Long ago, our first house had a growth chart on the inside of a bedroom door. Now and again, we’d line up our three little children and place a ruler atop their heads. Then we’d pencil a line alongside their respective heights, along with the date, and their initials – marking growth over time.
Something happened in the life of my youngest son, Peter, recently that reminded me of that old chart on the door. It also made me realize that I’ve had an invisible growth chart for this young man, and my other two children, that I have been slowly adding milestones to… let’s call it a Catholic Growth Chart.
The Catholic Growth Chart that I have in mind records the spiritual milestones of each of my children, over 25 years of parenting. Each of them has had very different paths, but each of them has been the recipients of many prayers we, their parents, have lifted to heaven on their behalf, and most especially this: that they would know, love, and serve the Lord. Our prayers have been that the Lord would bring about early conversions for each of them.
Last February, I picked Peter up from the airport when he was coming home from college for a break in the semester. This son, Peter — the youngest of my three and the last one we’re getting through college — asked what I was doing lately, and I told him. I also happened to mention that I was renewing my Consecration to Jesus through Mary with a group of women I knew. He perked up and said, “You mean, using the book from St. Louis de Montfort? So am I!”
Really, I said, marveling slightly as his announcement warmed my heart. I urged him to continue. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I attend a university in the shadow of the country’s largest Shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother, so I figured I ought to get to know her better. One night as I was praying in the chapel, I asked the Lord to show me how to get closer his Mother. The next moment, a young woman came into the chapel to retrieve a book she had left behind in the pew. It was the booklet that describes preparation for consecration.” And that was that. Peter celebrated his consecration to Jesus through Mary on what also happened to be his 19th birthday, March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation.
The spiritual milestones of our children’s lives began with their baptism. It slowly advanced with each of the sacraments that they made. In between those sacramental milestones, there’s a world of spiritual territory that we’ve traversed. And while we don’t make pencil marks on a door, or keep report cards, my husband and I were privileged to watch souls take shape and grow in our home. As parents, we spent a lot of time doing what we could to influence that growth both directly and indirectly.
But every now and then, we see a shining moment — a defining moment – when one of our children chooses Christ – growing as Catholic Christians – by yielding more and more to Him. These are the moments you pray for. Very few can be scheduled. Most are unpredictable, surprising, and happen as the Holy Spirit wills. But almost all of them can be prepared for.
We’ve prepared our children as best as we can for such times, often deliberately. Just as we’ve been called to be role models for them, we’re called to educate them in three areas: daily life, academic life, and spiritual life. We often know what to do with the first two areas, but the spiritual life sometimes seems a little harder to articulate. This is the life of grace, of sanctity, of holiness. It is training a child not only in the basic knowledge of the faith, but calling them toward an interior life with Christ.
(In next month’s article I’d like to talk about some of the spiritual practices we’ve used in our home, but in this first article, I’d like to articulate the context in which we operated.)
I have to say that much of the grace to bear and raise these children can be found within the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony. For us, it all started way back when, when my husband and I said, “I do” at the altar. Bob and I not only vowed our lives to one another, we also pledged our lives to the future children God might send us – promising to lovingly raise them in the Faith. That seems like ancient history now as we approach our 30th year together, but looking back, our shared faith and the grace from the Sacrament of Marriage allowed us to realize the tremendous gift we had in each other, and the vocational call to act on it. We were both committed, practicing Catholics, and in time, God blessed us with a family. Then we began to truly understand the fullness of our vows.
We truly embraced our role as the primary educators our children. As guardians of three young souls, we set goals and developed a family lifestyle that reflected our Catholic faith. Without knowing it, we were setting up a Catholic Growth Chart for each of our children, patterns of life that reflected what the Church calls “the domestic Church.”
Through the years we didn’t expect others to teach our children the Faith. They heard it from us first. We made conscious efforts to teach our children the tenets of the Faith, as individuals and, at times, together with their peers or school friends when it came to preparation for sacraments. Our goal was that when other catechists came into their lives – be they priests, school teachers, religious educators, youth ministers, or significant adults – the teaching our children heard was not foreign, but simply a reinforcing of what is already commonly known to them. Or, in the opposite case, where our children’s faith was challenged, they would be able to discern what is outside of the Church’s faith and moral standards.
Perhaps the most difficult of all our parenting lessons was learning that we are in authority over our children. We had to be the grown-ups. And while that extends to all the areas in which a parent might nurture and raise a child, it makes particular sense in the spiritual realm.
There’s a principle of obedience in operation that is often unspoken: If children can’t listen and mind their parents, they may never listen to and mind God. And while to some that may seem a bit harsh, it really puts the burden on us parents to love our children the way God love us. It’s authoritative, as in leadership that can be trusted, and that’s very different than being authoritarian. It calls us to be a loving parent who has the child’s best interest at heart.
Of course, fostering Catholic growth in our children presumes that we have a faith life of our own and are actively living it. This alone keeps us honest. My husband and I are trying to help each other get to Heaven. And we long to help our children get there with us. That is our goal, but it is often hard to practice it each day. Human frailties often beset our best intentions. We cannot share what we do not have, and sometimes what we do have is kept hidden by our selfishness. But we keep trying. That’s part of the beauty of the Christian life, that we can always have hope that we can attain the grace to overcome our sinful failings.
We are praying and practicing to be a holy influence for our children. Over the last ten years, as our children entered the teen years and beyond, we’ve been trying to faithfully make a holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament each week, outside of Mass. We also do spiritual reading, sharing some of those things we are learning with our family. These are just small ways, that while leading our family, we meet the daily challenge to live individual lives of sanctity. So, we stay close to the sacraments. We pray at home daily, and attend Sunday Mass every week, making it a family priority.
Raising the next generation of faith-filled Catholics isn’t easy, and at times, the advancing secular culture has really made things difficult for parents. There’s no time to sit out, for it’s a battle for hearts and minds, and ultimately, for souls. But we persevered when they were little, and still we continue to this day to find ways to lead, trust, guide, teach, admonish, share, and forgive them, and even, to forgive ourselves.
We are Catholic parents. We made a vow. Giving our children opportunities for Christian growth while they are still under our roof is our priority. For one day –and I don’t mean to oversimplify this – but one day, when my husband and I meet our Father in Heaven, he’ll be doing a little measuring of his own.
This article originally appeared on CatholicMom.com and is used with permission.