By Peter Herbeck
So many parents and grandparents have shared with me their concerns regarding their children’s faith, and the fact that many of them are leaving the faith. It’s very troubling and difficult. I want to talk a little about why it’s happening and what we can do about it.
Why is it happening?
First of all, we’re living through an epic spiritual conflict. We’re watching the collapse of Christian culture. When I was a kid, our whole small town pretty much shut down on Sundays, because the way of life of the people—whether Catholics, committed Christians, or not—was to respect and honor the Lord’s Day. There was a lot of reinforcement to believe in the commandment and to live alongside it. There was a public cost to going against that.
There’s a whole different culture arising today, one that could be described as anti-Christian, secular, and post-Christian. At its heart is a whole different worldview. Changes include different approaches to the meaning of things like marriage, the beginning of life, and what it means to be human. People are fighting for these things and aggressively challenging the Church. It’s costing people—especially young people who are constantly plugged into this worldview through social media and the entertainment industry, where these values are laying hold of the current culture.
It’s costing not only young people, but adults. It’s costing us to stand in the faith, to be publicly associated with our faith. People get cancelled today for standing up and speaking things the Church actually believes in. Young people feel pressure, maybe without even thinking about it, to not be identified with the Church. If we’re not disciples, it’s really easy to back away—and most young people today aren’t disciples. By disciple, I mean someone who has really encountered Christ and made a decision deeply to follow Him, who knows who He is and has committed their lives to Him, and who has a prayer life at some level, with friends they’re standing with and getting support from.
Secondly, the scandals in the Church over the last two decades have brought a lot of shame on the Church. In some cases, young people have left for the same reason older people have left. They’re angry at the Church, and they’re angry with the leadership of the Church and how they’ve handled it.
The third factor relates to where most Catholics are in relation to their faith. Recent studies indicate that seventy percent of Catholics no longer believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.1 They’re missing something completely central to the faith. Another recent study indicates that sixty-six percent of Catholics agreed that Jesus was the first and foremost creature, which means that He was created, unlike what we say in the Creed, which is that He was eternally begotten of the Father.2
The majority of Catholics also believe Jesus was a great teacher, but that He was not God.3 That means a large portion of the population hasn’t been evangelized or properly catechized, and is not rooted in the faith intellectually and in its heart, mind, and soul, which makes it very difficult to resist these viewpoints so contrary to the faith.
How to Respond?
Watching our kids walk away from the faith is heartbreaking; it causes us to weep. The second Beatitude says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Mt5:4) That’s a good thing to mourn for in a healthy way—to cry out to God, in the quiet of your heart or in your own personal prayer.
The Beatitude continues, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4). If you lean into the Lord, He will comfort you in the Holy Spirit, and Our Lady will comfort you as well.
We need to let go. When our children are making decisions as adults, letting go is an exercise in understanding that we don’t have control or power over them. Sometimes we’re so afraid and anxious, we keep trying to grab on to them. A wonderful woman recently told me, “It’s so hard when we get together with my kids, we just argue all the time.” She’s trying to convince them to stay in the boat, so to speak, of the faith. At a certain point, we have to respect their freedom, as God respects our freedom. It doesn’t mean let go of any strategy to help bring them back to the faith, but intense engagements are not very productive. Acknowledge that you don’t have control, and then let go of other things as well.
Let go of regret. Many people are mad at themselves, because they think they didn’t properly raise their children in the faith. That may be true, but none of us are perfect. The Lord doesn’t want you to stay there. The devil wants you to stay in that place of regret, to be angry and disappointed in yourself. It’s the devil’s strategy to cause you to lose hope and to live from that negative place. But that’s a waste of time. Jesus says that seventy-times-seven times a day, you have the right to come to Him as a child of God and to give Him your sins. If you feel like you need to repent of something, repent. At some point, you might want to talk to your child about it, at a time when it’s going to matter to them, when you can express the sadness in your heart, because maybe there was a significant period when you didn’t lead them in the way of the Lord. Then, leave that in the Lord’s hands.
Let go of anger. Many people are angry at the Church, because they think Church hasn’t been much help. Their kids went to Catholic schools, and they lose their faith at the university. That really happens, because there is a lot of confusion, and not disciple-making, in many Catholic institutions today. People say, “I invested so much, and it didn’t help. It actually hindered.” That’s something to have good, righteous anger about, and talking about it to someone in the institution might help you put it behind you. But it’s important not to stay in anger. Scripture says don’t let the sun go down on your anger (Eph 4:26), don’t let it stew in you too long. Identify it, give it to the Lord. If there are people you need to talk to, do so in a way that is helpful to you to settle that issue in your life, because if you hang on to anger, it becomes like a bitter root, and that kills the life of the Spirit in you. It kills the joy, the Spirit working in you, which is really key to being able to help your own children re-engage the faith.
Shift your strategy. Don’t repeatedly express your disappointment to your children. They know what you think, so use your energy wisely. Remember, greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world (1 Jn 4:4). The Lord loves your kids more than you do. He created them for Himself, and He’s going to pursue them with everything He has. Cooperating with the Lord in his plan and purpose for them requires commitment to daily prayer. Request help and prayer from Our Lady and the saints. Each day, say, “Jesus, I trust in You. I entrust my children to You.” Pray for them before the Blessed Sacrament and use your energy to be there for them in faith. Don’t be only upset and anxious before the Lord; give Him your anxieties and fears. Say, “Lord, I’m coming to You full of anxiety and fear about my kids. I want to give them to You. You said, ‘Have no anxiety about anything’ (Phil 4:6). I want to live that way. I want to receive your grace and wisdom, and know how to relate to my children.” The devil’s trying to fill you with anxiety, fear, and anger. Learn how to let go of that and lean into the Lord, Our Lady, and the Holy Spirit.
