Eating Your Spiritual Vegetables

I came across an article on EWTN discussing the results of a study on why people choose to leave the Catholic Church. This article highlights the importance of attending Mass regularly as a child. I want to expand on the article and discuss why parents have such an awesome responsibility to correctly shape their child’s spiritual habits.

I came across an article on EWTN discussing the results of a study on why people choose to leave the Catholic Church.  This article highlights the importance of attending Mass regularly as a child.  I want to expand on the article and discuss why parents have such an awesome responsibility to correctly shape their child’s spiritual habits.

From the article:

The study, “Faith in Flux: Changes in the Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” was made public Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

“The report highlights the importance of Mass attendance among children and teenagers,” the archbishop said. “Adolescence is a critical time in religious development and, as the poll shows, what happens in the teen years has a long-lasting affect. We have to help young people and their parents appreciate the importance of going to weekly Mass so teenagers know Jesus is there for them now and always.“

It should not come as any surprise that people who attend Mass regularly during their childhood will more likely continue to attend Mass as adults.  I’m reminded of two old sayings — “practice makes perfect” and “use it or lose it.”  In a previous post, I talked about spiritual fitness.  I touched on how becoming spiritually fit is a lifelong process and cannot happen overnight after a single prayer.  Similar to development in other areas of one’s life, starting good spiritual habits early provides a sturdy base on which one builds a strong faith.  I also discussed how people who attend Mass regularly are more in tune with their faith because they make their faith a priority in their lives.  Inversely, those who do not make faith a priority will often reject it either formally (by renouncing their affiliation with the Church) or informally by becoming a Catholic in name only.  However, for parents this decision to leave the Church has much larger implications because of the dire effects it might have on children.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who said that he would never force his children to go to Mass.  I asked him if he thought regular Mass attendance was important to him.  He answered that it was for him but he did not want to “force” his beliefs on his kids.  I’m often surprised to hear Catholics who do not encourage or expect their children to attend Mass regularly.  These parents say that they want to let their kids develop their own religious identity.  On the surface that seems like a very politically correct and noble course of action.  After all, one of the pillars of Western society is the freedom of religion.  Shouldn’t people be free to choose whatever religion they want instead of having their parents’ religious dogma forced-fed to them?  What’s wrong with that?

Not shaping a child’s religious development is similar to not shaping their nutritional diet and exercise habits.  Good parents do not let their kids eat whatever they want whenever they want.  They know that a child, when given complete freedom to choose their diet, would most likely live entirely off cookies, chocolate, cotton candy, doughnuts, and hot dogs.  Heck, even I as an adult would rather reach for an Oreo instead of a carrot at times.  But I know better and understand the dangers of consuming large amounts of junk food.  However, children do not have the maturity to understand the long-term consequences of a junk food diet.  Hence, it is the parents’ responsibility to introduce healthy foods to their children such as fruits and vegetables and educate them on good eating habits.  Loving parents do not want to see their kids develop health problems (obesity, diabetes, eating disorders, etc.) before they start taking nutrition seriously.

The spiritual diet is formed in a very similar way as the nutritional one.  Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children develop spiritually healthy habits.  That includes routine prayer, following the Commandments and laws of the Church, and attending Mass regularly (for starters).  Parents must set an example for their child’s spiritual development, not leave it in the hands of a child that would often rather watch television and play video games instead of praying and attending Mass.  At times, that means forcing the child to put down the game controller, get dressed, and go to Mass.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of not letting a child leave the dinner table until all vegetables are eaten.  The child may not like it, but you know that ultimately it will benefit him/her.  Children, teenagers, and even young adults often need some guidance and motivation in their spiritual lives since they do not always have the maturity to make such important decisions on their own.  And when it comes to faith, making poor decisions can be devastating.  Moving away from a healthy, spiritual lifestyle can lead to drug abuse, sexual addiction, and a whole host of other damaging behaviors.  With those possible dangers, some of them with permanent consequences, would any parent want a child to learn the importance of faith and spirituality the hard way?

I find it interesting how teaching and encouraging good nutrition, exercise habits, thinking skills, work ethic, and common decency are viewed as good parenting while passing along a good spiritual lifestyle is viewed as brainwashing.  Nutrition, exercise, work, and studying can be difficult at times but we do them because we know they help make life more fulfilling.  And yet, when the Church (or any organized religion) challenges Her members to lead faithful and moral lives that is seen as being unreasonable, unrealistic, and outdated.  We often want to tell the Church to “lighten up” instead of stepping up to the challenge and really pushing ourselves and others to answer God’s call.  For parents, stepping up to that challenge is doubly-important because it sets an example for children.

The “Faith in Flux” study states:

When people were asked to choose why they left from a list of possible reasons, the number jumped from 21% for Catholics who became Protestant, and 27% for former Catholics who are now unaffiliated with any church. Other reasons for leaving the Church, such as disagreement on doctrinal matters, figured much higher.

These results reinforce the importance of teaching children strong spiritual habits.  I’m wondering from that study how many of the 27% who are no longer affiliated with any church did not attend Mass regularly during childhood and incorporate God’s Word in their lives?  I bet many of them grew up in a household where their parents did not place a high priority on Mass attendance, learning their faith, receiving the Sacraments, and prayer.  In fact, taking a relaxed approach to faith can be even more damaging to a child than not practicing any faith at all.  Children grow up with misconceptions when parents live in a way that contradicts the Church’s teachings.  These misconceptions develop into frustration, confusion, and ultimately abandonment of the faith entirely.

Of course, I’m not a parent so what do I know about shaping a child’s spiritual development?  To be honest, I imagine that trying to pass on my Catholic faith to my kids will be one of the scariest aspect of parenthood.  I want my children to be spiritually healthy and lead good and happy lives free from a lot of the evils that take root in so many people today.  I want my children to feel the joy and fulfillment that comes from a life that recognizes and admires God, Jesus Christ, the Saints, and the Catholic Church.  But until I face that trial I can only look at my parents’ example and hope to imitate them as much as possible.  They taught me the importance of:

  • Praying before meals and before going to bed.
  • Reading from the Bible (illustrated children’s Bible when I was young).
  • Attending Mass weekly and on Holy Days of Obligation.
  • Following the Golden Rule of treating others how we want to be treated.
  • Calling attention to the importance of faith in various life situations (births, deaths, hardships, and triumphs).
  • Doing the right thing because it is right, not because I’ll get some reward or recognition.  Inversely, I shouldn’t do bad things even if I don’t get caught.
  • Leading by example.  Children are smart and will notice when parents do not practice what they preach.  Fortunately for me, my parents never gave me the opportunity to find any contradictory behavior.

Thanks Mom and Dad!