All parents have the primary responsibility to educate their children. This is a duty that parents cannot in good conscience shirk off or place on others. They are obliged to find a good school for their children or educate them at home. For Catholics the duty of education especially includes teaching their children the precepts of the Catholic faith and showing them how to live as faithful Christians. But religious education from a textbook, as it has been traditionally done, has a danger of becoming either completely shallow and soppy, or at the other extreme of becoming entirely cerebral. A true religious education is that of the whole person — the heart, mind, soul, strength, and even the body — but primarily the heart.
Yet, how does one go about educating their children in the faith?
The easy answer is to send them to a Catholic school where they will have religion or catechism class, sign them up for CCD if they go to a non-Catholic school, or teach them their catechism at home from a curriculum. These days there are a wide variety of books for educating our children in faith.
Still, studies show that young Catholics are leaving the Church as teenagers. A diocese I worked for had a problem of families coming to Mass only on the Sundays when their religious education program required it for their children to receive the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation. And the one hour per week that catechists spent with the children was spent reading a religious text that neither delved into actually explaining the faith nor taught them how to talk to God in prayer. Everything was superficial. My husband, who teaches philosophy at a university in the Catholic tradition, has had students who were raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, but who never learned that one could use reason to come to the knowledge of God’s existence. Sadly, this poor state of catechesis is one that the Church has been striving to remedy for decades.
As a parent who is raising children in the Catholic faith and as one raised in a family where all four children are devout, practicing Catholics as adults, I hold that learning one’s catechism from a book or going through an unsystematic, light religious textbook is not enough. My experience in home schooling shows me that children need more.
I want to tell you a few stories of accompaniment and discernment about real people. The first is about a man who once made a great sacrifice for the sake of living the Christian faith. When he was 17 years old he had a son with a woman whom he could not or would not marry. They spent 15 years together raising this son. He had been interested in the Catholic Church from his childhood, but it took him many years to come to believe in all of the Church’s truths. His mother who was Catholic prayed and sacrificed for him everyday, and devoted her life to helping him know and accept the truths revealed by God to the Church. During these long years he learned the teachings of the Church, was drawn to the beauty of truth, grew a real love for God in his heart. He learned much from a bishop, whom this young man described as one of those “who speak the truth, and speak it well, judiciously, pointedly, and with beauty and power of expression” (Christian Doctrine IV.21). It was the truth that compelled this young man to desire to be Catholic.
From the film Thérèse (1986) directed by Alain Cavalier
I had a crisis of faith over the past few weeks. I was not questioning any points of doctrine or doubting God and His existence, but I was doubting whether or not I, as a middle class American with so many comforts, could ever really live life of heroic virtue. The doubt came from a combination of circumstances, the first being the bleakness of a winter that has no end in sight, the second being the deaths of a number of people close to me or close to those I know, the third being considering the lives of a couple of saints through film.
The winter is self-explanatory. It is getting pretty long here in Minnesota, even though it has been mild compared to last winter. But when the 20s seem warm, you know you have a winter problem. The glumness of winter wears a person down, and opens one up for doubts. Further, Lent is looming on the horizon and as I think about what to do for Lent, all of my faults and tendencies towards sin stare up accusingly at me.
Then there are those who have died. The first was a neighbor, an elderly man of Christian faith, leaving behind his kind widow. They have been great neighbors, and for my children he is the first person that they knew personally to pass away. They pray for his soul daily, just as they prayed for him to overcome his cancer daily. The second was the father of a good friend. This also affected my kids, since he is the grandfather of some of their friends. The third was a young husband and father, whom I never knew personally, but was friends with many people I know from college. He had a month-long battle with advanced cancer and left behind three children and a pregnant wife. The final death was that of one of my parents’ dear friends, a woman whom I have known my entire life. She was a woman who always served, always loved, and always prayed. I pray and hope for all of their salvations, but it made me think about my own death and realize that I am failing to live a fully Christian life in so many ways. Would people hope for my salvation in the same way that they hope for these people?
