**These thoughts are addressed to fellow Catholic mothers. If you aren't Catholic (or a mother), I'm not sure how accessible this post will be. Perhaps you might still find something interesting or useful here, and I'd appreciate if you have some thoughts of your own to add to the topic.**
I truly feel that my most important job as a mother is making sure that my children come to know and love God - to help them on their path to holiness and sainthood. I'm by no means claiming to be an expert on how to accomplish this. I only have two kids - one is two years old, and the other is two months old. I don't have a lot of experience yet. But I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, reading good books, talking with other Catholic mothers, etc. to come up with some good strategies for passing on the Faith to our children. Ultimately, every human being has to decide for himself to love God. I can't force that on my children. But I can provide them with good instruction that they may come to better know and understand God, and with opportunities that encourage them to develop a relationship (because that's really what it's all about) with God.
Here are some things that mothers should do who desire their children's souls to be saved. This list is only the beginning, and I'd love to hear more thoughts on this in the comments.
1. Pray for them.
Pray, pray, pray, and pray some more. Pray daily for your children, pray for their father, pray that you may be a good mother. This is the most important thing, and I hate to say that it's something I don't do nearly as much as I should.
2. Pray with them.
Children need to be shown how to pray, and taught that there are many ways to pray - some of which are non-verbal (such as offering gifts of your time, making little sacrifices, etc.). In order to do this, we have to be familiar with prayer ourselves, and work to maintain a regular prayer life.
One of the easiest prayer habits to start as a family is Grace Before Meals. When we remember, we also like to say Grace After Meals (you can use the standard prayers, or compose one of your own). Once he was able to sit in a highchair, we had baby Sly join with us during Grace, and even moved his hand in the Sign of the Cross. Now, at two years old, he can *almost* do it correctly, all by himself. No - he probably doesn't really understand the significance of it yet. But he knows that it's important and that it's something we do as a family. As his capacity for understanding grows, these impressions will help establish a good base for a young faith.
Another great time for prayer with children is right before bed. You can join your children, kneeling beside their beds (Yes, I think kneeling is important. Because it means something. It is a position of supplication in front or our God. It is somewhat uncomfortable, and thus a small sacrifice) and teach them how to pray. Pre-written prayers, again, are fine. But this is a good time to pray also for specific intentions.
Our Blessed Mother has appeared in visions to so many Saints and holy people, exhorting them to pray the Rosary. The Rosary is so important to her, and it is known to be one of the most powerful prayer weapons we have (I would go so far as to guess that it's #2, after the Mass itself)! So why isn't every Catholic praying it every single day?! Don't ask me for the answer, because I'm just as guilty myself. Our family goes through periods where we're good about praying the Rosary together every day, but then we always fall out of the habit again. Right now, the relationship is "off again".
3. Take your kids to Mass, for crying out loud!
This may seem obvious, but I can't tell you how many people I've heard saying that little kids shouldn't be at church until they are old enough to be quiet and behave themselves. I think this is terrible advice. It's true that until their First Communion, the children don't actually have the Sunday obligation. But they can still be in the presence of God, soaking up the graces from the sacrifice of the Eucharist, even if they are still too young to experience it fully. Why would you not want to share with them "the source and summit of our Catholic Faith"?
Attending daily Mass is an added bonus, though I know it's difficult to get to sometimes, and can be very intimidating if it means that you will have to manage the children on your own. I have not yet been to a daily Mass with both children. I don't have a very good excuse, as there are at least two daily Masses within walking distance, one of which is the Latin Mass.
Tom and I co-taught a CCD class one year to a group of 3rd and 4th graders. They were pretty good kids, and willing to learn. Unfortunately, the whole experience was rather disheartening and frustrating for us. In the entire class, only one of the students was taken to Mass each week with his family. And just forget about any other Sacraments! So here we are telling them each week about how important it is to go to Confession....and these kids haven't even been there since their very first time in second grade - and might very well never go again. It is parents' moral duty to take their children to Confession. Nine-year olds can't do that by themselves. During class, we would sometimes mention a certain prayer or action that happens during the Mass, and the kids wouldn't know what we were talking about. Their parents just expected that sending them to us for one hour a week was enough to ensure that they understood the Faith, and became good Catholics. We did our best to impress upon them the importance and efficacy of prayer (which we decided was the most crucial thing for them to take away), and a basic knowledge of Catholic beliefs, but I'm afraid it was pretty ineffectual. The Faith needs to be LIVED, and their families weren't providing the opportunity for this.
