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Forming Disciples Young and Old – A Spiritual Reflection

Recently Archbishop Chaput provided a perspective on religious education of children and the faith formation of adults. Through the “Baby Boomer” generation, families “outsourced” religious education, sacramental preparation and spiritual formation of their children. This was mostly done through Catholic schools (many ethnically based) as well as “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine or “CCD.”  For decades, this model worked effectively for millions of Catholic immigrants. It also worked because family structure was stable, neighborhoods were strong and cohesive, religious and moral values were tied in with ethnic traditions, churches were centers of neighborhoods and, within family life, there was homogeneous agreement concerning social values, morals and mores within the society.

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This changed starting in the 1960s. This entire spiritual/religious system has collapsed and we are now facing a new paradigm. In a long-term study entitled the “National Study of Youth And Religion,” Notre Dame University looked at this phenomenon. They investigated a wide range of issues (religion/spirituality paths through adolescence; whether American youth are alienated from organized religion; family religious involvement and the quality of family relationships; religion and the life attitudes and self-images of American adolescents; religion and American adolescent delinquency; risk behaviors and constructive social activities). Notre Dame found that, in religious formation, parents are now the “meaning makers.” Not only do parent’s statements, attitudes and practices concerning religious, faith and the church have a HUGH IMPACT, this is more the case now than at any other time in US history. Parents are the new “pastors” – for better and, unfortunately in many cases, for worse.

Pluralism and the pull of the secular culture now consider the church, religion and spirituality as just one “option” among others. The way parents live their faith clearly indicates the norm to their children. If Mass attendance, reception of the Eucharist and Confession is casual and infrequent, if a disciplined prayer life is non-existent, if the church is merely an “activity” (and an inconvenient one at that) and not a foundation to a deeper relationship with Christ, then no religious education program, no youth program/youth director, no pastor can hope to build a spiritual and religious foundation in the children.

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On the other hand, we are also seeing a noticeable counter-movement in the Catholic Church and other faiths as well. I regularly see young parents with strong spiritual beliefs and attitudes (and small children) consistently and regularly attending Mass. They integrate personal spiritual practices (prayer and Scripture) in a disciplined way in their life. They serve the poor and others in neighborhood activities, volunteer organizations, Scouts or civil office. In such cases, the children develop a strong relationship with Christ and grow in their faith and religious education programs, sacramental preparation and youth work become a structure that is built upon the foundation of the parents’ lives. The synergy can be quite effective, exciting, hopeful and fun to watch.

Young Couple with Two Children (8-12) Walking on the Beach --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

The Catholic faith is being besieged on all sides. In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 10,000 Catholics are leaving the church each year. Parents no longer have the luxury to say, “Well, my child goes to Catholic School” or “My child attends Religious Education and goes to youth group every week.”  It doesn’t count – because it doesn’t matter. The religious formation of children can no longer be out-sourced. Parents can no longer say “I went to Catholic School. My parents and grandparents went to this parish for years” and think this will suffice to feed their spiritual life and that of their children. The temptations of the flesh, the power of Satan and the pull of secular culture is too strong for you to rely on a religious formation that stopped in 8th grade or high school. You won’t make it – and your kids are watching what you say and what you do.

We need new models, styles and approaches. Parents, in fact all Catholic adults, need to be able to support and state their beliefs in a way that is clear, articulate and compelling. There is a wealth of new materials, programs, initiatives, foundations and intentional family religious movements that have recently appeared, many only within the last 10 years. I am extremely encouraged by the witness and engagement of young parents and senior adults who are making things happen. As one person recently commented, “These people are annoying. They’re making messes. They’re doing too much, doing it too differently and doing it too fast. BUT, I am absolutely convinced that (he/she) is in touch with the Holy Spirit. Everything that they do, is done on the prompting of that same Holy Spirit and, in that regard, I think that it’s anointed. She/he is doing God’s work. I guess we better just strap in and hold on for the ride.”

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