Faith handed on

The miracle of Pentecost is not just the descent of the Holy Spirit, but that it emboldened a group of timid disciples to go forth and tell the story of Jesus. There is no end to the methods being used today to wrap the kerygma into whatever package will attract and penetrate the aura of complacency enveloping this generation, but we must never tire of delivering this Good News. Evangelization does not come in a program, but comes from the depth of our own story.

Parish leaders often lament how challenging it is to motivate parents to do more than drop off their children for Religious Education so that they can passively hand on a faith that they have scant connection to in their own lives. One year I came upon an analogy that I thought might make sense for them and delivered it at the final parent’s meeting. It came from an experience that I had with a family heirloom that had managed to by-pass five older siblings and come into my possession.

In the 1920s the world had not yet entered into the economic disaster that would be called the Great Depression, but a generation was developing the fortitude that would give them the title “Greatest.” In my mother’s life they only knew that their family had little; their father didn’t work and their mother had to take whatever jobs would bring in a few dollars a week. There was no safety net but family, and they had little to give from their scarcity. 

That is why my Uncle Jack went to work when he graduated from St. Joseph’s Grammar School at the age of 12. He turned down a scholarship to a Catholic high school and went to work at Bond Bread Company in Jersey City, N.J. Each day he left the house early and each week he brought home a $1 to add to the family income. When Mother’s Day came around that year, my uncle brought home a gift using some of the money he had stashed away from the little he had made. He bought a mother of pearl cereal set, what we would call a canister set today. It was beautiful, with nine pieces that held flour and rice, oatmeal, a salt box with a wooden lid, pepper, oil and vinegar. 

I know the details because it has been on display in my dining room for the past 30 years. The set had a great deal of significance in my family because it was the only connection we had to a grandmother who had died long before we were born. The cereal set was the only nice thing that we had in the house, and my mother took good care of it. For her it was not just a memory of her mother, but a symbol of the sacrifice her brother made for his family. She placed him on a pedestal, and we embraced him as a hero, though we barely knew him.

Years later, after my family home was sold and my mother went into senior housing I was given that mother of pearl cereal set and put it on display in our dining area. It was special to me, but my children had no idea of its meaning. Pieces got broken by errant passes in forbidden ball games. I had to remind myself to take it down to clean it so that it would continue to shine. But one morning, after a blizzard had blanketed the neighborhood with a foot of snow, my son began his first job as a paper deliverer for the Boston Globe. He was only nine years old and the bag full of papers nearly dragged along the ground as he made his way up the unplowed driveway. The sun had come out and had that magnificent gleam that only comes after a storm when the rays reflect off of the virgin snow. I was having my morning tea, watching my little boy traipse up the hill; feeling a mix of guilt and pride that he had to work to earn that college scholarship that used to come with the job. As I watched him, I noticed the sun was shining on the mother of pearl cereal set, giving it an iridescent glow. 

Suddenly it occurred to me that my uncle was not much older than my son when he went to work for his family so many years ago. He wasn’t a hero, but a little boy cast into an adult responsibility by the circumstances of his time and family. It was then that the gift given to his mother and handed down to me through my mother suddenly had new meaning for me.

This experience reminded me of why it is so hard to pass along a faith without a real, live connection to the story. This story became part of my closing parents’ meeting because I wanted them to continue to hand on this heirloom of faith, and not give up hope that one day the light will shine on it and it will make sense for their children. Pentecost celebrates all of us timid people who wrap the kerygma into our own stories to go forth to spread the Good News.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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