see all of the stories we've posted as part of the Raising Catholic Kids symposium.]

I had no answer because, in truth, my embrace of Christ and his church is only tangentially related to the way I was raised. Yes, we were Catholic. But we were Catholics of a decidedly ambivalent sort. My mother was raised in a large, poor family of Irish descent and, like many who have sprung from those roots, her relationship to her childhood faith is complicated. She has not attended Mass regularly since leaving home in her early twenties. My father, of “lace-curtain Irish” extraction, was raised by an extremely pious mother and dutifully married in the church and had his children baptized. We did not, however, attend Mass as children. My grandmother, apparently troubled that her grandchildren were growing up as pagans, continued to press my father on this point while surreptitiously sending me pamphlets on St. Thérèse of Lisieux and, on one occasion, a glow-in-the-dark rosary.

My father finally relented and began taking me and my sister to Mass around the time I turned ten. He chose a parish that was very “modern,” complete with the guitar music, large felt banners, and nonrepresentational stained glass that were popular at that time. Because of the late start to my religious education, I received First Communion and Confirmation in the same year.

I had a brief burst of piety around my Confirmation but started to drift away fairly quickly after that. I had no friends at the parish and no connection to it other than Sunday Mass. These were the early years of the Reagan administration and I found myself in profound disagreement with the “Christian” leaders who supported the president’s militarism and scapegoating of the poor. I was too disconnected from my own church to know that the U.S. Catholic bishops often had different views on those questions.

I try the reader’s patience with these details of my life story only to suggest this: If you had wanted to write a book about how not to raise your children Catholic, my parents (cheerfully, in my mother’s case) could have served as models. Yet here I am, my faith as much a mystery to me as it is to the rest of my family, none of whom are practicing Catholics anymore. Let it suffice to say that, in the end, my “reversion” was not a decision so much as a surrender to a power that simply overwhelmed me with its passionate desire for my return.

I have two children of my own now. Many parents react to perceived deficiencies in their own childhood by leaning violently in the other direction. I am no different. I have done everything in my power to give my children the deep roots in the Catholic tradition that I did not have. My wife and I have made the financial sacrifice to send our children to Catholic school, a sacrifice that will become all the more difficult as they enter (God willing!) the local Catholic high school. Both of us pursued graduate work in theology and we are deeply involved in a wonderful parish where we are active in a variety of ministries.

Aside from the investment in their education, I did not do most of these things for my children. I did them because they seemed at least a meager return for what God has done for me in Jesus Christ. But I have also tried to live my faith in a way that would make it truly attractive and credible to my children.

Every now and then I feel that it’s working. One of our family traditions during the last days of Advent is to recite the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) together. When my children come to the lines that read, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; he has filed the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty,” you would think that they were narrating the climactic victory of the rebels over the Death Star in Star Wars. What better way to anticipate the coming of him who “gives light to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death”?

Most of the time, though, I feel that I am failing. I am writing these words shortly after yet another argument with my precocious twelve-year-old daughter about why she has to come to Mass with us, an argument that usually ends with me frustrated and her in tears. She claims that she is an atheist and hates going to Mass. Of course, she says she hates going to Mass in the same tone that she uses to say she hates showers or cleaning her room. My fourteen-year-old son is not particularly passionate on these questions, but has made clear that he has no intention of going to Mass when he is no longer under our supervision.

No doubt many readers will think I am being unduly pessimistic. This sort of adolescent rebellion is very common, even healthy, they will argue. Children who leave the church in their high-school and college years have often returned when they marry or have children.

Alas, that pattern seems to be breaking down. The fastest-growing religious community in the United States is those who claim no religious identity. These “nones” account for almost one-third of adults under thirty, and their number is growing. There was a time when the “thickness” of Catholic culture exerted a strong pull on those who had left. That culture, however, no longer has the power it once did, and efforts to restore its exterior trappings are too often tinged with a peculiarly Catholic form of fundamentalism.

