Some Catholic parents experience the sadness of seeing their children, once they reach or pass adolescence, leave the church of their childhood. I have never encountered a response of indifference to this among parents. Rather, their feelings and faith span a range from anger, through guilt and worry, to an abiding trust in God and their children as well.
Although watching one’s children drift into a churchless way of life can be a jolt, it seems to be even more unsettling to some mothers and fathers to see their child leave Catholicism for something “better.” A son or daughter undergoes a conversion experience, is “baptized in the Spirit,” or finds deep Christian fellowship somewhere else.
I have yet to discover a satisfying account of how this happens. One thing is sure: there are no guaranteed causes of faith or its loss. Some children with casually Catholic upbringings become devoted churchgoers as adults. Others with a strict and extensive exposure to the traditions and practices of the church reject it all.
Our example, the environment of the home, the culture at large, the range of education, the quality of friendships—all influence the formation of a committed Catholic adult, but all of them together cannot ensure it.
What if a teenager discovers a new life of faith, prayer, and commitment in a Christian community other than ours? A number of times I have been approached by young adults who have had such an experience. To each person I put the following questions: Does it lead you into deeper union with Christ? Does it foster a life of greater virtue and service? Does it increase your faith, hope, and charity?
If the answers are yes, I then talk about the unique grace and goodness, as well as the deficiencies, of Catholicism; and if our young ones are not tempted to reject this faith of ours, given through our church and sacraments, I bless their journey and entrust it to God.
Is that heresy? Should a strong and stern warning be given? If this were done, would it have any effect? Would a life of tepid or cafeteria-style Catholicism be better? To be sure, lukewarmness is not a universal trait of Catholics; but we do have to admit that there are lacks in our church.
Maybe we neglect some of the emotive power, the courage, the unique feeling of faith that is appropriate for a people truly saved by Christ and baptized in his Spirit. Our faith, one would think, is meant to be engaging and transforming.
After accepting the Word of God, Peter and John met with them to pray that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Do we pray with and for our own young in such a manner?
Beyond baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, the Apostles also imposed hands on the new believers so that they might receive the Holy Spirit.
In our own preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, many parishes seem to be increasingly aware of the opportunity to invite our young into a mature commitment and courageous conviction.
Apparently it was such conviction that led to the heroic examples of suffering for the name of Christ to which the First Letter of Peter alludes.
In any event, in the Fourth Gospel Jesus does promise a Paraclete, a Spirit of truth that the world does not see or accept. Are we ourselves so comfortable with our world and its language that our children judge our faith to be neither profound nor special?
The Spirit that Christ promised would be revealed by a life of love. Is that the Spirit our young hunger for?
For our part, we might learn more deeply that our faith engages feeling as well as reason and practicality, that it involves not only practices and creed, but a personal relationship to Christ.
We might ask if we really care enough about our faith that we desire to bestow it as our dearest gift to our young. Perhaps it is then that we will have experienced greater fellowship and solidarity as well as a sense of Catholic uniqueness.
The Spirit of Christ is the bearer of a mighty truth that challenges the world and transforms our hearts. We are called to lives of holy resistance and revolution. We really do offer something different and most strategic to the world.
If we believe that, how could we not want to talk of faith and proclaim Jesus as our Messiah?
As for those young people who might leave us, the last chapter is not yet written for their lives. Just as our church itself has a long and winding history, so do the great majority of its communicants.
Through it all, what is most important is that the believer, as well as the believing community, pass on to its young the great truth that Jesus Christ has saved us. Such is the ground of our faith and hope as well as of all the Spirit’s gifts.
That is why it is only into God’s hands that we entrust our lives—and the lives of those we love.