It’s not breaking news that young Catholics are leaving the faith. A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life found 50 percent of millennials (those born in 1982 or later) who were raised Catholic no longer identify as such. And many who remain in the church often don’t know “the central core of their Catholic faith,” observed Pope Benedict XVI at a weekly general audience in 2012.
The good news? Parents can help.
Here are suggestions from local Catholics with experience cultivating lifelong believers who both value and understand the faith.
Don’t pass the buck
“We have places to take our kids to learn academics, places to take them for sports and for music,” says Erin Nieves, director of faith formation at Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton. It thus feels appropriate to hand off faith education completely to a religious education teacher or Catholic school. “But the reality is, as the catechism says, parents are the primary and first teacher.” Of course, the church community is there for assistance, she says, but the best place to learn is in the home.
Promote prayer of all sorts
Deidre Doran, mother of four children ages 10 to 23 and member of St. Matthew Parish in Hillsboro, says prayer is one of the best ways to help young souls connect with God. Her family prays the rosary together when possible and says traditional prayers at mealtime and bedtime. Doran also encourages what she calls “open prayer,” during which “kids talk to God about what’s on their heart and ask for prayers for other people.”
Attend Mass as a family — every week
“If you don’t take them to Mass with you when they are little, it’s difficult to expect them to want to go as a 15-year-old,” says Nieves, adding that the sacraments are a powerful way God reaches us. “We have a God who wants to have a relationship with teens — and he does find us in a variety of ways — but sometimes we make God work too hard.”
Make space for God
“Everyone is so overbooked these days,” says Deacon Dennis Desmarais, a member of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland who’s been involved in high school youth ministry, baptism prep and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He’s also raised three sons.
If you look at a typical family calendar, spiritually centered activities often are missing, says Deacon Desmarais. “We sometimes get priorities wrong,” he says. Set aside time for faith education and volunteering as a family and the “benefits can be powerful.”
Lee Gilbert is a parishioner of Holy Rosary Parish in Portland whose daughter is a Carmelite nun and son is a devout Catholic. He encourages parents to ditch the television, or at least turn it off more frequently. That gives more time for quiet or creative endeavors that draw children closer to God. It also curbs the secularizing effect of television on children’s developing minds. “Whatever culture parents allow into a home, that’s going to affect a child,” says Gilbert.
Spark children’s imaginations
“What you put into your imagination feeds how you conduct yourself,” Gilbert points out.
After his family tossed the TV, he replaced it with an evening routine (suspended on warm and sunny evenings so the kids could play outside) that captivated his children’s imaginations — and helped deepen their relationship with God and knowledge of the faith, he says. The family read 30 minutes of the “Chronicles of Narnia” or similar fare; 30 minutes of the life of a saint, not just the basics but details of their personalities and struggles; and 20 minutes of the catechism.
“I began to see in them a love of learning and desire for God — just doing that accomplished that,” he says, adding that we often sell our kids short “because they can learn more than we are giving them.”
Blend hands-on learning with the liturgical seasons
When you integrate faith into daily life through rituals and spiritually focused activities — everything from lighting Advent wreaths to making Lenten calendars — it sticks with children, says Nieves. For example, having kids sculpt a crown of thorns out of clay and pierce it with toothpicks during Lent can help them better visualize Jesus’ self-sacrifice and love, as well as prompt fruitful questions and conversations (for Catholic craft ideas for the younger set, check out catholicicing.com).
Celebrating the seasons of the faith as a family means that even when a child wants to walk away from the church as a teen or adult, the traditions and rituals “live inside of them somewhere, and they are more inclined to go back,” Nieves says.
Give the gift of grace
Some parents explain they aren’t going to baptize their child because “they’re going to let the child decide,” says Nieves. “That’s a big disservice to a child.”
One of the beautiful things about the Catholic faith is infant baptism, she says.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth.”
“Forming community is really important” for a young person’s faith life, says Deacon Desmarais. Friendships grown in first Communion classes or youth group create ties that “make it more likely they will want to return to church,” he says. He adds that “one way Christ is present is in community.”
Use the sacraments as teaching opportunities
First Communion and confession, confirmation — children’s sacraments are a natural time to discuss in detail what they mean in our lives, says Doran of St. Matthew. Once children are past the “firsts,” communicate the ongoing beauty within the sacraments. “We try to go to confession once a month and focus less on what they did wrong and more on the gift of grace that happens in the sacrament,” Doran says.
Be an example
“Your children are always watching you; even if you don’t realize it,” Pope Francis said in a weekly general audience this March. “They are observing us all the time and taking it all in.”
Deacon Desmarais noted that how we interact with others — be it our spouse or the cashier at a grocery store — shapes young minds and hearts. “You have to be sincere and active in our faith,” he says. “Show your belief not in a preachy way, but in how you live every day.”