4. Teach your children how to behave at Mass.
Bringing children to Mass need not be so intimidating. The earlier you start teaching them to participate, the earlier they will need less behavioral correction.
Some of the actions we perform at Mass are fairly easy to teach to children, since they naturally desire to imitate us. Blessing themselves with holy water (or getting blessed by you when they are babies), genuflecting, making the Sign of the Cross, kneeling/sitting/standing at the appropriate times - even one-year-olds can start to do these things!
We want our children to begin to understand what the Mass means. You can whisper to your children about what is happening: "the altar boy is lighting the candles", "the priest is going to hold up Jesus", etc.. After Mass, you can talk to them about the images in the stained glass, the flickering votive candles, the baptismal font, and all those little items in the Church that help lift our hearts to God. Every Sunday after Mass, Tom brings Sly up to the altar rail to visit the statues and pray. Sly has come to really enjoy this, and will ask as soon as Mass ends to "go pray. Baby Jesus!".
The biggest struggle for all of us is dealing with all the disruptions children cause at church. Believe me, I know how hard it is to deal with little children at Mass (and our usual Mass is almost an hour and a half long!). Children are not quiet, still, or attentive. But we can teach them how to be all these things, gradually and patiently. I'll share with you our personal approach to this situation so far.
Firstly, we don't let Sly have anything. No toys, no snacks, no cups, no books - nothing. I know plenty of people who let their children have some activity (often church-oriented, such as a Lives of the Saints book) to keep them occupied during Mass. I'm not saying there's necessarily anything wrong with that. But we knew that down the line, we'd have to stop letting Sly have those sorts of things, and we didn't want to fight that battle. So instead, we decided to just not let him get used to it in the first place. Also, if we decided on some certain cut-off age when kids weren't allowed those things anymore, it would be difficult for them to understand why the younger siblings were allowed to play with toys, etc. Better, I think, to just be able to say, "No. We don't have those things at Mass. This is our time for praying to God." When Sly really needs a distraction, I put him in my lap, and whisper to him about the beautiful pictures in our missal. He's learned a lot of little things this way, like that a dove represents the Holy Spirit, who St. Joseph is, that Jesus is holding bread and wine at the Last Supper...
Sometimes, one of the kids is being too loud or Sly is getting too rambunctious, and that's when we take them to the back of the church (the "narthex" or entryway). We don't have a cry-room (those new-fangled, silly things!), which I'm glad of - I think it separates you too much, and breeds an impatience among the parishioners for children's natural disruptive tendencies. Instead, all the doors to the nave are left open, so even when you're in the back, you are still able to participate in the Mass (and there are chairs in case you need to nurse a fussy baby). The best tip we ever got when we first became parents was to make sure we never ever ever put our kids down when we were standing with them in the back. If you let them run around, then being taken there becomes something fun for them and they might act up just to be allowed into the back. Instead, we hold Sly in our arms, and refuse his requests to go down. This makes him dread having to be brought out of the pew (where he has a lot more freedom of motion), and serves as a useful threat when he starts becoming disruptive! I'm not saying this is the only way to handle the issue, or that it is totally foolproof - but it's one method for how to train your children in proper Mass behavior.
5. Protect them from evil.
This might sound a bit extreme, but I'm totally serious. Satan works very hard to pull souls away from God. Our children will struggle enough with temptations of their own. We don't need to expose them to extra ones on top of that. I do believe that their environments need to be monitored. Garbage on television or the internet, peers who might be a bad influence - parents have the power to cut these things out of their child's life, at least to some extent. Of course I believe that our children need to learn independence, and sometimes they need to make mistakes. My intent is not to keep my children inside a bubble, with no knowledge of the outside world. Instead, I like to think of it as an analogy: the ideal family environment acts like a greenhouse. This is a place where young, fragile plants can be nourished and tended within a safe shelter. The sun can come in, but the winds and storms cannot. But there comes a time when the little plants have grown strong through all the good care and protection they've received, and they are ready to go out into the world, able to survive and flourish. Once I understood this, it made me much less skeptical of parents who chose to homeschool (and became just one of many reasons that I now desire to do the same with my own kids).