I am not worried that my children will be bad people. They are too much like their dutiful parents for that. I am sure they will be gainfully employed, take jury service seriously, and yield to drivers attempting to merge ahead of them on the highway. Both of them are kind, and sensitive to injustice, and will no doubt volunteer some of their time to help the less fortunate as they pursue their chosen careers. In that way, their lives will mirror our own.

Shouldn’t that be enough? Perhaps it should. But if one believes, as I do, that the point of Christianity is not primarily to make people well behaved but rather to proclaim what Reinhold Niebuhr once called “the nature and destiny of man,” then it seems to lack something essential. I don’t think I would do my children any favors by pretending otherwise.

There is always a temptation as a parent to think that your children are clay that you are called to shape. The truth is that we are merely stewards of something precious that ultimately belongs to God. If he can call a prodigal like me back to him, he can certainly do the same for my children if he so chooses. In the end, faith is his gift to give, not mine.

[Editor's note: Go here to see all of the stories we've posted as part of the Raising Catholic Kids symposium.]

About the Author

J. Peter Nixon is a senior director at Kaiser Permanente, an integrated health-care delivery system based in Oakland, California. His views are his own.



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Peter - your parenting is virtually a carbon copy of mine, with roughly the same results.  Who know how it will all turn out?  All we can do is what we're able to do. 

In my years doing inactive Catholic outreach ministry, the biggest indicator I've experienced of whether children will become inactive is the inactivity or dispassion of their parents to the faith during their childhood, and the biggest single indicator of whether inactives will ever come back is their parent's passion!   But there are no guarantees about raising kids who will stay in the faith - we are only one of many factors. Our greatest evangelization responsibility is to them, as it is to a lesser extent to everyone.   That is our job -  and in humility it is also good to remember the flipside - we all had parents who weren't perfect.   Ultimately, salvation for our kids will come from the same place ours will - Christ.

Consider praying about the following for your parish, and be ready to commit.

1) Have  active, supported,  youth group (teens and  pre- teans), and give them a chance to visit and touch poor peope who are suffering. This can be done by visits to elderly people in parts of Appalachia.  Some of these are in need of helpful caring  to:  clean  their mobil home bathroom and kitchen and doing their laundry.  These volunteer-helpers  experience the Holy Spirit through  the senses: visual and olfactory - especially when celebrated as part of a retreat:  http://www.ypwcministries.org/volunteer.htm

2) At a weekend mass, encourage parents to  bring their little childre to the communion procession. As a bread minister. Read the sign that their parent holds up with their child(ren)'s first name(s) on it, call each child by first name.Meet them at their physical level (get down on your knee), make eye contact, smile, call them  by first name like: Mary + God bless  y ou and keep you, (make a sign of the cross on thir forehead) Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  (put your  hand on their head), and say: Amen. Both the bread minster the parent(s) have also just been blessed. Now give the Body of Christ  to the little child(ren)'s parent (s).  Repeat as needed.

The above experiences help make teens and pre-teens,  and and little children more a part of  us as Church. When they go out in the world, they will remember these experiences; and there is a good chance that they will continue attending weekend (or maybe even daily) mass.





 SON is doing good. BECAME a member of the knights of columbus.GOES to mass.

 ME? I WAS  a holy terror.I hated ccd classes. Made sure I did not have to go anymore by tearing up the parking lot. OH, did I mention it was just paved.

 But in today's adults, married or single, men do not want to get involved. The church needs a lot of help.There are people, always the same ones. helping out with dinners, festivals and whatever.

 Another thing also that bugs today's youth is the shepheard thatleads the diocese. If he upsets or disrupts how things were run in the past that is bad for the diocese. some of the leaders of the diocese has seen fit to take 8% of the second collection. So, if the Holy Name Society collects for the poor and collects $!k, the bishop takes $80. from the collection. That is totally wrong.

 Greed will lead to the destruction of the church as we know it. Look what it did to some of the phony tv "preachers".

Skip has a good 1 & 2 points. Some Hispanic priests even invite the little children (too young for first communion) to come and sit on the steps of the altar so they can feel 'close to Jesus.' This gesture seems to diminish the natural shyness and fear kids have.

