In many of his essays my grad school mentor Father James Keenan (professor of moral theology) casually and lovingly reflects on his upbringing in his working class Irish Catholic family in New York City. Dad was a cop; Mom raised five children and worked occasionally as a typist (I think I have that right). The Keenan family life was centered around their parish. I imagine little Jimmy knew every inch (and secret hideout) of his parish, encountered the joys and sorrows in the lives of the people in that parish, and felt personally identified with the space, smells, sounds, and traditions of his Catholic upbringing. When I read those essays by Father Keenan, I feel a longing for those good ol’ days when the parish was the center of family life, the rock upon which family life was built.
Things have changed. Here’s an essay about how Catholicism once influenced U.S. culture, how Catholicism once created a strong glue that bound Catholics together, but how now that has all eroded. I think when Father Keenan was growing up, it was unthinkable to leave the Faith. The Faith was in his bones and in his blood. He was Catholic through and through. Now it’s easy and convenient for our children to leave the Church. It’s so easy . . . even admired.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am revert to the Church. I was drawn away initially by a “Campus Crusade for Christ” type group, and then by my own liberal education which I was not emotionally prepared to handle. I thought exploring Buddhism and other religions was . . . well . . . progressive. I thank God that I am home now, but of course I wonder what I should do as a parent now that Catholicism is a side note in the reality of American culture. What do we do to keep our kids Catholic?
In this wonderful and very valuable article (which I linked to this morning on our FB page), Father Ed Bloom lists “15 Steps to Better Evangelization” and they are all home-based efforts. His 15 steps include praying the Rosary, having a great Catholic library, having visual memorials of our Faith around our homes, etc. I encourage you to read his article. His insights are critical to instilling a strong Catholic identity in our homes, yes! But we need a Catholic identity that is grounded in love — unconditional love. Father Bloom’s list can be part of our calling to win our child’s heart for Jesus and for creating a strong Catholic identity, but you will not win your child’s heart without unconditional love. At some point, somebody will give them that gift which they deserve, and if the happen to be Lutheran, Baptist, Buddhist, or agnostic, your child may well be drawn away, because unconditional love is always a light the human heart leans toward.
So how do we keep our kids Catholic, then? We build a strong Catholic home culture and we love our children unconditionally. We respond to their legitimate needs with respect and tenderness. We parent with grace and authority, but never strident, rude, controlling coldness. This is a difference between authoritative parenting (clear expectations guided by warmth and acceptance) and authoritarian parenting (an expectation of blind obedience with threat of severe consequences for disobedience). The fact is, and this statement is supported in the scientific literature, children who are securely attached to their parents are far more likely to internalize the values and religious faith (or non-faith) of their parents; children who are insecurely attached are far less likely to internalize those values or that faith. That means we can have all the family Rosaries we want, but if we scare our kids, ignore them, threaten them, make them feel invisible, stupid, or bad, then they will be easy pickins for the goofy stuff they’ll encounter in adulthood that masquerades as deeper meaning.
I am hoping I can give my kids what Father Keenan experienced as a kid, knowing that along the way I have to be intentional in my parenting because Catholicism is no longer part of the larger culture, which is the point made in Father Bloom’s article. Intentional Catholic parents know their mission: to raise saints — even against the odds — in their domestic church, which images the Universal Church. We can beat the odds by being awake, by equipping ourselves with wisdom and knowledge, including knowledge about our children thrive.
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