I’ve had the pleasure of co-leading two retreats recently: one for women and the other for men. When I introduced myself, I mentioned that my Catholic husband and I raised four children Catholic and that only one remains Catholic. At both retreats this statement triggered intense emotions in mothers and fathers whose children no longer practice the Catholic religion.
No words adequately describe the jumble of emotions a parent experiences when an adult child does not follow the faith in which they were raised. The retreatants came to me privately, telling their stories of faithfully attending Mass together as a family, and of their children receiving all of the sacraments. Many recounted how they sent their children to Catholic schools, sometimes at great financial sacrifice, in order to learn the faith. Tears flowed as some talked about the concern they have for their children’s immortal souls, and the souls of their unbaptized grandchildren.The question they bring to me, sometimes spoken and sometimes implied, is “Where did we go wrong?”
Although this outcry is as old as the story of St. Monica, praying for the soul of her adult son, St. Augustine, it is also unique in this day and age. We are all a product of the times in which we live. When most of the retreatants I spoke with were growing up and learning their faith, the world around them was culturally Christian. All who were raised in the U.S. grew up on tales of America’s Christian origins. Those of Hispanic origin reminisce about cultural religious practices that they treasure to this day.
I think it is fair to say that we older Catholics were deeply conditioned to passive behavior with regard to church customs and dogma. We accepted everything “on faith,” and we instructed our children the same way, assuming they would naturally take the faith on too.
But the world in which these children came of age told a different story. It told them that the Catholic Church was deeply flawed and that society was changing rapidly under their feet. Here is a brief list of some of the cultural and religious events that took place at the same time these children were receiving religious instruction. Any one of them is capable of challenging a nascent Catholic faith.
2002 – The Boston Globe uncovers sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Former American priest John Geoghan is convicted of child molestation and sentenced to ten years in prison. Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law is implicated in the case, resigns in December, and moves to Rome.
2002 - Seven women challenge canon law by accepting ordination as Catholic priests on a ship on the Danube River.
2003 – Sequencing of the human genome is completed.
2004 – Facebook is launched at Harvard University.
2004 - First legal same-sex marriage in performed in Massachusetts.
2004 - The John Jay College of Criminal Justice finds that more tha 10,000 people have made
allegations against Catholic priests of child sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002.
2005 – The first video is uploaded to YouTube.
2006 - The term #Me Too is used in social media.
2007 – The IPhone is released.
2007 - The Catholic Church drops the concept of Limbo.
2008 - American Catholic membership declines by 400,000.
2009 – Pope Benedict draws the wrath of the United Nations, European governments and AIDS activists when he tells reporters en route to Africa that the AIDS problem on the continent
could not be resolved by distributing condoms.
2010 – First official human trials using embryonic stem cells are performed
It is easy to see why this generation questions aligning themselves with religion. On the brighter side, it appears they learned their lessons about Jesus pretty darn well. This generation is altering today’s models of giving and society’s perceptions of how to create change locally, nationally, and globally. According to the Renewal Project, the causes young adults care most about are:
1) civil rights/racial discrimination, 2) employment and job creation, 3) healthcare reform, 4) climate change, and 5) immigration. Their concerns align with the Beatitudes quite nicely.
The psychologist, Karl Jung, had a sign in his office that read: “Bidden or Unbidden, God is There.” If we parents believe in God, we must trust that God is as active in the lives of our children as God is in our own.
Instead of lamenting our children’s rejection of religion, let's ask religion to read the signs of the times and trust that the Spirit is, as always, working in ways beyond our understanding. Let’s explore fresh, affirming theological viewpoints that ring true in the lived experiences of people today. Let’s find ways to help our kids encounter God now.