The last person hired for a parish staff and the first laid off seems to be youth minister. Many are simply parent volunteers, good hearted people but with little catechetical or youth ministry training. If we are serious about children's faith formation, we certainly need a more serious and professional approach. The critical age appears to be high school where youth retreats and conventions and larger diocesan events build upon local community. Yet even in the largest parishes and dioceses the real effort seems limited and sketchy. Again a sense of professionalism instead of new age, radical and off the wall approaches are needed. And the catechesis needs to be worthy of their time investment. Just playing ice-breaker games and eating pizza do not an informed Catholic make.

My daughter decided against confirmation because she did not see the use of giving up time during two of her very busy high school years to feign comradery with kids she did not know well. She took religion classes in school and requested permission to complete confirmation as an "independent study."

My son attended the first year but at the beginning of the second asked the program director "do I have to do this if I'm pretty sure I don't believe in it?" (It is to her credit that she told him no.)

The fact that church was not significant in their social lives was a factor in their disinterest. Although we live in a majority Catholic area their closest neighborhood friends tended to be non-Catholic (or at least non-observant) and their closest Catholic friends tended to be from other parishes. 

"The truth is that we are merely stewards of something precious that ultimately belongs to God." Yes!!   Kahlil Gibran expressed this very reality is ways more poetic, more sincere than any I have ever read. 

If you are indeed attempting to follow Christ then it seems more than reasonable to assume Christ led you to the love that led the two of you to bring children into this world.  Keep that love alive.  Make it more important than a child's opinion.  They are relying upon it.  Isn't that the faith you wish to pass on to them?  As for the grand mystery that is God, well, that journey we all make as best we can. To genuinely expect a child to usefully understand notions highly experienced, highly educated, appropriately passionate elderly folks clearly do not is an all too common method of convincing young people the hypocrisy their intuition suspects is in fact real.

If you "fail" in your efforts to share your faith with you children you'll be happy to know you have a partner who truly understands.  That's always helpful.


Peter, I am now 82 and faced the same delimena when I was 40 with four children.  We belonged (and still do) to an inner city Seattle parish with a great gospel choir.  We took our children every Sunday and they seemed to enjoy being there and receiving the sacraments.  One parishioner whom my wife and I met and loved, was an obstetrician.  In my own life he was the most spiritual man I had ever met, laughed all the time, and would also tell you his latest off-color joke.  No wonder I loved him and his freedom.  He was also15 years older than us.  I asked him why his two sons were not at mass with him?  He said they no longer wanted to go when they were about my own children’s ages.  He let them make the choice.  So I figured if he was not successful in getting his sons to church, I would have no chance!  We then told our children they could make up their own minds. Sometimes they came, sometimes they didn’t want to.  We always went because we loved our church/parish and still go 48 years later (albeit it now and then!!)  Now our “kids” are 51, 49, 47 and 41. Only one goes to church regularly and mostly because his two children are in Catholic school.  Three are practically “Jesus freaks!”  They profess their close relationship with Jesus Christ and live exemplarily lives. We all read the latest spiritually based new books and then discuss them.  We talk at dinners together about Jesus and God all the time.  So Peter, you wonder, how you children will “turn out.” I present mine to you.  They are compassionate, loving, spiritual and so our are five grandchildren. Church on Sunday or living a life of love today?  I believe that favorite man of mine who shared his story years ago is smiling down from heaven as I write this.


Hello Peter,

Thanks for sharing your story - a difficult situation, if not an uncommon one, alas.

Such stories always capture my interest, partly for personal reasons - are there common threads to narratives where children seem to receive and retain the faith, and those that don't? Things that parents do or don't do? Are there pitfalls I can avoid myself, or goods that I can adopt for my own? All the while recognizing, of course, that there are no guarantees - at least as to details.

Reading your essay, I am left with some questions. Would it be possible to give any detail on what your family prayer life is like, how it evolved from the days of birth up to early adolescence? Common devotions you undertook? What kind of things did you look for in choosing your school? What kind of involvement did you have in your parish?

If these are too personal, don't hesitate to say so.




