Prayer, patience, good example are key to keeping doors of faith open
Q: My adult daughter claims she has faith in God but does not attend Mass or affiliate with any church community. What can I, as a parent, do to encourage and engage her in the life of the Church?
A: One of the most common sufferings of parents is anxiety for their children and grandchildren — that they be kept safe, healthy, have steady employment and solid relationships. For many in the Church, an added worry is loved ones who no longer practice their faith.
If they had a solid foundation in earlier years, they are often good people, generous and sincere, dedicated to their families. They may profess a “spiritual but not religious” identity. But church attendance, faith formation, family prayer and parish community are not a consistent part of their lives. Parents often agonize over this; they are at a loss to understand why or how to lead them back to the faith of their youth. Parents perhaps feel they somehow failed in their vocation.
Ample research shows that this is not an isolated problem. The nationwide study “Going, Going, Gone” (conducted between 2015 and 2017) surveyed youth who left the Church. It suggests that, on average, young people “disaffiliate” from organized religion by age 13. By age 17, 81% of those who consider themselves “no longer Catholic” have left. They may still be in the pews in their teens, though in dwindling numbers, due to family rules; but their belief and convictions are elsewhere.
On average, young people “disaffiliate” from organized religion by age 13. By age 17, 81% of those who consider themselves “no longer Catholic” have left.
Though generalizations, the study suggests three main categories of disaffiliation: the Injured, the Drifter, and the Dissenter.
The Injured have felt coerced, disillusioned or alienated, found prayers unanswered or encountered hypocrisy; faith “failed” them and trust was eroded.
The Drifters find no meaningful connection of ritual and doctrine to “real life.” Their friends, companions, and sometimes, other family members are likewise disconnected, so Drifters find no support or value in organized religion. Our increasingly secular culture and a fad of “new atheism” also impacts the Drifters.
The Dissenters are more intentional in their rejection of particular teachings that clash with values of secularism and scientific views. They raise challenging questions and dislike when they are ignored, dismissed or answered poorly.
This study demonstrates that people still search for truth, meaning, purpose and belonging; these are basic human needs and secular culture cannot erase them. While the results are sobering, they also point to a path forward.
Among the lessons one might glean: our own integrity, honesty, commitment and sincerity bear a powerful witness. Listening and taking questions seriously opens doors that are easily closed by indifference, haste or superficial replies. Inviting and creating a sense of belonging and welcome for those whose faith is tenuous can be a tipping point for searchers. Personal connections are invaluable, but referring young people to reliable Catholic sources is also helpful, as they are more likely to research questions online before asking someone, especially if they feel the question will be perceived as challenging or reflecting poorly on their knowledge.
A few years ago, our parish cluster did a book study of Brandon Vogt’s “Return: How To Draw Your Child Back to the Church.” While the book contains a wealth of practical advice and tools, several points can be summarized.
First, prayer is pivotal. The Holy Spirit can reach hearts that no human power can. Prayer also deepens our own spiritual lives, brings peace and perspective and makes us more credible witnesses to others.
Second, patience is essential. St. Monica prayed for decades for her son Augustine (his book, “Confessions,” is a spiritual classic and well worth reading for profound insights into the journey of conversion. The words of an unnamed bishop to Monica consoled her, and console us, 1,600 years later: “Go in peace. It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost.”)
Third, arguing and nagging can arise spontaneously out of the depth of concern, but they tend only to aggravate the situation. Taking questions and concerns seriously, offering to research them, learning skills of apologetics and keeping doors open for a return are approaches that respect the freedom and responsibility of each person’s soul. Remember that, theologically, it is not possible for any parent to care more deeply about a child’s spiritual life than God does. We are servants, not masters, of the faith.
Fourth, give good example. As Acts notes, the early Church grew primarily because of the attractiveness of Christian faith, hope and love. Seeing the peace, resilience, courage and generosity of believers, others wanted to learn and experience it for themselves.
The Church is a community that speaks of and loves God in a secular world; that offers in the sacraments meaningful and effective spiritual practices that put us in direct touch with the
Redeemer; that has a vast history of models and intercessors in the saints from every age, place and walk of life; that offers moral guidance and stable values in a fractured world; that says every human life is sacred and all are equal in the sight of God; that goes beyond the self-focus of the contemporary age to point us to something greater than ourselves, to Someone who asks our trust only so we can become fully ourselves.
In a troubled and troubling age, what the human heart most longs for we find in the Body of Christ. Many of our problems are too great for human wisdom alone; thus the Church begins its prayers each day with: “God, come to our assistance; Lord, make haste to help us.” God has opened the door of faith to us, and invites us to walk through it, together.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius parishes in St. Cloud.
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