By Kathy Berken
Someone asks me about this on nearly every retreat I’ve worked in the past five years. How to get their grown children back to church.
Does this sound like you? Well, you are not alone and your question is valid. You were raised in a strict Catholic home where Sunday Mass was expected and you may have gone to a Catholic school where you attended daily Mass. You went to confession at least once a month (or, like me, every Friday). You observe the holy days, Ash Wednesday, Advent and Lent. You didn’t eat meat on Fridays, had holy water fonts by the light switch in every room, saw crucifixes and statues everywhere and set up May altars.
You know your patron saint and named your guardian angel. You memorized the Catechism, learned dozens of Bible stories, prayed the rosary and followed your mother to church for Holy Hour and Tuesday Devotions. When you had your own children, you raised them with the same devotion and practices.
Then something happened. Your children grew up, left home and stopped going to Mass. They said they could find God in nature and didn’t need church for that. They had their own children and didn’t think it was important to have them baptized or teach them about the faith.
You felt beyond sad and disappointed. You constantly ask where you went wrong and wonder: will your children and grandchildren make it to heaven?
I feel a deep sense of frustration and failure on the part of these wonderful parents who cry when they think that all their hard work and effort has been in vain. “How can I get my children back to church?” “Do you think they are going to hell?” “I’m just sick about it.”
The hard work of teaching their children, leading by example, is lost on sports, craft fairs, camping, Netflix, social media and sleeping in on Sundays. Their parents feel responsible for not doing enough or not doing something right. Is there any way back?
I tell them that God hears their cries and loves all of you. Yes, the parents say, their children are good people and they are raising their families with good values. But, the parents always add, their children don’t believe in God and they don’t practice their faith and they are desperately afraid the children will go to hell because of it. So, I invite them to re-read the story of the Prodigal Son.
“You no doubt have raised your children to be independent,” I’ll suggest, “to make their own decisions. You have given them the tools to find the best solutions to their problems, and they are living as the adults you hoped they would be.”
“Yes, of course,” they say. So I ask if it might be true that despite raising their children to be independent thinkers, they simply don’t like the independent decisions they have made.
Well, yes. So, who is suffering more, then, if the kids are generally good and happy people who have found a different way to experience God from how they were raised? It seems their image of, and relationship with God may have changed as their life experiences have changed. We have to trust that God has never abandoned any of us, that God is the merciful and loving parent in the Prodigal Son story.
You have not failed. You taught them independence, values and belief in a mystery far beyond our human understanding. Take a deep breath and trust that God has this. Ask God to continue to keep your children safe in his heart. Live your faith as it is meaningful and right for you. Know that your faith is still an example to your family, and above all, love your children and grandchildren unconditionally. As St. Francis famously said, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)