Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Parents as Primary:

The Catholic Church has always taught that the parents are the primary educator of their children. After all, they are the image of God for their children. It is through this image that the child learns about himself, about the world and about God. Yet, this marital oneness is not the only way the knowledge of God is transmitted. No. Parents are duty- bound to educate their children in the faith. In the Declaration of Christian Education, a document from the Second Vatican Council, it says, “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators. This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking.(1965).

Only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking,” is a prophetic understatement! It just so happen that in the last forty to fifty years the parent’s role in education has been lacking and as such, the proper formation of children has not been sufficiently supplied; this, because the partnership upon which education and formation rests between parents and the parish has not been honored.

Surrogate or Partner:

When parents, as the primary and principal educators, send their children to Catholic schools full-time or even to a religion class once a week, there is a very important agreement, sometimes unspoken, that the parish enters into a partnership with the parents in educating and spiritually forming the child. Decades ago, the local pastor or the parish formed a partnership with the parents only on the condition that the parents were practicing Catholics. If this condition was not met, the Church refused to process the child through the education system and the sacramental initiation program.

Today, however, even when parents are remiss in their religious duties, many parishes have adopted the policy to go ahead and try to partner-up with them in educating and spiritually forming the child. But studies have shown that when the parents do not observe God’s law and hence fail become active followers of Christ themselves, the child will eventually follow the same path as their parents and hence fall-away from the faith.

This creates an impossible situation because the Church ends up becoming a surrogate educator instead of a partner with the parents. In too many cases, when the child comes of age and goes away to college, the religious formation that was provided by the Church- while having no support at home -goes to the wayside. Is it not true that the apple rarely falls far from the tree? 

Missing in Action:

Christian Smith's book, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults, In, Out of and Gone From the Church, confirms what many parish-leaders in the Diocese of Green Bay have been concerned about in recent years: the difficulty adults are having in evangelizing youth and young adults. As one adult faith formation coordinator said, "About 15 years ago young adults used to drift away from the Church but then comeback when they had children. Today, however, they are not coming back."
Smith's research reveals that 62 percent of Catholic adolescents attend regular services during their Catholic high school years. But this percentage drops to 22 percent in the emerging adulthood years (ages18-23). That is to say, the Catholic Church loses a significant number of young adults in the post-high school years. And the casualties involve those adolescents who attended Catholic high schools.
In fact, Sherry Weddell, in her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, had this to say: "As the Pew report put it, Catholics have the biggest 'generation gap' of any religious community in the United States. Sixty-two percent of Catholics sixty-five and older in 2008 said that they attended Mass every week, while only 34 percent of Millennials did so." (pg. 44) The question then becomes, what can we do?
Two Indispensable Principles:

In preparing for an adult faith formation program called, On the Same Page, I contacted a number of Catholic apostolates who have enjoyed some success in evangelizing youth: FOCUS, NET Ministries, Cardinal Newman Society, and Nashville Dominicans  to name a few. I asked them what they believed high rates of faith retention rested on. The two things they identified. First, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ needed to be in place if religious education was to bear any fruit. Second, parental support of that relationship was said to be of the greatest importance.

As for the first principle, The General Directory for Catechesis reads: "Only by starting with conversion, and therefore by making allowance for the interior disposition of 'whoever believes' can catechesis, strictly speaking, fulfill its proper task of education in the faith." (GDC, art. 62) Indeed, the way to the mind is through the heart. “If the mind alone hears without the heart’s cooperation, God’s Word does not bring forth all of its fruit.” (Dom Columba Marmion, Christ: The Ideal of the Monk 1926) And conversion, according to the GDC, involves "essential moments" when the person experiences the person of Christ; moments when the heart is touched by grace.

Before religious education or catechesis can truly be effective, a relationship with Jesus Christ is essential. Only then will the Mass, the Sacraments and the Church take on greater relevance for our younger generation of Catholics. As such, an intensification of evangelization, witness talks, spiritual mentoring, retreats, and pilgrimages as a precursor and supplement to religious education and faith formation is worth revisiting.

As stated, the success of parishes and Catholic schools in evangelizing and educating youth also rests upon the active support of parents. The faith and religious participation of parents largely determine whether or not their children as emerging adults will retain the faith. To be sure, the Church was never meant to be a surrogate in forming the child; only a partner.

When I asked Christian Smith what his opinion was about the underlying cause of the decline in religious participation among Catholic young adults, he said:

 “Well, it's really not that complicated. Most youth, if they have good relationships with their parents, generally end up looking a lot like their parents religiously. What is going on with Catholics is that, on average, Catholic parents are just less committed, invested, and involved in the Church and their own personal faith and practice. And so that's what the kids learn and follow when they get older.” (August 7, 2014)

It is only when parents take a leading role in evangelizing and educating their children can we, who work on behalf of the Church, hope to raise up a generation of disciples who are on their way.


This article is the property of the Department of 
New Evangelization/ Diocese of Green Bay