On top of this, I saw a powerful movie about the life of St. Vincent de Paul, Monsieur Vincent (1947), directed by Maurice Cloche. St. Vincent de Paul had a comfortable life of ease serving a wealthy family, but, being unsatisfied with what he was doing there and with the comfort of his own life, decided to devote his life to the poor. He served as a bridge between the rich and the poor, always calling the rich to do more for the poor, and never seeing himself as doing enough. “I must do more,” was his continual realization.
Then there was the movie The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), directed by Roberto Rossellini, and based on the classic book The Little Flowers of Saint Francis. The film focused on his life after he established his first community of brothers. You see his desire for simplicity, his serving of the poor, and his calling on of his others to holiness. You see that he was a passionate person, who always felt that he had too much. He stripped himself of all material comforts, keeping the bare minimum. His brothers did the same. These lives of the saints made me realize that I am not doing enough and that I take too much pleasure in my bourgeois middle class comforts. The hours I spend reading articles online, socializing, enjoying my sturdy, warm house, eating good food seem extravagant compared to the lives of the poor who barely have enough clothing, whose homes are in disrepair, who live have no way of living within their means for their means are so limited. Why am I so blessed materially and they are not? It made me wonder if I should be making radical changes with my life, like those of St. Francis or serving the poor endlessly like St. Vincent de Paul. Can someone living a comfortable life like mine really become a saint?
Then my husband and I saw a beautiful movie, Thérèse (1986) directed by Alain Cavalier, about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. And just as she always does, St. Thérèse showed me how I am to live a life of holiness. My realization that even a person raised in the middle class with bourgeois values can live a real life of holiness, was similar to the epiphany Thomas Merton had when he first read about St. Thérèse:
“It was never, could never be, any surprise to me that saints should be found in the misery and sorrow and suffering of Harlem, in the leper-colonies life Father Damian Molokai, in the slums of John Bosco’s Turin, on the roads of Umbria in the time of St. Francis, or in the hidden Cistercian abbeys of the twelfth century…
But what astonished me altogether was the appearance of a saint in the midst of all the stuffy, overplush, overdecorated, comfortable ugliness and mediocrity of the bourgeoisie. Therese of the Child Jesus was a Carmelite, that is true: but what she took into the convent with her was a nature that had been formed and adapted to the background and mentality of the French middle class of the late nineteenth century, than which nothing could be imagined more complacent and apparently immovable. The one thing that seemed to me more or less impossible was for grace to penetrate the think, resilient bourgeois smugness and really take hold of the immortal soul beneath the surface…
She became a saint, not by running away from the middle class, or by the environment which she had grown up: on the contrary, she cling to it in so far as one could cling to such a thing and be a good Carmelite. She kept everything that was bourgeois about her and was still not incompatible with her vocation: her nostalgic affection for a funny villa called “Les Buissonnets,” her taste for utterly oversweet art, and for little candy angels and pastel saints playing with lambs so soft and fuzzy that they literally give people the creeps…” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp424-425)
St. Thérèse showed me that it is possible to have a deep spiritual life, but to have my days spent serving my family, cleaning, and cooking. She showed me that the key to holiness in my vocation is not to sell all I have and give it to the poor (though serving and caring for the poor I must do as I can), but making all that I do part of my prayer. I must allow God’s grace to penetrate every aspect of my life. I must be mindful of Him in everything that I do. I must live my vocation of wife, mother, and teacher of my children. This is the life I have chosen, this is the life I have been given, this is where God will make me holy. Most of us are called to be holy where we are. Few of us are called to lives like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Vincent de Paul. This does not mean that we should ignore the poor, but part of living out life as Christians is to serve the poor as we are called. And as a wife and mother, my caring for my family must not be neglected.
