My father died when I was 12, leaving my mother to raise four children alone. Shortly after my dad's death, Mom herded the four of us into the Pontiac Catalina that he had recently bought for her. Mother had just learned to drive, so with some fear and trembling she took us to St. Anne's Church about two miles from home. She sat us in a back pew and whispered that we should be quiet and stay put. Then Mother walked up to the altar rail, knelt, and prayed.
Many years later, she told us what she had said to God that day. Something like: "Lord, you have given me these four children to raise. I know I cannot do it by myself, so You are going to have to help me." From that day on, I remember seeing her kneel at prayer for us every night. For many years, she did everything she could to ensure that we would grow up believing in Christ and His Church.
Mother had the right idea about Who was ultimately responsible for raising her children. She knew that she had to work hard at the job of bringing us up, especially at her duty to raise us in the faith. But she also knew that God Himself would help her and that He would do most of the work.
My mom's example taught me an important truth about raising kids Catholic. We must do everything possible to prepare them to decide to follow Christ and to participate fully in the Church. However, God plays a bigger role in the process than we do. He draws them, invites them, woos them.
But He does not overpower them, because He wants them to choose freely to follow Him and live as Christians. So we dare not attempt to force them and should not feel guilty if they make wrong choices. We must open the door to faith for our children, but they must walk through it themselves.
Once I asked Tom, a fervent young Catholic adult, what his parents had done to form him in the faith. After a moment's thought, he said, "I think the most important thing was that every Sunday, while driving home from Mass, my dad had us discuss what we learned from the Gospel." The example of Tom's dad taught me another important truth about handing on the faith to kids. To do the job well, parents need to do only a few things, but they must do them deliberately and consistently.
Tom's father, for instance, took a deliberate approach to catechizing his family. He planned to bring them to faith by having them reflect on the liturgy. He also pursued his plan consistently. For about 20 years, his family spent five minutes every Sunday talking about Christ and the Church. That adds up to about four hours a year and a grand total of a mere 80 hours, a fairly small investment for a very big return -- his son's vibrant faith.
Tom's experience illustrates another significant truth about raising kids Catholic. Parents must talk personally to their children about their relationship to God and the Church. Many of us think that setting a good example is enough, but it's not. If we want our kids to embrace the faith, they need both show and tell -- especially tell.
In my case, for example, my good Catholic mom did very well at showing me how to live as a Christian. But, in the 23 years I lived with her, she never once spoke to me about her own faith. She never said a word about her love for God, how she came to know Him, or why she was Catholic. Only when a college teacher told me about his personal relationship with God and taught me to pray personally did I come to a full faith. It took both show and tell for me, and it will for your children, too.
We may find it difficult to talk to our kids about the faith, especially about our own experience of God. Even when an opportunity presents itself, a kind of spiritual inertia prevents us. We are driving home from Sunday Mass, for example, and want to say something about the homily. But we persuade ourselves that we will do it next week, and let Casey Kasem rattle on the radio about the Top Forty.
However, talk we must if we want our kids to grow up Catholic. If we are reticent, we may need to create some opportunities for conversations about God and the Church. My wife and I found that having a daily family prayer time was a great way to get started talking with our children about the faith. Praying together works as an icebreaker for discussions about religion.
We have always kept our family prayer short and simple. We might pray a psalm, read a short Scripture text, have each person thank the Lord for something, and recite the Our Father. Then, after speaking to God in prayer, we often have a chance to speak to the kids about Him. We also find that regular family prayer has other advantages. It teaches children how to pray and introduces God to them in a personal way.
While we parents must talk personally to our children about the Lord, we must also do everything we can to ensure that they get a full formation in the Catholic faith. That means we should consider enrolling them in good Catholic schools if they are available, or else make sure they attend our parish's religious education programs.
We should also participate actively in our parish and associate with other Catholic families. Our teens should be encouraged to participate in Catholic youth programs, such as Life Teen. It's also good to build a basic Catholic library at home. In particular, we should have a Catholic Bible and teach our children how to use it.
Educating our kids in the faith will not guarantee that they will grow up as believers. Remember, God wants them to decide freely for themselves to respond to His grace. However, educating our kids in the faith ensures that they are adequately prepared to make the right faith decisions. That's a Catholic parent's chief responsibility.
Then, when we are doing the best we can to hand on the faith to our kids, we must simply pray and let the Lord do His part. I am convinced that God always says "yes" to parents' prayers for their children's salvation. In fact, I believe He cannot say "no" to such a prayer. Here's why.
Jesus taught emphatically that when we pray "in His name," He will do what we ask (see Jn 14:13-14). Praying in Jesus' name means conforming our prayer to His will. He says that when we pray for what is most on His Heart, He will always do it for us. Nothing is closer to the Lord's Heart than having us become part of His divine family. That's why He came to earth and endured the cross. What could be higher on His list of priorities than the salvation of our children?
That's why we parents can confidently pray for our children. The Lord wants our daughters and sons in His family. He wants it even more than we do. He loves them more than we do, and saving them is what He is about.