By GLEN BIEGEL
Recently I spoke to a crowd of about 60 at the Catholics United for the Faith monthly speaker series in Anchorage. The topic was on how to keep kids in the Catholic faith. The talk included data from experts, the U.S. bishops and personal experience.
First, let me give you the good news. You have a fair chance of keeping your kids Catholic. Just the fact that you read the Catholic Anchor puts you in a better position as a faith leader for your kids. Reading and caring about our faith is often equivalent to talking and sharing about our faith.
The bad news is that many parents will still see more than half their children leave the Catholic faith. About 75 percent of Catholic children leave the church by the time they are 18 unless parents do something radical, like living a faith that is practical, powerful and personal for children.
Unfortunately most Catholic parents believe a lie, and trust in a false hope. The lie is that parents don’t have much to do with our children remaining Catholic. We do. The false hope is that we can parent like our parents did, and have the same success they had. We can’t.
In the recent past, society and the church could take your child by the hand, working together, and lead them along a Christian path. Two-thirds of the time society at large and the church were successful. Faith was like plugging your family into the Catholic power outlet, and letting the power of faith flow through it. Life today is much more complicated, with distractions, a weakened institutional church, and far more aggressive forces vying to supplant the faith of your child.
So what is different? Most everything. I never saw something on TV that directly attacked the faith until about the mid 1990s. Growing up, I never knew the political ideals of my teachers in school, and I never had to deal with 23 percent of all Americans not believing in any God at all (and closer to 50 percent of kids having that view). What is different? — TV, the internet, movies, media, schools, culture.
There are a couple of excellent studies about how to keep kids Catholic. Let me quickly summarize one of them:
These ideas come from Justin Bartkus, from the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, and Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame. They were part of a recent symposium titled “Reclaiming the Church for the Catholic Imagination,” which was also sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
One of the key insights is that children carefully observe their parents’ faith life. Youth drift from the faith when they fail to see an absolutely sincere parental faith. In order for youth to have a solid chance of remaining in the faith as adults they need parents who prioritize and share their personal stories of faith with children — parents who surround children with Catholic content and practices, both inside and outside the home.
Parents need to be effective and transparent communicators about their faith journey, as well as mentors who take an active role in their child’s faith development. Ultimately children must perceive that being a Catholic is deeply meaningful and beneficial, and true.
Youth do not drift from the church out of rebellion against faith, but more because they think of their faith as implausible or meaningless to their lives. Parents must take time to defend and articulate the faith against competing worldviews.
In raising nine children, I have tried to remember that, while I might be instructing a child, I am raising an adult. It is important to let children explore their interests and passions. These are opportunities to get to know children and negotiate with them. If “no” is the default answer, it limits opportunities to lead children through the pitfalls of life.
For critical experiences — be their guide in relationships between girls and boys, jobs, failure, joy, pain. Talk to your children and really get to know them. You are their experience partner!
Be ready for mature decisions by your teenager by always listening for their emerging “adult” voice. Learn to love talking with your kids. Tell them things you’ve learned. Give them room and then be their guide. Parents can be a big part of children overcoming the prevalent cultural addictions associated with texting, Facebook, Snapchat, video games and mass media.
Most importantly, a strong marriage and its power is the best metaphor for a meaningful faith. You can’t hope to keep children Catholic without cleaning up the home environment. Keep TV to a minimum or keep it clean, but remember that kids can’t live in fear or total isolation from the culture — neither should it drown them. Instead of full segregation from the culture, I want my kids to become salt, and then engage with secular culture.
My goal is to give my children life’s lessons as soon as they are ready.
We must also keep the arena of non-negotiables very small. Yes, there are things we must do — everything else is negotiable.
Finally, get as many aces up your sleeve as you can: Good schools, regular family prayer, Sunday Mass, good friends, wholesome and fun activities, service to neighbors, self sacrifice and family holidays.
It’s not easy folks, but this is where we are.
The writer is station manager of the EWTN Catholic radio station in Anchorage (KHRM, 94.1 FM).