God’s grace has the ability to penetrate the least likely of places, and if He has put us in a specific place, called us to Him, and is not calling us to leave where we are, we must trust that He is going to make us holy where we are as long as we continually seek lives of grace and discern whether we are doing enough Originally posted at Truth and Charity…
In my latest piece for Truth and Charity, I explained that we Christians need to be on guard against the banality of evil, where evil acts becomes so everyday that we do not even notice them as evil. We simply accept them as part of life, and are not rightly shocked at the evils being committed in our world. This idea is not new to Christianity. In fact St. Paul also warns against conforming our minds to secular standards:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect. (Romans 12:2)
We have all heard this verse before, this command to guard against the world and renew our minds. One area in which we need to do this is in our recreational time, in our watching, listening, and reading. The Church warns against becoming numb to evil in the media in the Catechism:
The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences (CCC 2496).
When it is the end of the day and we are tired, just wanting to relax, how do we go about not becoming passive in our watching or reading? How can we be vigilant in our consumption of media? How do we, in a society that does not value virtue and moral lifestyles, find worthwhile entertainment? There is so much available that can pollute our hearts and lead us to become passive in the face of evil. If we become passive to the evil present in the entertainment we choose, we are on the path to becoming numb to evil in the world, and as I argued here, we should not become numb to any evils, great or small.
To live fully Christian lives, we must live purposefully, so as to form virtuous habits. Most of us know that we need to do this to have healthy relationships, to have a regular prayer life, and to accomplish our tasks at work and at home. But we must also be purposeful in what we watch, listen to, and read, or we will accept mediocre content that eats away at our souls. Despite the difficulty of being purposeful in our recreation, we need to do so in order to be able to understand which entertainments are worthwhile. At the very least we should seek to find entertainments that do not devalue humanity.
Many movies, shows, and books do devalue humanity, and we are worse off after partaking of them. These works of “art” eat away at our awareness of evil, slowly numbing us to the evil acts and attitudes depicted on the screen, in the book, in the lyrics. These are the things we need to avoid, and we need to seek more worthwhile entertainment. Just to be clear, I am not advocating the consumption of moralistic works of art that are created for the sake of presenting a moral or just to be “Christian” but that do not represent humanity realistically. These too can inhibit the formation of our consciences.
Worthwhile artistic entertainments are reflective; in producing them, the artists reflect on humanity, their lives, hardships, sufferings, joys, illnesses, and God. They lead us to reflect on these things as well. While this is clearly present in good works of fiction, it is also present in sports, which allow us to reflect upon great human achievements, and in instructional shows, such as cooking shows that teach viewers skills. These good things do not numb us to evil, but help us live full, examined lives.
Reflection on oneself and the world is something the Christian can never cease in doing, and while at times it is tiresome to always be examining ourselves, it is necessary if we ever want to live a life of virtue. If we look to the examples of the Saints, we see lives of complete self reflection. In our lives too, even in our entertainment choices, we must never cease to examine ourselves and the things that we allow to affect our minds.
An authentically Catholic fish fry. Photo by MBK. Since we moved to Minnesota, my family and I have been meeting a lot of converts, many of them my husband’s colleague at the Catholic university where he is a professor. It seems that more of them than not are converts. The other day a distinguished colleague asked my husband, “You are a cradle Catholic, aren’t you?” After my husband assured him that he was, his friend said decidedly, “Then it is in your bones.” Every year I live, I realize more and more how Catholicism really is “in my bones.” There is something about being Catholic from infancy that takes over one’s whole life, and the further one is from one’s conversion to the faith the more time the Catholic sense has had to set in.
One of our convert friends, Brantley Milligan, wrote a piece for Alethia about 4 Things that Catholics do that Rightly Scandalize non-Catholics. It seemed to me that his first point on how Catholics don’t talk enough about Jesus missed something genuine about Catholicism. Mr. Milligan says that, “Even among otherwise faithful Catholics, it sometimes seems we can spend a lot of time talking about the Church, the clergy, the Pope, the Mass, moral teachings, the Sacraments, and yes, Mary and the saints – all important things – but hardly ever mention Jesus.” I would disagree and say that by talking about these things, Catholics really are talking about Jesus.
