How can parents pass their religion on to the next generation?
Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, sociology professors at the University of Notre Dame and John Jay College respectively, present the results of their study on this question in their 2021 book, “Handing Down the Faith.”
As I began to peruse the book, I skipped ahead and read between sections to get a general feel for what they were presenting. One line jumped out at me. Quoting a Buddhist father, the book shares his belief that he should bring his son to temple “at the age of two, because that’s when they develop their friends, their friendships, their bonds. There are a lot of people that don’t bring their kids until they’re five or six, and by then it’s harder” (185).
Oh the “terrible twos” (which I was told, and can now confirm, are really the “terrible threes”).
If you’ve taken your toddler(s) to church, you know that it can be the proverbial Russian roulette. Sometimes, they’re calm, collected, perhaps even paying attention. Other times — well, let’s just say I’m willing to bet that “come to Jesus” moments were first created by a tired parent of a toddler at church.
Perhaps your child is fantastic at church. I sincerely commend you and keep doing what you’re doing (And please send me your tips).
Mine —well — depends on the day. Building routine, verbal preparation beforehand, having differentiated tasks to keep him focused are all things we have to be mindful of when taking my son to church.
We do our best in the pew to keep him focused on the Mass and what is transpiring. We try to point things out as they happen, especially during the Consecration, and we bought children’s Mass books that help do the same if he needs something to hold on to. Sometimes he’s tuned in. Other times he couldn’t care less. Inevitably his inner clock will go off and he’ll need to get some wiggles out, and nothing helps better then walking in the Communion line with us.
And, oh yeah, that’s not considering that one (or both) of us are juggling our infant daughter, who I will say does better at church than my son half the time.
When we leave church, sometimes my wife and I feel great. Other times, we feel like we just went 10 rounds with Muhammed Ali.
So why keep doing this week after week? Why, do we bring our children to church at such a young age if it is exhausting?
First, there’s nothing greater that we can do as Catholics then go to Mass. It is the source and summit of our lives, where we hear God’s Word and receive Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. There’s just no substitute for that and we can’t live faithful, Catholic lives without the Mass.
Second, my wife and I are thinking about the long game: showing our children that our Catholic faith is integral to who we are and to help our children see church as their second home, well beyond toddlerdom. If you read Smith and Adamczyk’s book, all of chapter three is dedicated to why parents are the crucial players in handing down the faith. If we want our children to hopefully continue practicing the faith later on, we have to start modeling it for them in our own lives from the start.
Now, someone may say: I get that we need to go to Mass, but isn’t it better to wait to take your young children to church? Perhaps by waiting, children can better understand what is going on?
I will say, especially on the days when my wife and I feel like we just went 10 rounds at church, that I can empathize with this sentiment. But I would argue that by waiting to bring our children to church, we actually inhibit a child’s ability to understand what is going on long-term. Children are sponges and soak up a great deal early on in their development. Our role as parents to our children is to first help them experience the kerygma: the first encounter with or proclamation of the faith.
Growing up going to church every Sunday, I came to see church first as a place I felt safe and secure in; a place where I could come to know this God Whom my parents spoke of, well before understanding the various parts of the Mass. But it took me actually going to church for that to happen. From there, I eventually came to appreciate the Mass for what it is.
To this end, parishes should look through the eyes of their families. What challenges may a family face in attending Mass with their children at your church? What are obstacles that would keep them from considering even walking through the doors with young children? How can your church speak to families’ needs, while respecting the Liturgy?
When we make families feel welcome, they are more likely to continue worshiping with us. I have to give a sincere shout-out to all the Mass-goers we’ve met who didn’t make my wife and I feel judged, but rather gave us a smile, welcomed us, or encouraged us for bringing our kids to Mass, even when they didn’t behave. You are all the real MVPs!
Going to church with your children also presents additional opportunities to help them understand what it means to be a part of Church. For instance, once Mass is done, regardless of how my son acted during Mass, I invite him to take a tour of the church with me. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same church as last week, we try to do this every week after Mass.
We walk up to the altar together and I show him how to bow, and then how to genuflect to the Tabernacle. We then pray a prayer or two before the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes it’s just me speaking, other times he chimes in. Then, we walk by some of the religious statuary that may be around the church. If there is a statue of Mary, we’ll stop and pray a Hail Mary. If there is a statue of St. Joseph, we stop and ask for St. Joseph to pray for us. Sometimes, we just walk by and blow kisses to the images of our “holy brethren” in Heaven.
This little routine after Mass has become essential to our time at church because I’ve found that it does two main things:
1. It gets my son up, moving and interacting with church.
As Catholics, we believe in full, active participation at Mass. While my son my not have the focus yet to always participate throughout Mass, he can participate with the church space in his own way. This helps him learn how to pray, what reverence is, and the basic actions we do at church (like genuflecting or bowing).
2. It helps my son see church as his home, especially when sitting through Mass for him was particularly difficult that day. We never want him to leave church having hated being there. We want him to know that while we should always go to church, it’s especially on our worst days that we should be there the most. While not all days at church are “good days,” not taking him at all only guarantees that he’ll have no relationship with the Church.
I will say, the pandemic has shown us that live-streaming and virtual platforms are great tools, which we should continue to use in the right ways. For instance, live-streamed Masses attracted individuals to tune into churches they perhaps would not have otherwise connected with. Our own diocesan TV Mass has attracted countless viewers for years prior to the pandemic. “Virtual” has become the new church vestibule, so to speak. And virtual Masses continue to be a source of comfort for those who are at-risk, sick or homebound.
Yet, the pandemic has also reminded us that “virtual” is simply not the same as being in-person. While our family benefited from live-stream Masses during the shutdown, even using it as a way to teach the Mass to our son as we watched it, we found that it really was not the same. This isn’t true just because the Sacraments have to be received in person (for instance, you can’t be Confirmed via zoom, receive absolution over the phone, or be mailed Communion). It’s also true because it can be challenging to immerse oneself in something when you’re not actually there.
It is one thing to show my son a picture book about the Mass or watch Mass on TV. It is quite another to take him to Mass, to have him interact with the church, or to pray with him in the actual presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
And so, my wife and I take our children to Mass, tantrums and all, so that our family may come to know the Lord and receive His grace to be family. After all, God uses all of this for His glory.
Anchor columnist David Carvalho is the senior director for Faith Formation, Youth, Young Adult and Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Fall River. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.