Looking at recent Catholic Church statistics in the U.S., one might recoil in despair. The numbers show a Church in decline.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” study, 41% of American adults who were raised Catholic say they no longer identify with Catholicism. A 2010 Pew Forum study revealed that 45% of Catholics didn’t know the Church’s teachings on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Parents concerned about such trends might wonder how they can ensure their children will remain faithful. For busy executives, practicing the faith may present additional challenges that come with their careers.
Crisis of faith’s ripple effect
“There really is a crisis that is having a ripple effect,” said Marc Cardaronella, director of the Office of Discipleship and Faith Formation in the Kansas City-St. Joseph, MO diocese, and author of Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making It Stick (Ave Maria Press, 2016). “Those without faith are becoming parents and passing their lack of faith on.”
His answer? The example of countercultural, religious, active families.
Not only is Cardaronella the father of two teenage sons, but he also abandoned his Catholic faith as a young adult.
“I attended CCD and was confirmed,” said Cardaronella. “But gradually, I fell away as secularism pervaded everything else.”
Family fervor needed
In religious education, Cardaronella believes whole family catechesis bears the most fruit. He made use of it in a previous position as a director of religious education, utilizing the Family Formation program.
“Family catechesis is really powerful,” he said. “They come out of it with more knowledge than they would have sitting in a class with a textbook.”
Cardaronella stressed that while religious education is important, what happens at home is most powerful.
“Parents control what their children are reading and seeing, the service projects they are performing, and extracurricular activities,” said Cardaronella. “What do parents stress as important? Is a devotional life emphasized? Are they reading the Bible? Are they praying with their children and teaching them to have God at the center of their lives?”
Father Hezekias Carnazzo, founding executive director of the Institute for Catholic Culture, and an ordained Melkite Greek Catholic priest, highlighted two principles that he cites as key to passing on the faith.
Parents can’t give what they don’t exemplify
“You cannot give what you do not have, and you cannot love what you do not know,” said Fr. Carnazzo.
“Many serious Catholics ask, ‘what can I do to ensure my kids stay Catholic?’” said Fr. Carnazzo, who has five children. “This is a common way to deflect responsibility.”
“Passing on the faith isn’t just intellectual,” he stressed. “If I want my children to remain Catholic, I have to ensure they are living as Catholics. To the extent that I’m living the faith, and feasting and fasting and learning…. Where my life and love is, the children will follow.”
Catholic mother and blogger (Of Sound Mind and Spirit) Lisa Henley Jones, of Houston, Texas, said that consistently attending Mass as a family, praying, and injecting faith into everyday life are key.
“If we’re taking food to someone who has had surgery or who has just had a baby, we let our kids know that we do this because we’re called to this as part of being a Christian,” she explained. “We just make it who we are.”
Jones added that she’s found a Catholic summer camp helpful for her children, and she’s found a parish women’s retreat helpful to her as a wife and mother.
Role of the father
The role of the father is paramount. A Swiss government study from 2000 revealed that, “it is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.”
The study found that if a father does not go to Church, no matter his wife’s faithfulness, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper.
If, however, the father goes to Church regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and threequarters of their children will become churchgoers.
Matthew James Christoff, a father of seven, founded The New Emangelization Project as a means of addressing the “man-crisis” in the Church. The website features interviews and resources for Catholic men’s ministry. Among the guiding principles, Christoff recommends parish-based and diocesan men’s-only support groups and events.
Following the success of the Protestant men’s group Promise Keepers in the 1990s, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a report concluding that men need to witness to each other in “a simple, direct, caring approach that allows men to tell their stories.”
“Men crave male companionship and will respond to opportunities to build brotherhood in the pursuit of Christ,” says Christoff.
Kevin Olson founded the men’s ministry Ecclesia Domestica. He’s provided Catholic retreats and seminars for men in two Midwestern dioceses, and said that he’s seen the impact his own participation in church has had on his four children, ages 9 to 19.
“My children know that they have a dad who isn’t going to quit,” said Olson, of Zimmerman, MN. “They know that I’m not going to abandon them or the faith…that I will keep plugging away and providing and protecting. It’s in our DNA to lead.”
“How do you get people to love the Church?” asked Olson. “If they have a desire for Jesus, they’ll have a desire for His Church.”
The prodigal child
Passing on the faith, however, isn’t a magic formula. Families cannot do A and B expecting to always get C.
Cardaronella stressed the danger in emphasizing the question of “how to keep your children Catholic?”
“You can do everything right, and some children still walk away from the faith. You can have a family where one kid becomes a priest and others have fallen away. They have free will,” said Cardaronella.
“When things go right, we think it’s because of what we did, and when things go wrong, we blame ourselves,” said Judy Landrieu Klein, mother of five, blogger (MemorareMinistries.com) and author of Mary’s Way: The Power of Entrusting Your Child to God (Ave Maria Press, 2016 ). “We’re playing God and acting as if it all depends on us. That’s faith in myself, not in God.”
Jones described the teen years as “really hard.”
“Just when you really need support, there’s a lack of it,” she said, explaining that while every family deals with struggles, few are willing to share them with others, perhaps out of a desire to protect the privacy of the children.
Jones turns to Saints Monica and Augustine.
“My go-to Saint is Monica,” admitted Jones. “She’s the saint for modern moms. In the midst of all these things going wrong, and her son rejecting the faith and God, she didn’t fall into despair. Instead she wept and just kept praying.”
St. Ambrose once told Monica, ‘It is impossible that the child of so many tears should perish.’
“It won’t always work out in our lifetime,” Jones added, “but we have to have faith that it will and just keep praying for our children.”
Blessed Mother’s parental model
Klein proposes the Blessed Mother as the perfect model for parents.
“No one understands the suffering that parents go through the way that Our Lady does,” said Klein. “Mary shows us the way we are to relate to God, receiving what God has for us in trust. So many times in our lives with our children, things don’t go well. That’s when we’re invited to surrender more deeply to God, and say as Mary did, ‘Let it be done unto me according to Thy will.’”
Klein agreed that we shouldn’t be asking the question of how to keep our children Catholic.
“That question is more geared toward ourselves,” Klein said. “The question should be: ‘How do we surrender everything in our lives to God, including our children?’”
“We’re not guaranteed a perfect story or outcome as far as we can see it,” said Klein. “In fact, we’re pretty much guaranteed the opposite and we’re told to carry our cross and follow Christ.”
“We think that we can exert things on the world and our children, but that’s not life, and it’s not Christianity,” said Klein. “Scripture tells us that we will have trouble in this world. The only authentic power the human creature has is surrender.”
TIM DRAKE is a Legatus staff writer.