As the school year gears up, I wish to share this letter from a dear college friend of mine. She is one of the most joyful, prayerful, peaceful, and happy persons that I know. Her experience totally resonates with my own. The treasure of this letter, I think, is that it highlights something so crucial in Catholic parenting today: doing the parent part does not always equate to accomplishing the Catholic part. Our children not only deserve better-- they're hungering for it.
This summer I had the extraordinary privilege of being a Totus Tuus teacher for a diocese a state away from my home. As a Totus Tuus teacher, I was paired on a team with two men (one of them being a seminarian) and another college aged woman. Each week, we traveled to a new parish to put on a week-long Totus Tuus 'camp', where during the day we taught catechesis to children aged 6---11 and gave witness at night to middle-schoolers and teens aged 12--18. All sixteen of us teachers arrived in late May for our training week, where under the direction of our priestly bosses, we devised lesson plans on the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, the Lord's Prayer, different types of prayer, Mary, and the saints. We were then divided into four teams of four and sent to "go proclaim the Gospel".
And it was not easy. But it was beautiful. By far one of the most grace-filled times of my life. As I am not currently an education major, and the only interaction I'd had with children prior to Totus Tuus was in a summer-camp environment, I was looking forward to my time playing teacher. I was excited to evangelize and to spread the faith. I was also excited to be welcomed into a new parish community each week and have the opportunity to live with host families who would shepherd me into their own family for my brief stay.
But by the end of my first full week of teaching--- I began to notice some trends among my students.
Now, I don't pretend to know the situation of every family, nor do I claim to have exclusive, Divine knowledge of every household, but from spending time in the classroom with your children, Catholic parents, I have noticed some definite trends.
It may be presumptuous for me to speak, me being twenty years old and with no children of my own. But, I noticed some things in those classrooms, a side of these children that not many people--- not even their parents probably get to see.
It became apparent to me very quickly which children prayed with their families. It became obvious very quickly which children were well catechized at home. And it became very obvious to me....which children weren't.
Now, I am fully aware how hard it can be sometimes to get children excited about the faith. Especially when we live in a culture that imposes a myriad of things as supposedly more important than Jesus. Instead our culture seeks to boil down the idea of "practicing Catholic" to Mass on Sundays and prayers before meals--- which, honestly, should be the bare minimum that a Catholic family should do together.
Yes. The bare minimum.
This summer I taught ten year olds who could not name the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, despite having been in Catholic education their whole lives. This summer I taught many, many elementary school children and high schoolers who did not know how to pray from their hearts. Who knew not how to speak to their Lord in a form other than a memorized prayer gleaned from Catholic schooling. This summer I taught ten and eleven year olds who had not been to Confession since their first Reconciliation at the age of seven. I taught children who had gone several years without receiving the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. And I wish that these were rare exceptions, but other findings have dissuaded that line of thinking.
As I looked at these students who, though having spent a decade of their young lives in the faith, knew so very little about what the Church actually teaches, I couldn't help wonder how many of them would keep the faith as they got older.
Statistically speaking, 1 in 10 American adults are lapsed Catholics or Catholic in name only. And looking at my students who held such a precious and invaluable innocence, my heart was sad.
At each parish, parishioners would thank us for the work we were doing, saying how needed it was. And I agree, supplementary catechesis is a large need in our church, and a beautiful ministry.
But I also began to realize that though I taught a full eighteen lessons some weeks, my being there was only a dip into the ocean of needs my students have.
Because my students were hungry. They wanted answers. They wanted to know about Jesus. Even some of the most unenthused students, would often times jump at the chance to participate in the Mass we celebrated each day. Whether it was serving, lectoring, or presenting the gifts, even some of the most lackluster students would grow excited at the chance to participate in the liturgy. Because some deep part of them understood it was important.
Even if it wasn't treated as such at home.
In one lesson, during my last week of teaching, when I was speaking about the importance of Mass, one student raised his hand.
"Sometimes I have soccer games and we don't go to Mass--- is that okay?" he asked.
I responded as gently and as charitably as I could that no, it is not okay to miss Mass because of soccer, and that maybe he should ask his parents to take him to Mass even on weekends when there is sporting events.
He nodded and I continued with my lesson.
Afterwards, when parents arrived to pick up their children, I found myself cringing. I figured it was only a matter of time before a parent approached me, angered by what I had taught. Because surely, it wasn't my place to tell their children that they had to go to Mass, was it? Surely it wasn't my place to....tell the truth?
Earlier in the summer, I had a mother approach me with a vaguely accusatory and wary tone asking me what I'd been teaching her children. I responded, confused, that I'd been teaching lessons completely in line with Church teaching, that we'd been teaching things from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. She pondered my answer and proceeded to ask me why, then, did her children come home every night with questions about Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory?
