Teach the Children Well

My daughter Anna and I used to share a peculiar fascination with a radio call-in show whose host hectored and scolded her callers for their failures as parents. Anna called it The I’m-a-Good-Mother-and-You’re-Not Show, thus summing up the problem with how-to books-or radio shows-for parents. Whether the subject is childhood fitness or childhood faith, the message is the many ways parents fail their kids.

The most reliable parenting manuals cover the early years, with a heavy emphasis on physical mechanics: how to treat diaper rash, when to start toilet training. The less predictable adolescent years, when parents could really use a reliable guide, get a section something like this: “Expect acne and acting out and hormonal storms. Goodbye. Good luck. Write when things settle down.”

Writing about keeping churched children in the church during the unpredictable years puts one on treacherous terrain, especially if the writer, myself, still has a teenager at home. The reader scans the article, wondering how long it will be before publishers announce news of her child’s likely tell-all, Novenas, Not Nurture: True Tales of a Catholic Childhood. Cautiously, I asked my seventeen-year-old son what has kept him in the church. I was hoping for one of those touching comments that would reveal my wisdom and his appreciation of it. He looked at me and asked, “You mean, besides coercion?”

Besides coercion, I agreed, acknowledging that coercion, for his eighteen years under our roof, is understood. He assumed a thoughtful air and said, as if unveiling the secret, “Coffee and doughnuts. I’d have to say coffee and doughnuts.”

He’s got a point. The coffee and doughnuts in our parish aren’t great, but the company is good. Unnerving, too, at times. Lawyers and day-laborers sit together at table and talk about the leaking roof in the church basement, while the homeless woman next to them listens both to their voices and to the ones in her head.

Our older son wrote about the varied life of his childhood parish:

I recall being sixteen, a tortured sixteen, and realizing that the people who frightened me on public buses were communicants, and that I was among their number. As I approached the altar for Eucharist, I recognized that Mass was indeed the only place where all the rhetoric of equality is true, the only place in my life where I live in communion with the sick, the poor, the hungry, the jailed. It was only then that I felt a real sense of place among the entire church.

He concluded, “The Eucharist remains at the heart of my faith.”

Taking a cue from the back of parenting books, I’ll keep this brief. Failures in parenting, as in any human endeavor, are understood. But we still work at it and try to do our best. And we still ask: We brought our children into the church, baptized them, and raised them there. How do we keep them nourished by its life-giving waters?

Keep a Sense of Humor It was G. K. Chesterton who prayed that God would “sow in our souls, like living grass, the laughter of all lowly things.” Laughter is the gift of God that reminds us we are not God.

Ridiculous things happen at Mass. My husband and I have decided that the task of our later years will be to compile a multivolume series called Grim Moments in Christian Worship. Like the Easter Vigil when we arrived at church to find a yellow Rubber Ducky thermometer floating in the baptismal font. No one wants to scald the elect, but still.

I wrote to our children after the funeral of my husband’s dear ninety-four-year-old great-uncle last year:

The priest, a frail old man, began a long, rambling story about Thomas Alva Edison (“maybe the greatest inventor the world has ever known...except perhaps for Newton”) finding an injured bird (“a sparrow...well, we don’t know that it was a sparrow...probably better just say a bird...”). It seems the bird, because of an injury, had missed the annual southerly migration.

So T. A. Edison boxed up the sparrow (“No, sparrows winter in northern climes....Probably better just say a bird”), putting food and water in the carton. Then T. A. Edison shipped the box to points south, with instructions to the postmaster to open the box and let the (by now traumatized, I’m guessing) bird go free.

The priest wouldn’t let go of the shipped-in-a-box analogy, bringing it back to Uncle Chris being shipped, in a manner of speaking, in a kind of box to that Great Postmaster-in-the-Sky, with instructions to open it and set the contents, that is, Uncle Chris, free. What it had to do with the Beatitudes I’ll never know, but we were, as always, saved by the rite.

The liturgy began to soar when the priest stopped riffing and just stuck to the ritual, as he prayed and we answered his prayer with more prayer, on and on, and up to the very throne of God:

Saints of God, come to his aid!

Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord!

Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.

May Christ, who called you, take you to Himself;

may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,

and let perpetual light shine upon him.

On that last phrase, “Eternal rest grant unto him,” even the quavering voices, the ones weakened by age and disease and heartbreak, came out strong, reciting the words they have known by heart since childhood.

If parents insist on the solemnity of a patently silly moment, we miss a chance to laugh with our children, and we betray a lack of confidence. By which, I mean, neither the liturgy nor the God who invites us to the liturgy is weak and in need of our fussy defense. We know wonder when we see it: Bow down and give thanks and praise.

Our children are marked by the solemn sight of the bishop of their childhood on his knees each Holy Thursday, washing and kissing the tired feet of his people. As they grew and realized that Bishop Richard Hanifen was daily about the work of washing feet, their trust in God, and God’s shepherds, deepened.

In the same way we can recognize the humor-true story-of a porcelain Baby Jesus whooshed down on guy wire into the manger in the midst of the Gospel reading at Christmas Eve midnight Mass. Laugh!

Laugh when you are the ridiculous one. My children do a wickedly funny imitation of my body language, my Al Gore-like sighs and eye rollings, at a liturgy in which the presider begins by acknowledging the day’s true solemnity, the Denver Broncos football game, and promises to move things right along. They speak of slipping cash to the priest at my funeral, asking him to begin the liturgy in just that way, thinking it might bring me back from the dead for one last lecture on the liturgy. Like living grass, laughter is sweet and refreshing, a fine place to sit awhile.

Have the Confidence to Entertain Difficult Questions Most parents of young adults have heard all the accusations against the church, too many of them true. After one heated exchange, our oldest daughter asked me if her angry questions had “hurt my feelings.” I was feeling a bit bruised. It’s the job of adolescents to push against us in the quest for individuation; it’s our task, apparently, to take it.

We both remember the day, and what I said: “You should take everything Papa and I tell you and hold it up to the light. Examine it from every angle. Shake it. Throw it against the wall. Test it every way you can. You can’t hurt truth. You can’t make what is true not true. In the shaking and the stomping, anything that falls off will be our prejudices and our fears. They’re mixed in there. But what is true will stand.”

Our children are meeting teachers who welcome the hard questions, in physics, in history, in literature. They do not flinch from vigorous inquiry, because they are confident the material can stand heavy wear. What does it say about what we claim to be, not a truth, but the Truth, if we endeavor to shield it from the whys and hows and what ifs that our children ask? The confidence to entertain difficult questions includes the confidence to answer, “I don’t know.”

Be Ready to Give an Account of the Faith Parents intent on turning out hockey players learn the rules of the sport and go to the games, and parents intent on turning out scholars research “learning styles” and encourage reading. None of these things guarantees success, and faith, to be sure, is a gift from God. It is not something we can buy or manufacture. But I do believe we can help our children to be on the lookout for the gift, to recognize it when they find it.

One of the ways we do this is to stay learners of the Scripture, the liturgy, and the teachings, both social and theological, of the church. We must become lifelong apprentices in the ways of God.

It helps when a child first hears the Indigo Girls sing that “Galileo’s head was on the block; his crime was looking at the truth,” to know enough church history to assure them that he was not, in fact, beheaded at the behest of the Vatican. It helps, when a child has just read The Da Vinci Code, to know enough to explain, “Good read, but Constantine couldn’t have been in cahoots with the Vatican, since the Vatican didn’t exist. Constantine did build a basilica over St. Peter’s grave in Rome, but it was simply a church building, not an institution.”

It helps if parents are reading and reflecting on the Scriptures. Children who wonder how much of the Resurrection story is propaganda, will find it useful to reflect on such plain facts as these: If one were writing propaganda meant to convince a skeptical populace that a man has risen from the dead, why record women as the sole witnesses of the event? Women were not allowed to testify in law courts; they were considered, as a gender, unreliable. This sounds less like propaganda than a difficult, but true, element of the story.

Find a parish with a good adult education program, or start one in your parish. Ask what you would like to know-more about Scripture or church history-and begin there.

