This article was published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Jeremy DiPiazza, Fraternus Captain, realized what was missing from his kids’ Catholic school education.
‘‘Train up a child in the way he should go; for even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). My parents placed this bible verse at my bedside table when I was very young. It remained there my entire childhood, and I saw it every night before I went to sleep. In all of those years I never could have known the lasting impact that short verse would have on my life as a Father.
I was born and raised Catholic, the oldest of four, to parents devoted to one another, deeply rooted in a familial Italian way of life. My parents, each third generation Italian Americans, had grandparents who arrived to the United States as immigrants when they were small children. My family’s values flowed from a rich Catholic faith, where the Church was the center of our lives, both in the spiritual sense through our commitment to the sacraments, and in the physical sense through sports, guilds, education, and free time. My siblings and I were given the gift of a Catholic education, we were devoted altar servers on Sundays, and my parents ensured we prayed the Rosary regularly. We were taught to value a strong work ethic, we were entitled to nothing, and we had to earn what we wanted in life.
I am thankful for these values.
These formative years were also very challenging. This was the 1970’s and 80’s, a time when the Catholic Church was changing dramatically as the traditional expressions of the Faith seemed to be fading away and priests were openly experimental with religion. Looking back, that was a rather
“My school was a stable institution, but I can assure you it was not a protective bubble against the ways of the world.”
confusing time. Life in the deep south compounded these issues, where it was normal to be a Christian, but it was not to be Catholic. Less than four percent of my community was Catholic, and I often wondered what I was missing in public schools. Nonetheless, my time at home, and especially my time at a Catholic school, were central to my formation as a Catholic man.
Now, as I take inventory of my education, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I met some wonderful people along the way, some of them are still my closest friends, and I met my wife at school! I had good teachers who seemed to care about preparing us for the next phase of our education.
On the other hand, I have doubts about how well it actually went. Spiritual formation didn’t seem that important. I have very little recollection of what I was taught in religion classes, and I can only remember a small number of my teachers who actually taught us something about our Faith. Right or wrong, I always remembered our religion classes as “easy A’s” because there was little effort required. I don’t remember studying the catechism, learning why we believe what we believe, what our purpose of being here is, why our Faith is the one true Faith, or how to defend it. Although we went weekly, I don’t remember learning much about the Holy Mass. But, looking back on it, it was as if my Catholic educators were totally cool with only being four percent of the population. I never learned to evangelize, I never learned how to battle for my Faith, and I never learned to make my Faith my own.
My school was a stable institution, but I can assure you it was not a protective bubble against the ways of the world. I can regretfully attest that it was there I learned to take the Lord’s name in vain, disrespect women and my parents, and fist fight. I learned where to find drugs and alcohol, and most everything the world wanted me to know about sex.
Then I went to college. It was said I was prepared for college, but as is the case for so many, college became for me a gateway for everything the world had to offer, and I shared my curiosity with 20,000 other kids my age who had access to all of it—off with the plaid uniforms, out to the bars, let’s get ready to Roll Tide Roll with the world’s vices.
But I eventually learned that life wasn’t just a big party, and as the stresses of a college life began to mount, I needed to grow up. Two things began to call me to more: the foundation my parents gave me and the girl-who-became-my-wife. I finally made the decision to make the Catholic Faith my own. It was my first chance at educating myself. Man, it was refreshing—I gained new friends, had a new thirst for knowledge, sought the sacraments more regularly, and I was learning to love and defend the Faith. Yet I still had a long way to go.
Michele and I married and started having children right away. We followed the same educational model I grew up with, enrolling them in the same Catholic schools we attended. We sat on school committees, served and led the board when called upon to do so, and used our influence to help where help was needed. We made sure our presence was felt. We wanted to show our children we cared about their education by being involved. Michele engaged them by sharing her own experiences of working in the pro-life movement, communicating lessons learned as a social worker, and by challenging them to be more Christlike in word and deed.
But it was still not enough. And here is why. Something was obviously missing. Our kids were not embracing their faith in the way I wanted them to, the way I had come to embrace it. Education, as we execute it today, does not equal solid formation. The problem, however, was not the walls or the teachers or the classes. The problem was not about the grades or the boards or committees. The uniforms were not the problem, nor having “good” classmates, nor the name on the door of the school. With the appropriate amount of self-reflection, I saw the problem more clearly: it was me. I was the problem in their education. I was missing where I needed to be present.
