'Learning Humility, Learning Patience'

Part 4 of 'Raising Catholic Kids'

Today alienated Catholics do not gently “lapse” or nostalgically “fall away,” they decisively and definitively leave for good. Forget “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” or a “Come Home for Easter” campaign. Every poll shows the nonreligiously affiliated—now called “nones”—increasing in number. That number includes all my grown children. But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.

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

I date 1968 as the onset of the cultural hurricane that beset our family and New York City suburb. One year we were a ’50s-style American family with suits, ties, and dancing lessons, the next we were battling countercultural chaos and hippie mayhem. The ’60s’ swirl of riots, protests, assassinations, promiscuity, drug use, and dropouts could not be held at bay. This produced predictable disasters. My children’s classmates died from drug overdoses, jumped out of windows on LSD, and got arrested for smoking pot in the woods. Quite a few were carted off to jail, rehab, and mental hospitals. The schools, police, church, and most middle-class families were not prepared for this youth revolt. Certainly, our ordinary and relatively conservative parish could not cope.

As each of our children got older they were captured in turn by the counterculture, stubbornly refusing to cut their hair, dress properly, work in school, or attend church.  One son, a devotee of Nietzsche, departed from our CCD program with a Nazi salute and a “Heil Hitler, I quit.” No more Catholic Family of the Year after that! I was deeply shamed by this out-of-control adolescent behavior, but I was even more frantic and fearful for their physical and mental survival. To this day that era’s walking wounded can be seen around town. Many never recovered. Thank God our children, like most others, came through alive, but that was only after years of struggle.

Our parental battle was to fight against the moral relativism and permissiveness of the youth culture. I still loathe Jimi Hendrix. Using every stratagem at our command, we urged dropouts to go back to school, others to stay in school, and all to stay away from addicted and aimless peers. We devised ways to expose our children to attractive young adult worlds and included them in our own work activities. Our affectionate family bonds were strengthened by frequent celebrations, trips, and happy vacations. But church was a lost cause. Since my husband’s faith had faded, he wasn’t worried over the religious defections of the children. In fact, he wanted all of us to leave the church when he did. Now he hardly remembers all the grief he gave me for staying, and those long-ago arguments about Catholicism have gradually evolved into a general détente. Mom is the designated believer in the family—and that is that. Let’s all just love, support, and be grateful for one another every day.

When it comes to Catholicism and my children, I have learned humility from parental failure. But I have also learned about hopefulness. Hopefulness, patience, and perseverance are now at the top of the list of the virtues I esteem. If death or permanent damage at an early age can be avoided, disasters can be turned around, rifts healed, and weaknesses overcome. Today my middle-aged children are happy, morally upstanding people. Our five grandchildren are blessed with super parents. Our children all love and help one another and seem devoted to their old parents.

Here, amidst the remains of the day, we who believe are confronted with the mystery of faith. Clearly, no one can answer God’s call for someone else. But social and cultural factors can play a part in nurturing faith. In hindsight, I can now see how crucially important Catholic peer groups are for faith development. In our town the educated professionals were mostly secular or Jewish, the Catholics mostly working-class people. Going through the excellent public schools, none of my children had a close Catholic friend or peer group that could support his or her faith. Did we choose the wrong town, the wrong parish, and the wrong schools?

Looking back I see that there was no structured way in our parish for my children to get what I had gotten in my intellectual journey to the Catholic faith. I always had access to the sophisticated historical, intellectual, and theological dimensions of the faith. I’ve always known exemplary, magnetically attractive Catholics who inspire me. With these wellsprings of truth and joy, the faith and the Sunday liturgy sing. But I can’t seem to communicate such religious experiences to my skeptical family and friends. For many of them the church remains a medieval, male-dominated, and authoritarian institution that’s focused on unintelligible rituals. Worse still, it is repressive, corrupt, and power-hungry. Needless to say, the horror of the sexual-abuse crisis has confirmed such anti-Catholic attitudes among many people.

Fortunately, despite their rejection of religion, my children have continued to develop in moral sense and sensibility. With the aid of providence, conscience and morality can still flourish outside religious communities. Reason, experience, and goodwill generate good people. Through trial and error persons discover for themselves that virtuous commitments to love and work do indeed lead to happiness. The Holy Spirit continues to transform the hearts and minds of believers and nones alike. Where love is God is. As the gospel says, “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not quench.”

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

About the Author

Sidney Callahan is a psychologist and the author of Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering.



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We too have 5 sons and one daughter  and we are same age as Sidney and Dan. Also long timers w/ CFM, Pax Christi and Catholic Worker SVDP &  family ministry. .. Our middle aged children too are small c catholics in name only.They only admire the preferential option stance for the poor but never see much of  that in most parish life. Hierarchs are their turn off.and they are seen as  blocking  any view of the Way.

