With the recent convening of the Synod of Bishops, the subject of Catholic families – and, more specifically, their religious habits – received a great deal of attention from the Vatican and the mainstream American media.
And with good reason: “As the family goes,” said St. Pope John Paul II famously, “so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
Since a recent national survey commissioned by Holy Cross Family Ministries indicated an abysmally low practice of religious education and family prayer in self-identified Catholic families, the question begs to be asked: Just how do faithful Catholic families manage to incorporate their spiritual practices into their busy existences, and what can they do to encourage the same dedication in others? (See related story on the survey, Page 9)
To answer these questions, the Catholic Herald spoke with four local families, as well as Nazareth Project director Susan McNeil, about several aspects of modern religious family life identified by the Holy Cross survey.
Religious education casualty of shifting priorities
The “Practice of Faith in the Catholic Family,” commissioned by Holy Cross Family Ministries and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University last fall, revealed that only one-third of self-identified Catholic parents enroll their children in some form of religious education, whether it is at a Catholic school or through Christian formation classes at church.
It’s a statistic that comes as no surprise to McNeil, who before her current position spent more than a decade as the pastoral associate at St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield.
“Statistically, if you look at any parish on average, 30 percent of your parishioners will be there every week, 30 percent will be there once in awhile and 30 percent you’ll never see,” she said. “And that’s a pretty common benchmark across the board.”
It’s a symptom of shifting priorities for American families as a whole, she added.
“Our parents grew up in an era where there was an expectation and an obligation to go to Mass, to put your kids in a (Catholic) school, and it was part of the very fabric of the culture,” she said. “That changed significantly, where even though Sunday Mass is still an obligation, people don’t necessarily feel obligated.”
Part of the problem, said McNeil, is that Catholics don’t feel a personal connection to their faith.
“A lot of Catholics don’t necessarily have a personal relationship with God, so they see Mass as ‘something I have to go do’ … and if you don’t have it yourself, it’s hard to impart that to your children.”
Seeks more personal relationship with God
A personal investment in their faith is something many churchgoing Catholic parents today report they felt was lacking in their youth and are hoping to remedy with their own children.
Despite being enrolled in Catholic grade and high schools, Jenny Adams, a mother of two who attends St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners, said in her childhood she “felt that religion was something that was a grade for me in school. It was something that I figured out what answer the teacher wanted and gave the teacher that answer to get the grade I wanted. It was something that was taught … if I wanted an A, I had to respond in a certain way.”
A more personal relationship with God and the church is something Adams tries to instill in her sons, Lucas, 9 and Evan, 6, as well as in the first-graders for whom she is a catechist at St. Mary.
But it’s an element of faith so important it must be reinforced in the child’s home, she said – not simply in school, and not simply in Christian formation class. To that end, Adams sends weekly emails to her students’ parents informing them of what the class has learned that week and asking that they continue to work on it at home.
She is trying to teach her students the Our Father. Only two of her 13 first-graders came into the class knowing all the words of the prayer, she said.
“We have the kids for – I believe this year I have 22 Sundays, for an hour and 15 minutes at a time. That’s not enough to teach the children what they need to know about faith and things like that,” she said. “I can work on (the Our Father) with them once a Sunday for 22 Sundays, but they’re not going to know it.”
Parents must bridge gap between class, home
Adams said it’s important to “bridge the gap between class and home.”
“I think if you give the parents the tools, you’ll be amazed at what they do with it,” she said.
Missy and Paddy Noone of Oconomowoc, parents of four who attend St. Stanislaus Parish, Milwaukee, agree it’s important for parents to have the right tools to provide their children with proper religious instruction. But, like Adams, Noone said she has mixed feelings about her own religious formation.
She and her husband attended Catholic schools in Minnesota and Illinois.
“We were never properly taught the catechism; we were just kind of given, I think, a watered-down version of it,” she recalled. “We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen with our children,” she said.
After the birth of their third child, the Noones say they re-taught themselves the catechism – “going back to the basics.” Their children attend Trinity Academy, an independent Catholic school in Pewaukee that the couple said they chose specifically because of the school’s emphasis on the Baltimore Catechism.
The Baltimore Catechism originated at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 when the bishops of the United States decided to publish a national catechism. It contained 421 questions and answers in 37 chapters and gave unity to the teaching and understanding of the faith for millions of American Catholics into the early 1960s.
“They go all the way from the basics of the Baltimore Catechism, and then when they get into high school they go into extreme, in-depth to study papal encyclicals,” she said.
The Noone children also receive catechism instruction at home five days a week and attend a one-hour class on Sundays at St. Stanislaus.
“Our number one job as parents is to get our children to heaven. It’s not sports, it’s not even academics. It’s their moral, religious life – that’s our number one priority,” Missy Noone said. “They cannot get there unless they know the basic tenets of the catechism; they have to begin with that, and then it all goes up from there.”
Faith, not sports, should be priority
Jeana Holt, who, like Adams, attends St. Mary’s in Hales Corners, echoes the Noones’ sentiments.
“If we make it a priority to take our children to whatever practice, should we not also make it a priority to take them to their faith formation class? Because, to be honest, their spirituality and faith will be with them through their entire life, and not necessarily their skills that they’re learning on the soccer field will be,” she said.
Despite their busy schedules, Holt requires both her teenaged children to attend Mass every week. It’s a non-negotiable aspect of their family life, she said.
“From my perspective, the way that it has worked is, it is just something you know that you do on the weekend,” she said. “It’s not an, ‘Oh, by the way, I think we’ll be able to slap it in from here to there’; no, this is our time that we go to church … it’s an expectation of something that is known for them.”
