When Your Kids Leave the Church — What Would St. Monica Do?
When it might seem like we have nothing left, we have prayer.
The Catholic Church in the modern age has left no stone unturned in communicating the importance of parents in modern society, and in the Church. Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis, the Declaration on Christian Education says of parents:
Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators. … Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. ... It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor. ... Let parents, then, recognize the inestimable importance a truly Christian family has for the life and progress of God's own people.
That’s a lot to take in, and there is more to unpack about the importance of Christian parenting in the other Vatican II documents, but the point is this: parents are the first instruments in God’s plan for guiding his Church.
It’s a lot of pressure, and it shows its truth in many ways. Studies like a Barna Group analysis from 2008 showed that 50% of children coming from families where one parent attended church, eventually left that church. Among Catholics, this statistic is much higher. And I don’t think any readers are surprised.
But I think faithful Catholic parents are getting the message: merely going to Mass won’t make your children lifelong Catholics. Even faithful Catholic parenting cannot guarantee our children’s love for Jesus and his Church. With this comes a natural temptation to worry, to blame oneself and to despair. Parents can combat this temptation by informing themselves of these and many other mental and practical pitfalls, by listening to the wisdom of parents who have been there and understand those moments.
Patti Maguire Armstrong is one of those parents. I have a great admiration for her approach to parenting. She offers her lessons learned and advice in a new book with Ascension Press titled What Would Monica Do? She uses St. Monica — patron of mothers and unfaithfulness — as a guide to finding peace and consolation to parents who have lost loved ones to the world. It’s not all grim: she offers wonderful practical tips and reflections for modern parents to better approach the difficult task of raising Catholic children.
To get a better handle on some of these tips and insights, I interviewed her recently, asking some questions I know I’ll be applying to my approach to raising my six children.
Patti, what is the number one thing you want to tell Catholic parents of younger children?
If you do your best to live and teach the Catholic faith, you will get good results. Children have a natural love of the supernatural — God, the Blessed Mother, the angels and saints, and stories of the saints. Do your best, fill their minds and hearts all while understanding they won’t always be little angels themselves — we are all human.
When they sometimes go over and above what you have taught or even just seeming them practice the faith, it will give your heart joy. Thank God for each moment and then get out of the way. Do not pat yourself on the back or notice that your kids might seem to be doing better than other kids who perhaps don’t even know their prayers or their families don’t even take them to Mass on Sundays. Children grow up and everyone has free will, so pray for spiritual protection for them, but know that ultimately you cannot control their choices.
Your book is packed with information, personal stories and advice. What motivated you to write the book?
Initially, I was not motivated to write this book. My co-author, Roxane Salonen, was. When this fellow Catholic mom/author friend (who also has some children who have left the faith) suggested it to me, I said, no thanks. Now I realize that was both prideful — wanting to go public only with a success story. In the end, Roxane and I joined to extend our own story and friendship with others carrying the cross of loved ones who have left the Church. It’s also the book we felt we needed.
We’ve seen first-hand from testimony on our Facebook group: Catholic Parents: “What Would Monica Do?” (When Children Leave the Faith) that there are many hurting and lonely Catholics who find comfort among others who understand their situation.
In the book, you explain how at some point you stopped “wondering” about things related to some of your kids not more fully embracing their Confirmation promises, and started to pray instead. Can you tell me more about this?
While praying before the Blessed Sacrament one day, I wondered how long before the two I was praying for would return. I felt God say to me: Your prayers are a net — when they come back, they will not come back alone. I felt an enormous amount of comfort in that and am convinced that message came from God.
Also, I heard Father Benedict Groeschel, now deceased, once tell someone praying for an atheist with no visible results: “God will administer the graces at which time they will do the greatest amount of good.”
And St. Ambrose once told St. Monica: “Talk less to your son about God and talk more to God about your son.”
When it might seem like we have nothing left, we have prayer. We can always pray for our children and put our hope in God.
It has to be unthinkable for a loving, devoted Catholic parent to imagine that their children might leave the Faith. But even these parents must understand free will and their eventual lack of control with their child. What’s the right mindset for a Catholic parent?
No way did I ever think it was possible for any of our children to leave the Faith. I know very many other Catholic parents who felt the same way; among them are people in the Catholic media, homeschoolers and parents who sacrificed to send their children to Catholic school. Padre Pio used to say: “Pray, hope and don’t worry.” That’s the best advice. Worse than thinking you can control everything is worrying that you cannot control everything.
Your book also discusses the challenges of modern moral ideologies, like transgenderism. Parents aren’t ignorant of these challenges, but I think we also assume that we can reach our kids first. Is that a good strategy? And what’s the right age or cue for parents to have in the back of their mind?
I would never advise parents on right ages for their children. I would simply be open and aware of what they are coming across and for opportunities to discuss it. Share Catholic teaching, but do it in love and understanding. Recognize that people in tough situations may panic or be giving the wrong advice by people they trust — like with abortion. Gender confusion does not follow science and many people feel differently at different stages in their life and sometimes life situations form people. Courage International has good advice and material on how to be understanding while still holding strong to Catholic teaching. We have people with personal experience in this area who shared their stories.
Now I’m clearly very interested in the practical takeaways of your book, but the book is based on St. Monica as a proto-mother for parents whose kids leave the Faith. Readers are familiar with the patient prayers of Monica, but is there enough about her life to draw lessons from?
Yes. St. Monica accompanies us throughout the book. We cover a vast array of topics, but keep bringing it back to St. Monica whose life is relevant even today though she lived in the 4th century.
So how does St. Monica fit into this picture for a father?
We have two chapters on fatherhood, their importance to our children, and address situations when a father is not present. We also include a chapter on St. Joseph, a father for all of us. And though we are two mothers, this book is just as much for fathers praying for their children. On the topic of fatherhood, St. Monica’s husband, Patricius, was pagan and a womanizer and often bad-tempered, but he converted to Christianity in the end. So he was not the idea.. father, but we trust God to make up for what is lacking when we trust in him.
Okay, transitioning back to the practical tips, what are a couple “big ticket” items that every parent must get after to encourage a lifelong faith in their children?
Keep growing in your own faith. Never stop praying, but do so with hope and confidence. In the end, this is a book about growing deeper in your own faith as the best way to help your children.
Could you share any early telltale signs that a child’s spiritual health might not survive after they leave the home?
Not really. I could tell you every story under the sun from one extreme to another. We have priests in our diocese who refused to go to Mass in high school, used drugs, were disrespectful of their parents and one was practically atheist. Now they are priests. In our family, we saw some children practicing their faith well into college only to get off track. Assume nothing. Pray for everything.
Any other parting wisdom you think readers should consider as they go forward with the hope of raising wholesome, devoted Catholic children?
Remember: Worry is not a prayer. That is the name of one of our chapters. I cannot stress enough: Care a lot, pray always, but relax, love and still have fun with your family. Our family get-togethers are always joyful, amid my husband’s and my prayers for conversions.
Catholic parenting is a tough job. We want our children to love Jesus, and to stay in the the Church. Our only certainty should be that we cannot do it perfectly on our own, but that we have help: the saints to imitate, our friends to console us, the wisdom of the Church to guide us, and the mercy and grace of Christ to sanctify us. Do not worry about tomorrow but do not neglect today. As Mother Teresa used to tell people in so many words, “Do your best and then leave the results to God.”