This past January, the Holy Father addressed American bishops and spoke of the "need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with... the courage to counter a reductive secularism [that] would delegitimize the Church's participation in public debate about the issues [that] are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country...." Pope Benedict XVI added: "There can be no doubt that a more consistent witness on the part of America's Catholics to their deepest convictions would make a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole." Canadians would do well to heed the Pope's words. Note that the Holy Father does not say that this witness is only for the good of the Church. He calls it "a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole." The renewal of society is an important responsibility for all Catholics, and we especially look to our young people, who are called to witness to Christ in a world that has grown increasingly hostile to His presence. How can we educate our children and more specifically our youth to evangelize society, to communicate the faith to the world, to live a true Christian witness in such a way as to renew society? This topic is very dear to my heart, as I have worked with young people for the last 25 years. I have four children, and it is one of my great consolations that the faith is fundamental to them. Nothing guarantees that our children will live the faith or that it will continue to be significant for them. When it comes to educating children in the faith, the challenge for parents is not the children but themselves and the awareness they have of their own humanity. That awareness, however, is impossible if they are not conscious of their relationship to God.
If this is not clear to us as parents and as educators, it is because of a crisis in which the Church finds itself at the level of the diocese, the parish and the family. I have had the great fortune in the last few years to see the Church in many parts of Canada, and I am struck by how seriously men and women and children and youth take their faith. At the same time, I am concerned by how detached the life of faith is from what goes on in the world. Many of our youth who are truly serious about their faith and involved in the Church, unfortunately, are not involved in the world, or at least not with a Christian vision. They might be there with a moral or an ethical vision, which does not necessarily make it a Christian vision. The real issue for our young people—and for adults—is what the Pope stated at the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in May 2010: "The contribution of Christians can be effective only if knowledge of faith becomes knowledge of reality." Our way of knowing through faith must become the way we know reality. An understanding of how our children can grow up to be true Christian witnesses in society will not be found in techniques, kits or programs; rather, we will find an answer in an attempt to understand what the Holy Father has told us: that knowledge of faith becomes knowledge of reality.
I wish to trace a path from our present situation to the Pope's words. I won't give away any "instructions for use" but will try to ask some questions and offer some responses on how we can help our youth to grow in the faith and to enter into the life of the world with a new perspective. I will argue that what is fundamental to helping our children insert themselves in society as witnessing Christians is the conception we adults have of faith and the way we help them to grow with reason, freedom and conviction. What I have to say has been strongly influenced by three masters: the late Monsignor Luigi Giussani, Pope Benedict XVI and Charles PÃ©guy.
My starting point will be a passage from PÃ©guy's "The Mystery of the Holy Innocents."
God is speaking:
... How often do I wish and am I tempted to put my hand under their stomachs
In order to hold them up with my big hand Just like a father teaching his son how to swim ... For on the one hand, if he holds him up all the time and if he holds him too much, The child will depend on this and will never learn how to swim. But if he doesn't hold him up just at the right moment, That child is bound to swallow more water than is healthy for him. In the same way, when I teach them how to swim amid their trials I too am divided by two ways of thinking. Because if I am always holding them up, if I hold them up too often, They will never learn how to swim by themselves.
But if I don't hold them up just at the right moment,
Perhaps those poor children will swallow more water than is healthy for them.
Such is the difficulty, and it is a great one.
And such is the doubleness itself, the two faces of the problem.
... On the one hand, they must work out their salvation for themselves. ... If I hold him up too much, he is no longer free And if I don't hold him up sufficiently, I am endangering his salvation. ... For salvation is of infinite price. But what kind of salvation would a salvation be that was not free?—english translation byann and Julian green,BasicVerities
This passage is, in a sense, all that we need to bring up our children in the faith. This poem is not a prescription for educating children; there is no formula. PÃ©guy recognizes that man is a mystery and, as such, participates in the great Mystery of Being. We have the great gift of freedom, for "what kind of salvation would a salvation be that was not free?" We can either recognize that the Mystery dominates our lives or we can draw back from our freedom and pretend that we can tackle all of our challenges in life, including the immense challenge of educating our children in the faith. There is no way that our children can see the beauty of the faith if we refuse to participate in it.
There is something so evident that we tend to take it for granted and unwittingly dismiss it: children are a mystery. As I speak with parents, and with Catholic parents as well, I am often struck by their blasÃ© attitude toward their children. I am not saying that they do not care about their offspring, but they speak about their life as a kind of ritual: the sleepless nights with the baby, the terrible twos, helping children with homework. In many ways parents speak of parenting as phases, each with its own particular attributes. These phases seem to have been decided a priori by what we might call Socrates' "demotic love," or the common mentality. There is nothing wrong with the categories; however, there is something wrong with accepting them as gospel truth, as the only way to understand childhood. In a sense, our relationship to our children is almost determined by what we have read or heard about bringing up children. Children thus become predictable.
The other attitude of parents that always strikes me is that of possessiveness. It is sad to see a parent who fundamentally sees a child as a projection of himself or herself. I can say that I have four children with a sense of awe and mystery, or I can say it as some kind of achievement on my part. There is a problem in the latter attitude. Children are not a project. We all have dreams for our children, but some parents will always think that their child's success depends on some formula. The child is a project and my capacity as a parent will largely determine the outcome. There is some truth in this: the parent-child relationship is fundamental. But there are factors that we have to contend with along the way, circumstances that are not in our control. We must contend with our child's freedom and with our freedom, part of what makes up our mystery as human beings.
Why do we see children as "a given" rather than as "given"? I would argue that the problem has to do with our attitude to the great Mystery that is God. Our understanding of Christianity might be remarkable, learned, pious, ethical, but all too often what is missing is the religious sense, the awareness that our lives—our every moment—are an opportunity to relate to that Mystery.
Luigi Giussani noted that we live in an age when people do not live a true Christianity. It is possible for me as a parent to have a correct or orthodox position regarding the Church, to live the ritual life of the Church, and yet not live the religious sense, that is, not live a dependence on the Mystery of God as he presents himself to me in my circumstances, in the people who surround me, the tasks that life asks of me in the moment. When it comes down to it, either we live that dependence, understanding that everything we do begins from our belonging to God and that He therefore is truly the origin of our every step. That dependence is a perception at the core of one who lives the religious sense. As Giussani wrote in The Journey to Truth is an Experience:
"To be in community is not an exterior â€˜getting along,' a simple convergence from the outside. To be in community is an interior dimension, at the origin of each action."
Living that dependence, having that interior dimension of community at the origin of each action, connects the here and now. This is what the Sephardic Jewish-Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti intuited in the first volume of his 1979 autobiography, The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood. He wrote about a brief period in Lausanne with his mother and siblings when he was eight years old, following the sudden death of his father: "We spent three months in Lausanne, and I sometimes think that no other time in my life has been as momentous. But one often thinks that when focusing seriously on a period, and it is possible that each period is the most important and contains everything." This is what I am trying to get at regarding Mystery. Only rarely do we have the sense that whatever it is we do "contains everything." That is, it depends totally on the Mystery of God. Without this gaze, is it truly possible for us to look upon our children as a manifestation of Mystery? Is it possible for us to love them truly, to affirm them not as the outcome of our capacity but for the simple fact that they are? This disposition is vital for it informs our relationship with our children, and it allows our children to see another, deeper way of living, a way that searches for meaning in every action.