I must confess: I am a twenty-something practicing Catholic. Yes, I am young. And yes, I have plenty of friends who are Mass-going Catholics, too. And if you must know, I am also twenty-something religious sister.
What, you might ask, did my parents do (or not do) to yield such an anomaly? Is there some secret to passing faith on to the next generation? To be honest, I don’t know if there are answers to these questions.
Parenting is a tricky business. Like faith, it’s something that can be taught, but it is only really learned in practice. That’s why the question of how to pass faith on is so tricky. Yet I know it’s possible.
As any number of commentators have noted, modeling is key. A passion for faith is palpable and no matter how much education or theological training you have, there is no substitute for what Liam Callanan refers to as “a full-throated faith.” That is, a faith that is witnessed to in the everyday. As a child, I can remember my father talking about the first retreat he went on. He was in his mid-40’s. Expecting nothing much, he brought a stack of old National Geographic magazines with him to catch up on during the promised quiet time. As the story goes, he never even turned the cover of a single copy. By the time I got to middle school, he was leading retreats, sharing his faith with other adults and finding fulfillment in doing so. My mother, meanwhile, was a steadfast Catholic. She taught my CCD classes, snuck out to midnight Mass on Christmas, and woke up early to pray before my brother and I awoke for school. In their own ways, my parents witnessed to a faith that was their own and in so doing, offered us, their children, a faith that could be our own. Beauty was sought. Questions were encouraged. And while answers were sometimes hard to come by, that only taught us the beauty of mystery.
Desire, though, as numerous commentators also point out, is not enough. You can want your children to grow up to be faith-filled, practicing Catholics but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. You can’t guarantee a child an experience of God but you can surely facilitate the means by which one might come to know God. Thus, along with models of faith there is also the need for exposure and experience. My parents let me do service for the simple joy of helping others; in time, greater lessons about injustice and the role of faith and good works came into focus. I was able to serve at Mass in my parish, soaking up the sacramentality of the liturgy and developing a bond with the Eucharist. And perhaps most pivotal to my faith formation, the parish youth group gave me space away from my parents to ask big questions, explore the faith they’d given me, find a place among my peers, and to begin a personal relationship with the God I had been taught to love my whole life.
It is because of these experiences and encounters that I and other young people stay with the Church. We’ve been ruined for life by the faith our parents and our life experiences have given us. Yet many parents have provided similar models and experiences of faith and their children haven’t taken to it actively. In that way, faith is and always will be a mystery. Parents can plant the seeds of faith, but they can’t make them grow. That is the work of God, a tricky business of trust, hope, and love.