6. Incorporate the liturgical year into your daily lives.
The Church calendar offers us the perfect opportunity to LIVE the faith through the seasons of feasting and fasting. In our world of instant gratification, where everything is available whenever you want it, there are some very good lessons to be learned from following the wisdom of the liturgical calendar. And it's a great way to learn more about the Saints, and be encouraged and inspired by their example.
|Our old home altar at Passiontide|
There are many small little ways to start. An Advent wreath in the home which is lit each night with prayers; a May crowning using wildflowers to decorate a statue of Mary; draping the crucifix and other holy images in purple cloths during Passiontide. Some families may have the inclination to go further, and recognize many smaller feast days in some little way. There are many good resources for ideas, such as the site Catholic Cuisine: "We are all, especially us moms, cooking and baking every day, why not sanctify these mealtimes and teach our children even more about our beautiful faith at the same time?"
|Yes, they're just dandelions.|
This one ties in well with observing the liturgical year. When their senses are engaged, children learn much better. All the "smells and bells" of the Church have the ability to leave a strong impression on them. This is one reason why we love the Traditional Mass. We experience the smell of the incense, the bells - both the large church bells, and the smaller handbells during the Consecration, the Gregorian chant and Polyphony of the choir (as my husband says, "every Sunday, we get to listen to beautiful classical music for free"). Then there are all the visual reminders that Church is a sacred place: brocaded vestments, golden tabernacle and sacred vessels, timeless architecture (Sly knows words like "dome").
Other ways to involve the senses include positions of the body during prayer: kneeling (discussed above), folded hands (another sign of submission and supplication), the Sign of the Cross; blessing yourself with holy water; lighting candles.
8. Keep signs of the Faith around your house.
Our Church offers us such a wealth of special practices and devotions that can help to strengthen our relationship to God. Put up a crucifix in your home, or several. We have one in every room of the house (which was a special wish of my husband). Find good, reverent religious artwork and statues. Talk to your kids about the people or events depicted in that art. By the time they are older, Jesus, Mary, and the Saints will seem like old friends. Consider setting aside a home altar [I'll write a separate post about this soon] where you can pray together as a family. Keep holy water, blessed candles, Rosaries, scapulars, and other sacramentals around - and use them! Your house doesn't have to look like a church, but visitors should be able to pick up on the little signs of an actively-lived Catholic faith. Your children should come to identify themselves strongly as Catholic, with all the strange and wonderful practices that can include.
9. Get inspiration from other Catholic mothers.
Reach out to other Catholic mothers. Find out what they do in their family to instill the Faith in their kids. Share your own experiences. Befriend them. Pray together. Encourage your children to spend time with their children, because you know you can trust the way they are being parented.
It's also a helpful to learn about some of our great Saints who were mothers. Some that jump to mind: St. Monica, St. Rita, St. Gianna, and of course Mary, mother of our Lord. One mother whose example I am constantly thinking about is Blessed Zélie Martin, the mother of St. Thérèse. Though she died early in Thérèse's life, her influence on her daughter was significant. Of her five children who survived, all ended up joining the convent. So she must have been doing something right. And since she's relatively modern, we have a lot of information about her - letters, photos, and the like. An important book for all Catholic women to read, after - of course - the essential autobiography of St. Therese, Story of a Soul, is the small companion book called The Mother of the Little Flower (there is also one written about her father, also excellent). It will change your world, and revolutionize your ideas about Catholic mothering!
I look around at society, and sometimes it's so easy to think that the whole world is just going to hell around me. It makes me more determined than ever to raise my children with the Faith - to teach them to stand against all the evil that abounds. I know how important to this task is my role as their mother. But my ability to pass them the Faith isn't my biggest worry. What used to worry me the most was the thought of my children's children, and their children, and so on. When I'm long dead, what will happen to the faith of my progeny? If just one generation loses the Faith, it could be gone to my heirs forever. But as I was working on this post, I had a very reassuring realization....If I can manage to get myself to Heaven, then I'll have God at my side, eternally. I can spend the rest of eternity continuing to pray for my ancestors on Earth. My influence doesn't have to diminish - my role as their "mother" will continue. That's a pretty awe-inspiring thing to consider.