The Role of Parents as Teachers of the Faith
Imagine for a moment the kids and teens of your parish learning about the Catholic faith: the Trinity and Incarnation, the saving work of Jesus Christ, the biblical evidence for the pope, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, how to pray, etc. Most people might imagine such children learning through Catholic Schools, Religious Education or Catechism classes, or youth group. These are important ways for learning within the Catholic Church. Yet, there is a means of education in the faith that we should imagine prior to all of these. One which all others stand upon as their foundation. The Church proposes to us that it is the parents that lay that foundation through teaching the faith in the home and faithfully following Christ as a domestic church (home). This is not to say that all are called to be homeschooling families, but that the Church envisions all Catholic youth learning the faith at home through word and habit. The Church says it is essential and the studies/surveys indicate this as well. In several Church Documents, the role of the parents is described as irreplaceable.
A beautiful place to reflect upon this is during the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism. Next time you have the chance to be present for the baptismal liturgy for a child, notice three things: (1) prior to the moment of baptism, the priest or deacon will repeatedly ask the parents if they understand what is expected of them as Christian parents in bringing up the child in the faith; (2) after the moment of baptism, he will then repeatedly remind the parents of the responsibility they now possess; (3) the prayer over the father explains exactly what is expected with regard to teaching the faith.
The prayer over the father at the end of the baptismal liturgy may be over the father but the words include the mother too. In it, the priest or deacon states a fact. “He and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith.” He does not ask God for them to become the first teachers, he recognizes that they are already the first heralds of the faith. Whatever they do will have a unique impact on their child because they alone are the “first teachers” of the faith. The prayer then petitions God that they may become “the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do.” I do not recall any prayer quite like this for bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, or Catholic school teachers. This prayer indicates what we have said already, the passing on the faith within the home is both essential and foundational.
There are some common elements to living out the faith at home that all Catholic homes will have in common: going to Mass regularly, visiting the confessional, daily family prayer, reading the Scriptures, and works of mercy. For the home instruction in the truths of the faith, I would like to suggest the words of Saint John Paul II.
The family's catechetical activity has a special character, which is in a sense irreplaceable. This special character has been rightly stressed by the Church, particularly by the Second Vatican Council. Education in the faith by parents, which should begin from the children's tenderest age, is already being given when the members of a family help each other to grow in faith through the witness of their Christian lives, a witness that is often without words but which perseveres throughout a day-to-day life lived in accordance with the Gospel. This catechesis is more incisive when, in the course of family events (such as the reception of the sacraments, the celebration of great liturgical feasts, the birth of a child, a bereavement) care is taken to explain in the home the Christian or religious content of these events. But that is not enough: Christian parents must strive to follow and repeat, within the setting of family life, the more methodical teaching received elsewhere. - Catechesi Tradendae 68
First, talking about the faith in the car, at home, and running errands is still important. It provides helpful commentary and meaning to experiences. This great pope does state that “this is not enough.” The path of giving to children what has been received elsewhere is simple. Join a bible study or similar program at your parish or another parish within your diocese. Then repeat, or echo (catechize), what you receive there for your children. This will look one way for your four-year-old and differently for your teenager. This is a good starting point for any Catholic parent. This is an excellent foundation for Catholic Schools and Religious Education programs to build upon. Whether laying this foundation or building upon it, let us “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Saint John Paul II, pray for us.