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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Parents as the Primary Educators of Faith

famparent

Third, PARENTS must be the primary educators of faith to their children. I recall a test program over a decade ago in a Southern Maryland parish. The parish procured textbooks and teaching guidelines but instead of scheduling classes and catechist volunteers, the materials were given to parents and guardians. Certain assignments had to be returned to the director and there was an end-of-year test. The whole effort was based upon the home-schooling model which worked so very well for a few conservative and dedicated families. Everyone had high hopes. However, a year later, all hopes were dashed. The program was a dismal failure. Parents did not sit down with their children. Lessons were not covered and assignments were not completed. A furor erupted when sacraments were withheld and all except a small few had lost a year for catechesis that would now have to be repeated. There was a lot of anger. But it may be the effort was bound to fail. Many of our adults in the pews go to Mass out of habit, but not all are really committed or converted. The level of ignorance is amazing. The parish expected the clueless to instruct the children in faith. A few adults that tried remarked that they also learned a lot, even when they were using lower primary text books. They meant well, but they were essentially communicating that they as adults only had the faith awareness of a small child. How can parents give what they do not have? Others complained they were too busy. Of course, there was time to daily assist with Math, History, English and other subjects— but not enough for religion. The learning of the Catholic faith was regarded as expendable. Note that this is the status among those who occasionally attend Mass; many young people never see the inside of the Church, lack sacraments and know almost nothing about Jesus. I recall challenging one parent who came to the church door, made to feel guilty by the grandparents about such lapses. Now she was demanding the sacraments for her children. I said we would work with her, but the children would have to attend classes and participate at Sunday Mass. She became increasingly agitated and shouted, “Are you calling me a bad mother?” I suppose she thought that out of good manners I would fall on my sword and give her any allowance. Instead, I said, “Parents can clothe the body but leave children spiritually naked when they should be clothed in Christ and his grace. Parents can feed their children at the supper table but allow them to spiritually starve without knowledge of his Word and the food of the Eucharist. Parents can give their children computers and phones for all sorts of communication and texting but never enable their children to speak with God in prayer. If this description fits, then yes, such a person is a bad parent.”

Catechists assist parents but they cannot replace them. The same goes for youth ministers. We want to give a safe and fun environment for our children when so much in our society is spiritually dangerous or poison. Together, parents, pastors and catechists can make a difference. But the gravity is always with the parents. A priest preaches for a few minutes and a catechist may have an hour a week for thirty weeks or so. Those in Catholic schools will have much more formal instruction. However, the numbers have shifted away from parochial schools to parish-based religious education programs as normative. Children come home from school and play. Parents have them seven days a week. Only families have the time and resources to save their children from a hedonistic and materialistic society— and even they have a devilish fight on their hands. There are many forces that would undermine the authority and rights of the home. The Church has no desire to replace the authority and leadership of parents; rather, she would seek to help parents in answering their high calling.

Pastors praise God every day for good parents who make daily sacrifices for their children. They do without much that others regard as essential. However, they know that the family is their greatest treasure. They invoke God’s presence so that Christ might truly live in their homes. They have prayer corners and pray as a family. They open up God’s Word and strive to live moral lives. They seek out families that share their values. They march for life and volunteer time with efforts to help the poor and elderly. Such parents know there is no guarantee that children will stay close to the Church; nevertheless, they do all they can so that if they stray there will be a safe harbor to which they might return.

I know one family where the parents were berated by other family members and friends because they had so many children. There was a huge fight about it when the seventh one was born. I told them to tell the most vocal relatives, “Okay, I hear you. Look, I’ll line up my children and you tell me which ones should never have been born! Which ones would you kill off?” When they looked into the faces of her beautiful children, a few began to cry and one walked out. This tactic reflected back their selfishness, resentments and ugly anti-life attitude as in a mirror. They shut up after that. They were the ones with a problem, not this loving household filled with children. Their critics were supposed to be Catholic. But they had bought the lie that children are commodities to possess instead of being persons to cherish. Any one of them was worth all the money and all the material things in the world. When parents have the right attitude about children, more so than not, they are pious and responsible in transmitting the faith. Certain authorities lament today that most of the young seminarians and priests are very conservative, i.e. orthodox. Why is that? Faithful families did not contracept and abort. Those with more liberal agendas tended to contracept. Thus, they were unable to transmit their views and dissent to another generation. Look at the right to life marches. They seem to get younger every year. Their opponents who reject the Gospel of Life are making themselves extinct.