At a recent play date with other Catholic moms, they singled me out as the only non-convert in the group. For a moment I agreed and then I looked at the eight children playing in the yard, and said, “Actually, the kids and I have you converts out numbered!” It seems that this depth of Catholicism is not limited to cradle Catholic. The convert Walker Percy got it in his novel Love in the Ruins:
“The best of times were after mass on summer evenings when Samantha and I would walk home in the violet dusk, we having received Communion and I rejoicing afterwards, caring nought for my fellow Catholics but only for myself and Samantha and Christ swallowed, remembering what he promised me for eating him, that I would have life in me, and I did, feeling so good that I’d sing and cut the fool all the way home like King David before the Ark. Once home, light up the charcoal briquets out under the TV transmitter, which lofted its red light next to Venus like a ruby and a diamond in the plum velvet sky. Snug down Samantha with the Wonderful World of Color in the den (the picture better than life, having traveled only one hundred feet straight down), back to the briquets, take four, five, six long pulls from the quart of Early Times, shout with joy for the beauty of the world…”
It is about the Sacraments. Growing up in the historically Catholic St. Louis, attending college in Steubenville, and living four years in culturally Catholic Buffalo, NY, one realizes that all Catholics know that being Catholic really is about “getting our Sacraments.” From the Christmas and Easter Catholics to the Daily Mass goers, everyone knows that the Sacraments are central to being Catholic. Some Catholics settled for the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion, First Reconciliation.
After that, they think you are set if you make it to Mass on Christmas and Easter. I am not sure if they acknowledge their Easter Duty of receiving communion once a year or going to confession, but they get the basics. And then they come back to Church again for their Catholic wedding. Then we have the Catholics who realize that those few Sacraments are not enough, horrible sinners that they are. They confess weekly, receive daily, and still hope to see everyone in purgatory. Either way, Sacraments are central. Every cradle Catholic knows that.
And the ones who sit back and think about them, actually realize that the Sacraments really are an encounter with God. Jesus Christ, Himself, gave them to us, so that we could have life in us, His life in us. So, all of the focus on the Sacraments is actually about Jesus, and not just Him, the whole Trinity. All the focus on the Sacraments is really a focus on Jesus, but you have to get to catechism class if you want to know that. What non-Catholics don’t understand about us Catholics is that all these seemingly excess things in our faith are really about being with Jesus. If they don’t believe that the Eucharist is actually Jesus Christ, that the priest we confess to is in persona Christi, and that the pope is the Vicar of Christ, then they are going to think we never think about Jesus.
Another part of Catholicism that gets into ones bones is devotion to Mary and the Saints. We have been reading the lives of the saints to our children from the very beginning, and now whenever they hear about a martyr, they grin at each other at the thought of a martyr and ask, “But how did she die?” Then later, we hear them playing games about being martyred, going to heaven, and appearing as St. So-and-so. Or they play that Mary appeared to them. The stories of the Saints and Mary’s apparitions are the kind that stick in the heads of children, and they are fascinated. They want to be saints as well, and adult Catholics often lose sight of the focus on sainthood. But sainthood really is about being with God forever in Heaven.
Adult Catholics are much more realistic about the possibility of going to Heaven on their own merits than children are. And that is why we are so thankful that Jesus gave St. Peter the keys of the kingdom and said: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is where we get our theology of indulgences, which again is in our bones. The indulgences come from the treasury of the merits of Christ and of the saints, which is dispensed through the Church. Pope Clement VI explains it in his Jubilee Bull of 1343:
“This treasury Christ committed to the care of St. Peter, who holds the keys of heaven, and to his successors, his own vicars on earth who are to distribute it to the faithful for their own salvation… To the abundance of this treasury the merits of the Blessed Mother of God and of all the elect, from the first just person to the last, also contribute, as we know; nor is it at all diminished, first on account of the infinite merits of Christ, as already mentioned, and further because the more men are drawn to righteousness by having this treasury applied to them, so much the more does the store of those merits increase.”
