10 Lessons on Wayward Children

“God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”

Ary Scheffer, “Saint Augustine and His Mother Saint Monica”, 1846
Ary Scheffer, “Saint Augustine and His Mother Saint Monica”, 1846 (photo: Public Domain)

“Please pray for one of my children,” an acquaintance in the Catholic media pleaded to me. “This person has lost their faith. Heartbroken. The one thing we tried so hard to do, the thing for which I prayed the most was that none of my children would ever experience this.”

When a child leaves the faith, parental heartbreak begins. My husband and I took serious measures to make sure we would avoid that.

This past April, one of our daughters married a good Catholic man at a beautiful wedding concelebrated by three priests. This was exactly what we envisioned would result from our dedicated Catholic parenting.

Our older kids graduated from high school loving their faith. But that was not the end of the story. Some drifted away. It was gradual. Perhaps trying to live with a foot in two worlds, or listening to the wrong people, or letting their prayer life slip, or… well, there is no shortage of traps. Maybe there were conversations we should have had with them or more fervent prayers said on their behalf. Regardless of the cause, on the day of our daughter’s beautiful Catholic wedding, not all of our children went up for Holy Communion.

I know many Catholic parents in the same boat. It’s not what we planned. Yet, among my friends and acquaintances, we all trust that God hears our prayers and that sometime between now and when they take their last breath, the graces from those prayers will reach our wayward children. In our family, we have already had the joy of a child returning, and it was clearly the grace of God and not an epiphany during a conversation to persuade.

As I have journeyed from the false belief that handing down the faith to children is not so complicated, to the understanding that it is not so simple, I have learned ten important lessons.

  1. Humility. I imagined I had more control than I actually had. Now I defer to the power of God.
  2. It’s wrong to think, If only I had been better, as if the solution lies with me. There was nothing wrong with Jesus’ seminary, yet Judas defected and all the apostles except John ran away during the passion and crucifixion.
  3. I am not alone. There are many other parents worried about their children’s faith, so we can pray for each other.
  4. Keep the doors open. Better for kids to be honest about their lack of faith than to pretend with you.
  5. Love first. It keeps relationships strong and offers the opportunity to present religion in a good light.
  6. Pray more and talk less. St. Ambrose once told St. Monica: “Stop talking to your son about God and talk more to God about your son.”
  7. Prayer, sacrifice, offering things up, adoration, the sacraments, and fasting, are powerful weapons to fight for our children. They also help to make us better along the way.
  8. We are casting a net. One day in prayer, I felt God tell me that I was casing a net with my prayers and that my children would not come back alone.
  9. Trust. “God will administer the graces at which time they will do the greatest amount of good,” Father Groeschel once explained.
  10. Don’t compare. I can only come before God and bring him our family, as we are, to ask him to take us where he wants us to be.

I actually know a few priests from families that did not even go to Mass regularly. Some had parents that divorced and did not stay Catholic. It’s tempting to complain: “No fair! How can they be priests when their parents didn’t even try?” Yet, my hunch is that the graces from prayers throughout the world and throughout history for vocations and conversions sometimes hit their mark on people with less than ideal family dynamics. God’s mercy was never about fairness. And I have the opportunity to shore up those graces for my own children.

I also know a number of priests from faithful Catholic parents, yet they have siblings who have left the Church—same parents, different results. Free will is a funny thing. My point with the example of priests is that randomness and God’s grace are both in play so that the path from point A to point B is not always a clear one. It is on us to make the journey and leave the time of arrival to God.

Mother Teresa once said: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.” And so faithfully we parents pray for our children, trusting that God will overcome all obstacles.