Parents’ lives are changed the moment they hold their precious newborn baby. Parenthood, the greatest source of joy and the greatest challenge, offers opportunities to place people on the fast track to holiness. Amidst the diapers, the dishes, the driving, the laughter and the tears, parents learn what it truly means to be self-giving.
“People who become parents become better people overnight,” says mother of four and Detroit resident Kelly Luttinen. She learned this from her moral theology professor, Janet Smith, at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. “Janet had the privilege of seeing fathers come out of the delivery room. They said, ‘Everything is different now.’ They look beyond themselves. It makes you be other-centered.”
In raising children, selfish rough edges are sanded off as souls are polished up for eternity. Parents learn to imitate the love of God the Father for his children, growing in virtue along the way.
The goal of our life on earth is to become more like Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1264) states that although original sin is removed in baptism, its effects remain, which include concupiscence, a tendency toward sin. To progress in the spiritual life, one must “manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.”
Many spiritual writers stress the importance of mortification in the pursuit of holiness and progress in the interior life. In the classic Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis states in Book II, Chapter 12, “Behold the cross is all, and in dying to thyself all contains, and there is no other way to life and to true internal peace but the holy way of the cross and of daily mortification.”
Parenthood offers ongoing occasions for mortification. Nothing teaches patience as quickly as a newborn’s cries at night; nothing forces parents humbly on their knees in prayer as much as a sick child or a teenage driver.
St. Josemaria Escrivá taught that we must continually change to become more loyal and humble, as stated by John 3:30: “He must become more and more; I must become less and less.”
“It will either make you or break you,” northern Virginia author and father of eight Stephen Gabriel acknowledges of parenthood. “It’s true for everyone. We are faced with situations or hardships in everyday life. Some people react with bitterness. Others use them as opportunities; then they have redemptive value.”
In his book Speaking to the Heart: A Father’s Guide to Growth in Virtue (Our Sunday Visitor), Gabriel discusses the development of virtues “by repeated acts that require virtues, and, of course, by praying for the grace to acquire the virtues they need so much in life.”
“If you can name a virtue, you have to practice it as a parent,” says Luttinen. “You have the opportunity to practice virtues; you’re forced to.”
Gabriel says that as we journey through parenthood and life, we hopefully never stop growing in virtue as we face new challenges.
“Our Lord has a way of pushing us,” says Gabriel. “We are constantly faced with new challenges living with our spouses, our kids and our own defects. In everyday life we do things we don’t feel like doing like apologizing, holding our tongue. Carrying out the role as a parent is a formative process.”
The Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., offers parenting information, including virtue development, on its website.
“Clearly, the most important part of virtue training for any parent is to commit oneself to the overall goal of ‘doing what is right and avoiding what is evil.’ Making a personal decision in favor of moral goodness sets the best stage for parenting,” states the website, DioceseofLaCrosse.com/ministry_resources/family_life/parentsplace.
Need for Prayer and Sacraments
“If the knees aren’t worn on our pants in humility, then we are not doing it well,” says Gabriel, a member of the personal prelature Opus Dei, about the importance of prayer.
Legionary Father Michael Sliney, who has been working in youth ministry for more than 16 years, as well as in adult spiritual formation and as chaplain for the Lumen Institute in Washington, D.C., stresses the importance of prayer in the lives of parents.
“The Catechism, 2826, on prayer, tells us why we pray,” Father Sliney elaborates. “We pray for wisdom, which is very important in families, and we pray for strength, to have patience, self-control, compassion and tough love.”
He talks of the importance of lives centered on the Eucharist as a source of strength.
“In the Eucharist, Christ makes us Christ,” Father Sliney says, citing Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith), which emphasizes the value of daily Mass, when possible, in the journey of faith. He also promotes Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on frequent confession as a source of grace.
It is important to have scheduled times to pray, to keep the presence of God on our minds throughout the day, even if it is only short amounts of time.
“Pray the Rosary; pray each decade for certain virtues, and for each of your kids,” Father Sliney recommends. “Be docile to the Holy Spirit, who is the ultimate coach of parents and the source of wisdom.”
Lisa Socarras writes from Annandale, Virginia.