The Church is seeing a similar process. Because of this, certain analysts believe that the Church will one day contract and get smaller. However, they argue that the movement will be like lungs breathing. It will contract only to expand again— and this time with a more fervent and faithful remnant. Catechesis today is struggling to assist this remnant and to throw life buoys to a few floating outside the boat that is the Church.

There is problem enough with those in the pews, but the dilemma facing the Church goes deeper. If 75% of our Catholics are not going to Mass then it is a sure bet that their children are not praying and not receiving any catechesis. Of course, aging grandparents might guilt some of them into seeking the sacraments for children, but they are often “out of sequence” with their religious formation and quickly disappear after receiving first Holy Communion or Confirmation. There is a sick joke about this. One child was asked for the definition of Confirmation. He answered, “Confirmation is the sacrament you receive before leaving the Church.”

We try to teach. Priests and deacons preach. There is the presupposition that we are all on the same page. But this is not true. We have adults and youth who are only marginally Christian. We want to feed them but they are unconverted and have yet to really sit at the table. This requires a simpler and more fundamental message. We need to know our subjects, share what they need to hear and then submit everything to God. Yes, in baptism we are born again, but I have to wonder if maybe the work of regeneration is sometimes stunted. Children reach the age of reason. Some will go to Mass and be catechized. Others will not. But have any of them truly made the faith their own? Catechists and youth ministers will play a part. But parents and guardians have the greater share of responsibility. Does the family pray daily? Do they regularly break open God’s Word? Do they worship together each Sunday? Are their values and preoccupations in sync with the Gospel? Being made brand new is not a one-time deal. A living faith is never stagnant or in the past tense. It must touch the eternal now or the present. Every minute, hour, day and year is an opportunity for spiritual advancement. When we detour into sin, we beg pardon and return to following the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. God keeps us in existence at every moment. Material creation itself is constant and not a onetime event locked into pre-history or myth. If God were to forget us, even for a moment, we would cease to ever having existed. But God does not forget or abandon us. Similarly, he wants to spiritually perfect us in time, that through the gift of grace we might be truly holy. God wants to make us into the likeness of his Son, participating in that holiness or mysterious otherness that is divine. All this is to say that we must be the Christians we claim to be and that we should be God’s instruments in bringing conversion to our charges— that they will fall deeper and deeper in love with God. This love will manifest itself in a missionary manner. Those who enter this process of conversion or turning to the Lord function like dominoes, tipping others into loving and sharing the faith as well. Real love of God always results in prayer and service. If we see neither, then it is likely the faith and love that should be there has yet to materialize.

Do youth ministers and catechists pray for their children by name? Do we cry tears of supplication on their behalf, humbling ourselves on our knees before a divine providence we will never fully fathom in this world? Our youth might be saints. They might also be delinquents who are deep in sin and need help finding a way out. But whoever and whatever they are— they are ours.

The family is the “little church.” You cannot really give what you do not have. Catechists and pastors seek to help, but the transmission of the Gospel first takes place in the home. We learn our prayers and are taught the bible stories. We are taken to church. We are taught the commandments so that we might know the difference between right and wrong. If parents fail to do their part, not all is lost, but it is unlikely that a youth will immediately become the Christian he or she should be. God will always make sure the well has water, but what good would this be if no one has ever given us a bucket. Similarly grace is available; conversion and salvation are God’s gifts— but we need the tools to take advantage of them. If parents do not want their children to know Jesus, then I would urge them never to pray or to open their bibles. If parents want their children to engage in destructive behavior and fail in finding the true meaning of life, then I would argue to keep them away from religious education programs or at least never to help them with their catechetical homework. If parents want their children to grow up in a world void of God’s presence and compassion, then I would urge them to avoid any charity service to the poor, the oppressed or the unborn. If parents want their children to burn forever in the fires of hell, then I would suggest they make excuses to avoid the Sunday Mass and live today as if there is no God.

Catechists, directors of religious education and youth coordinators are often tempted to despair. They wonder if all their efforts are in vain. They find themselves struggling with children and even fighting with parents. While there are no guarantees, even in the most Christian of households, there is far more success when the faith is cherished at the center of family life. Peripheral Christianity treats the faith like a hobby or even as a reluctant obligation. The faith must instead be like the air we breathe. One should be no more willing to abandon the Church than one would be to chop off a leg or hand. Faith and God is not like the words written upon paper. No, it is like the paper itself. It is the basis and ground for everything else.