There is one basic principle for family faith formation and many expressions of that principle. There is also guidance from the Church and a knowledge of man’s nature from Aristotle and those in his tradition, both of which can help us as we raise our children in the Faith.
The Importance of Modeling Your Faith
The basic principle is that the Faith has to be visibly first in your own life. You must be serving and loving God, following and being knowledgeable about the Church yourself, in order to pass that on to your children. That is the 'sine qua non' of raising a Catholic family, even it is not a guarantee, because children have free will. But without your faithful model it’s not possible to raise a faithful, Catholic family. (God can do anything, of course, and plenty of individuals have responded to God’s direct grace, though their families were not faith-filled. But to receive faith formation in the family, parents [at least one] have to model it.)
Now, how that is expressed in your life will vary from family to family. Each family is different, with different opportunities and circumstances. Here is an example that will help make this point, I hope, because it’s important. I was once camping with my family. The people in the next campsite happened to be Catholic homeschoolers and they recognized me. They asked if I could give an impromptu talk about homeschooling. So I did my best. In the course of that talk I was saying that one of the chief blessings of homeschooling for our family was the opportunity to get to daily Mass. I thought that then and I think that now. But there was a gentleman in the audience who said, rightly, that it was a blessing, and it wasn’t always possible for every family. He thought it was most important to make it clear that you would and did go to daily Mass when you could, even if it was not always possible. Then he told us about his family. He was one of 10 children and his dad worked two jobs so that they could all go to the Catholic school. (All by itself that taught the children something about what was important.) They couldn’t get to daily Mass. The mornings for his mom were full of getting kids ready for school, with their lunches and books and shoes all in place. The dad left really early in the morning for his first job, and then got home late in the evening after his second job. But his father had two weeks off each year, and during those two weeks they all went to daily Mass. The camping dad who was talking to us said it was clear to all of them that this is what you would do if you could, and what you did do when it was actually possible. He takes his own children to daily Mass regularly, because of his father’s example.
I have always remembered that man’s story. His family got to daily Mass only two weeks out of the year, and my family went to daily Mass every day for years and years. But we were both expressing the same truth, and the same orientation. The faith must be first in your life, but the expression of that will depend on your circumstances.
That’s the first point. I am going to give you some specific examples of ways my family and other families I know well have expressed the centrality of the faith. I am sure you will have other helpful examples. It’s important to remember, though, that these will all be suggestions which you can choose from to enhance your family faith formation, but none of them will be something that you should think has to be done or else you are failing. What you have to do is put God and His Church first in your life.
The second thing I mentioned earlier is the guidance of the Church. The Church has told us that in faith formation there are three important components: Doctrine, Scripture, and Heroic Example. Those are worked into our curriculum in MODG and that is a help to our family faith formation. We should keep those categories in mind as we are thinking about the right enhancements of faith formation for each of our families. We should be taking advantage of what is in our children’s daily lesson plans.
The dad of one of my families, when we first met, thirteen or so years ago, told me that he had experienced a healing when he was young, and he had told God that if he was cured he would dedicate his life to God. (He said at the time he wasn’t even sure that God existed, so it was a provisional bargain, but nonetheless he made it, and kept it.) As a high school student, to keep his bargain, he talked to the bishop in his area to explain that he and his fellow students needed more instruction in the faith. He said that unless they got doctrine, they would walk away. The bishop didn’t listen and masses of his fellow students did walk away. From that experience he thought maybe his bargain with God meant he was called to somehow bring the doctrine of the faith to the world around him, but he wasn’t sure what that was supposed to look like. He developed a parish catechetical program, which was reasonably successful, and he developed an app for the computer that would deliver doctrinal lessons. He thought about the priesthood, but didn’t think he was called to it. When I spoke to him that first time, he was talking about other ideas he had for spreading the faith. He is, obviously, an enterprising person. Later on, we talked again. This man’s family had been enrolled in MODG for all of the intervening years. He told me he had realized that what he needed to do was to encourage more people to homeschool. He said that his own family had learned so much about their faith from the curriculum that he was convinced the way to form the family in faith was to live the homeschooling life using a good Catholic curriculum.
