Today's mass readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time got me thinking about choices and faith.
The first reading comes from the Book of Joshua:
Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,
summoning their elders, their leaders,
their judges, and their officers.
When they stood in ranks before God,
Joshua addressed all the people:
“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
But the people answered,
“Far be it from us to forsake the LORD
for the service of other gods.
For it was the LORD, our God,
who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt,
out of a state of slavery.
He performed those great miracles before our very eyes
and protected us along our entire journey
and among the peoples through whom we passed.
Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17,18b)
I have on my refrigerator, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." But for how long can we parents speak for our household? Most of us have families or come from families that experienced children reaching adulthood and leaving the Church.
The Gospel reading reminds us that in the long run we cannot speak for the faith of anyone but ourselves:
Many of Jesus’disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”
As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:60-69)
That confession of faith is not something that we can give on behalf of another; it must come from that person's heart. But many, sometimes ourselves, have been among the crowd who find the sayings of Jesus hard and leave Him. I was among those once.
God gave us free will so that we may love, for without the ability to freely love we cannot call it love. But that freedom also gives us the opportunity to reject love. The Second Vatican Council in Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty), tells us the relationship between conscience and freedom, declaring that we are obliged to follow the truth when we recognize it, but we can neither be compelled to follow that truth nor compelled to recognize it:
The sacred council likewise proclaims that these obligations bind people's consciences. Truth can impose itself on the human mind by the force of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power. So, while the religious freedom which human beings demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one church of Christ." (Section 1)
God calls people to serve him in spirit and in truth. Consequently, they are bound to him in conscience, but not coerced. God has regard for the dignity of the human person which he himself created; human persons are to be guided by their own judgement and to enjoy freedom. (Section 11).
Given all of this, are there things we can do to help increase the chances of keeping our children Catholic?
At one time there were Six Precepts of the Church; the sixth was "Not to marry persons who are not Catholics...." Today there are five; the sixth has been left off. It is good that the the sixth has been removed, because the precepts are required, but we must remember that they are minimum requirements. We should do much more. (Just as the the Ten Commandments are minimum requirements; we need to do much more than not kill someone.) While the former sixth precept is no longer required, it should nevertheless be our goal if we are called to the vocation of marriage. Interfaith marriages can be very strong, very faithful, very faith-filled marriages, and as such it is good that they are not prevented. Marrying a Catholic does not guarantee a solid marriage; a Catholic couple are invariably at different stages of spiritual development, different stages of orthodoxy, different stages of religious comprehension. Marrying a nominal or merely cultural Catholic could in fact be more detrimental to one's Catholic faith than marrying a devout person of a different faith. But we must strongly advise our children to take seriously the nature of the faith journey of a potential spouse. Faith matters. If one marries someone of no faith or of nominal faith, or of a faith that rejects or denigrates the Catholic faith, such a marriage may weary and possibly extinguish the Catholic partner's faith.
When I help with baptism prep at our parish, I hand out to the parents an article by Pat McDonough. McDonough is a wonderful syndicated Catholic writer. The article I hand out is "Will our kids be Catholic?" While watching a baptism, she wonders, "how many of these infants would embrace the faith that was embracing them over the baptismal font." Her advice on how to try to keep our children Catholic is to foster a visible, deep faith at home that permeates daily life. Read to our children Bible stories. Develop religious rituals in the family. (I use in baptism prep a moving story from Pope Benedict XVI about how his parents would bless the children before leaving home and the impact that had on him.) Bring children to mass and foster love of the Eucharist. And faith must not strictly be intellectual but emotional as well: "If an emotional connection is not formed between kids and their church while the window of opportunity is still open, chances are the doors to that church will not beckon them inside later in life."
And sometimes none of this is enough. I think of St. Monica, and her wayward son, Augustine. But her prayers, her penance, and God's grace and persistence, brought Augustine back to the faith, to becoming a formative voice in the Church, and to Heaven.
So let us work and pray so that our children, as adults, will come to see no other viable alternative than to declare: "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."