The Church defines the family as the domestic church. It is the place in which the first witnessing of the faith by word and deed take place. As, parents, you have a unique perspective and ability to notice the development of your children in all aspects of their lives. You notice the physical growth and the endless trip to get new clothes and the increasing appetite that usually comes with physical growth. You notice your child maturing; from the forming of words, to walking, running, growing the ability to gain independence. You notice their mental growth as they come to understand their grasp of the world, how it works, and where their role might be in it. You also have a unique vantage point to witness the growth of heir faith, both the understanding and practice thereof. For this reason, among others, parents are rightfully seen as the first and best teachers of their children in the ways of the faith. What is offered by parishes and schools is to be of assistance to parents in the spiritual growth of their children; we are not replacements to that task though.
As with any instructor, you cannot give that which you do not have. So, as the primary instructor, you need to be aware you set the tone. What you hold important and as worthy of time and effort will normally be passed on to the next generation. This is more than the mere passing on of information about God; your greatest lessons have to do with relating with God. It is said that dads teach their sons how to treat women and their daughters what to expect of men; that mothers teach their daughters how to treat men and their sons what to expect of women. Both parents teach their child who God is or isn’t and how to relate to God. This is especially true of the dads. Study after study shows that the attitudes about faith will be molded by the dad overwhelmingly more so than the mom. So guys, delegating the spiritual leadership to your wife is toxic. This is not because the wife is lacking…it is not her job…she has jobs as well and does not need to be doing your as well. Just keep that in mind.
As a person grows physically, emotionally, and mentally, so they grow spiritually. As we are integrated wholes, all go hand in hand for the development of the person. In matters spiritual, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) identified 5 stages in the growth of a person from non-belief to the ultimate goal of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. These steps came from their work at evangelizing college students. Author Sherry Weddell, in her book “Forming Intentional Disciples” noticed that these five steps are true for all. The five steps are : Trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and finally intentional discipleship. Let’s go through these.
The first level of this process is trust. A non-believer will seek a person they trust as a bridge to possible engagement. Within the family this is important; your children will look to you first as that bridge of trust. That bridge is built or destroyed by our positive or negative witness. If prayer does not happen in the home, if the principles of selflessness are not lived by the parents, if faith is foreign within the day to day operations , then the trust forms in that faith is not important. If however, the family prays together (dad…one of your primary jobs), if mom and dad model selfless love, if faith is a determining factor is how decisions are made and priorities set, if the practice of the faith is central, then the parent has set up a bridge of trust in which the child can now proceed. A person can stay at this level their entire lives. Sometimes because improper example had been given, sometimes because of an unwillingness to change. This step is crucial, because if it is not realized the others steps do not happen. Witness within your homes. Not just with words, but with action. Kids are very good at picking up when words and actions don’t’ jibe. These children are a gift of God given to you so that they may grow into an eternal relationship with God. Trust, though, is the beginning of the process.
AS with all things, once an atmosphere has been created that allows for ideas being pursued, the next four stages start to happen in sequence. There is no time table on this, it varies on the constant witness of the parents. The next step to appear is curiosity. It seems every child goes through the ‘why’ phase. In fact they can ask the question over and over again, looking for deeper reason Sometimes they push the question ‘why’ right to the brink of our sanity. As the child tries to make sense of the world around them and the constant barrage of mixed signals they want to know why. This curiosity isn’t an end in and of itself, left to its own devices with someone trusted, it will expand. The curiosity phase can be threatening for someone who doesn’t think they know what they should know. If we know that the curiosity and subsequent stages are coming, than the impetus for us to go through these stages ourselves becomes clear; if I lead others down a path, I should be aware of the path myself. If I as a parent have not passed this stage, it will be hard to lead others. Not all is lost though, sometimes as our child goes through these stages we lead by seeking to go through these stages ourselves.
Curiosity leads somewhere naturally: rejection or an openness to truth. It is not an easily crossed thresh hold though. Why? Because now a commitment is called for, a dropping of the defenses. Trust is essential. Openness is the first stage that involves a willingness to change. For a child, what is being asked is turning away from a natural inclination towards self centeredness and a move towards selflessness. Without this openness, the next two stages simply will not happen. In being taught to not merely reach out to a God whom they cannot see, but to trust in this God’s benevolence for them, we are asking them to trust. Openness allows this movement to begin. It will be rare that a child will move to openness if the parents, particularly the dad, is not open. Because a door has been opened does not mean a threshold has been crossed, only that possibility of the threshold being crossed now exists.
