Monday, April 6, 2015

Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

That title sounds familiar, doesn't it? Where have I heard this before, you ask? I'll give you three guesses...and the first two don't count.

"My parents don't take me..."
The other day, I read a poignant article by Fr. Anthony Gerber from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, titled "What Children's Confessions Reveal..." In his article, Fr. Gerber noted the frequency of children confessing not attending Mass and their guilt and sorrow over not being able to experience what they longed for. Unfortunately, he found that, as children grew older and remained essentially estranged from Jesus in the Eucharist over longer periods of time, they became less concerned and affected by these sins and even others. He shares his sorrow and even righteous anger over these realities and even (in my opinion) rightly proposes their connection. He also cited the reasons these children, whether in Catholic schools or parish programs, cite for non-attendance, from sports activities to sleeping in, both of which were the same reasons I heard as a religious education teacher, but most common and most troubling was the reason, "My parents don't take me."

Fellow parents, how have we let it get this far? Why do we spend the time, money, and effort to make sure our children are baptized and receive First Holy Communion, only to have it be the last time they encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, sometimes for years, sometimes...forever. Did we not take seriously their baptism, when we promised to, "accept the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith" (from the Rite of Baptism)? The rite goes on to say that, "It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?"

Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?
Did you say "yes" to this? I did, and I didn't fully understand what I was undertaking. I was raised during a time when the Church was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, when the lay faithful and even a great many ordained and religious did not know what the Second Vatican Council actually said, and so did they know how to implement what they did not know. I assumed that, just as many of us experienced, this was more a requirement of being Catholic, an event to check off the list, but not really requiring anything dramatic of us...dramatic, like conversion, even a death event (I'll explain in a moment). But why is this "conversion" business even necessary? Isn't the grace received in the Sacraments enough? Not so much, and here's why:

Why Fight the Grace of God?
Grace is powerful, but our salvation requires that we cooperate with it. The details of justification, sanctification, and salvation are well beyond the scope of this discussion, so you can read more about them on a separate post here. Basically, faith requires something of us. It is not enough to attend Mass occasionally and show up to "get the Sacraments," never to return again. If we are baptized, we have actually died. Yep, as a doornail. Our "old man" has been crucified with Christ, but guess what that means? In Baptism, we rise with Christ. It's not the full-body resurrection we await at the end of time, but it's a pretty good start. So baptism is new life, yes, but this part is emphasized often to the point of minimizing the deathly nature of the Sacrament as well. St. Paul makes this pretty clear, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death" (Rom 6:3)? In fact, he goes on in even more specific language, "We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is free from sin. But if we have died in Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him (Rom 6:6-8). Note: many translations say, "our old self was crucified," but the Greek literally says "old man", a reference to Adam, the one man through whom sin entered the world (Rom 5:12). So, as I often say, why does this matter?

My fellow parents, when you and your children were baptized, you all sin, to your previous life, to the concerns of the world. Why? To be freed from the covenant that was struck with sin, to which we were bound, like marriage, until death. With the death of baptism, we now are freed from that relationship, open to enter into a new relationship, that is, freedom for life and holiness in Christ by the Grace He (not we) earned by the Cross. We have got to stop living our old sinful lives because Christ's death for us, and our acceptance of it in baptism, makes a claim on us and opens up so many opportunities to live freely for others...especially our children.

What Fr. Gerber's article tells us is what we already know, which is that the Sacraments are the source of our life in Christ, our relationship with the One God. If you were to marry your spouse and never speak again, never tell that person you love them, how long would that marriage last? Spoiler: not long. How many of you have friends who, prior to separating, have said, "It's been forever since we had (let's just call it "conjugal relations"). The fact is, that part of marriage is when a husband and wife become one, which is the same thing we experience in the Eucharist, you and I each become one with Christ, and by the nature of Christ being united to all of us who received, we all are united as one people, the Mystical Body of Christ- Communion! So in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (in the context of the Mass), we strengthen and renew our relationship with Christ and strengthen the unity of the Church in a world that so desperately needs a clear sign of sacrificial love.

Six Seconds Isn't Enough for a Good Vine
God has entrusted to us these children, these branches around our tables (Ps 128:3), and we are called to help them grow, like the vineyard owner in Mk 12:1. We know that Jesus tells this parable to convict the hearts of the Jewish leaders who had been taking advantage of the people and would kill the Son to control the vineyard, but all of Sacred Scripture applies to all people in all ages. We can know that the Master of the field has planted the vineyard, built a wall around it, and entrusted it to us. We are then responsible to Him for its care, but we also know that Jesus is the vine, His people, the branches, "He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do (in the Greek) ABSOLUTELY NOTHING" (Jhn 15:5). The converse is also true for those who do not immerse themselves frequently in the Grace of His Sacraments, which is the source of our life in Christ, "If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (Jhn 15:6). If we don't cling to Jesus, we cannot be fruitful, which is our call, but more than that, neither can our children, and if we apply this to the parable of the talents, we know that, "[T]o the one who has (in this case, raised their children in Christ), more will be given; and he will have abundance, but from him who has not (failed to care for the spiritual lives of their children), even what he has will be taken away" (Mat 25:29). That is, if you don't bring your children to learn to love and desire Christ in His Sacramental gifts, you shouldn't be surprised when they leave the Church.

The Garden of the Church
The reality is, as Pope St. John Paul II said in his Message for the XXXI World Youth Day and Prayer for Vocations, the "garden" or "first seminary" of children, the "domestic church" at home is the please where, "the seeds of vocation, which God sows generously, are able to blossom and grow to full maturity" (Optatem totius, n. 2). We are called to educate our children first, both in faith and morals, as their first teachers, rather than leaving this responsibility to parochial and secular schools or religious education programs. These programs only serve to support parents in their vocation, not replace them, so I exhort and encourage my fellow parents to take this commission seriously because like the servant who hid his talent, failing to bring forth fruit from God's generous gift of our children will be dealt with appropriately. We want what is best for our children, and if we believe that a life lived deeply in Christ and His Church is best, so much so that we asked for the Sacrament of baptism of Christ's Church, then shouldn't we take the on-going care of our children's souls just as seriously?

There is little room for confusion on this, and no way to "get off on a technicality," so be a good steward, and bring your little ones to Mass, sharing with them in the Sacraments, teaching them to love the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). This is your responsibility, and I assure you, even when they wiggle and wail during Mass, God is pleased...and as I tell people all the time, these children will drag you, kicking and screaming, to Heaven- yes, we parents kick and scream, while our children run to Jesus, for [we] will be lead by a child (Is 11:6).

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