As a priest and father, it is one of my greatest hopes that my three children—Lily, Gabriel and John—would grow up to be faithful Christians. Indeed, for me, this hope exceeds all others. At this moment, I don’t care what kind of work they will choose, whether they will marry or stay single, what their socioeconomic status will be—as long as they are faithful to Christ and His Church, I will be happy.
I am sure that many of you share, or have shared my aspirations in regards to your own children. And I am certain also that you have asked the question that I ask myself almost daily: how is this to be accomplished? How do I, as a parent, live and interact to ensure that my kids mature into adults of real and lasting faith?
I would be misleading you if I said that there was any sure-fire answer to that question. The very nature of Christian faith presupposes a fundamental freedom in the human person, freedom to choose or reject a relationship with Christ. Without this freedom, both God’s love for us and our love for Him are meaningless.
This means simply that after we have made our best efforts to direct our children along the Way we have chosen, they must make a choice of their own, and they must continue to make that choice daily for the rest of their lives. Faith, in the Orthodox view at least, is a dynamic and continuous reality. Faith is bound up with daily faithfulness. Faith is clinging to Christ, moment by moment, and our children, once they have matured, must cling to Him by themselves, without our help or intervention.
That being said, what is our “due diligence”? How can we “speak the truth in love” (see Ephesians 4:15) to our children in the hope that they will accept our proclamation? In future articles, I will offer some guidelines to formal catechesis. Today, however, I would suggest above and beyond all educational strategies or resources, the most important factor in bringing up children as Christians is your personal example.
In a former parish where I served, there is a man named Peter who has three teen children. Peter is an intelligent man with a straightforward, blunt, friendly personality. During my time in the parish, he assisted in the altar without fail whenever he was scheduled to do so. In addition, every Friday night, Peter prepared a large pot of chilli and every Saturday morning, he served the food to the homeless, again regularly and without fail.
Peter’s children were a different story. When I arrived, they were the very embodiment of the bored teen in Church. They sat in the entryway, talking and laughing, texting on their cell phones and looking as if they would rather be anywhere but here. Sometimes the boys served, but they did so without any real enthusiasm, and I got the distinct sensation that once they were old enough to choose, they would vanish permanently.
Recently, I had the opportunity to return to my old parish for a visit. It happened that the community was holding a barbecue for the homeless at Peter’s regular downtown location. When I arrived, the first person I noticed was Peter’s daughter—the same one who had been sitting in a mini-skirt in the entryway, doing her nails and playing on her cell phone, bored beyond words—now enthusiastically flipping burgers and chatting with the indigent folks who lined up with their plates outstretched. I later discovered that she was also a member of the Church school staff, one of their most reliable teachers.
Now I am certain that the success I saw in Peter’s daughter (I don’t know about his sons) had nothing to do with how well he formally catechized his children. He is just not that kind of guy. He likes his faith simple and doesn’t talk much about it. I really doubt that he spends much time speaking to his children about the tenets of their faith, telling Bible stories, or otherwise engaged in some program of education with them.
What Peter did do and continues to do is what I have regularly witnessed: he lives his faith in the presence of his children. And that, in my opinion, was the crucial element in at least one of them appropriating her faith as her own.
One of the biggest mistakes that Christian parents often make is to confuse catechism for education. We begin with the externals. Isn’t there a book I can read and teach to my kids? Isn’t there a curriculum I can implement? Isn’t there a moral system that I can somehow drill into their little minds? We want solutions in a box, simple equations into which we can feed our kids, from which they can emerge as believers.
Now, I have nothing against formal education, curricula, moral systems, rules and so on. They have their place and I hope to discuss them in future articles. My point is, we need to get our priorities straight. Educating our children in their faith doesn’t go from the outside in, but from the inside out. The words of our catechism can only be meaningful to our kids if we first demonstrate their meaning in our own lives.
Any commitment to becoming parents of faithful children must begin with our commitment to live as parents of faith. In reality, whether we catechize our children or not is less important than whether or not our children witness us living as obedient disciples of Jesus Christ daily. More on what that entails next time.