When I was younger, I remember being regularly inspired by the missionary journeys of St. Paul and the Apostles. I used to dream of new mission fields, extreme situations and heroic crusades that the Lord had in store for me. In fact, one of my hopes in discerning the priesthood and celibacy was the perceived freedom to radically follow Christ to the ends of the earth. Today, I find myself married and gratefully responsible for five children. I suppose there is a reason that spouses are referred to as “the ole’ ball-and-chain,” as I now have about as much freedom as a mountain to get up and move anywhere. Needless to say, family life was not what I imagined in my missionary dreams.
Yet, today we are hearing the repeated calls of pastors declaring that the entire Church, at least in the West, is in a new apostolic age. They tell us that we can no longer live as if we are in Christendom and assume that the surrounding culture possesses our values and worldview, that we must embrace our missional callings and each take up our part to proclaim Christ to all creatures. I understand what that looks like for St. Paul; the question is, what does that look like for a family?
At first thought, I am inclined to think that the family isn’t really built for an apostolic age. After all, we know that St. Peter was married and he may have had children, but we don’t see him stepping out of the sermon on the mount to change a diaper or discipline a screaming toddler. I think of an apostolic age like an unpaved, winding, dangerous mountain back road and the family like a Winnebago — I’m just not always convinced it’s built for this.
On the other hand, families are, by design, the place where we really learn everything. They are also, sadly, quite temporary. Any parent who has seen their children grow into adulthood knows the longing for earlier years and the realization that Christmas and many other holidays will never be the same as they once were. Families are necessary in every age of history, but we need to adjust our understanding and practice of family life to better suit the needs of the age we find ourselves in. Here are three principles which can dispose our families to the apostolic call of Jesus Christ.
Your conversion and relationship with God is just as important as your children’s
A priest once asked me when I was engaged to my wife, “What would you do if you made it to Heaven, but your wife didn’t?” I told him that if she did not make it, it was likely that I had not done my job well and probably was not getting in either. Either way, there is not a possibility of trading places or thinking we can sacrifice our salvation for that of another. That is a lie. Somehow, as parents, we can believe that we are not “worried about ourselves” but our kids. In this, we become very unfocused on our own spiritual health but try to make sure the kids go to sacrament preparation and youth group. The only helpful thing we can do for our children’s spiritual well-being is convert our lives to the Gospel and live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We cannot afford to skip this step or even get to it later. Your conversion should precede your children’s discovery of God.
Bible stories make great bedtime stories
When it comes to bedtime, the Bible is my go-to. This is not only because it is full of compelling drama but because in experiencing the stories, we come to know God. Full disclosure, I generally tell the stories rather than read them and yes, at times I may embellish or make the language more colloquial. I do, however, always try to stay true to the spirit of the text. I encourage families to know their audience and tell some fun stories that may shock their children. For example, I have two young boys whose minds were blown when they learned that the prophet Elisha, after being made fun of, cursed a group a boys who were then mauled by two she-bears (2 Kgs 2:23-24). You might be asking what the point is of telling them a story like that? Trust me, they are both supremely confident that the Lord has their backs. I asked them, “If the Lord would send two bears to defend his prophet, what do you think he would do to defend you, who are his prophet, priest, and king?”
Experience will outweigh instruction
Ultimately, in order to be apostolic families, we have to do apostolic activities, which means intentionally building the kingdom in response to God’s calling. Again, parents need to discover this first and initiate their children into it. Children are great at assisting in ministry and will thrive when they are invited to accompany their parents. It is good to begin by asking yourself, what do you want for your children in terms of engaging in the mission of Jesus? If you want them to provide a side dish for a parish funeral luncheon, then have them help you make that. If you want them to anonymously go to Mass and leave without talking to anyone, then show them that. If you want them to know God to the point where others perceive God’s spirit in them and they actively help bring others to Christ, then get to work! There are plenty of opportunities for things like this!
I had the opportunity to bring my seven-year-old to a youth retreat that I was speaking at. His primary job was to guard the relic of St. Francis Xavier. As we sat and watched the other speakers, he began to create a sign-up sheet, covered in his own religious art, for kids to sign so that he could continue praying for them after the retreat. When I spoke, he accompanied me on stage and when we launched into a time of inviting the presence of God into the room, he became my prayer partner. We walked through the crowd, praying with several teens and watching as God did amazing things. I would speak and he would press the relic against them and pray. By the time we left, he collected six names to continue to pray for and he was full of zeal, confidence and excitement about what God was capable of. I could not have taught him any of that without him experiencing it.
I do not believe there was ever an “easy” time to be a parent or raise a family. We are certainly in a time with its own unique challenges, especially regarding our faith. I am confident, however, that if the Lord has allowed the Church and the family to live through an age such as this, then he has a plan for how we are to remain in him and communicate his Gospel to the world. As parents, we need to double down on our own commitment to Christ and take the posture of sharing our living faith with our children who will in turn become the next generation of apostles.