Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September/October 2012 edition of Convivium: Faith in Our Common Life, also published by Cardus. It is an adaptation of a March 2012 address Dr. Zucchi gave to the Catholic Organization for Life and Family.
This past January, the Holy Father addressed American bishops and spoke of the “need for an engaged, articulate, and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with . . . the courage to counter a reductive secularism [that] would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues [that] are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country.”
Pope Benedict XVI added: “There can be no doubt that a more consistent witness on the part of America’s Catholics to their deepest convictions would make a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole.” Canadians would do well to heed the Pope’s words. Note that the Holy Father does not say that this witness is only for the good of the Church. He calls it “a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole.”
The renewal of society is an important responsibility for all Catholics, and we especially look to our young people, who are called to witness to Christ in a world that has grown increasingly hostile to His presence. How can we educate our children and, more specifically, our youth to evangelize society, to communicate the faith to the world, and to live a true Christian witness in such a way as to renew society? This topic is very dear to my heart, as I have worked with young people for the last twenty-five years. I have four children, and it is one of my great comforts that the faith is fundamental to them. Nothing guarantees that our children will live the faith or that it will continue to be significant for them. When it comes to educating children in the faith, the challenge for parents is not the children but ourselves and the awareness we have of our own humanity. That awareness, however, is impossible if we are not conscious of our own relationship to God.
If this is not clear to us as parents and as educators, it is because of a crisis in which the Church finds itself at the level of the diocese, the parish, and the family. I have had the great fortune in the last few years to see the Church in many parts of Canada, and I am struck by how seriously men and women and children and youth take their faith. At the same time, I am concerned by how detached the life of faith is from what goes on in the world. Many of our youth who are truly serious about their faith and involved in the Church, unfortunately, are not involved in the world, or at least not with a Christian vision. They might be in the world with a moral or an ethical vision, which does not necessarily make it a Christian vision. The real issue for our young people—and for adults—is what the Pope stated at the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in May 2010: “The contribution of Christians can be effective only if knowledge of faith becomes knowledge of reality.” Our way of knowing through faith must become the way we know reality. An understanding of how our children can grow up to be true Christian witnesses in society will not be found in techniques, kits, or programs; rather, we will find an answer in an attempt to understand what the Holy Father has told us: knowledge of faith becomes knowledge of reality.
I wish to trace a path from our present situation to the Pope’s words. I won’t give away any “instructions for use” but will try to ask some questions and offer some responses on how we can help our youth to grow in the faith and to enter into the life of the world with a new perspective. I will argue that what is fundamental to helping our children insert themselves in society as witnessing Christians is the conception we adults have of faith and the way we help them to grow with reason, freedom, and conviction. What I have to say has been strongly influenced by three masters: the late Monsignor Luigi Giussani, Pope Benedict XVI, and Charles Péguy. My starting point will be a passage from Péguy’s “The Mystery of the Holy Innocents.”
God is speaking:
. . . How often do I wish and am I tempted to put my
hand under their stomachs
In order to hold them up with my big hand
Just like a father teaching his son how to swim
. . . For on the one hand, if he holds him up all the time
and if he holds him too much,
The child will depend on this and will never learn how to swim.
But if he doesn’t hold him up just at the right moment,
That child is bound to swallow more water than is healthy for him.
In the same way, when I teach them how to swim amid their trials
I too am divided by two ways of thinking.
Because if I am always holding them up, if I hold them up too often,
They will never learn how to swim by themselves.
But if I don’t hold them up just at the right moment,
Perhaps those poor children will swallow more water than is healthy
Such is the difficulty, and it is a great one.
And such is the doubleness itself, the two faces of the problem.
. . . On the one hand, they must work out their salvation for themselves.
. . . If I hold him up too much, he is no longer free
And if I don’t hold him up sufficiently, I am endangering his salvation.
. . . For salvation is of infinite price.
But what kind of salvation would a salvation be that was not free?
