Our children (middle school, high school, college) have told us they don’t believe in God. We do believe and participate in the church. How do you suggest we work with them?
Thank you for asking the question that lies heavy on the hearts of so many parents. We parents have worked so hard to plant and nurture the seeds of faith in our children and heartbreakingly, those seeds appear to have fallen among thorns. Well, that appearance is a temporary illusion because God isn’t finished with our children yet!
God never stops loving them for one second, whether they complain about going to formation classes, whether they make their confirmation their junior year, or even whether or not they go to Mass. Yes, we know all these practices are extremely important to their ongoing faith development and relationship with God, but right now they don’t know that, and in their search for their “true” selves they are trying to figure out what to believe or not.
As many of us did in our youth, they start by rejecting what they’ve always known, in order to try on something else. They live with that “something else” (their proclamation of disbelief, and non practice of formal religion), test it out with their life experiences, and read just what they believe as the life lessons come back to them in many forms. Ultimately our children must leave the “safe harbor” of home and set their sails in the wide and deep ocean of life. When the waves are huge and the storms rage, they will instinctually cry out, and the Lord, who has never budged, will be right there to respond to their heartfelt pleas. They suddenly realize that they do have faith and the seeds planted by you in their youth must now be tended and nurtured by them.
Meanwhile, what are you to do? Keep believing, keep attending Mass, keep participating in the church and keep inviting them to go with you. Do not be shy about your own beliefs. Have the hard discussions, always being respectful of your children’s search for truth. Try to help them to sort out what is right, true and good from the seduction of the popular culture. Help them to find the “divine nature” in the people in their lives.
Encourage them to live the Christian values of honesty, justice and compassion. Spend time in nature with them and marvel at the prodigality of our loving creator. Invite them to love their neighbors through acts of service, whether a structured opportunity such as a meal program or mission trip, or something more spontaneous like shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway. Continue to be an example of a living, breathing, faithful Catholic! Though your children seem to be distracted elsewhere, they are still watching you.
The real crisis of faith would be if you abandoned what you have taught them all these years. They need to see that you are navigating by the guiding light of God’s love and that the path you are following is one of joy. Above all, like St. Monica with her wayward son, Augustine, never stop praying for your children. Like Mary and Joseph, we come to realize that our children must “be about the Father’s business” in a way that is unique to them and their human journey.
When you go to Mass and receive the precious Eucharist, receive it on behalf of your children who may be temporarily absent, but who are always welcome at the Lord’s table. Rest assured that nothing can separate them from the love of God. (See Romans 8: 31-35, 37-39)
(Jennifer Christ, a freelance consultant in ministry, is married with four grown children. She lives in Milwaukee.)