On July 25, the day before the feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne, we celebrated the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, established by Pope Francis.
With this new celebration, our Holy Father has given us a beautiful reminder of the importance of the family and the essential vocation of parents in God’s plan for humanity.
Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, and he was raised by Mary and Joseph, her husband, as part of a large extended family that included cousins, aunts, uncles, and his grandparents, St. Joachim and St. Anne, Mary’s parents.
From this we learn that God gives parents the gift of children and entrusts them with the responsibility of making their homes a place where children meet God and learn to pray and live according to his ways.
Passing on the faith is one of the most important challenges we face in the Church today, as we recognize that more young people are drifting away after confirmation, and fewer seem to be returning to the Church to be married and to baptize their children.
This is one of the reasons I’m reading a fine new book by Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, “Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation” (Oxford University Press, $29.95).
A sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, for the past 20 years Smith has been studying the religious and spiritual lives of American young people, or “emerging adults” as he likes to call them.
His research confirms the powerful influence of secularism, individualism, consumerism, and relativism, and how our way of life erodes young people’s religious identities and their ability to make moral judgments.
Smith concludes that no matter what faith they are raised in, young people today tend not to think in terms of ancient creeds or unchanging truths. Instead, they regard God as a kindly creator who does not judge but just wants people to be happy and feel good about themselves; their “God” asks only that we not be mean to other people.
Smith’s findings are sobering and confirm patterns that we see in our schools, parishes, and ministries.
But while I recognize that young people face deep challenges in this culture, I see a far more hopeful picture when I look around the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
This Saturday, Aug. 7, we will celebrate our sixth annual “City of Saints” teen conference.
“City of Saints” is inspiring for me, because I always meet young people there who are doing amazing things and who believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and the way and truth for our lives.
Their love for Jesus is a testimony, not just to the faith of their parents, but also to the dedication of pastors, catechists, and teachers doing the vital work of religious formation in our parishes and schools.
Still, there is no question that all of us in the Church need to keep working hard to support parents in their essential vocation of passing on our Catholic faith to the next generation.
This is one of the reasons that Pope Francis has declared this a “Year of the Family.” He is encouraging all of us in the Church to reflect again on the beauty of the family, what he calls “the love generated by … the silent work of the life of a couple, by that daily and sometimes tiring commitment carried out by spouses, mothers, fathers, and children.”
Smith makes a persuasive case that parents are the single greatest influence on their children’s religious identities, beliefs, and practices — far more important than peers, teachers, youth groups, or even religious education.
Parents who are “successful,” he finds, are men and women of prayer who believe strongly in their vocation to be their children’s first teachers in the faith. For these parents, making church a priority and holding themselves accountable to religious practices and moral values are simply normal habits of healthy people.
Based on Smith’s findings, we should share our faith naturally, with warmth, joy, and confidence, always listening and engaging our young people’s questions honestly. In everything, we should be trying to help them see that the Church’s vision for their lives is true and that following this way will bring them happiness in this life and joy in eternity.
And as Smith points out, children learn by example, by witness more than by words. That means we need to practice what we preach, not only in our homes but in every area of the Church. All of us who have responsibility for young people should be living what Christ teaches and the Church believes.
Pray for me this week, and I will pray for you.
And let us ask our Blessed Mother Mary to watch over our young people and help them to keep the faith and to live the faith and share it with joy.