—English translation by Ann and Julian Green, Basic Verities
This passage is, in a sense, all we need to bring up our children in the faith. This poem is not a prescription for educating children; there is no formula. Péguy recognizes that man is a mystery and, as such, participates in the great Mystery of Being. We have the great gift of freedom, for “what kind of salvation would a salvation be that was not free?” We can either recognize that the Mystery dominates our lives or we can draw back from our freedom and pretend that we can tackle all of our challenges in life, including the immense challenge of educating our children in the faith. There is no way that our children can see the beauty of the faith if we refuse to participate in it.
There is something so evident that we tend to take it for granted and unwittingly dismiss it: children are a mystery. As I speak with parents, including Catholic parents, I am often struck by their blasÃ© attitude toward their children. I am not saying that they do not care about their offspring, but they speak about their life as a kind of ritual: the sleepless nights with the baby, the terrible twos, helping children with homework. In many ways parents speak of parenting as phases, each with its own particular attributes. These phases seem to have been decided a priori by what we might call Socrates’s “demotic love,” or the common mentality. There is nothing wrong with the categories; however, there is something wrong with accepting them as gospel truth, as the only way to understand childhood. In a sense, our relationship to our children is almost determined by what we have read or heard about bringing up children. Children thus become predictable.
The other attitude of parents that always strikes me is that of possessiveness. It is sad to see a parent who fundamentally sees a child as a projection of himself or herself. I can say that I have four children with a sense of awe and mystery, or I can say it as some kind of achievement on my part. There is a problem in the latter attitude. Children are not a project. We all have dreams for our children, but some parents will always think that their child’s success depends on some formula. The child is a project and my capacity as a parent will largely determine the outcome. There is some truth in this: the parent-child relationship is fundamental. But there are factors that we have to contend with along the way, circumstances that are not in our control. We must contend with our child’s freedom and with our freedom, part of what makes up our mystery as human beings.
Why do we see children as “a given” rather than as “given”? I would argue that the problem has to do with our attitude to the great Mystery that is God. Our understanding of Christianity might be remarkable, learned, pious, ethical, but all too often what is missing is the religious sense, the awareness that our lives—our every moment—are an opportunity to relate to that Mystery.
Luigi Giussani noted that we live in an age when people do not live a true Christianity. It is possible for me as a parent to have a correct or orthodox position regarding the Church, to live the ritual life of the Church, and yet not live the religious sense, that is, not live a dependence on the Mystery of God as he presents himself to me in my circumstances, in the people who surround me, the tasks that life asks of me in the moment. When it comes down to it, either we live that dependence, understanding that everything we do begins from our belonging to God and that he therefore is truly the origin of our every step. That dependence is a perception at the core of one who lives the religious sense. As Giussani wrote in The Journey to Truth is an Experience: “To be in community is not an exterior ‘getting along,’ a simple convergence from the outside. To be in community is an interior dimension, at the origin of each action.”
Living that dependence, having that interior dimension of community at the origin of each action, connects the here and now. This is what the Sephardic Jewish-Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti intuited in the first volume of his 1979 autobiography, The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood. He wrote about a brief period in Lausanne with his mother and siblings when he was eight years old, following the sudden death of his father: “We spent three months in Lausanne, and I sometimes think that no other time in my life has been as momentous. But one often thinks that when focusing seriously on a period, and it is possible that each period is the most important and contains everything.” This is what I am trying to get at regarding Mystery. Only rarely do we have the sense that whatever it is we do “contains everything.” That is, it depends totally on the Mystery of God. Without this gaze, is it truly possible for us to look upon our children as a manifestation of Mystery? Is it possible for us to love them truly, to affirm them not as the outcome of our capacity but for the simple fact that they are? This disposition is vital for it informs our relationship with our children, and it allows our children to see another, deeper way of living, a way that searches for meaning in every action.
How is it possible for us to communicate to our children that faith has to do with the religious sense, with a dependence on the Mystery of God as the source of everything? We can do this in many ways, but two are especially significant. First, our children must see not only that we have faith but that it deeply informs the way we look at the world and make decisions in our lives, especially important decisions regarding vocation or politics or the use of money. Second, our children must visibly see that we depend on that Mystery in the way we cling to it through our adhesion to the Church and to what I would call an ecclesial experience or setting—a parish, a movement, a true friendship.
