When Mary Clare Murray’s 8-year-old daughter came home with questions about why Catholics worship statues, Murray gave a simple explanation. Catholics don’t worship statues, said the mother of six from St. John the Beloved Parish in McLean, Virginia. Statues and pictures help us focus our minds to pray.
The question originated in a playground conversation between her daughter, who attends public school, and a classmate. Her daughter shared the explanation with her friend.
“This exchange gave her an opportunity not only to learn about her faith but how the world perceives her faith,” Murray says. “And her friend walked away learning something about the Catholic Church.”
In public schools, not everyone, nor everything taught, will be in step with church teachings. Some parents fear this exposure will weaken their children’s faith. Kristen Allen, a mother of five from St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, Virginia, considers this a strength. “You have people celebrating various religious holidays,” she says. “If done properly, it can be very enriching.”
While there are plenty of ways to foster faith in youth, the following are five keys to raising strong, happy Catholics who happen to attend public school.
1. Parents, step up to the plate
All Catholic parents, regardless of school choice, bear the responsibility of helping their children grow in faith. They make that promise during their child’s baptism.
“How you teach your child to live faith is very much a family issue. What matter most is the faith practiced in the home,” says Laura Buddenberg, director of administration and outreach at Girls and Boys Town Center for Adolescent and Family Spirituality in Omaha.
She and her husband, Roger, chose public schools for their daughters, now in college and high school, after looking at their daughters’ interests, curriculum at public and parochial schools, and programs available through their parish. They also reviewed their own faith and committed to developing their daughters’ faith lives by participating in education opportunities at their parish, St. Leo in Omaha.
Experts agree that ongoing faith formation for parents is important to raising Catholic kids. It strengthens their understanding of Catholic teachings and provides a framework from which to address issues and situations in their lives.
That doesn’t mean parents must know everything, however. There are many resources at the parish and diocesan level, as well as those found in books, on the internet, and through role models in the family and parish community.
To get the most out of parish religious education programs, parents need to help their children prepare for classes by reviewing the textbook or otherwise discussing the topics with them outside of class. In some parishes, formal religious education classes cease after students received the sacrament of confirmation. In that case, a parish youth group can reinforce the Catholic principles parents are trying to foster in the home.
The object is to give a foundation from which the child can make life decisions that are in line with Catholic teachings, says Kristen Allen. She and her husband, Mark, leave the Bible, books on saints’ lives, and character-based or virtue-driven movies “lying around” their house. “We’ve certainly had our share of Pokémon and Captain Underpants,” she says. “It’s not a totally straight line. But we’re trying to get them to the point where they can recognize trash and choose the good stuff.”
2. Be prepared for questions
Allen remembers having plenty of questions about life and Catholic teaching in her teenage years. She didn’t understand certain Catholic tenets and wanted to leave the church. Her parents told her she needed to know what the church said and why. They stood beside her as she asked the tough questions, providing answers where they could and referring her to other resources when necessary. Her strong adult faith, she says, is the direct result of their insistence that she wrestle with her questions openly and honestly.
Forging those strong lines of communication is easiest at young ages, but it is never too late to start. The biggest challenge here, according to Tom McGrath, parent of two adult children and author of Raising Faith-Filled Kids (Loyola Press), is making faith relevant in a young person’s life.
“It’s not just talking about faith, but connecting at a level where faith is alive. It takes work and imagination,” he says.
Especially for public school kids, skirmishes on the playground and the books they read can become avenues for applying Catholic teaching to real life. For example, physical or verbal bullying can launch a discussion on the church’s teaching on human dignity.
When a teacher says things contrary to Catholic principles, it is an opportunity to review what the church says on a particular topic and why, says Buddenberg. “Kids get experience defending and examining their faith in light of other beliefs,” she adds.
Questions don’t often come at a set time each day, so seizing the moment is very important. Ceal Bacom and her husband, Tim Bannon, are parishioners of Ascension Parish in Oak Park, Illinois. Because he is a newspaper editor, all three of their children, from high school to elementary school, read the latest issue around the table. Conversations about faith and Catholic teaching are often initiated by contemporary issues found in the headlines, she says.