Fortunately, for us less saintly folk, there are the Saints who contributed to the treasury of merits. Take my Confirmation saint, St. Gemma Galgani, whose historical feast day is tomorrow. She was a “little victim of divine love,” offering the sufferings of weekly stigmata and all the pains of the Passion for the conversion of sinners and saying this, “It is true Jesus, if I think of what I have gone through as a child, and now as a grown up girl, I see that I have always had crosses to bear; But oh! how wrong are those who say that suffering is a misfortune!” And even if the sufferings of saints like St. Gemma are not enough, we must remember that there are the infinite merits of Christ. One drop of his blood would have been enough to save us all, but he did so much more and the grace is still infinite. But then, we are also told from childhood to “offer it up,” and I am certain that the offerings of a small child also add to the treasury of merits. Maybe even the offerings of a lukewarm, adult Catholic are meritorious.
The longer one is Catholic, the more one is aware of one’s own sinfulness, and the more devoted to the Sacraments one becomes. That is why daily Mass is full of the oldest generations. I know many holy people, who go to daily Mass, and would never ever consider themselves to be holy. They see themselves as sinners, and that is a huge part of being Catholic. You know, the Catholic guilt. It is hard enough to rid oneself of one’s own sins without having to worry if praying the rosary, going to Mass, and having a Mary statue is going to scandalize the evangelicals. While we are one body, we are all different parts, and we cannot all be the perfectly understandable Catholic to those outside the Church.
When Catholicism is in your bones, you learn not to care if others are scandalized by particularly Catholic things you do. You know that you are focused on Jesus, you know that you are following the Church as best you can (or that you really could be doing better), and you know that you are a miserable sinner, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I am so glad that that is back in the Confiteor of the New Mass, because the words and the chest beating actions capture a sense of Catholicism that modernity is trying to do away with.
The whole of The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc, in his self-deprecating way along with his love of his home, good food, and drink, embraces the Catholic sense that all creation has been redeemed. Belloc explains “that work is noble, and prayer is its equal, but that drinking good ale is a more renowned and glorious act that any other to which man can lend himself.” In his discussion of nature and life, one can see that Belloc had a Catholic worldview seeing sacramental value in everything. The cradle Catholic is familiar with the Friday Fish Fry, Bingo Night, Parish Festivals (or the Lawn Fete), and the eighth sacrament of coffee and donuts. And we must remember that the first fish fry was hosted by Jesus himself on the beach of the Sea of Tiberias over a fire of charcoal [briquets].
Now the thing about these particularly Catholic events is not that the food or the drink is particularly good, but that these things are what Catholics do. Further, they are done by the Body of Christ (and for the sake of raising funds). It is kind of fun to sit in an overcrowded hall with fellow Catholics and wait in a long line for a plate of greasy fish, macaroni, and coleslaw. These things, too, have been redeemed. We know that these events will never match the level of the Eucharistic banquet in its substance or that the mass produced food contributions of the Altar and Rosary society will meet the level of a five star restaurant, but the kids will have fun running around and might even eat the food and the adults will enjoy some lively conversation. These things are too about Jesus, even if He is not mentioned by name throughout the whole of the event.
The great thing about the Catholic Church is that we consist of everybody, as Robert P. George described over at First Things. The Church consists of a diversity of professions, ages, prayer, and people. We are not all going to be Saints, and I am not sure we need a reformation in the Church, but maybe we all need to plod along in our little Catholic lives and work on our own reformation of ourselves as we participate in the life of the Church.