It is not enough for our children to see that we have a relationship with these loci; they need to see that we depend on them, that we entrust ourselves to them, that we look to them as we make important decisions in our lives, including the way we raise our children.
As we all know, what children live in their early years has a bearing on their later lives. Therefore, it is important that they be introduced to deeply positive experiences that help them to look at reality with freshness, openness. How is it possible for them to evangelize to the world as they grow up if they are taught to hide from that world in their early years? Among the important influences we can have on our children with this end in view follow.
First, children need to know that life is about relationships, that they discover who they are in a relationship with “an other.” When my wife, Cecilia, and I were bringing up our children, it was important for us not to perceive ourselves as autonomously building up our family, cut off from others. We raised our children in the broader context of a friendship lived in the experience of the Church. Concretely, this meant that we regularly invited friends to our house to visit, share a meal, sing together, converse. Our children were not excluded from these friendships. They were invited to participate in them so that, in time, these friends were no longer their parents’ friends but their friends. Our children learned to love them, esteem them and, in turn, to learn from them. When children begin to live a friendship with their parents’ friends, the parents also acquire a new way of looking at their children. They develop a more objective distance from them.
Second, children need to be introduced to the life of the liturgy in the Mass and to be faithful to it. It is important for them to see the Mystery of the Eucharist because they have a special capacity—I would say, greater than adults—to perceive mystery. The seasons of the Church’s calendar are a way for them to recognize that their personal lives are interwoven with those of others. In this way, children are introduced to an experience: the life of the Church. By partaking of this experience, they acquire the capacity to be loyal. Given that friendship can so easily degrade into a relationship that we manage and control so that it is no longer friendship, children need to acquire loyalty.
Third, children need to be introduced to beauty. I don’t know how often I run into parents who are more concerned with having their children steeped in catechetical teaching. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is difficult for children to grow up with a desire to evangelize the world if they are not enthusiastic about that world. There is such a temptation in the educational system and among parents simply to transmit concepts or information without children being in awe of the fact that things are. In a sense, it is more important that a child be struck by the beauty of a prism, a passage of music, a fairy tale, or a friend than that a child memorize theological concepts. The wonder that a child experiences in the former will allow that child to have a sense of wonder even before the latter. Conviction grows from wonder.
Conviction is crucial as a child becomes an adolescent. This is the most critical moment in the passage to adulthood, and this is also the period during which parents are called to undergo a conversion. Earlier, I referred to the temptation of possessiveness among parents. Often parents have a distorted view of Christian family life. Rather than seeking the ideal—Christ!—in everyday life, parents often try to create an idealized family life. They believe Christianity is a formula, and when you follow it, your children will naturally morph into good Christians.
Our children cannot be convinced by our good reasons alone to be interested in Christ or in the faith. In order to be convinced by Christ, children need what Giussani called an energy or violence. He was referring to freedom, something that must erupt within the adolescent so that those reasons become not merely rational but existential as well. Without this, adolescents or young adults will live a formal Christianity that does not reach them. In time, they will abandon the faith.
This means that parents have to “let go” at some point and entrust their children to a friend, or friends, who can be an authority figure. Children will come to discover those reasons as new and be convinced by them when they are attracted by something else or by someone new who enters their lives and attracts them. To take a cue from Péguy’s poem, if a parent holds up a child all the time, “the child will depend on this and will never learn how to swim.” That is, the child will never be convinced by the reasons that parents offer and therefore will never exercise his or her freedom in a deep way.
So this is the challenge: are we going to only provide Christian teaching, Christian values, and ethical teachings—all important aspects of the faith—or are we going to give children a glimpse of the whole? To paraphrase Canetti’s observation on childhood, it is possible that each particular is the most important and contains everything. Our youth need to be opened up to “everything” that explains the particular and not vice versa. What better place for them to begin than in the life of the Church, that dwelling-place where, paradoxically, the fragment and the whole, the sign and the Mystery, co-exist?