Will the children keep the faith? That is a question for serious Catholic parents.
We hear and read about how so many people quit going to church as young adults, even after a Catholic school education. The split from home as children go off to college or find their own new lodging and enter the work force makes it easy to drop whatever is associated with childhood and its discontents. If church and faith have been little more than following along with mom and dad in their boring life, what’s the point of sustaining it?
For most of history the generations kept the faith because the world around them, the public culture, acknowledged God, prayed and worshipped. Our ancestors lived in what has been called an enchanted world, in which awesome power of angels and demons existed in a dimension just beyond our grasp. These powers could reach us and do good or bad things to us, but we could only appease or appeal to them by ritual: saying the right words and doing the right things.
If that sounds more like magic than Christian faith, it is. Magical thinking has always been a temptation and danger for religious faith because it comes so easily to every child. The emerging adult itches to shake off the dependencies of childhood and make a fresh, independent path. If religion feels more like magic, and a magic made worse by what feels like oppressive rules, it should be abandoned.
That’s no path for mature human flourishing.
Children do keep the faith if, and as, they grow into it. The children of Christian parents will become icons of Christ as they keep, or acquire, a studied gaze on Jesus in the Gospel. And they are most likely to grow in that way as they stay connected to the Church in some way or gain relationships with religious adults, both directly and through reading.
If our faith doesn’t become a relationship, a way of relating based in Jesus and his way, we risk being pulled back into childish, magical thinking. The real faith of childhood is found in the trust that enables children to set a foundation for life. Flights of fancy and delight in magic are only decorative parts of childhood, not the substance.
We help emerging adults by helping them find more relationships with faithful adults. This should begin in high school. All parents hope their children will find strong, memorable teachers who remain part of those inner voices that invite and prod the child along a path of healthy spiritual growth. We hope for the same if they go on to college.
Young people entering the work force are more on their own when it comes to finding mature faith friends. There may be attractive faith-filled persons in the shop or store, but they seldom have ready ways to find each other. Normal socializing also doesn’t include direct references to faith and church life, although by raising questions and noting events in the news, conversation can open in those directions. People can begin sharing more of their spirit than they do with sports passions and the latest in entertainment news.
The most important element affecting the faith life of our children remains ourselves. Parents, the family: these are the land where the roots are planted.
This does not mean that parents are entirely responsible for what happens as the birds fly from the nest. The world around us includes too many substitutes for faith, too many distractions from that studied gaze into Jesus. We can’t do everything, but we can plant the seed and water its initial growth.
We probably do that best when we continue growing ourselves.