Most of my friends in Austin are people I met at Catholic activities. Catholicism is the biggest part of my life (other than being female, I suppose), so it makes sense that I would mainly associate with other Catholics.
What most of them don’t know, though, is that I haven’t always been like this. I am not a cradle Catholic, but I was baptized Catholic as a baby. My family didn’t go to Mass at all. My parents dutifully sent me in for First Communion and Confirmation. The Holy Spirit pushed me in the right direction, but circumstances set me adrift until I was finally thrust back toward Christ when I was in college. The rest is a story for another day.
Some of my friends are the opposite: they grew up in church and promptly fled as teenagers or college students. And an even smaller group are the ones who stayed. They grew up in church, they stayed in church, and they’re not leaving anytime soon.
What is it about that last group? What makes young people stay in church? This question was addressed by the editors of FaithIt, who offer “3 Common Traits of Youth Who Don’t Leave the Church” [it’s linkbait, but it’s good stuff]. Having considered those traits, I offer some strategies and add a dash of Catholicism to the game plan. I don’t have kids, but I have three godchildren, and I know plenty of non-churchgoing former Catholics. Apply my commentary in the way that works best for your situation, because this advice is for everyone.
1. Promote continual conversion to deeper faith.
To stay in the Church, you have to be there, but there has to be a step beyond just “being there.” A conversion, by definition, is a turn or change to be set in line with the thing converted to. Going to a fun retreat means nothing if you don’t leave it having been changed, deeply and fundamentally. It can be a gradual change (like Jonah being coaxed into preaching to the Ninevites) or a miraculous moment (like St. Paul being struck blind and hearing the voice of Christ), but there must be a core change.
Catholicism teaches us that conversion is not just a single moment, the story of when you met Jesus, but a lifelong endeavor. It is not enough to shuffle your kids off to CCD and youth group without helping them to find new and age-appropriate ways to grow in their relationship with God. The ones who stay have built that relationship and let it mature. The ones who don’t have built their houses on sand.
2. Teach the lesson that faith is about more than just fun.
Those sand-built houses are often made up of great experiences that leave no useful impression behind. Your goal should be not just to offer a retreat that is fun, but the one that kids remember because they learned the structure of the Mass. The Bible you purchase shouldn’t just be heirloom quality or “accessible” for kids or teens, but one that is used frequently in family and group settings, encouraging individual use. Prayer should be more than just the ten seconds before you can start eating dinner. Church should be a place you go to more frequently than just Sundays. Worship music should be something you hear outside of those four walls.
Every person has a vocation. God calls you to something. There are permanent vocations like the priesthood, religious life, and marriage. There are careers and hobbies. Everyone, though, is called to holiness. What can you do that will give your kids the skills they need to continually grow in holiness?
3. Be a concrete example of a life lived in faith.
The world tells us that forcing our children to go to church is brainwashing at best and child abuse at worst. This is despite the reality that every major religious tradition teaches the importance of raising children to follow the same tradition. Do it, and do it on purpose. Your children need to see you pray if you want them to learn to pray. They need to see that you’re paying attention at Mass in order to learn that paying attention at Mass is important. They need to serve alongside you to understand the value and joy of service. Be intentional about being a good example.
The temptation to be a passive example is real—watch out for that! It is so easy to think that you will passively attract inquirers like flies to honey. As an alternative, be direct. Tell those whom you seek to lead or teach that you’re hoping they will learn from you. “We pray the rosary on the drive to Sunday Mass because it gets us thinking about God before we even get to church.” “I got you a youth Bible because I wanted you to have explanations in clear language to help make the complicated parts easier to understand.” “I make the Sign of the Cross when I’m scared because it reminds me that I belong to God and that he will not abandon me even if I feel like I’m all alone.” Speak up about your relationship with God. Even if your audience is not ready to listen, you will have staked your claim for Christ.
What tips do you have for raising kids who love the Church? If you have adult children, how have you seen them being converted, equipped, and evangelized?
Pray for all who lead and teach others in the faith!