It’s not an unusual situation (though I wish it were) that many young people today (mostly when they go to college), motivated by different reasons, abandon their faith. The causes range from the influence of friends and fashions, to intense rationalism in the curriculum, to incomplete information and/or disappointment in the Church. Whatever the reason, for Catholic mothers and fathers, parenting college kids who’ve fallen away, the children whom they brought up in the faith who’ve subsequently abandoned it, this is a trial of suffering. A suffering that inevitably comes with guilt: what did I do wrong that made my child stop believing in God?
Beyond the good and the bad that we may do as parents, because the only perfection is in God, the Holy Trinity, the first thing we have to understand is that our children were given to us as a precious responsibility. But, to say it plainly, they aren’t ours. Their formation is our first responsibility and duty. When they get to adulthood, however, their decisions are their own. We’ll always be their parents, always their reference point, but they will make their own choices on their lives’ trajectories. Just as we do and have done in our own independence.
A good friend used to tell me always to remember that love towards our children also constitutes a road to holiness, of trial and unconditional love. Having said this, we give you a series of reflections which can be helpful in order to face our children’s hard situation when they suddenly claim not to believe in God anymore.
1. What you’ve formed in childhood is still there
All the effort you’ve put into educating as a parent in order to give your child the best, and not only in a material sense, is still there inside your kid. What you’ve taught him or her has deeply shaped the type of person he or she is today. In adulthood, you’ll see the fruits of this never-ending effort to form them in faith, virtues, good manners, respect and freedom. The seeds we plant in our little children will flourish in adulthood. And if right now it seems that all of your work has fallen into a broken bag, don’t despair, have patience and hope. It has not been in vain.
2. Listen to him, treat him with respect, and show interest in his decision
Instead of falling into anguish and letting yourself be moved only by emotion, breathe. Before speaking, first listen and be interested in him. Don’t be driven by indignation or get caught up in delivering sermons that could drive your son away. Listen to his reasons, engage him, and keep listening. Try to know his thoughts, his reasons, his longings and illusions. Only with this information will you know how to proceed.
3. Don’t try to convince him
Don’t start with a constant campaign to convert your son, because you’ll probably cause the opposite effect. It doesn’t mean that you, the parents, abandon your religious practices or stop talking to God in front of your son. On the contrary, continue with these practices as always, and be more and more coherent with your faith and Christian life. Frequently, the disappointment that comes from the actions of some Christians is a key factor for kids to leave aside faith. Don’t force him to pray, but make your attitude towards prayer be an example. It’s not being indifferent, you can openly talk about your way of thinking and your faith, let him listen to you the way you’ll listen to him. It’s an appropriate situation to learn how to converse and respect each other.
4. Don’t manipulate him with punishments, and don’t cut him off from your help because of his position
Conditioning your help to his faith won’t lead your relationship anywhere productive. Our faith is not an imposed obligation, our faith is a relationship of love, a gift. Jesus became small like one of us and with patience, tenderness and life example, He showed us the way. As a Christian, follow the example of Jesus who is close, patient, amiable and who provides everything.
5. Show him the joy of having a relationship with God
Our faith isn’t simply to believe in something. The richness of our faith is that it’s a relationship with someone. It’s not about a series of rules we comply with blindly, mechanically. Our faith is born from an encounter with another person, the person of Jesus Christ. In this kind of situation, more than a thousand words, it’s the example of a Christian life that counts: your coherence, your joy, your attitude towards others, your firm and unconditional love.
6. Include him in your activities without forcing him
The same way that you respect him and at the same time discuss his decision, you should also share with him your thoughts and talk them through. Don’t be afraid to show your faith, keep making him participate, and always invite him when you can (even if he says no) to your religious activities, even to external efforts like service opportunities or prayer vigils. Invite him to Mass (at least ask him to accompany you), continue with Easter and Christmas celebrations, always make him a participant. Celebrate by his side with joy. The decision to participate or not will always be his, but it’s likely he’ll want to go (at least to some of them). These celebrations have always been a part of his story and are also filled with love.
7. Don’t slip into sadness and hopelessness
It may be that your son has decided not to believe in God, but remember that God always believes in him. He’s his Creator, his Father, and He’ll never leave him helpless, even if sometimes it may seem like it. Don’t let yourself be tempted into thinking that your son will be condemned. That’s a matter that ultimately only concerns God. We should only be concerned with loving and giving ourselves to the service of others. So instead of letting yourself be defeated by sadness and hopelessness, trust God all the more strongly.
8. Make Saint Monica your best friend
Saint Monica is our ally for excellence in this mission. She knows perfectly the situation of having a child who’s far away from God. Appeal to her so that she intercedes for your son or daughter, and – like St. Monica did – offer God all your sorrows and pains. Pray constantly and without rest. The path towards our child’s conversion happens indisputably through our own conversion. By asking God every day for more faith, and by giving ourselves over in a more complete way. And as one bishop told Saint Monica: “Be tranquil, it is impossible that a son of so many tears should perish”.
BONUS: Constantly educate yourself
Sometimes, we have no answers to our children’s questions, not because the question is hard, but because we simply are not well informed ourselves. In faith, practice is important but so is education, to know our history as Catholics and the foundations of our Christian life. Educate yourself, consult reliable sources, cultivate yourself and learn every day how to be a better parent and a better Catholic.
“What dignity and what tenderness there is in the expectation of that father, who stands at the door of the house waiting for his son to return! Fathers must be patient. Often there is nothing else to do but wait; pray and wait with patience, gentleness, magnanimity and mercy” (Pope Francis – 4th of February, 2015).
This post originally appeared here for Catholic-Link Spanish. It was translated into English by María Isabel Giraldo.