Today is the Feast of the Ascension. At the Ascension, Christ announced the Church’s mission to the Apostles:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age. Matthew 28: 19 and 20.
Christians aren’t meant to sit back and cheer on the Church as she tries to spread the Good News of salvation and Christ’s love. (Way to go guys! Convert those lost souls! Woo-hoo! . . . Okay, where’s my remote?) All Christians are called to the task of evangelization. This truth is evident in the Vatican’s efforts to promote “The New Evangelization” at every level of society. Ordinary Christian men and women are critical in transforming not only non-Christianized nations, but the de-Christianization of previously rich Christian communities.
But what about parents? How can we be useful in the serious work of conversion when we have a family to care for? Today my toddler decided to run the hose in our unlandscaped yard, creating a mud pile; she then rolled around in it until she was covered in mud from head to toe. This morning, my teenager was having a hard time deciding whether he felt comfortable riding his bike to the middle of town to meet some pals for a movie. He needed my attention and my ear all morning. And I will not mention (okay, I’m mentioning it) my nine-year-old daughter who needs gentle lessons in why growing girls need to wear clothes around the house.
Gee whiz! I know I’m not alone. We are busy raising our children and keeping our homes running smoothly. How do we become part of the Church’s work of conversion? I explored this question with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life today. The fact is, not only are we called to participate in The New Evangelization, but we have a special role to play.
Our first disciples are very near
The Church has identified the family has particularly critical to the Church’s work of evangelization. However, you don’t need to go off to distant lands to obey Christ’s call to convert the world. We heed the call by evangelizing our own children: our first disciples are our children. We can spend lots of time in Church ministries, packing care packages for the poor, and raising money for missions, but let’s not kid ourselves: If we fail our children, we fail the call. Our culture tells us that what we do at home in the private sphere of the family is insignificant especially socially and politically. But family is everything. It is always and everywhere. Every human being begins as part of a family.
The family is the first school of love. Christ said we are to teach and convert our children, so what are our children learning in our families? Are they learning fear, hate, and rebellion or joy, love, and communion? Lisa Popcak mentioned her concern that many of her homeschooling friends assume that because they are using a Catholic homeschool curriculum, their children will grow up to become faithful, fulfilled Catholics, but the evidence does not bear this out. One study I looked at claimed that Catholic children are more likely than not to fall away from the faith in adulthood. We cannot assume that because we form our child’s mind with good Catholic information that she’ll remain Catholic. We must win her heart first. To carry our values into adulthood, our child must see us as credible authorities and care about our values. By attending to the quality of the attachment and connection between our children and ourselves, we are tending their hearts, and drawing them to Christ.
Studies consistently show that children who are raised in harsh, negative environments are less likely to internalize their parents’ values than children raised by firm but kind parents. Quite simply, we impact the world in the way we love our children.
See those Christians, how they love
The New Evangelization calls us to reach out not only to non-Christians, but also Christians who have lost the faith. We can do this work comfortably within the vocation of parenting. You don’t have to stand on a street corner with a Bible to fulfill this call. The world will see the witness of our lives and wonder what we have that they don’t have! (See those Christians how they love!) Just in our love, neighborliness, and hospitality toward others, we can evangelize the world. Inviting acquaintances to your home to share a meal and to experience the love of a healthy, thriving family is a powerful way to participate in the Church’s mission.
Sharing the comfort and warmth of our families in this way will impact others in more ways than we can imagine. I believe American culture in particular is starving for the kindness and warmth that can be found in strong, loving Catholic homes. So, invite a work acquaintance home for dinner; bring a widowed or sick neighbor cards made by your children and bring your children along to deliver them; invite a fallen Catholic to share in your Easter dinner. You don’t have to lean into their faces and ask, are you saved, in order to spread Christ’s Good News. Your love is the Good News. As one of the Popcaks’ callers put it, sometimes it’s most compelling to allow others to meet Christ in us, in our merciful actions, instead of through our words.
He is with us always
As we live this noble, sacramental life of parenting our children, of evangelizing world through our families, we will struggle, we will fall, we will suffer. Christ promised he would be with us always in this work. Especially through the sacraments, Christ will strengthen us and give us wisdom for the journey. We must not only attend Mass faithfully in order to take the Eucharist, but we parents benefit from the healing and direction available through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
We can also meet Christ in prayer. Each family has a unique path, a special mission within the larger mission of the Church, but we will never know what that is unless we are willing to cultivate our prayer life, both personally and as a family. If you can’t imagine how you can fit in family prayer in a schedule that is already jammed, start small. Perhaps you can just pray the Morning Offering together before you all leave for the day, pray at dinner, and then pray again with your children when they’re going to bed. Praying the rosary is a great way to introduce family prayer even with small children. With lots of littlies, it’s okay to just pray one decade of the rosary. Once you have made a commitment to prayer and it becomes family habit, you will notice real changes in the emotional and spiritual environment of your home.
Christ is also with us through the fellowship of other Christians. I can become isolated in my large parish because I’m so shy, but when I make the effort to get involved in parish activities and events, I am always glad. I especially appreciate how my children benefit from feeling part of our parish community: they love knowing the special, pretty places on the parish grounds, the names of our deacons (and where they eat lunch after Mass!), and those small seemingly mundane details that often give us all a comfortable sense of belonging.
He is with us always as we lead our domestic church, as we convert the world one moment at a time, one conversation at a time, despite muddied toddlers and teen angst — no, it’s through those things that our evangelical work thrives!