'Grace Helps Them Through'

Part 2 of 'Raising Catholic Kids'

Our daughters are older now, but still: you know us, and you knew us when. We are that family, the one with the very young, very active children who decided to come to your otherwise quiet, even somnolent Mass. We did not sit in the crying room—the soundproof, glassed-in space that does more to divide the faithful than those pre–Vatican II communion rails ever did—but rather paraded ourselves and our three girls into the pews, and then spent the next eight hours (or did it only feel like that?) trying to keep some kind of order while Mass unfolded.

To be clear, our girls were, are, good. And as parents, we weren’t, aren’t, terrible. When our kids were young, we kept order with a minimum of fuss and whisked our charges away if the misbehavior wouldn’t stop. But on one occasion we weren’t fast enough, which caused us to learn a lesson I return to whenever I think about the role families play in the life of the church, and vice-versa.

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

The instructor here was my daughter Honor, who was all of four. She fidgeted through the readings, bounced from one lap to another during the homily, and then, during the Eucharistic Prayer, started roaming farther and farther away from us, down the length of our (but of course) otherwise empty pew. Finally, she made a break for it, barreling toward the front of the church just as the priest was elevating the Host. I ran after her, scooped her up, and marched back to our place. Struggling and twisting against my embrace, she finally wriggled free enough to point to the altar and announce in a ringing voice, “Let me go, Daddy! I’m trying to get to God.”

I know, I know, Matthew 19:14: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Which, yes, Jesus means figuratively and literally—but also, I believe, urgently. Urgent because it feels—to families, to parents, and, I imagine, to kids—like there are so many obstacles these days that keep us from getting to God.

There are, for example, obtuse dads like me, and families like mine, who face a blizzard of conflicting societal and doctrinal pressures. More plainly: There’s the Disney Channel, cell phones, e-books, and a thousand other modern diversions from a straightforward path to faith.

And then there’s the church, or rather its leaders, who I find sometimes get in the way of me bringing my family to God. This feels like a new phenomenon, but I know it’s not. I think, once again, about Matthew 19: the reason Jesus says “Let the little children come to me” is because moments before, some children had been brought forward “for him to place his hands on them and pray for them,” and “the disciples rebuked them.” Two thousand years later, some disciples are still at it.

Fair enough; there’s much to rebuke. And I understand the concept of boundaries, laws, doctrine: I’m a parent, after all; my wife and I have rules we expect our family to follow. A girl running pell-mell from pew to altar is not allowed. But we used to live in Alexandria, Virginia, where a girl wasn’t allowed to process to the altar, either, at least not in the role of altar server. That was because our parish fell within the Diocese of Arlington, at that time one of two in the United States that forbade female altar servers. (Lincoln, Nebraska, still has its diocese-wide ban.) Our parish had been an early adopter of female altar servers, and suddenly they all had to be decommissioned. I admired the pastor’s quiet fix while we awaited better days: he took his ex–altar girls and made them lectors, greatly diversifying the largely male and graying corps of lay readers.

Still, the situation was especially awkward in our family. My wife had converted to Catholicism after we married, largely due to the example of my grandmother and other churchgoing relatives. I don’t think my grandmother set out to convert my bride with stories of seeing Dorothy Day at parties in New York or subscribing to the Catholic Worker for more than fifty years. My uncle probably didn’t intend to embody a new generation of lively, active Catholic faithfulness by sharing his extremely colorful opinions of papal wrongheadedness while never failing to attend 7 a.m. Mass every Sunday. But in these interactions with my family, my wife witnessed a full-throated faith that wrestled with faith, one that honored saints and dissenters.

I reassured my wife that it wasn’t just my family that embraced this kind of Catholicism. I did more than that, actually: I reassured her that this was Catholicism. And so we agreed to raise our kids Catholic. We left Virginia and moved to Wisconsin, where we enrolled our daughters in Catholic school so we could be certain they learned the faith. And we learned that, even as we tried to teach our children what it meant to be Catholic, to be Christian, to be family, our children would be leading us to God.

