Given the state of affairs today among millennials who were raised in the Catholic faith, I understand the surprised looks on people’s faces when I tell them my three adult siblings (ages 27 through 33) and I are all intentional disciples. We try to love Jesus, follow Him, and be faithful Catholics.
All of us have married other faithful Catholics, and we are committed to raising our children to know and love Christ and the church. To top it all off, my two sisters and I majored in theology in college, my sister Elisa and I both have master’s degrees in theology, and my brother studied philosophy.
Even to other faithful Catholics, this all sounds highly unusual. How in the world did we all end up like this? Did my parents brainwash us? Were we forced to go to daily Mass while we were growing up in Texas and kept completely sheltered from secular TV and music? Did we spend all of our spare time as kids reading the Bible and praying? Did we go to Catholic elementary and high schools where we had lots of other faithful Catholic mentors and friends all around us?
The answer to nearly all of those question is an emphatic no. Sure, Sunday Mass was an expectation, but I don’t ever remember feeling that I was forced to do anything faith-related. Yes, my parents censored what we watched and listened to, but they tried to keep the rules age-appropriate, and we all watched our fair share of TV in junior high and high school.
We did go to Catholic schools, but in terms of Catholic identity, the quality of theology classes and the number of faithful Catholic mentors around, these schools were mediocre at best. So how did they do it?
My parents would say that we all love Jesus and the church because of: 1.) grace, 2.) grace, and 3) grace. But even they have to admit, when pressed, that they played an important role; grace builds on nature, after all. I thank God on a regular basis for the gift of faith-filled parents who, through their witness, gave me everything I needed as a child to make my faith my own as an adult, and I know my siblings would all say the same thing. My parents weren’t perfect and my family still has issues (what family doesn’t?), but the one thing we never disagree on is Christ and His church.
Looking back on my childhood, I can pinpoint six things my parents did that were particularly formative. These aren’t silver bullets, but I do think my parents’ way of teaching the beauty of the Catholic faith was a huge part of why my siblings and I are faithful Catholics to this day.
1.) Say the name. My parents talked about their relationships with the Lord, what He was doing in their lives, and what they could see Him doing in our lives on a daily basis. Jesus’ name was frequently spoken in our house, and always in a positive way. I never felt like God was a police officer in the sky, waiting for me to screw up. Instead, I knew that He loved me even more than my parents did. My parents’ faith in and love for Jesus was the air we breathed — it wasn’t just a “church thing” or a “school thing.”
2.) Have daily family devotions. Like most Catholic families, we said the typical grace before meals and prayers before bed. Unlike most Catholic families, we did a lot of extemporaneous prayer as a family, usually after dinner. My parents didn’t emphasize rote prayer so much as heartfelt conversations with the Lord. We learned from a young age that the Lord cared about all of our concerns and that we could voice them aloud, directly to Him.
My dad said this type of prayer helped us “stretch our prayer muscles,” and he’s right. My parents were good about keeping our prayer times on the short side so that we wouldn’t get restless, and they encouraged us (at the appropriate ages) to have our own prayer time each day. I didn’t do that until my high school years, but the seeds were definitely planted, and our family prayer times paved the way for my future spiritual growth.
3.) Read the Bible. My parents met because of the Catholic Charismatic Movement, which was the context in which they both encountered the Bible, outside of the Mass, for the first time. They took biblical literacy seriously and wanted us to dive into God’s word as soon as possible. We listened to Bible-verse memory cassettes in the car, which we legitimately loved, and read the children’s Bible so often we had entire stories memorized. As my dad said, “The word is like the rain and snow that come down and water the earth, making it fruitful. You need water in your garden of souls; the Bible is your water source.”
4.) Pray for your children’s spiritual formation. My parents prayed for us daily, and we knew this. They also took their responsibility to form us in the faith seriously, and educated themselves on the Bible and church teaching. Until college, I didn’t have a theology teacher who taught me anything my parents hadn’t already covered — and then some.
5.) Be credible witnesses. I remember waking up for school and seeing my mom reading her Bible, journaling, or kneeling, deep in prayer, before she came into the kitchen to supervise breakfast. My dad also had a daily prayer routine that was visible to all of us; we knew how seriously he took his relationship with Christ.
This, I believe, was the most important component in our faith formation: We saw my parents, especially my dad, living what they were teaching, day in and day out. I could also tell that living the Christian life was a joy for them, even when it was difficult. I never associated Jesus or the church with a bunch of arbitrary rules; my parents always framed morality in the context of our relationship with Christ.
6.) Partake of the sacraments frequently. I was so excited to receive my first Communion. I knew I would be receiving Jesus, and I knew it was my mom’s favorite part of the week. I wanted to experience the joy I saw on her face every Sunday after she received the Eucharist. While we didn’t start to go to daily Mass as a family until I was in college, my parents’ joyful attitude toward Sunday Mass was what kept me interested as a child, even when the homily was way over my head. I wanted to be as close to Jesus as she was. It wasn’t until much later that my parents (and I) started to go to confession regularly, but now it’s a staple of our lives.
Here is what my parents didn’t do (until later): They didn’t teach us much about the saints, Marian devotion, or the liturgical calendar. In part, that’s because they didn’t fully understand the importance of the church’s teachings on the more devotional aspects of Catholicism when I was young. By the time I went to college and my younger siblings were in junior high and high school, they had rediscovered the beauty and richness of Catholic devotional life. At the same time, I went to Notre Dame and met many other faithful Catholic students, and learned from them as well.
I think my parents’ emphasis on developing a relationship with Christ, reading and knowing the Bible, and attending Mass regularly was wonderful despite its deficiencies. And they did it without any curriculum, printables, or the internet!
What my siblings and I received is so rare, especially in the Catholic world, and one of my hopes is that my generation will change this. After teaching high school for nine years and seeing the dramatic difference it makes to a teen to have two parents who are intentional disciples, I’m even more passionate about raising my children to know the love, joy and beauty that come with knowing Christ.
Thank you, Mom and Dad! I love and appreciate y’all more than you can know (this side of heaven).
Christina Dehan Jaloway is a freelance writer, speaker, and former high school theology teacher based in Texas. She is an editor at Spoken Bride, a Catholic website for brides and newlyweds, and blogs at The Evangelista.