 I am writing these words shortly after yet another argument with my precocious twelve-year-old daughter about why she has to come to Mass with us, an argument that usually ends with me frustrated and her in tears. She claims that she is an atheist and hates going to Mass. Of course, she says she hates going to Mass in the same tone that she uses to say she hates showers or cleaning her room.

Do you tell her she has to go to Mass in the same tone you use to say she has to take a shower or clean her room?

I have real questions about what we can impose on our children and youth. Can we force them to go to Mass, and once there, to join in singing, in saying the words of prayer, in receiving communion, in making the sign of the cross, etc? If we do, aren't we sending the message that these are things that people do whether they believe in them or not, that they do not really mean anything, and that perhaps most of the people at Mass are hypocrites who do not really believe in much of anything? Doesn't it train them to be physically present at Mass but with their mind wandering? Isn't that counter-productive? But if they stop going to Mass, will there be any other place for them to experience the community of Christians and the closeness of Christ? But they're not experiencing it there, else they wouldn't be so reluctant to go to Mass...

So what is one supposed to do? I am not sure. My current compromise is that my nieces and nephews have to go with me, but are allowed to take a book with them and read it during Mass instead of participating. That's hardly satisfactory.



Oldest daughter coming back to church, but it has been circuitous. She attended high quality public schools, and most of her friends were not Catholic. Refused to attend Mass with me while in college and law school. Flirted with Judaism after a Birthright trip to Israel (my husband is a secular Jew) for years. What started pulling her back? She's a litigator at a large firm which does a lot of work with various charities, and she saw that Catholic organizations did the most good for the poor and disadvantaged. That made up her mind! She and her husband are now expecting twins next spring and will be raising them Catholic. Go figure! 

Her younger sister attended a dioscean high school and became very turned off by the constant discussions of abortion in religion classes. She also did a lot of reading on her own about the sex abuse scandals and cover ups in the church. She says she loves Jesus, but like Ghandi, is not enamored of those who claim to follow Him. And she was very religious as a young girl. But based on her sister's experience, there's still hope.

My niece attended Catholic institutions from elementary schools through college, and was raised in a wholesome and observant Catholic household. Today she's a Unitarian.

The big drawbacks to these educated and accomplished young women are the church's teachings on birth control and the bans on females in the priesthood. 

So having been raised by parents who did not follow their own upbringing and did not require us to go to church, indeed did not go to church themselves and neither forbade nor required church attendance from any of their children, let me tell you what I think looking back: my parents were honest with us about what they saw as the church's strengths and weaknesses, but for them, after seeing the expected forward movement crushed, especially in the form of HV, they felt that the future would be a mostly a demonstration of all the weaknesses they hated.  They were determined that we make up our own minds. 

This was reinforced by a large suburban church milieu that they saw as anti-intellectual.  You obviously see things your children don't, especially, you understand in ways they don't what the alternative is to being raised in a religious household.  If I had advice, it would be, "okay, forget mass, show me YOUR OWN devotion, through volunteer work or some other practice that reinforces your solidarity with God's children." 

I know that we found it easier to keep our own children involved in a church when it is clear to them that their own participation was very important to the continuity of that church's mission.  It isn't a Catholic church, but a congregationalist church.  The fact that they were working side by side with young adults (not their peers, but even better, people who were a little older and who they looked up to) made it possible for them to talk to other people besides us about their doubts and questions.  For a variety of reasons, this kind of experience does not seem to happen often in Catholic parishes.

The problem with many leaders of the church since Iraneus is that they preached that salvation came through them rather than through Jesus. Augustine persuading the emperor to use force on those who disagreed with him and Charlemagne killing those who refused to be baptized. Vatican II freed all of us from buying a lot of nonsense. it has to be Jesus rather than the RCC. One can attend the Catholic church because of Jesus not because of the Church. Vatican II showed that our separated brethren go to heaven. Even non Christians who live well. Paul said it long ago  Proselytizing too often means building empire. Here is Francis on the subject. "“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."

John XXIII understood this.  He even dissuaded a Jewish person from converting. 

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