When Brett and Maria Ammerman of Parker, Colo., were raising the four oldest of their eight children 20 years ago, the Catholic faith was important to them, but it was farther down on the priority list than volleyball and other sports.
Now, as the couple brings up their four younger children, they’ve bumped volleyball out of the No. 1 spot in favor of living the faith as a family and passing it on to their kids.
When their older children were growing up, Maria said, “We would attend church, and they would have religion class, and they received the sacraments — but our family life was more driven by the world than it was driven by our faith in every aspect,” she said. None of the Ammermans’ four older children are currently practicing the Catholic faith.
“Over time, we’ve just come to understand that it’s so crucial in many different aspects to not just in one way put God first in our faith, but in everything that we do,” she said. “The second time around we are bringing the faith with us wherever we go.”
Parents’ role and responsibility in educating their children in the faith is among the family and evangelization topics the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family will take up through Oct. 19.
Questions and topics from pre-synod documents helped form the basis for the Register’s conversations with the Ammermans and other parents about the challenges of instilling the faith in children.
Parents are their children’s first teachers, Church teaching states, and they are responsible not just for giving physical life, but also spiritual life to their children and fostering their faith, said John Grabowski, associate professor and director of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
“Parents are the chief cooperators with God’s gift of grace in deepening and developing the gift of faith that children receive in baptism. Parents have an absolutely huge role.”
The family is the place for learning values, including brotherhood, loyalty, love for the truth and work, respect and solidarity between generations, communication and a sense of joy in living, according to synod documents.
It’s also where the dignity and rights of man and woman are lived out. A Catholic home, the documents state, is to be a “school of love,” “school of communion” and a “gymnasium for relationships,” meaning a place to build self-giving in relationships.
This sounds like a tall order for parents, but children acquire some of these attributes naturally if they are aware of and are receptive to grace, said Grabowski, who, with his wife, was appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Family by Pope Benedict XVI in the fall of 2009. He is also a theological adviser to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family and Youth.
After all, the family is a “domestic church,” as the Church teaches.
Children are born into a communal relationship in the family, and that is how they acquire these and other attributes, said Vincent Vaccaro of Alexandria, Va., who with his wife, Frances, has raised seven children.
“It happens naturally, but it needs work, too,” he said. “If you let your faith grow like weeds in the garden, then you get weeds in the garden. If you actually work at the garden, you have a pretty good garden, but it takes a lot of work. And it also has to take planning and consistency of doing things. … You have to live around the sacraments.”
Young adults and adults surveyed in the synodal documents on what shapes Mass attendance revealed that attending the liturgy with their parents and especially the example of their fathers practicing the faith were the most influential factors, Grabowski said.
“Those two central events, I think, of the family meal and participation in the Eucharist as a family — the source and summit of the Church’s life — give a foundation,” Grabowski said. “That’s kind of the high point of the family’s life of prayer. Hopefully, families are also having their own daily prayer as a family, and that’s going to be different as kids grow and get older, but also daily family conversation, of which, hopefully, catechesis is a part.”
Regular prayer has been an important part of John and Anne Bielejeski’s family life as they’ve raised their 11 children. Their family prayer has evolved from being geared toward small children to the Liturgy of the Hours, which they pray now with five children who still live in the family home in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
The family sometimes prays the Rosary together, and one evening each week, they go to Eucharistic adoration and Mass together, Anne said.
The Ammermans decorate their domestic church to reflect their faith and the different liturgical seasons; they also wear specific colors for the Church seasons. The family prays the Rosary and other prayers together, participates in online retreats and do activities such as making collages together while listening to Church music, Maria Ammerman said.
Besides praying daily with their children, the Vaccaros encouraged conversations about faith, often during meals, Vincent said. “They would come home with questions, and we would try to get them an explanation or we’d find someone who could give them an explanation. And they were encouraged to go back and bring it up in school.”
The conversations haven’t stopped now that all the Vaccaros’ children are grown. One of their sons is a priest, and two others are in formation for the priesthood. The couple said they encouraged but never pressured their children to choose a particular vocation.
“I think that’s in God’s hands,” Frances said.
The family gives their children the space to be themselves and figure out who they are and who God is calling them to be, said Anne Bielejeski, who with her husband has encouraged their children to pray a Hail Mary each day for their vocations. One of their sons attends minor seminary, and four children are married.
As the synod looks at family concerns such as passing on the faith in the context of evangelization, it’s likely the Holy Father will respond to its recommendations, Grabowski said. “My impression of what Pope Francis is aiming for with these synods [the current one and the 2015 World Meeting of Families] is: How can we better minister to families and the wounds that they have both internally and as a result of the culture in which we live, so that families can be equipped, not just to pass on the faith internally, but to be agents of the New Evangelization in the culture?”
As Pope Francis said in his opening homily for the synod on Oct. 5, “The Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.”
The day before, at a prayer vigil, the Pope stated: “Our listening and our discussion on the family, loved with the gaze of Christ, will become a providential occasion with which to renew — according to the example of St. Francis — the Church and society.”
Parents may not always be thinking of evangelization, but even in their own weakness, they show the faith to their children.
“There’s a rub,” Bielejeski said. “We’re rubbing against our selfishness; we’re rubbing against our own weakness and sin. And [we’re] living with other sinners doing the same thing. The day-in, day-out struggle: praise and worship, meals, vacations, games. It’s messy, and it’s very imperfect, because John and I are imperfect.”
Ultimately, God’s grace is the reason children are practicing when they reach adulthood, Grabowski said.
“Faith is a gift,” he said. “You can’t force it on anyone else. We can only be grateful for it when we see that gift take root and grow in our children. Yes, we can do things to consciously cooperate with and foster that life of faith. But it’s above our pay grade to determine the results.”
That’s God’s department.
Register correspondent Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.