I mention this because our goal in family faith formation is to truly live the faith, moment by moment. That means knowing, loving, and living it. Our curriculum teaches doctrine (knowing the faith), has heroic examples of people who love and live their faith, and, additionally, provides an opportunity for us to sacrifice our wills daily in order to teach the faith to our children, so that we are modeling what living the faith looks like in our own homes. Further, we have regular instruction in the Scriptures which provides more doctrine, more heroic example, and more opportunity to come close to God and His Son and the Holy Spirit. So use what our curriculum provides for your family’s faith formation.
Third, from Aristotle we know that there are four powers of the soul. Grace builds on nature, so it is important to recognize that these four powers need to be formed virtuously, in the natural order, so that they are ready to receive grace. The powers are the mind, the will, the irascible appetite, and the concupiscible appetite. The virtues of each are prudence, justice (an orientation to the other as other), fortitude, and temperance. So in our family faith formation we are going to want to work on those four virtues particularly.
So, to reiterate, there are three principles to keep in mind. First, God has to come first in our lives; second, we need to include doctrine, scripture, and heroic example in our teaching; third, we need to work on the cardinal moral virtues. Within that context I would like to make some suggestions that have helped my family with faith formation.
I think the fact that we went to daily Mass, as a family, for years and years, has been huge. I recognize that it was a gift to my family that it was possible, but it was possible and we took advantage of it. It was a source of grace, clarified for our children what we thought was most important, and got them up in the morning. I’ll be honest here. Mass was not hard for us because it was and is something I really want to do. I love to go to Mass. It’s not a chore for me, and that made it so much easier to do with the children. As I have already said, though, I know not everyone can go daily. But even there I think it’s better, as a friend of mine once said, to see yourself as a daily Mass-goer who doesn’t always make it, rather than someone who only goes on Sunday. One of my children is now in circumstances that make it hard for her to get to daily Mass. But she goes every Saturday, as well as Sunday, and then during the week when it is possible. She is so grateful when she can get there and I think that speaks to her children, too. (If you are not as naturally drawn to the Mass as some, I recommend the book The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn. I think it can help.)
When our children were little we had a system for helping them learn to pay attention at Mass. We didn’t start out by explaining the nature of sacrifice and the hypostatic union, or the importance of joining our minds and hearts to the action of the priest so that we could participate in Christ’s sacrifice for us. We definitely did eventually get to a point where we talked about those things, but our primary goal with the three-year-old was to keep him quietly in one place. We did that by using the incentive of doughnuts.
If the child would stay between Mommy and Daddy, and only whisper, then he or she would get a doughnut after Mass. If not, not. As the children grew older, we moved on. The next step was to say, “My Lord and my God” at the consecration, and to put one’s hand on one’s heart. If that was done, then there was a doughnut after Mass. Once that was habitual, we added saying the “Our Father” with the congregation to the requirements. (The lips had to move, or it didn’t count.) When that was easy, we would explain about the three principle parts of Mass: Offertory, Consecration, and Communion, and the child would need to offer himself (silently, but with mom noticing his attitude of attention) with the gifts at the Offertory, say “My Lord and my God,” at the Consecration, and make a spiritual communion at Communion time. (We would construct a Mass book out of a small photo album, to which we would add as the children were expected to know more parts of the Mass. Eventually there was a lovely spiritual communion prayer added to the book, shortly before they were ready to receive First Holy Communion.) If all required things were done, then there was a doughnut after Mass.
By the time we got to that point, we were usually ready to undertake serious First Communion preparation. The understanding was always that once you could receive Our Lord, you didn’t need the doughnut anymore, because you had something incomparably better. And that’s what happened. Once the children were receiving Communion they didn’t need the doughnut as an incentive.
Read Part Two here, where Laura shares more tips on incorporating faith traditions in your own family!