CHRISTINA DEHAN JALOWAY
Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be a formula for raising Catholic kids; it's simply one family's experience of how the witness of parents shaped children who became faithful Catholic adults. Each of my siblings and I got to a point in life where we had to choose to embrace our Catholic faith, and by the grace of God, we did. We, like all human beings, had the freedom to choose to reject it, and I know that sometimes people who are raised by faithful Catholic parents choose to do just that. There's no guarantee that if you do x, y, or z, your kids will still be going to Mass as adults. But there ARE things you can do to tend your children's souls so that they are more open to the Lord's action in their life.
Given the state of affairs amongst millennials who were raised Catholic, I understand the surprised looks on people’s faces when I tell them that my other three adult siblings (ages 27-33) and I are all intentional disciples, in the sense that we try to love Jesus, follow him, and be faithful Catholics. All of us have married faithful Catholics, and we are all committed to raising our children to know and love Christ and the Church. To top it all off with even more weirdness, my two sisters and I majored in theology in college, my sister Elisa and I both have Master’s degrees in theology, and my brother studied philosophy.
Even to other faithful Catholics, this sounds highly unusual. How in the world did we all end up like this? Did my parents brainwash us? Were we forced to go to daily Mass and completely sheltered from secular TV and music? Did we spend all of our spare time as kids reading the Bible and praying? Did we go to super Catholic elementary and high schools where we had lots of other faithful Catholic mentors and friends around?
The answer to all of those question is an emphatic no. Yes, Sunday Mass was an expectation, but I don’t ever remember feeling like I was forced to do anything faith-related (I can’t speak for my other siblings in this regard...I wasn’t exactly the rebellious one in my family). Yes, my parents censored what we watched and listened to, but they tried to keep the rules age-appropriate and we definitely all watched our fair share of TV in junior high and high school. We did go to Catholic schools our whole lives, but in terms of Catholic identity, the quality of theology classes, and the number of faithful Catholic mentor types around, these schools were mediocre at best. So how did they do it?
My parents would say that the fact that we all love Jesus and the Church is because of 1) grace, 2) grace, and 3) grace. But even they have to admit (when pressed) that they played an important role in our faith formation; grace builds on nature, after all. I thank God on a regular basis for the gift of faith-filled parents who, through their witness, gave me everything I needed as a child to make my faith my own as an adult, and I know all of my siblings would say the same thing. My parents weren’t perfect, and my family still has issues (what family doesn’t?), but the one thing we never disagree on, the one thing that has never been a source of division for us is Christ and his Church.
Looking back on my childhood, I can pinpoint six things my parents did that were particularly formative for my siblings and me. Like I said in the disclaimer, these aren't silver bullets, but I do think my parents' way of teaching and witnessing to the beauty of the Catholic faith is a huge part of why my siblings and I are still faithful Catholics today.
1. Say the Name. My parents talked about their relationships with the Lord, what he was doing in their lives, and what they could see him doing in our lives on a daily basis. Jesus’ name was frequently spoken in our house, and always in a positive way. I never felt like God was a police officer in the sky, waiting for me to screw up. I knew that He loved me even more than my parents did. For my siblings and me, faith wasn’t just a Church thing or a school thing. My parents’ faith and love for Jesus was the air that we breathed.
2. Have daily family devotions. Like most Catholic families, we did the typical grace before meals and prayers before bed. Unlike most Catholic families, we did a lot of extemporaneous prayer as a family, usually after dinner. My parents didn’t emphasize rote prayer so much as heartfelt conversations with the Lord. We learned, from a young age, that the Lord cared about all of our concerns and that we could voice them aloud, directly to Him. My Dad says that this type of prayer helped us “stretch our prayer muscles," and he's right! My parents were good about keeping our prayer times on the short side so that we wouldn’t get restless, and they encouraged us (at the appropriate ages) to have our own prayer time each day. I didn’t start to do that until high school, but the seeds were definitely planted, and our family prayer times paved the way for my future spiritual growth and intimacy with the Lord.
3. Read the Bible. My parents met because of the Catholic Charismatic Movement, which was the context in which they both encountered the Bible--outside of the Mass--for the first time. They took Biblical literacy seriously and wanted us to dive into God’s Word as soon as possible. We listened to Bible verse memory cassettes in the car, which we legitimately loved, and read the children’s Bible so often that we had entire stories memorized. As my Dad says,”The Word is like the rain and snow that come down and water the earth making it fruitful. You need water in your garden of souls; the Bible is your water source.” I couldn’t agree more.
4. Pray for your children's spiritual formation. My parents prayed for us daily, and we knew this. They also took their responsibility to form us in the faith seriously, and educated themselves on the Bible and Church teaching. I can honestly say that, until college, I didn’t have a theology teacher who taught me anything my parents hadn’t already covered--and then some.
5. Be credible witnesses: I remember waking up for school and seeing my mom reading her Bible, journaling, or kneeling, deep in prayer, before she came into the kitchen to supervise breakfast. My Dad also had a daily prayer routine that was visible to all of us, and we knew how seriously he took his relationship with Christ. I think this was the most important component in our faith formation: the fact that we saw my parents, especially my Dad, living what they were teaching (albeit imperfectly), day in and day out. Not only that, but I could tell that for my parents, living the Christian life was a joy, even when it was difficult. I never associated Jesus or the Church with a bunch of arbitrary rules, because my parents always framed morality in the context of our relationship with Christ.
6. Frequent the Sacraments. I was so excited to receive my first Communion. I knew that I would be receiving Jesus, and I knew that it was my mom’s favorite part of the week. I wanted to experience the joy I saw on her face every Sunday after she received the Eucharist. While we didn't start to go to daily Mass as a family until I was in college, my parents’ joyful attitude toward Sunday Mass was what kept me interested as a child, even when the homily was way over my head. I wanted to be as close to Jesus as she was. It wasn’t until much later that my parents (and I) started to go to confession regularly, but now it’s a staple in the life of my family.
What my parents didn’t do (until later):
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the Saints, Marian devotion, or the liturgical calendar in my list. In part, that’s because my parents didn’t fully understand the importance of the Church’s teachings on the more devotional aspects of Catholicism when I was young. By the time I went to college and my younger siblings were in junior high and high school, they had (thanks to Scott Hahn, et al) rediscovered the beauty and richness of Catholic devotional life. At the same time, I went to Notre Dame and met lots of other faithful Catholic students who introduced me to Marian devotion, the Saints, the liturgical year, etc.
Do I feel like I was deprived in some way? Not really. That’s not to say that I don’t plan on introducing my little one to these devotions (I do!), but I think that my parents’ emphasis on developing a relationship with Christ, reading and knowing the Bible, and the Mass was a wonderful combination despite its deficiencies. And they did it without any curriculum, printables, or the Internet!
I hope this list is helpful to those of you are currently raising young children. I know that what my siblings and I received is so rare, especially in the Catholic world, and one of my hopes is that my generation will change this. After teaching high school for nine years and seeing the dramatic difference it makes to a teenager to have two parents who are intentional disciples, I'm even more passionate about raising my children to know the love, joy, and beauty that comes with knowing Christ. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mom and Dad! I love and appreciate y'all more than you can know (this side of heaven).
If you'd like more information on specific faith-based things my parents did with us growing up, please email me!