I’ll turn to Honor once again, older now but no less wise. She no longer tries to rush the altar during transubstantiation, but happily, she is still a rule-breaker. And the rule she flouts most beautifully every day is the one that, in the end, has taught me most about what my family—and my church—values: Honor doesn’t believe in society’s rule that difference is to be disdained. Specifically, she thinks her classmate Grace is a brave, beautiful person. Many kids at school agree. Many outside school, sadly, do not. Grace has Down syndrome. Such children have not always found a ready home in Catholic schools, but our school’s principal firmly believes Catholic tradition obligates us to embrace diversity in every respect: implicit in Let them come to me is Let them come to us.

But that is easy to say. Like faith, it’s difficult to live. One behavior Grace and her classmates struggled with, for example, is that when Grace became excited or eager for someone’s attention, she would grab their hair and hold on—on and on. It could be very painful. But the kids were repeatedly told that Grace didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and the class, through a shed tear or two, managed: the other girls put their hair up or wore it short, and they learned not to resist but rather wait for the aide or teacher to come to untangle things. It wasn’t always stress-free, but I came to discover that it was often very holy. At our year-end conference, Honor’s teacher commented on how wonderfully the class, and especially our daughter, had treated Grace. We nodded, but admitted we’d had it easy, since Grace never pulled Honor’s hair. We’d heard stories about how rough it had been on some of the other children.

The teacher just looked at us, and then said, cautiously, “Grace pulled your daughter’s hair harder and more often than anyone else’s. You didn’t know this?” We did not. Our daughter had not said a word, not once.

I am a graduate of a Jesuit high school and university. Is it wrong to say that a ten-year-old’s silence is the most powerful catechism I’ve ever experienced? Or that the most spiritual baptism took place at a water park? This was during Grace’s birthday party. While the kids ran around splashing, I caught up with Grace’s mother. I was surprised to learn the setting had been chosen more for the benefit of the guests than for Grace, who didn’t like stairs or heights, and—

Two people suddenly arrived in the sluiceway next to us: my daughter and Grace, who had just conquered the park’s tallest platform, together.

The bigger surprise came when the two girls ran off. Or rather, when Honor ran off. Grace was left fumbling to get out of the water. I called sharply after Honor to lend a hand, but Grace’s mom shook her head. “No,” she said. “Honor’s treating her like a real friend. She’s not coddling her. And that’s why Grace loves her.”

Some parents in our community have it all figured out, and I envy them: their faith, their fitness, their firm belief that not only are they doing everything right, the church is too.

A smaller collective of us worry constantly. We worry what kind of church our children—especially our daughters—will inherit, worry that we’re not doing enough to improve that church, worry that our children see us worrying too much. But then, around us, we see these acts of witness—the schoolgirl patiently waiting while the hand yanking her ponytail is prised free; the two girls, different in so many ways but in their smiles different in no way at all, rocketing down that water slide; the toddler bolting ahead to get to God.

In our collective are two parents who are former members of a real collective, a Jesuit Volunteer Corps house in East Saint Louis. “It ruins you,” one told me, speaking of the experience with a distant smile. “You can’t live your life the same after. Whatever you go on to do, it just ruins you in the most amazing ways.” This is the theology I want for my family. I want my children’s Catholic upbringing to ruin them in some wondrous, revelatory way. My friend the JVC alumna was more direct: “I want my children to know how to pray,” she said. “I want them to feel part of a community that shares a language for expressing God in our day-to-day lives. I want them to feel the love and belonging a community can provide, especially in crisis. I want them to know the comfort of ritual. And I want them to experience all this as children.”

I want to experience all this as a child as well. I want to be—need to be—an adult who protects and leads and educates his family, but I also want to be a fellow child before God. There’s a problem with this theology, I know. To be a child is also to be, in many ways, powerless, and bringing about change—whether it’s girls at the side of the altar or women behind it—will require power.

But as my daughters daily teach me, it will also require love. I love my family. I love that my effort to raise them right raises me up as well. And I love most of all that even if I—or a bishop—or the secular world—occasionally keep them from getting to God, in the end, grace helps them through.

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

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About the Author

Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. He has just finished his term as chair of the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.