Prayer at home becoming rare
Like enrollment in religious education, family prayer is also a rare occurrence in self-identified Catholic families, according to the Holy Cross survey. Respondents to the Practice of Faith in the Catholic Family found that only 7 percent of young Catholics pray as a family.
“I’ve had couples tell me they don’t pray together because it’s too intimate. Really? Where’s that disconnect?” said McNeil. “It feels so fragile to people, it feels so tentative – like, I don’t know what to do and I don’t know if I’m doing it the right way, and I don’t want to reveal this part of myself, even to the person who knows me best. We have to teach families how to do that.”
McNeil stressed the importance of children observing their parents in prayer.
“That’s a witness … even if you don’t pray out loud with your kids – if they see you praying, it models something,” she said.
McNeil added there are many forms of prayer available to families, and even the smallest addition of communal prayer to their daily routine can be beneficial.
“I love to teach families an Ignatian style of prayer, where you look at your day and you talk about your blessings and the ways that God blessed you that day, and you also talk about where you need forgiveness, and you conclude with an Our Father,” she said. “Families need to know this can be like running a marathon. You don’t start out running a 10K. You run a block. If you can pray at bedtime with your child, using the bedtime prayers, that’s a great start. Then add a meal prayer. Little bits!”
Holt encourages her teenaged children to pray at bedtime by expressing gratitude for their blessings throughout the day. She has also given her son and daughter an olive wood cross from the Holy Land that they turn to in times of difficulty.
“I say, ‘I want you to put this beside your bed, and if there’s ever a worry that you have, I want you to pick up that cross and just kind of rub it and feel the softness of it, and have that as your connection to God,’” she said. “’Leave your worries on the cross … if you have a worry, this is where you should turn to.’”
Parents should model Christian discipleship
Likewise, Holt hopes to model Christian discipleship by getting involved in the liturgy and by teaching catechism at her parish. Holt is an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at Mass, and feels that it’s important for “my children to see me living out my faith and giving back.
“My thinking is, just being a living disciple. Sometimes actions can speak louder than words, or at least actions can support the words in our teaching. It’s an easy thing we can do as a family, a small way of showing that you’re living and walking the faith,” she said.
Holt also includes the kids in washing the liturgical dishes in the sacristy after Mass.
“It’s just a humble way of spending an additional 10 minutes after Mass to give back and be part of the community,” she said.
The Schweitzer family of Kenosha have found that including the Angelus, the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet in their daily routine has helped structure their day around Christ. Heather Schweitzer, who homeschools her three daughters, said it’s also an effective way to signal the beginning and end of the school day.
“It’s so important to pray with your children because you set the example. When they see you pray, they’re more apt to pray. They remind me sometimes, even, to pray,” she said.
Schweitzer feels there are so many bad influences in a child’s life that they are eager to emulate, and prayer is a simple way to promote a good influence that they might pick up on. Her decision in 2014 to homeschool her children was due, in part, to her concern that the girls were not being exposed to enough prayer and devotionals at their Catholic school.
“They hadn’t attended adoration, and religious class was done once everything else was done,” she said.
Family prays rosary together daily
The Noone family prays the rosary on a daily basis – in the evenings after the children have finished their homework.
“I understand why the statistic is low,” said Missy Noone of the survey findings. “It’s very difficult to incorporate the family rosary because it takes time and it takes a lot of patience, especially when you have four children. In order for the rosary to be done properly, you need focus, and with children, it’s hard to obtain that. But because Our Lady delivered the message at Fatima to pray the rosary every day, we have to incorporate that with our family, because we hope that as our children get older that it’s something they’ll incorporate with their families as well.”
The children who are younger than 4 years old are present during the rosary, said Noone, but it isn’t until they turn 4 that they are expected to fully participate. She uses pictures of the various mysteries to encourage them to focus.
“If it gets chaotic, take a break. Change the baby’s diaper, feed the baby, quiet the toddler,” she said. “You just have to calm down and understand that God just expects, more than anything, as a parent, to teach your children what’s important about the rosary.”
Real conversations and little rituals
McNeil described the drifting of the faithful as “not just a failure on the part of parents; it’s our failure as a church.”
The only solution, she said, is for Catholic families who take their faith seriously to do so out in the open – inviting others, by their witness, to return to full communion with the church.
“Catholics, as a rule, are terrible at talking about their faith. And that’s something we have to get past,” she said. “If God and Jesus gave us the greatest gift we ever had, why don’t we talk about it?”
McNeil herself feels she came to the Catholic Church through the quiet witness of others. She grew up in a Protestant family, but would sometimes attend Mass after sleepovers with her Catholic best friend.
“That stayed with me, my entire life – the beauty of the Mass, and how I encountered that as a small child, and the candles and the incense, even if I didn’t understand what the priest was talking about.”
She also urges a greater involvement on the part of family members to shepherd their own relatives.
“This isn’t just the job of parents; godparents, this is your job!” she said. “You agreed to help raise this child in the faith, and that’s part of what you do as a godparent. Don’t just buy the latest toy at Christmas, but remember the day of their baptism. Celebrate it … grandparents (also) have a huge role in passing on the faith. With how busy parents are, that’s a great thing for grandparents to do. My grandma was Catholic, and she was the matriarch of the family; I swear, she prayed me back into the church.
“I’m all about little rituals you do at home to improve your faith. You don’t have to sit down and have an hour-long lecture with your kids. You remember their saints’ days, you celebrate their baptismal day. Go back and visit the parish where you were baptized. Take them to different parishes to see what they look like. There are tons of little things you can do,” she said. “People are dying to have conversations about real subjects – the rest of us just have to crack open the door.”