The precious lives of my three children taught me an important life lesson: if I am not learning, sacrificing, leading, living, teaching, or defending my Faith, my children’s chances of being well-formed will falter. We cannot hire this role out to our school teachers. It is normal for fathers to focus on providing the financial means for a good education, but the truth is we must be a teacher, not just the provider. I can not relinquish this important task to others.
When I finally learned this life changing lesson it was almost too late. My oldest was about to leave for college when I began engaging in my children’s formation. The middle one is now getting it in overdrive, and I am probably driving him crazy with all the talk about the battle in this world. And the youngest probably will experience the better version of my late-to-the-table fatherhood.
Let me come clean—I didn’t figure this out on my own. It’s a direct result of being pulled into Fraternus. I probably wouldn’t have learned these lessons in time if it weren’t for a close friend of mine who said “you are doing this with me” when he was starting a Fraternus Chapter. But, humbly admitting I didn’t come up with all of the answers, here are some things I have learned along the way.
First and Foremost
A Father must be well-trained in his own formation in order for familial formation to work. You cannot give what you do not have. I continue to learn and read about my Faith, and I know there’s much I still don’t know. But if I want to share it I have to know it. Reading the scriptures and the catechism, attending lectures, reading well-regarded Catholic authors—all of these things are a must in order to remain informed and expand your knowledge of our deeply rich Catholic Faith. And most of all, the father must love his faith and be deeply committed to it. We can’t just know about God; we have to know God.
A father must take responsibility and ownership of the formation of his children. This begins with leading your family to the sacraments weekly and daily Mass when possible, explaining the catechism, showing them how to defend their Faith, praying with them regularly, and getting involved in their studies. This may be where I have failed the most. For many years I thought I was doing enough because I took my children to Sunday Mass, sent them to Catholic Schools, and gave a Jesus lesson here or there. This was not enough. We must engage our children in conversation, with specific questions and conversation about the issues in their lives which support and attack the Church’s teaching. And if this is too difficult because our children are not always ready or willing to talk about it, that isn’t reason to give up. They are very often distracted by their daily activities and pleasures. Consider the institutional environment you have chosen for them—are school activities and social media forming a stumbling block there? We are obligated to remove it. For some that means homeschooling, for others rethinking the choice of school is necessary.
“We can have all the knowledge of the Faith… but we are failures if we don’t walk with them, if we don’t experience life with them.”
No End in Sight
The responsibility of a father to educate his children does not end. It is the father’s role to be relentless about making sure our children do not stop learning about their faith. Passing this passion on to our children is not easy. Some men seem to think our younger children won’t get passionate until they get a “wake up call” by way of a tragedy or some harsh lesson. It simply isn’t true. Parents, especially fathers, must expose our children to the battle, very carefully and in small but appropriate bites.
Pick a topic to talk with your children about: politics, pornography, misconduct in the church, works of mercy, abortion. Make it known to your children they need a strong moral compass when they face a decision, and they need strong discipline when they make a bad one. Relentless pursuit of the truth and our purpose for being alive is learned from a father who leads his family.
Last, but Not Least
We must be present in their lives. This is more than just sharing space together. This is about time, real quality time. This is about listening to them and making memories with them. I am thankful that, while I failed in being intentional about being their teacher in their faith, I have been blessed by being able to share my time with them hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, mudding, boating, traveling, working, building, cooking, serving, sacrificing, protesting, evangelizing … together….as a family…We have a shared commitment that we will do these things together, so much so that they come to expect their father to join them when it’s time to do those things. The younger ones look forward to these things not just to get the same experience, but to experience it with their father. My father and grandfather were very clear to me about learning this lesson as I became a man. They said to me “be a good example, they are watching you.” We can have all the knowledge of the Faith, we can be very illustrative in our expression of our knowledge and lessons and be a great teacher, but we are failures if we don’t walk with them, if we don’t experience life with them.
I have been far from a perfect father. I still fall short, and I am learning as I go. My foundation was helpful, but my mistakes taught me more. I reflect back on my bedside table reminder from my own childhood each time I face a critical moment in the formation of my own children. It was a prophetic little sign. I have finally learned to accept the challenge and to take full responsibility to do more than just educate. For it is my responsibility as their Father to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, so well that even when they are old, they will not depart from it.