We are still traveling together in our Faith life but at 80+ and early onset of dementia we have hope that the thin threads lashing our children and grandchilren to the drifting faith raft will hold and not sever until relief  comes. Francis I gives hope but the real hope is that the spiritual DNA and grace will be transforming in that generations' lives. We see our generation dying out and with  few signs of rescue ahead.

New programs, initiatives , encyclicals, leaders, etc  are not much to relie on... as St Thomas A said they amount to straw in the wind... But Christ still lives.

Ed & Peg Gleason  


I can relate to Sidney’s and Dan’s children experience(s), even though I am of the parents’ generation.

Born and raised in a quietly observant family that played by all the rules (don’t know about birth control, but there were 3 of us kids).  Good Catholic primary education; 3 years of minor seminary.  Four years of Catholic university.  I had been enculturated, catechized and totally enveloped in that Pre-V2 cultural environment where your life was intertwined with almost daily Catholic life.

Then, adulthood and drift, drift, drift.  As Mark Twain put:  it is easier to stay out than to get out.  So true, so true.

Of all the things that happened to me in the Catholic cocoon in which I was raised, one thing obviously was missing:  conversion.

That took time, a wise minister in a non-denominational church, and one heck of a lot of luck.  One of the things that he taught me was that morality is doing what is right, no matter what you are told.  Micromanaged "religion" is doing what you are told, no matter what is right.

I came back after a lot of years of self-discovery, a great deal of hope and more than a lot of very skeptical faith.

I suspect that many of the kids who have drifted, even if they hadn’t the benefits of the small town rural Midwestern Catholic cocoon that I had, may eventually take some timid steps back through the doors, assuming they can find doors open to them. 

Daughters and wives will have the most difficult time (and I shamefacedly say that as a man who should also be fellow travelers with my sisters) because it is clear to me that people who have no vote tend to vote with their feet.

I wonder how those errant folks who possibly return will experience the difference between their childish Catholicism and their adult experiences.

The 70+ years of Catholicism that I have experienced bear witness to what I read a long time ago by Christopher Dawson (anyone old enough to remember him?):  We are much further from the generation of our grandparents than they were from the age of Charlemagne.

My own grandmother could have written a similar essay.  Ardent, strong family - but none of her children are practicing Catholics. What she would later learn is that many of her grandchildren moved from "cultural catholic" on to practice.  

We can can point to a cultural lapse in the '60s for the intermediate generations catholic-lightness.  War, drugs, v2 - played their part. 

But seeing a strong, liberal Catholic grandmother does wonders for future generations. She now has 5 GGchildren who can say a serious Hail Mary.   It's important for all of us not to lose faith in our families.  Motherhood isn't over when kids turn 18. 

If we believe that God made a covenent with the Jewish people, a chosen people, and that covenent is being passed down even to today, [in the DNA?] we too may take hope and believe that in Catholic families God's grace has a pass on regirmen too.

I think it's a big mistake to use the word "authority" in reference to Church teachings. -- by clergy, including magisterium, and by laity, in reference to clergy.  Assertions of infallibility are in conflict with centuries of tolerance of abuse and cover ups of abuse, ended not by the Magisterium but by the Boston Globe.  This elephant in the room will continue to evoke contempt and cynicism and remain one more barrier to full communion. Better to show some humility in emphasizing the beautiful basics of loving God and neighbor and the mass as a communal gathering of human souls where true grace comes from the Holy Spirit and not necessarily from the "disjointed doctrines" promulgated by the transparently fallible Magisterium. I would like to believe that Francis has arrived on the scene in the nick of time and will continue to take the above approach - I pray that he will and I pray that the Fr. Zs and other doctrinal and cultural warriors will do so as well. -- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA


So I was born smack in the middle of your six children, with parents who were probably a bit younger than you were.  Try to imagine if you had lost your faith, because that's what my parents did (their own siblings were half and half on that score).  They hated the counterculture that you blame for your own children's exit; in this, they were clearly cultural Catholics -- my mother is still horrified when parents of young children get divorced.  If I had to pick one thing, I would say their final link was severed by HV.  At that point, my father, a serious person who really wanted to believe, lost hope.  Because he was serious he refused to pretend otherwise to the neighbors.  I was told by a few kids up and down the block that we were all going to hell.  So having been definitively NOT raised in the Church after the second grade, I did make my way back as a graduate student, and then left again.  What can I say: faith has a window of opportunity for anyone, however unlikely a candidate, but by your fruits ye shall be known, and for too long now, the "fruits" of the organized church have focused to the point of obsession on a kind of sexual orthodoxy that seems less and less important to me in defining morality as I grow older.   The window opens, but the window closes for current generations in a way that it probably didn't previously.  No one is going to be stuck inside if they don't want to be.  It's going to be a challenge any way you look at it, but not just for Catholics, but for all Christians -- and Jews, and Muslims, and so on.

Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, Daniel Callahan was invited to my house for drinks after he gave a talk in the university town where I was then living. (I had written for Commonweal in the 1970s, and a newspaper colleague had been ushering him around.) After a few drinks, he talked in some surprising detail about his children, whose lives at the time seemed to be in some measurable state of peril, and disorder. When he mentioned that his wife was also a writer, my wife asked him what she wrote about. 'Parenting,' he replied. 