Pursue Jesus. Seek his will daily. We will receive the strength we need when we keep the commandments, regularly attend Mass, receive the Sacraments, and spend time in Scripture. Jesus said we’re meant to abide in Him and his love (Jn 15:4-5). His perfect love will help cast out the fear in our lives (1 Jn 4:18). Talk to Jesus heart-to-heart, every day. Say, “Lord, I love You. I trust You. Help me, Lord. I give You this child, I give You that grandchild.” Trust He is there, He’s totally committed to you, and He loves to talk to you. But He also loves that you listen to Him. Bring things to Him, but also make sure you have quiet, so you can listen to Him. Quiet and calm your heart so you can lay hold of his word to you. Read the Scriptures, harvest the promises of God for you, like “I’m with you always to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). He said, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9). Ask the Lord to help you find that sufficient grace for the particular challenges within your family.
Talk to Jesus each day. Cling to his promises: learn them, internalize them, live from them, and then obey Him. Do what the Holy Spirit leads you to do. Our Lady said, “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5)—but if you’re not listening to Him and quietly leaning into Him, you’re not going to be able to hear what He’s telling you to do, especially in relation with how He wants you to engage the mission. He wants you to seek Him first, because you’re called, you’re a disciple, and He has a mission for you, no matter what stage in life you are, no matter how limited your time and resources may be.
Give your worries to the Lord. He wants to make an exchange. Give your worries to Him each day, and then take up the things He wants you to accomplish with the time, talent, and treasure He’s given you. Be about the great adventure and mission the Lord has given to you, and don’t let the anxieties, fears, and lies of the enemy grind you down so you just want to give up and give in. That’s what the enemy wants you to do. Fight that. One great way to fight it is through God’s Word.
Listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will help you know how and when to best communicate with your children, or to do the things on a daily basis that will help them. Listen to his voice. He’ll give you little inklings. Let me share story: I wasn’t sure where one of my boys was with the faith, and he was about to go back to college. He wasn’t interested in having conversations with me. I had been listening to a priest’s talks on CD, and I thought my son would like him, so I suggested he check them out on his drive home. My son said OK and threw them in the car. He never said anything about it, but during a visit six months later, he asked if I had any more of those CDs. Of course I did! I gave him some more, and he didn’t tell me that he listened to them, or that he liked them. That was the only indicator I had. However, before I first gave them to him, I had been praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament for him, and I felt the Lord say, “Think about offering him these CDs.” I didn’t push them on him. I just said, “Hey, I thought this guy was pretty good, do you want to give them a listen?” My son is now in a much better place, really following the Lord. I’m grateful. The Lord wants to help you too. Do those things that come from peace and what you’re hearing from the Lord, and not from anxiety and from fear, because those are going to cause more friction without bearing fruit.
“Love them, unconditionally.” My mom did this really well. Everybody said, “I felt so safe, peaceful, and loved with grandma.” She prayed the rosary two or three times a day, and sometimes she invited the kids. Maybe they weren’t believers at the time, but they’d almost never say no to grandma, because they loved her. She never forced it on them, but she had a welcoming, loving presence. They were on her prayer list every single day, and they experienced her unconditional love. This is how the Lord wants us to move forward: give over the anxiety and fear we’re carrying, and let our love for them be poured out in positive ways. Receive them unconditionally, while always quietly praying and doing spiritual warfare, always asking the help of the Holy Spirit and the guidance and support of the angels and the saints. Don’t let the enemy take away your hope.
Never, never give up. We know how great God is, how much He loves you, and how much your prayers mean to Him. Find a way to get together (even on Zoom) with people from your parish or neighborhood who are experiencing this. Encourage each other. Take up the God’s Word and ask, “What’s your favorite promise from the Lord in the Bible?” Build each other up, leaning on the Word of God and his promises. Internalize them, so you can build a community of faith and encouragement. Share your struggles and concerns about your children and grandchildren. Share some little glory stories you’re experiencing, ways the Lord’s helping you move forward. Together, keep your children and grandchildren before the Lord, and don’t let the devil steal your joy or hope.
Turn to our Blessed Mother. She told us three simple, but central, things:
- “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Let that be your heart: Lord, I trust in You. I’m not going to let anything stop me from hearing and following You. I thank You for your call in my life, so be it done unto me according to your word.
- “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46). Even through difficult times, Mary declared the victory and the greatness of God. That’s what should come out of our hearts, rather than discouragement or fear. Declare his greatness and his faithfulness to you throughout each day.
- “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).
Internalizing and walking in these words will strengthen and help us. Do whatever He tells you about your life. Trust in the Lord’s goodness and ultimate victory. And do whatever He tells you about how to best relate to your own children in love.
- Gregory Smith, “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ,” Pew Research Center, August 5, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics).
- “The State of Theology,” Ligonier Ministries, Accessed November 19, 2020, https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer/2020/6?AGE=30&MF=14®ION=30&DENSITY=62&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126ÐNICITY=62&RELTRAD=16&EVB=6&ATTENDANCE=254.
- “The State of Theology,” Ligonier Ministries.