As the mother of a preschooler, Kathie McGee of Omaha fields plenty of questions and believes in keeping things simple. “The younger the child, the shorter the answer needs to be,” she says. As a former middle school teacher and the director of program services for Girls and Boys Town Center for Adolescent and family Spirituality, she knows the questions become more difficult as they grow. So do the answers.
“There are times you just have to say: ‘I’m not sure about that. Let me read about it a little and we’ll talk about it more tomorrow,’” she says.
3. Teach us to pray
Helping children establish an open line of communication with God also bridges tough questions. Many families begin with simple bedtime and meal prayers, then add traditional prayers such as the Hail Mary or Our Father.
In addition to these memorized prayers, Judy and Philip Morace, members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Brooklyn, are teaching their 7-year-old son to practice spontaneous prayer. “We are talking to Jesus” about daily life and ordinary issues, Judy says.
Without school-sponsored prayer time, daily prayer must begin at home. The Allens say the morning offering together. “We also ask their patron saints to protect them and then finish with the prayer to Michael the Archangel. It takes all of two minutes,” says the Virginia resident. Her children then use the mandatory moment of silence in that state’s public schools to continue the conversation they started with God during their family morning prayers.
Since Nebraska public schools don’t have the mandatory moment of silence, Laura Buddenberg tells her kids to pray wherever they are. “Just because you’re not standing up as a group to say a prayer at school doesn’t mean you can’t pray at school,” she says. “Wherever you are, you can be in prayer.”
Another helpful tool for building a prayerful life is the examination of conscience. One family uses an unscripted, age-appropriate parental prompt that helps each child to review their day by offering thanksgiving and then seeking strength to practice their faith tomorrow.
Carol and Gregg Drvol of St. James Parish in Omaha apply the adage “Variety is the spice of life” when it comes to teaching kids to pray. “When driving in the car, turn the radio off and say a quick prayer. If your sixth grader is preparing for a math test, you can pray that you prepare adequately and do your best,” she suggests. “Whatever it is, we have to teach it and then model it.”
4. Fostering Mass appeal
Mass is the most public Catholic prayer. Building a strong faith requires a regular and engaged presence in the pew. While it can be challenging to keep kids going and interested in Mass during different developmental phases, this responsibility rests squarely on parents.
Grade school children need help processing the readings and homilies. Some families use children’s liturgy bulletins to prepare for Mass. Others discuss the readings during the car ride home. Children’s questions show they are listening even when they don’t understand.
Many parents set firm rules regarding regular attendance from the earliest age but are flexible about when and where to go to Mass. For young adults, choosing convenient Mass times and finding homilists who resonate with real life issues is critical. Some parents augment weekend Mass at their home parish with Masses at neighboring parishes and universities.
The Drvol family follows Sunday Mass with brunch at a restaurant. Other families say they plan a brunch at home before or after Mass. It’s an incentive to get everyone going at the same time, plus it builds strong ties to both the immediate and parish families, says Carol Drvol.
5. Where the rubber meets the road
Young people learn not only from their parents but also from other caring adults within their families and faith communities. These adults can underscore the importance of living their faith by what they do in everyday life.
“Our kids see us living our faith from how we file our taxes to how we talk to people on the phone. I’m not perfect, and when I mess up, I apologize,” Kathie McGee says. Through conversations using concrete examples, parents can draw clear lines between Catholic teachings and life.
“This is what makes faith real,” she says. “It’s not just about going to church on Sunday. My faith affects every relationship I have and how act and interact with all people.”
Example is also the best way to raise service-oriented kids. Families can build traditions around parish-sponsored activities such as clothing and food drives and Lenten Rice bowls. The community offers plenty of additional opportunities.
When Ceal Bacom learned a 90-year-old neighbor was eating poorly, she organized neighbors to each prepare a meal, deliver it, and spend some time visiting the senior. Bacom often took her children, who then learned that we are responsible to care for one another.
Parents will always feel like they should be doing more to teach and form their children—whether their kids go to public or Catholic schools, says Bacom. But it’s the things you do at home that really count.
“That’s the lesson I learned from my parents,” she says. “It’s not just time talking about prayer life or faith. We are responsible to show them how to live our faith.”
This article was originally published in the August 2006 issue of At Home with our Faith.