The first steps through that threshold is known as seeking. Now a compulsion to want to know exists. As parents, your children will turn to you first with these questions. If a parent felt inept at the second stage of curiosity, this stage can be more threatening as our knowledge/ lack thereof and our personal witness or lack thereof are completely exposed. What is being sought> Just knowledge? No. Relationship is sought. Faith always points to relationship. Belief is given credence by relationship, Without this step into relationship in general, the last step towards the relationship of being a disciple/follower of Christ does not happen. We now move into the realm beyond knowing about something to actually knowing someone. For parents, this cannot be faked. A child will even accept that a parent might well be in this stage themselves, but if mom and dad (again especially dad) are not open or seeking themselves, it will be near impossible for them to guide their children through these steps.
The last step is a total commitment to so orient one’s life in union with God: discipleship. Here God is not an intellectual proposition or theory. He is a person with which to enter into relationship; a relationship so strong that it is worthwhile to change behavior. This does not mean the disciple is perfect, but now is oriented to living a life of actual faith and discipleship. This is your duty parents. We remind you in the baptismal ceremony that it is your responsibility to teach your child to follow Christ. That means you have the duty before God, a duty for which you are held accountable, to raise followers of Christ.
How does this happen? Prayer for starters. It is not a pious devotion or unnecessary add on if a parent chooses to lead the family in prayer. It is an absolute necessity. Yes, children will get bored and fidget. Yes, they will whine about not engaging in something the enjoy. That is the natural selfish disposition talking. Your job is to move them beyond that. When you make time to pray as a family, you are telling them that this is a priority. Sooner or later, especially if his prayer is atypical and not an anomaly to how the family functions, the children will not merely learn but embrace prayer. If prayer is happening at home the likelihood that the family engages in the sacramental life of the church increases greatly. Where a family doesn’t pray, Mass will seem like an anomaly to life and as such will be resisted.
Second, the witness of love between the parents. When you are selfless with each other, you show your children what a relationship should look like. It is why the Church teaches that the bond between a husband and wife gives witness to the bond of Christ and His Bride, the Church. How you relate to your children also bears witness. Dads, you become a symbol of the fatherhood of God. Children, for better or for ill, will transpose how they see you dads into how they see God. If they see the great enabler in you, it s how they will see God. If the see the great tyrant in you, they will see God as such as well. If they see the selfless hero, they will see that in God as well. Your role cannot be duplicated nor faked. The Scriptures tell us you are, not should be or can be, but are the spiritual head of the home. Your ability to witness discipleship is a hinge. The inner workings of the domestic Church will determine so much of the trajectory of your children’s faith.
Third, and by no means is this an exhaustive list, how are priorities set? Does the family study the faith together at all or make use of the opportunities afforded in the parish? Do commitments to other entities (as good as they might be) trump prayer and the practice of faith? When hard choices have to be made about jobs, sports, extracurricular activities, entertainment and the enriching of faith…who wins and what does that say? We know from human relationships that when a relationship is not seen as worthy enough to endure sacrifice and even suffering for, then the relationship is seen as non-essential at best and as merely detrimental at worst. However, if sacrifice is embraced, then a message is that the relationship in question is primary and important. That a child comes to this level of faith is what you promised you would do at their baptism.
We know that this scenario has not been played out across the board for decades. We see this in the declining Mass attendance, the abandonment of Confession, the decline in every measurable data out there. This is not new and why The Second Vatican Council and one of it architects, St John Paul II, called for a new evangelization to burst forth. You here are part of that call. It is about recapturing what was lost and using it so as t positively transform the world in which our children will someday enter. The voice of Christ and your own voice are not the only ones beckoning for their attention.
How do we restore these things? By intentionally understanding where we are on this road of discipleship: are we still at trust? Are we at curiosity? Are we at openness? Are we at seeking? Are we at discipleship? Why does it matter? Because by virtue of being a parent it is your job to lead your children through these steps . Make prayer a priority in the home even if it isn’t now. Will it be awkward? Probably. Do it anyway; the only way we move from awkward to not is by practice. Take advantage of opportunities out there to explore further the faith…ask why. Pick up a good book, a bible, go to a adult education class, a prayer group, a retreat…break up the business as usual. There are multiple ways out there. Note to priests: we (and by we, I do not mean others in the parish…I mean we priests) should be offering venues for those who want to move through these stages to do so. Just as parents have this primary responsibility within the family, so we do within the parish. We cannot keep farming out these duties to others, we are called father for a reason.
This might seem a new way of doing things, but it is as old as our faith. Parents have always had the role of first teachers. There is nothing new in this. Now, as we pray during the blessing of the Fathers in the Rite of Baptism, may you also be best of teachers, giving witness to the Christ by all that we say and do.