During a homily on Mission Sunday last year, I shared some thoughts on parents as evangelists, as missionaries to their children. After Mass, a group of parents asked me if I could offer some practical advice on how they could be missionaries to their children. I was delighted to be asked, and on reflection, what struck me most strongly about their request was the fact that they had made it! People still look to priests for help in matters of faith, and it’s good for us priests to be reminded of this. We should make every effort to offer help, and not dismiss such appeals with the plea that parents are the real experts. Of course they are, but if they appeal to some expertise that they hope to find in us, then we should not refuse it, even if this means that we have to do some homework.
One of the parents who approached me, a mother of teenage children, told me that her own mother had been a hardliner, and that she could not adopt this approach with her children. She didn’t have the temperament for it, and besides, it wouldn’t work in the present climate. She was concerned that despite her efforts to pass on the faith to them, her children were not practising. What did being a missionary to her own children mean, concretely, in her case?
That’s a good question! To begin with, one thing evangelization does not mean is 100% success. In a sense, there can be no failure when the Good News is shared, regardless of the apparent or visible results. It is not the case that parents have somehow failed unless they have fully and obviously convinced their children of the goodness and truth of their faith. Perhaps the best work is done when parents are secure in their faith, when they feel blessed by it. A sense of gratitude can do its own work, and does not need to be supplemented by routine harangues about Mass attendance.
Small children are brought along, accompanied physically as well as morally, spiritually and emotionally. But once they reach a certain age, their freedom and their moral responsibility take over, and they reach a point where they are free to respond to faith, or not to respond. Authentic growth in freedom means that parents have done their job well! Once that freedom is established, the parent’s task as missionaries to their children is prayer and example. If young people turn away from the practice of the faith, they will not be nagged back to it. Parental expressions of anxiety and irritation will make it less rather than more likely that their teenage or young adult children will return to the practice of the faith.
Prayer, the example of a serene and contented faith, leads to the acceptance of youngsters’ freedom. This might seem like cold comfort to those who are genuinely concerned for the faith of their children. Is it not a counsel of weakness or powerlessness? Well yes, it is. But in the face of human freedom, the Lord who multiplied the loaves and calmed the storm could only appeal.
That said, there are some attitudes that parents might do well to adopt and others they might do well to avoid. It’s important to be clear that missionary parents are not “imposing” their beliefs on their children. Those who take this view would prefer if children were brought up in a religious vacuum, so that they can “choose” when they are mature enough. This logic is not applied in any other area of life. When do we hear progressive voices demanding that children not be subject to commercial indoctrination until they are financially independent? Consider how many product labels and logos even very young children recognize. Where are the progressives now? Or are children to be brought up in a moral vacuum, until they are mature enough to make moral choices? On the contrary, they are to be carefully guided until they reach that maturity.
We can choose, or reject, only what we know. To deprive children of the experience and knowledge of faith is not to “leave them free until they are able to decide.” Rather, it is to pre-empt a decision against faith.
Furthermore, parents of older children might think of themselves as sowing doubts in their children’s minds, doubts about the world-view, the sense-making, to which children are exposed. One very fundamental instance of faith as an alternative world-view is faith’s insistence that we are loved into existence by a Father, and destined for love. The secular alternative does not offer anything remotely comparable, but urges us to make what sense we can of life. And take good note: neither of these world-views can be proven. Each of them is a kind of faith, a fundamental starting point, from which we live, rather than to which we reason.
Finally, a few pointers for parents as would-be missionaries and evangelists to their children:
Don’t expect 100% success. Be happy with sowing seeds.
Be alert to false notions, such as the idea that you shouldn’t impose your faith on your children (this notion is itself the imposition of a belief).
Try to grow in awareness of the culture your children inhabit. At some moments, you may find yourself in competition with it. There is a contest on, for your child’s mind and heart.
Think of your faith – and think about your faith – as a world-view, a way of making sense of life, with all its joys and sufferings.
Remember that the more you understand your faith, the better placed you will be to communicate it to your children. The more you understand it, the more your faith will catch fire. God knows, your children might just take some glowing embers from you.