A college friend of mine once jokingly explained that Catholics propagate our faith a little differently from, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “We don’t have to proselytize — we just knock boots!”
Of course, looking at things seriously, the first part isn’t true. Catholics have to do the hard work of evangelization. And unfortunately, the second part isn’t quite true, either: Making more Catholics “the fun way” (or, as another friend put it, “world domination through procreation”) requires that Catholic babies become Catholic adults. And that journey is increasingly challenging, as religious “churning” or conversion increases across many different denominations.
In March 2008, InsideCatholic hosted a symposium, “Why Are They Leaving?” But I’d like to ask the question from the other end. At Easter we saw so many new people enter the Church, grinning awkwardly after their baptisms or crying at their first Communion. Converts like me have had our moment in the sun, so I figured it was time to offer a few more suggestions for making “cradle Catholicism” stronger.
The numbers look like this: A 2008 study from the Pew Forum on Religious Life (the same study that spurred the symposium) found that 28 percent of American adults have left the religion in which they were raised. If switching from one Protestant denomination to another is included, that number jumps to almost half — 44 percent. Catholics had the biggest net loss: “While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration.”
There are some obvious, common-sense things to say here. First, while “do as I say, not as I do” can have its successes, and every parent resorts to it occasionally, studies have unsurprisingly found that parents whose religious practice is consistent with their professed beliefs raise children who are more likely to remain in, and practice, the faith with which they were raised. If mom and dad go to confession and to Mass, the kids get a very different message than they would if, say, mom drops them off at Sunday school and then runs errands.
Second, Catholic schooling will do more harm than good if the school is a haven for bullies rather than their targets. I’m sorry to say that I’ve heard some hair-raising stories from Catholic-schooled friends, for whom the classroom and playground were turned into their own personal Way of the Cross. Many of these friends are still Catholic today — but many aren’t, and it’s hard to imagine that their experiences didn’t damage their ability to see the Church as a place of refuge and love. If you are in a position to find out what your local Catholic school is like — by asking your kids, by volunteering in an after-school program, etc. — consider whether you can take active steps to ensure that it’s safe, rather than just assuming that you would know if anything bad were going on.
But there are perhaps less obvious points to make as well, about ways in which the drama of conversion is especially attractive right now and ways in which cradle Catholics can find aspects of that drama in their own lives.
There may be cultural reasons that religious identities seem more fluid now or conversion (from anything to anything else) more appealing. Americans — maybe people in general, but definitely contemporary Americans — are more drawn to narratives of personal transformation than to narratives of perseverance. We like to hear about overturning, not deepening. We like to think of ourselves as rebels, discoverers, people who have figured out the big truths our parents missed.
And, of course, Christianity is uniquely suited to this approach. The New Testament — unlike the Hebrew Bible, which offers an array of stories of return to faith, or teshuvah –has an all-convert cast of characters. (Uh, not counting Jesus.) It’s a series of stories about the scales falling from our eyes, doubt giving way to faith, and old giving way to shockingly new. The New Testament, taken on its own, doesn’t give models for Catholic parents, educators, or their charges who seek to grow in their “inherited” faith rather than discovering a new one.
So perhaps one place to look for inspiration is Jewish practice. The Passover and Palm Sunday liturgies have more in common than their time frame: They’re also occasions in which Jews and Catholics act out roles from their religious past. Just as we cry out, in the voice of the crowd, “Crucify him!” and “Give us Barabbas!” so Jewish children are instructed that they, personally, were delivered from slavery in Egypt by the hand of the Lord. Jewish children are explicitly told that the story of the Jewish people is the story of their present tense, not the past. They’re encouraged to view their faith as a matter not solely of belief and custom but personal identity.
The more vivid and personal we make Catholic history, the more likely a child is to think that these stories could happen to her — she could be an Esther, defending her faith against the cruelest persecution; a Jonathan, giving up her social status and privilege in the name of loving friendship and obedience to God; a Therese, whose lifelong devotion to Christ was nurtured by her devout family. The saints provide a huge range of models for Christian life, including many which show how dramatic the life of a cradle Catholic can be.
A broader point is that conversion-in-general is often a response to a two-part movement of the soul. First, you realize that you are painfully inadequate, that your knowledge is incomplete and your beliefs are flimsy. Second, you find something better than what you have — better than what you are, at this point in your life — and fall in love.
This is a movement that can take place entirely within the Church. It’s the experience of St. Francis. It’s what we experience constantly, as we are abruptly made aware of our own sins and our own longing for God. I know it can be depressing to feel stuck in an endless cycle of confessing the same sins to the same priest, lather-rinse-repent, but if we are attempting to truly and fully acknowledge and turn away from our sin, each confession is a miniature conversion. (This is why I love the priest who often asks me to read a psalm as my penance — the psalms capture every mood of David’s conflicted, needy, bone-deep love of God.)
If we recognize the way in which conversion-in-general captures truths about the human heart, we can look for that pattern in our children’s lives and encourage it to play out within the Church. Our kids need to know that when they experience that painful sense of personal inadequacy, the answer is not getting “born again” in an evangelical church. It’s getting born again in the confessional. When they have anguished or simply challenging questions, encourage them to seek out the saints whose questions were similar. Parents, teachers, and pretty much everyone who spends time with Catholic children can encourage them to figure out who they are as Catholics: Which saints are they most drawn to? Which devotions are most personal for them? What do they find hardest about the Faith, and which specific practices and models can help them? Kids can have charisms and specific spiritualities as much as any third-order Dominican or Mercy sister. Showing kids that there are many ways of being Catholic can help them view their ongoing project of growing up, learning to understand the world and themselves, as a specifically Catholic project of discerning vocation.
And that way they can live out the cradle Catholic’s slogan: “The Catholic Church: See it again for the first time!”