I thought to answer her concerns with the fact that questions are only a natural part of learning, that her children are merely curious about the faith. But something stopped me as our conversation unfolded, and a new realization set in. These children were not taught at home. They were not catechized at home, and it wasn't so much that this woman was mad at me for catechizing them, after all--- wasn't that what she was paying me to do? Instead, she was mad that her children were approaching her with questions that she herself did not know how to answer.
Like so many of my students, it seemed that Totus Tuus had sparked a natural curiosity in this woman's children. They longed to take the lessons that they had learned and go deeper. They longed to dive into the 2000 years of Church history and learn more.
But throughout my summer, I noticed so many students whose curiosity would be sparked and I couldn't help but wonder how many of them would subsequently go home to parents who would not herald and honor this quest for Truth. I wondered how many of them would go home to parents who would squelch this curiosity with indifference or indignation to hide the embarrassment of their own lack of catechesis.
Subsequently, a large majority of the high school students I taught did not appear to have any kind of faith development at home. Many of them didn't know how to come before our Lord in adoration. Many of them did not know how to pray from the heart. Many of them, by their own admission, spoke to no one, not even their parents, about their faith. And so any and all of their prayer experiences are kept inside of the Church walls and within the week that they were shepherded to Catholic youth programs or Church camps, and so stunted from bearing permanent fruit in their daily lives.
I often times noticed a clear distinction from the catechized kids than those not catechized at home. The children I taught who were clearly catechized at home were often-times (but not always) more respectful, more patient, and more willing to admit wrongs.
It seems to me that the children who have been taught to respect Christ in the Eucharist have a much easier time respecting authority figures, even me, their temporary teacher. It seems to me that the children who have been taught to be patient and attentive during Mass have an easier time doing so in the classroom or elsewhere. It seems to me that the children who have been taught it is right and good to say sorry to God for our sins have an easier time saying sorry to their fellow students as well.
And I know that there are exceptions. And that willful, wild, and disobedient children appear in every family, no matter the piety of the parents. And I know that the behavior of the child does not always reflect the enthusiasm of the parents for the faith--- as it is, ultimately, the child's decision to accept the faith or not. But, as a general rule, there was a clear contrast between my students catechized at home, and my students whose religious education were kept to 45 minute slots in Catholic schools and the hourly Sunday Mass.
So here is my impassioned plea.
Catholic parents, here is a letter from one who has taught your children. And it seems to me while there are many Catholic parents in the world, there are so still many Catholic parents who only really do the parent part of the equation, and not the Catholic part.
But here's the thing: by their very nature, Catholic families are supposed to look different than other families. As Catholics our very lives are supposed to look different than the secular world. Our families and lives are supposed to be a beacon of light in the world.
And for those who do teach the faith at home, I saw that light. I saw it in the faces and the innocence of your children. I saw it in their respect, their kindness, their reverence, their charity.
But for those who do not teach the faith at home, or expect the occasional Mass to really give your child a relationship with Christ that is so desperately desired and needed--- I beg you, begin anew. Begin now. Please, educate your children at home. As a family. Make it a family quest for Truth. Learn with your children. For what a tragedy it would be for you to give your children the whole world and not give them the one thing that really matters---Jesus. What a tragedy it would be for them to gain the whole world, yet lose their souls.
Because we don't have an excuse. Here in America where Catholic Churches are abundant, where there are so many at-home resources for catechesis and religious ed, where we cannot claim to face any kind of danger from transmitting the faith at home unlike our brothers and sisters in the Middle East--- there is simply no excuse.
Parents, I have spent time with your children. And they are hungry. And they are searching. And they have such a need for Jesus. And what I did for them this summer--- is not enough. It is simply not enough. I have seen this vast ocean of needs in each of your children and have prayed before the tabernacle in helplessness.
Because I have but a bucket to remove some water from this ocean.
I, a mere lightning bolt in your children's lives, here one moment gone the next, need your help.
I need you to teach them at home. Because your children have such beautiful souls. And beautiful gifts. And beautiful hearts, as I'm sure you already know.
And the Church needs them. The Church needs your children with their souls, and gifts and hearts. The Church needs them badly. And She wants them.
As does Her bridegroom, Christ Jesus.
The Church needs parents who view their holy vows as the vocation--- the mission--- that it is. Because if not, the cycle of cultural Catholicism continues. The number of Catholics in name-only increases. If not, how much harder will to be for your own children to fulfill their own vocation of sainthood if they have to search for places to be fed? How much harder will it be for them to stay in the faith if their own parents, their own family, is not cheering them on?
Please, Catholic parents, your children have beautiful souls and beautiful potential.
The world already has a lot of parents.
But the world needs more Catholic parents who are committed to spreading the faith. I need your help. Because what I am doing is not enough. I only have a bucket on the shore of the sea.
Please, water the seeds I have planted. Please, teach the faith at home. Please, treat your marriage and parenthood as the vocation it is. Do it for the Church. Do it for the good of this world. Do it for your children.
Their very souls and salvation depend on it.
Totus Tuus Ego Maria Sum.