St. Monica, Pray for Our Wayward Children's Conversions

It's a familiar scenario. Smart young son leaves home to get an education. Falls in with a questionable crowd. Begins carousing, spouting secular philosophies, leading an immoral life. Takes up with live-in mistress. Has illegitimate child. Joins heretical cult. All the while a holy parent, heartbroken over the turn of events, prays for the young man's conversion.

Many parents today think they're the first to face these types of troubles. But this is a description of St. Monica and her wayward son, Augustine. And they lived in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Their sanctity developed together, side-by-side, just the way we celebrate their feasts. St. Monica's is Aug. 27, her son's Aug. 28.

Parents with unruly children — in fact, all of us seeking the conversions of family members and friends — can take a cue from Monica's timeless example.

“She prayed constantly and confidently,” says Father Dennis McNeil, pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Euclid, Ohio.

In the mid-1980s Father McNeil founded the Society of St. Monica for people to pray for the return to Catholic unity for those who left the Church.

“When I was working with the society, I got a good number of letters from people saying that their children had returned to the practice of their faith,” he says. “And if one person returns, it would be basically enough success to justify the efforts.” (Due to a full pastoral schedule, he no longer runs the society.)

Joan Hamill agrees. She prayed weekly for 15 years with the society's prayer group, which was once part of Corpus Christi Cathedral in Texas. “I prayed for St. Monica to intercede for our family members,” says Hamill. “As a result I had two brothers come back to the Church as well as my sister and brother-in-law.”

The pastor of St. Monica Church in Houston, Father Neal Stull of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, says that he and his assistant “promote St. Monica as a wonderful example of prayer and perseverance.” Several parishioners have now developed a devotion to Monica.

“Monica was like the story Jesus told of the importunate widow coming to the judge,” notes Sherry Weddell, co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo. It's a picture of persistence. Many parents tell her they want their children to come back to the Church. The problem, she says, is that the parent is the last person kids want to listen to. Like Augustine.

Persistent Prayers

In his Confessions, Augustine tells how grateful he was for Monica's unwavering devotion. She was born into a Christian family in Tagaste, North Africa, in 332. Her parents married her to Patricius, a pagan who had a violent temper and didn't care for her faith. Yet Monica stayed patient, kind, gentle and persistently prayerful. A year before he husband died, he converted. So did her live-in mother-in-law.

Monica still had years of anguish ahead as her teen-age son, Augustine, shifted into high-gear rebellion. (Her son Navigius was more a model boy, and daughter Perpetua became a religious.) Augustine went off to Carthage to study, where he also majored in fast living and joined up with the Manichean sect. He even had the chutzpah to tell Monica it was her faith that was keeping them apart.

But, like in Jesus’ parable of the persistent neighbor knocking at night until his pleas were answered, Monica prayed ceaselessly, fasted and shed countless tears. She followed him to Rome, then Milan, where he eventually listened to Bishop (St.) Ambrose and was baptized.

In retrospect, the whole story seems neat and preordained. But in reality, it took many years of near despair before Monica's prayers seemed to bear fruit in her son's life.

“Using the example of St. Monica, never give up hope,” says Father Stull. “Even in the worst trials, even when others seem to have lost hope.” It's something everybody can do.

“Folks give up,” observes Catholic psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi, a Register “Family Matters” columnist. “We are a microwave culture.” But “prayer is not microwave,” he underlines. “Prayer is a crockpot.”

“When you give up on a situation,” he cautions, “you're basically saying the Holy Spirit can't do it, the individual can't be redeemed, even God can't reach them.” That's why persistence is so necessary. He himself has been praying for conversions for years.

Asked for a clear example of Monica-like attitude and persistence in prayer, Guarendi unhesitatingly says, “My mother!” His brother and he both left the Church for years, but, he says, “We both came back with a renewed faith.” His mother told him she prayed for them every day for years.

He says today's expectation that teens will drift from the faith, dismissing it with a catchphrase like “they'll be back,” is “uniquely modern cultural rather than developmental. This is not the course of the faith through the centuries.”

In addition to praying, “You can't shun your kid, you can't write him off,” says Guarendi. What if they're living with someone? “You can have dinner with them,” he says. “That doesn't mean you're acquiescing in what they're doing” or “wholeheartedly celebrating what they're doing.”

He cautions, “You'll never win anyone back by your charity if there's no contact. Monica's son was probably a bigger reprobate than your son is.”

No Nagging

What do you say? “Nagging wouldn't work,” Father McNeil advises. One thing parents can do, though, “is invite their kids to go with them to church. Say, ‘I'm going to the 9:30 Mass Sunday. Would you like to join me?’ Continue to invite them without pushing.”

Father McNeil adds that Monica herself had advice from priests and a bishop in this regard who told her just pray and let God take care of it, he says. When she kept pestering the bishop to help “win over” her son, he told her, “Go now, I beg you; it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.”

On the flip side of imitating Monica's persistent prayer and unwavering hope is praying for her intercession. She's patroness of wives, mothers and troubled parents.

And, besides praying for a return to the faith, we can pray for interior conversions and change of disposition, says Father Stull. We can ask her help with guidance for young people, and with domestic violence and marital problems.

Monica must have experienced a more peaceful home life after her husband converted. “Returning to a genuine practice of the faith,” says Father McNeil, “would certainly lead to the conversion of behaviors.”

There's yet more in Monica's example. “Have faith and confidence that God hears our prayers and in his time these prayers will be answered for his greater glory and in accordance to his will,” says Father Stull. Sometimes, it's much more than we ask for, as in Monica's case.

Shortly before she died, St. Monica said: “All I wished for was that I might see you a Catholic and a child of heaven. God granted me even more than this in making you despise earthly felicity and consecrate yourself to his service.”

Of course, we know the fruit of Monica's hope and persistent prayer. Augustine became not only a highly influential bishop — his involvement was instrumental in canonizing the books of the New Testament — but also a doctor of the Church. Indeed, many consider him the greatest of all the Church's doctors.

In light of this outcome, Father McNeil tells all of us seeking the conversions of family and friends: “Given St. Monica's success, it wouldn't hurt for us to imitate her.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.