Helping Children to Learn to Live the Faith, The Anchor, April 4, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
April 4, 2014

One of the biggest challenges of those involved in the religious education of young people is trying to help their families to grasp that Christianity is not a classroom but a way of life. The goal is not just to help people know the faith but to live it.

About a month ago, I got an email from a mother who took offense to the requirement in our parish that for children to make first Communion, they actually need to be coming to Mass.

Throughout the year, the Director of Religious Education (DRE) had been patiently reminding all families of this requirement and intervening individually with those who weren’t upholding it. In February, however, she reluctantly had to inform those parents who continued to ignore the requirement that, even if their children were acing the classes, their first Communion would be delayed until the students were in the habit of coming to Mass each Sunday.

In her email in response to this notice, the mother wrote that I should “respect” that she and her husband have made the choice not to practice the faith but wanted their children “to explore our religion and then make their religious preference once they have received their sacraments.” She objected to feeling pressured to do something “she doesn’t believe in,” and referenced parishes in which coming to Mass each week wasn’t a requirement.

I emailed her back asking to meet with her and her husband in person to discuss her email. But I also sketched out for her an explanation of the Christian logic behind the requirement. I copied my DRE and she, protecting identities, forwarded it to a few of her colleagues. Since then apparently it’s gone somewhat viral. On their behalf she suggested that I share some of what I wrote in The Anchor as a help to parents and religious educators elsewhere because, as she said, “This is one of the biggest problems we have.”

So here goes.

After inviting them to a meeting, I explained, “The principle the Church works on is that Christianity is a way of life, not just a set of teachings. Jesus called us to follow him. So if you really want [your children] to be exposed to the Catholic faith, they need to do more than ‘know about’ it but they need to practice it. It’s the difference between learning how to swim from a teacher in a classroom versus getting in the water.

“At a practical level, if they’re learning in class — as they are — that the Eucharist really is Jesus and that Jesus is God and that he eagerly desires to feed us with himself, then there’s going to be a huge spiritual disconnect if they’re not coming to be in his presence and eventually to receive him. I often ask second graders: Is there anything more important in the whole world than receiving God inside? If your son says that receiving Jesus is most important and then is prevented from coming to receive God inside at Mass, there will be a ‘moral schizophrenia’ between what he’s learning here and what he’s learning by your and your husband’s example at home. Likewise, if he’s learning the Ten Commandments and recognizes that the third commandment requires keeping holy the Lord’s day and he’s not coming to Mass, then naturally he’s going to be confused. Either he’s going to think that we’re not teaching him the truth (which will undermine the whole purpose of his coming) or that you, your husband and your family aren’t living the truth by not keeping the commandments.

“With regard to Holy Communion, priests are required to assess that children are prepared and ready to receive, and one of those criteria is that the person understands that the Eucharist isn’t bread and wine but Jesus himself. Another criterion is that they’re desirous and capable of living a Eucharistic life. The Church teaches that Jesus in the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit of the Christian life,’ the starting point and goal of any life that’s really Christian. As kids always respond during dialogue homilies at their first holy Communion Mass, the most important thing is not the ‘first’ but the ‘holy Communion.’ The second, the third and the 4,421st times are just as precious as the first. Receiving Holy Communion isn’t an ‘award’ for successfully completing the second-grade CCD classes, but the most incredible gift one can receive, one that is meant to lead us to a life of holy Communion. But young children cannot drive themselves to Mass. One of the toughest things I’ve had to deal with as a priest has been consoling those kids who want to come to Mass, who want to be with God, but whose parents won’t take them or arrange for and allow others to bring them.

“I acknowledge that you and your husband do not want to practice the faith. But do you see that by default you’re also making your children non-practicing Catholics by not regularly taking them to Mass? If you want them to have a real choice later, you need to arrange for them to become practicing Catholics so that they can make a truly informed decision. There are a couple of ways to do this. One is simply by making the commitment to take them to Mass each week. If you and your husband don’t believe, you can just be there with them to support them (like some admirable Protestant parents in marriages with Catholics who nevertheless accompany their children to Mass each week). Another option is to arrange for someone else to take them.

“But please grasp that Mass attendance is far more important than class attendance in terms of children’s growth in the Catholic faith. We always allow kids to come to the classes, whatever their level of practice. But with regard to receiving Sacraments, there are clear criteria, which are not all that high, that need to be met. Holy Mass is not an optional part of the Catholic faith but the most important part, where we meet the risen Lord Jesus and enter into a communion of life and love with him. If our program doesn’t communicate that message clearly to students and parents, then our catechetical program is no more effective than elementary schools in which graduates don’t know how to spell or add. We would be guilty of pastoral malpractice.

“It might seem that our program is ‘harder’ or more ‘demanding’ because we’re actually requiring what should be a given everywhere, but I urge you to reflect on your own experience growing up. As kids, most of us preferred those coaches who didn’t run tough practices and those teachers who didn’t give us homework and doled out easy grades. But as we matured, we began to recognize that those coaches and teachers who challenged us more actually cared for us more. They believed in us, helped us to believe in ourselves, and pushed and inspired us to grow. In terms of religious education, you may find a program that looks the other way when children don’t attend Mass, but we love the kids entrusted to us too much to let them fall through the cracks. Jesus loved us so much that he gave himself to us in Holy Communion as food for our soul and if we’re not receiving him, we’re spiritually malnourished. We care about your kids too much to allow that to happen to them with our acquiescence and tacit blessing.

“Regardless of your and your husband’s reasons for having chosen at this point not to practice the faith, please don’t let that rob your children of the opportunity to live the faith by practicing as faithful Catholics do. Know of my prayers for all four of you as you discern what you’re going to do and please pray for me and for all those who have dedicated their lives to teaching the children of our parish the beauty of our faith.”

I can say that, since the email exchange, the father has happily been bringing the children to Mass each Sunday and that the couple has scheduled an appointment to meet with me. Please keep them, and all parents in similar situations, in your prayers, for their sake and for the sake of the spiritual growth of their children.