Those things are helpful, but this is essential: that we live the faith, that we bear, in our flesh, the name by which we have been called. The works of mercy, by which we must be known, are just that, works, not thoughts or-God help us-opinions, but actions. I cherish the memory of a daughter saying to me as I left the house one day, casserole in hand and probably muttering resentfully about having to deliver it, “For the rest of my life, when I think of you, I’ll see you going out the door with food for somebody.”

I am not someone who likes to do the works of mercy. I prefer to read about them. Still, I must take the Eucharistic cup after the unwashed homeless in our parish or admit the lie. “Decide,” I say to myself, hesitating in the procession behind the man with open sores. “Either we’re sisters and brothers in Christ, and so must live as though we are, or we are utter strangers.”

Then, there are my children. Like the other parents I know, I want to be better for my children than I actually am, and so I do what I would otherwise ignore or disdain. All of this learning to give an account of our faith, both in what we know and in what we do, leads us deeper into, not farther from, the world.

Don’t Use the Church as a Wall against the World It is the stuff of nightmares and waking terrors, the news that a young man or woman has been killed-in a car crash, in a swimming pool, climbing a mountain face. We ask quietly, “Had he been drinking? Was she wearing a seat belt? Were they using the proper equipment?”

Though we would never say it, we’re all hoping for the same set of answers: drunk, unbelted, unharnessed. Those answers give us some consolation, because they seem to suggest both a reason for the death and a simple solution: Don’t drink and drive; wear a seatbelt; get the right gear. But we are not lords of life and death, even for those we love so well, those for whom we would gladly die. Their safety is not ultimately in our hands. Nor is safety that to which we, or they, are called. We are called to life, with all its wonders and risks.

Parents long to protect their children, and sometimes the church seems a handy shelter. How many of us have chosen church schools or church youth groups because we want our kids to be around a “better group of kids, some really nice kids,” by which we seldom mean kids who are grappling with the nature of Christ or the demands Christ makes on our lives. We mean kids who don’t do drugs, shoplift, or have sex.

Catholics know that the world, created by God, is good. The church is not where we go to escape the world. The church is that place in the world where we go to live as the world being made new, recreated, in God’s own image. It is through the very stuff of creation-human flesh, bread and wine, the wood of the cross-that God, in Jesus, is made known.

We are called to be countercultural, but that is different from being anticultural. Our task is to help children learn to identify and embrace all that affirms the gospel, no matter where (in hip-hop or indie movies) it may be found, and to stand against whatever denies the gospel.

Practice-and Learn-the True Words You Can Always Say I recall the miserable morning when I turned toward my angry daughter at Mass, my hand outstretched, saying, “Peace be with you.” She kept her arms rigidly at her sides, and muttered, “Whatever.” I was grateful for the grace of liturgical language that day, because all I could offer-and mean-was Christ’s peace. Not my peace; I didn’t have any to spare.

The language of blessing is a gift parents need to open and use. To bless is to recognize-and name-the true identity of a person or thing, an identity that comes, not from us, but from God. We bless a meal saying, “This, all of it, is gift.” To bless a child, then, is to acknowledge an identity-son of God, daughter of God-that is not dependent on his performance or intellect, her appearance or ability. To bless is to acknowledge a reality not dependent on a parent’s mood or finances or expectations.

Learn Patience Parents are sowers, not reapers. We plow the fields and scatter the seeds; that is the work we have been given to do. In all likelihood, others will gather the fruits. Many parents die believing they have failed their children. Perhaps the seeds they sowed are simply gestating still, growing silently beneath the soil.

My grandparents were farmers. For much of the year their land looked dead. But they knew better, knew how much was happening out of sight, below the clods of soil and the wheat stubble.

Parents have to learn the patience of farmers, who know what rests in their hands and what rests in the hands of God alone. We can and must work, weed, and turn the soil, but we cannot control the wind and the rain, or stay the hailstones and locusts. “We plow the fields, and scatter / the good seed on the land,” so the old hymn goes, “But it is fed and watered, / by God’s almighty hand.”

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 
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