As we wrestle with how to hand on the faith, knowing that we are facing a general breakdown in its transmission, we can point to some things that clearly work.
First and foremost, we know that parents have “paramount” and unparalleled importance in the faith lives of their children, one that “trumps every other influence,” as the sociologist Christian Smith demonstrates in his latest book, written with Amy Adamczyk, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion to the Next Generation (Oxford, 2021, 3). Smith notes that the role of parents has become even more crucial, given the lack of a strong culture and community to support the transmission of faith. In an individualistic culture, with so many possibilities, finding faith has become bound up with a general discovery of self, with parents as central mentors in this process.
Even though we have long known the unique influence of parents, Smith and Adamczyk found that simply talking about faith had a larger impact than any other factor: “Parents routinely conversing with children about religious matters during the week exerts such a crucial influence on successful religious transmission” (83). Just by talking about it at least once a week shows that religion should not be confined to an hour a week at church and has an impact on life more broadly. When these conversations are marked by “openness, warmth, and mutuality,” they give youth the opportunity to be self-reflective and make their own personal connections, though in relation to their parents (43). In a time of cultural confusion, this space for conversation helps young people to figure out their path with the help of faith and family.
Parents, as reported in Smith and Adamczyk’s interviews, express their desire for their children to learn morality and values from religion, as way of initiating them into a larger tradition — helping to learn how to think about life and make good choices. As Catholics, we know that the greatest truth that our kids need to learn is the infinite love of God, who made us in his image and likeness, became one of us in the Incarnation, and died for us on the Cross to save us. Jesus offers us a new path, a way of holiness and happiness in learning to live in this love. As Catholic parents, we share our faith with our kids as a way of offering them the joy that comes from knowing Jesus and what he has done to save us. Our conversations need to share what God has done for us and how he can help them through the difficult journey of life.
This journey has become more difficult with the spiritual and intellectual thinness of our culture. Along with our faith, therefore, we have to transmit a vision of what it means to be a human being, preserving the wisdom transmitted across cultures throughout history. Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian convert to the Catholic faith, wrote a book with his son Max in mind, thinking of the wisdom his young son would need to learn: The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (Convergent, 2021). The book sets out to face a challenge: “Here, then, is the dilemma of a young father: How do I transmit to my son the value of permanent ideals against a culture that will tell him that whatever is newest is best, that everything is negotiable . . . that there is no purpose to our common life but to fulfill his desires?” (16). His answer also consists in conversing, telling stories of great figures across world history who found wisdom in relation to faith, family, nature, and tradition. Masterfully narrated, Ahmari presents both familiar and lesser-known figures — C.S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Victor and Edith Turner, Howard Thurman, St. Augustine, Confucius, St. John Henry Newman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrea Dworkin, Hans Jonas, and Seneca — who each typify one aspect of the great tradition. “Throughout this book, on our journey from medieval Europe to Soviet Russia, ancient China to tribal Africa, the Jim Crow South to Weimar Germany, we went searching for wisdom — the traditional wisdom of limits” to show that happiness comes not from doing whatever what we want, but in embracing the reality of God’s natural and supernatural order (246).
The home is the place to share this wisdom with our children, providing an anchor in this search, through talking, telling stories, and living life together. And in a busy world, time becomes a precious gift — just being together and showing love through our presence. Taking time to unplug so that we can eat and talk together sends a major signal on the priority of the family and strengthens relationships and trust. If we do this, we can share the faith in a natural way, as conversations will arise more readily. And with this in mind, I would suggest that a great way to stimulate conversation is to make time for family play. Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is a time of leisure, a day reserved for the things that matter most — God, family, and re-creation (renewal). True leisure is not simply entertainment or relaxation but doing things that are worthwhile for their own sake, not for a practical end, including play.
Playing games shows that we are willing to stop and enjoy time with each other. I have discovered a lot of great games with my kids, including some that have a connection to Catholic culture. One, called Cathedral, a fast-paced strategy game, focuses on placing shapes to build a town around a cathedral, while crowding out your opponent. My boys’ favorite, Carcassonne, uses tiles to build whole landscapes of roads, towns, and abbeys, reminiscent of the medieval French countryside. Sagrada assembles stained glass windows resembling Servant of God Antoni Gaudí’s modern masterpiece, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia basilica.
Talking and playing are two healthy components of family life, and also help parents to fulfill their central mission: to hand on the faith to their children. From within the domestic church, they are best positioned to accomplish this mission.