Philip, I am not sure what your point is, but the one thing I can say is that parents of children who take a more tortured path to adulthood typically have much more to write about in the way of parenting than those whose kids never deviate from the straight and narrow.  When my first child was born she didn't sleep through the night for close to two years.  When my second was born she slept through the night almost immediately.  I ascribed the difference to more assured and competent parenting, only to be confronted with my third child, who didn't sleep through the night for close to 16 months.  Sure, parenting matters, but the relationship between trouble free kids and good parenting is hardly linear.   The world is a complicated place.

There is something stunning about the open way Sidney tells her story. More so since Daniel Calahan was the Lay Catholic leader of the Sixties. At any rate her story is refreshing as it is disturbing. Parenting is indeed complicated. Experts on the subject can be enraging. We talk about celibates giving advice on marriage. In parenting, usually, people without children teach the seminars.  Which is fitting since they don't have to face the contradiction and  realities in their own lives. Being a parent is a setup for disappointment. No child measures up to expectations. But keeping up with the Jones' prompts parents to lie all the time. Also the need to know that one did not fail colors our description. We know that we are all sinners. But somehow our children may not. Yet if they turn out to be selfish, nothing is more devastating. It is complicated. One of the contributors to this symposium wrote about how psychologists say that a child needs to be loved for her to be open to family values. Yet so many "loved" children really turned out to be rascals. Not a knock on love. But something else is going on. 

 I wonder how God feels about so many of Her children acting so bad and ungrateful. Seems there is no other answer than forgiveness. No technology, no matter how glittering, can gloss over betrayal. Psychologists will pontificate that a parent's desire to make a clone of himself is the problem with parental disappointment.  Yet a child must be taught values as so many disasters has proven. So the generous Father welcomes the prodigal child. The son who remained home is a sinner also. 

This is why we always revert to original sin. What else can explain it? Not that Adam and Eve necessarily imparted it. But there is something in wo/man that is truly wounded. What other answer than forgiveness and redemption and reconcilation? 

I was so moved by this essay.  I am roughly of the same age as Sidney Callahan.  I was never married and had no children.  I have always been and will remain a Catholic albeit  very ecumenical and both broad church and high church.  I have 8 nephews and nieces who are middle aged and with one exception all of them and their parents are apart from the church.  Her expression of being alone in the pew is so very moving.  Most of my friends left.  And yet if one looks in the world there are so many, and also young people, both Catholics and other Christians who are bearing witness today.  I hope Francis will help.  He wil not recreate the world but, as in every age, Christians witnessing by the works of love will.

Sydney, my guess is that although your severe disappointment faulted Jimi Hendrix, expecially, I am sure that you realize that there are more serious culprits. Namely, a history of domination and haughtiness in the clergy. Until Vatican II the clergy considered itself far superior to the laity. Catholic writers and historians lied about the faults of even the Fathers of the Church. That it was such a victory that Augustine united the church by exiling the Donatists and Pelagians; confiscating all their churches and property. Practically approving Augustine's dictum to use force in coralling heretics back to the Catholic church. Using the emperor to employ force against Christians. Yet Augustine has risen even higher than Paul the Apostle. Although I believe that Dan and your children could have worked through this as so many of us have. I believe it is especially difficult for converts who are giving a one sided picture. While Catholics learn to live their faith and many times despite the clergy. 

It Italy, especially, there has traditionally been wide spread contempt for the church as they have seen it up close for centuries. Many practicing Italians are in denial of this. When I told my Italian grandfather that I was leaving for the seminary he was upset that I would join a group he did not like. Through the  years i began to undersand his position. The Iriish were separated by distance from that sight.  Today the Irish have a different view.  

Vatican II allowed us to grow up. Growing up brings all the tensions of adolescence. Today Catholics are understanding that Jesus is front and center. Not the church. 

In the large extended ffamily descendants of my parents, Catholic immigrants from Ireland, only one individual (my brother) and one family (Wall Streeters but moderate Republcans) remain Catholics. Nobody else misses the church at all, and they lead virtuous lives. Many rlatives have left the church in their 60s and 70s, though most got out in their 20s. The older bolters got fed up with the sour, nsaty "real Catholics" and could not imagine how a relgion made up of bitter haters of the poor and minorities could be worth a second thought.

Contrary to the claims of the pope, many people do not have any deep longing for God, or feel unfulfilled with the lives they lead without God. They are and have good neighbors. They help the poor, though they would prefer more systematic responses to poverty over glorifying acts of charity, they are virtuous, they are good parents, and they are not going to hell. In additiomn, many find churches to be creepy places.

I do notice that some evangelical and Baptist churches that are active in building small communiyies of mtual assiatance materially and spiritually do attract many young people, especially young famiies. Their church is not a building, or a set of rityuals,. they are conservative in their sexual morality without turning sour.

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