I’ve been working in catechesis for almost twenty years. Anyone involved in religious education can tell you that we have a crisis on our hands. Our programs do not produce adult Catholics or lifelong disciples. Classes about God are not enough to draw our kids into a Christian way of life, following Jesus, and sharing His mission in the world. We know the missing ingredient in our catechetical formation: the role of parents. The reason why is that only parents can translate the faith into everyday life in the home, making catechesis more than simple instruction but formation into a culture—a Christian way of life. This makes our faith to be something real and alive to our kids, something that shapes everything that they do and that takes on a tangible presence in their lives.
Fathers, in particular, have more influence on the faith life of their children than anyone else—more than mothers, grandparents, teachers, and the parish priest. Studies have shown that if fathers do not practice the faith, children are very unlikely to do so in adulthood. If fathers do, children are more likely than not to attend church in the future. Fathers are called to lead their families in the faith and to provide a model of the Christian life for their children. As fathers we are called to be the teachers of our children, primarily by providing an example for them. Parents are the primary educators of their children and this includes education in the faith. Fathers have to take a central role in this education, because they’re so crucial in the religious formation of their kids. Just dropping our kids off at a parish program, however, will not form them in their faith. They need an apprenticeship and initiation into the Christian way of life, embracing not only faith, but everything else.
Our goal, therefore, has to be to teach our kids how to live as a Christian in the world. To do so, we have to become catechists of the Christian life, showing how to make faith the center of our lives. St. John Paul II made this clear: “Catechesis aims therefore at developing understanding of the mystery of Christ in the light of God’s word, so that the whole of a person’s humanity is impregnated by that word” (Catechesi Tradendae, §20). We come to know Christ so that He can shape the way that we live concretely and as a whole. Pope Benedict XVI said the same about Catholic education more broadly, claiming that it should “seek to foster that unity between faith, culture and life which is the fundamental goal of Christian education” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Address to the Participants in the Convention of the Diocese of Rome,” June 11, 2007).
If we don’t teach our kids how to live their faith in an integrated way, they will follow the way of the world. Our family culture will conform either to our faith or to the secular worldview. Catechesis imparts not just the content of the faith but a Christian way of life. Christopher Dawson taught this powerfully in his book, Understanding Europe, relating how we’ve had a breakdown in communicating our Christian identity in the West: “From the beginning Christian education was conceived not so much as learning a lesson but as introduction into a new life, or still more as an initiation into a mystery. . . . Christian education was something that could not be conveyed by words alone, but which involved a discipline of the whole man.” If our children conform to the secular culture more than to the faith, we will experience a breakdown in the raising of Christian men and women.
There are a few things we can do as dads to be effective teachers. First of all, we need put God first, especially by prioritizing Sunday Mass. Everything else should be built around that central moment of the week. It speaks volumes when sports, recreation, and work fit in after worship and not before it. Making Sunday a special day also creates space for just for being together as a family and having the leisure to be active outside, play games, talk together, have a bigger dinner, and enjoy each other’s company. Throughout the rest of the week, we continue to put God first by praying every day. Our kids need to be taught how to pray. It may be simple, but it’s not necessarily intuitive. It’s good to teach some of the important devotions like the Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, and the Stations of the Cross.
Pope Benedict spoke of the task of “authentic parenthood to pass on and bear witness to the meaning of life in Christ” by proclaiming “God’s word to their children” and keeping the Bible enthroned in the home in a “worthy place and used for reading and prayer” (Verbum Domini, 85). Reading the Bible through lectio divina is an important way to learn how to pray. In lectio, we read a short passage of the Bible, where we listen to God’s voice. Then we think about it, trying to understand what God is saying to us in the passage. We speak back to God in prayer, responding to what we heard. Then we sit with God in silence, seeking union with Him and listening to His voice in our hearts. It’s a conversation with God and a two-way street where we’re listening and responding.
In addition to prayer, we build family culture through work and common activities. James Stenson has noted in Successful Fathers: The Subtle but Powerful Ways Fathers Mold Their Children’s Characters that our kids don’t usually see us work, but see us only in our down time. It’s important to for our kids to see us at our best, by drawing them into our strengths and skills when possible, but also by working on family projects together. This is not just a matter of teaching them skills, but teaching them the art of life. We have to guide them through challenging tasks, model how to respond to mistakes, and establish common purposes and goals for the family.
The art of life includes prayer, work, character formation, and learning how to be strong in the face of difficulties. Right now one of the key challenges we face in the family is technology. Here we have to lead by example as well. How can we be moderate in the use of technology, not allowing it to dominate us, but rather treating it as a useful tool? Emphasizing prayer and family time over technology makes an important statement about priorities. Limiting technology is a major task for fathers today and a key aspect of our role as teachers. We have to replace the influence of technology by forming the minds and imaginations of our kids by reading out loud together, singing, playing games, and spending time outdoors.
Overall, our kids look to us to teach them how to live. Our actions teach them and guide them in the faith and prepare them for the adventure of life. It’s impossible to emphasize enough the urgency of building Christian culture in our families as oases of sanity and holiness in a godless world. Initiating our children into a Christian culture is our primary task as fathers and the most important thing we can do as parents for their formation and happiness.