The Church, young people and the role of parents

| Bishop Andrew Cozzens | September 28, 2017 | 37 Comments

As Catholics, we have to be alarmed by statistics that show how many of our young people are leaving the Church. Researchers say that now fully half of our young people leave the Church after high school, and some say that only 7 percent of millennials raised Catholic still actively practice their faith today — meaning they’ll attend weekly Mass, pray a few times each week, and say their faith is “extremely” or “very” important. We are in danger of losing a generation of Catholics.

There are many reasons that people point to for explaining this sad truth, but there is also important research that points to the solution. Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame has been studying this question for years, and his studies point to one clear factor that statistically determines whether or not young people will stay in the Church when they become adults: parents. The single greatest predictor of whether or not young people will practice the faith when they enter adulthood is the degree of religious commitment of their parents.

The results of his various studies are dramatic. His studies show that it was not enough for parents simply to practice their faith, and much less to practice it intermittently. Young people who stay in the Church say that their family regularly talked about religious topics in the home, that faith was “very important” to their family, and that they themselves were regularly involved in religious activities. These parents saw their own faith not as something they occasionally did, but who they were.

It used to be the case that it was enough to bring your children to the Catholic school or religious education program for them to begin to receive the Catholic faith. Today there are many more challenges to being a believer, since the culture young people encounter does not see the world from a Christian perspective. Studies show that unless parents have created a Catholic culture in the home, the children will succumb to our society’s non-Christian way of seeing the world when they become adults. The parish, the school and the youth program are all helpful, but parental religious influence is the condition of possibility for other influences.

This means that parents must be able themselves to witness to the importance of their personal relationship with Jesus and why they choose to follow Church teachings. It also means they must be intentional about handing on this faith, not just taking the children to Mass every Sunday, but speaking about the faith at home, praying together as a family and giving credible witness to a Catholic worldview. The good news is that if they do this, the chances of their children practicing the faith when they grow up are about 90 percent. The bad news is that if they don’t do this, the chances of their children practicing the faith when they grow up are about 20-30 percent.

Smith and his fellow scholar Justin Bartkus give examples of ways families are successful in handing on the faith. They locate four essential aspects:

  1. Successful parents are able to give their own narrative about why their faith is import to them — “the why.”
  2. They are intentional about establishing a religious culture in the household and eschew autopilot in order to achieve these aims — “the how.”
  3. They give good content, meaning that they expose their children to religiously significant practices, relationships and experiences — “the what.”
  4. They help their children to interpret the world through the eyes of our faith.

Thus, children are not simply exposed to religious content but begin to understand its central significance in their parents’ lives and in their lives. The Catholic faith becomes a profound reality that daily shapes a household and the lens through which we interpret the events of our lives.

Smith and Bartkus also point out ways parents fail in faith transmission. Gaps in the consistency of religious practice are deadly to handing on this worldview. They give today’s ubiquitous example: If you don’t go to Mass on the days you have a sporting event, you have taught your children that sports are more important than Mass. Thus, when society challenges the importance of religious belief at all as they grow, they will know it is a matter of convenience, not deep belief.

Smith and Bartkus are clear: “Even very slight inconsistencies or inauthenticities in a parent’s conviction that Catholicism is true and necessary and indispensable to family life can undercut children’s perception of the viability of Catholicism as a worthwhile commitment.” They point out that the essential work of the parents cannot be outsourced. If they send their children to a Catholic school, but don’t bring them to Mass on Sunday, chances are 70-80 percent that the children will end up not practicing their faith at all.

The challenge of passing on the faith to the next generation has gotten more difficult in our age. But this challenge actually brings us back to the heart of the Gospel. When reading the Gospel, we find many ways that Jesus calls us to place him first, loving him and serving him in our daily lives. He commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). If we do these things intentionally with our children, they too will grow up desiring to love and serve him.

La Iglesia, los jóvenes y el papel de los padres

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Category: Only Jesus