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What Mom, Dad, and Abuela sow

Sometimes data collection proves what we already know. We often hear grim (and true) statistics about the loss of youth and young adults to the practice of the faith. Often a rant follows about how the culture corrupts and corrodes. It’s easier to deal with the statistics if we can pin blame on something external.

Two reports recently released by Notre Dame deal with “former young Catholics” and religious parenting. They prove an old maxim: Children live what they learn.

Research by Bartkus and Smith concludes that the parish children attend may have a very positive impact, but there is one much more influential place: the home. The authors’ interviews attest that “Catholic identity becomes rooted in children’s lives … [through] the day-to-day religious practices of the family and the way parents model their faith.”

That is not to say that those who give up the faith were raised in negligent homes. But it does say that attrition is less likely when parents clearly and consistently show that their faith matters.

I have a brother who is a regular churchgoer, as is my sister-in-law, who is also a Catholic school teacher. They both are involved with family life training for Catholic elementary school children. I have another brother and a sister who have departed from the faith, largely over disagreements with various Church teachings. All of us were raised with grace before meals, Mass on every Sunday and holy day of obligation, Advent wreaths, Stations of the Cross during Lent, and family rosary in May. Our parents and we participated in parish organizations and outreach. The Notre Dame study suggests that the two of us who are active to this day would have been less so if we had not had those youthful experiences.

An earlier Notre Dame symposium noted another thing we already know. In immigrant families, the example of the abuela, the grandmother, is often key. Our German grandma’s glow-in-the-dark rosary hung from her bedpost, and there was a holy water font at her door. She taught us to bless ourselves when we passed a Catholic church. If a Guadalupe candle is in a place of honor at Abuela’s house, grandchildren see. They can’t help but notice reverence about holy persons and holy things.

There are a few practical questions parents and grandparents need to ask about what children witness on the home front. Is Sunday Mass clearly the priority — even during family trips and athletic seasons? Does the family pray together? Are crucifixes, statues, images of saints visible? If the parish has a mission or a special devotion, do they attend? Is the family involved in parish ministries, socials, picnics? Do children sense that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are real persons? Is the family involved in charitable works — in Jesus’ name? Do adults give the impression that they make decisions based on their faith?

Piety, in its best sense, is caught and refreshed if we see it at home. But we all knew that.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at


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