This very relevant question can be considered as the tip of the iceberg of the fundamental question: how can parents introduce their children to their faith tradition? In other words, how do parents help their children in the transmission of the faith? The devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary derives from the faith in Jesus Christ; the love for her is the ramification of the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The Blessed Mother herself always points to Jesus Christ as seen in John 2:5. Thus the key question remains: how do parents help their children develop faith within the framework of their religious tradition?
Many Catholic parents are concerned with spiritual or faith life of their children. They would like to see their children grow into adulthood with a strong faith in God. But how many of these parents intentionally or purposefully do something to help their children grow in that faith? Most children in the Catholic Church are baptized as babies. Some parents consider their work of educating their children in faith done once they get them baptized. Later if these children abandon their faith or remain baptized by name, the blame is put on the society, the Church, etc. While the society and the Church may share the responsibility in this matter, we should not neglect the fact that the family is where faith usually sprouts from and is nurtured; the family is in principle the cradle of the faith. Parents have a greater responsibility in bringing their children to faith and in nurturing it.
I happened to read an article by Martin Kroh (2010) about the formative period of party identification. The article shows that the passing on of the party identification from parents to children is affected by the fluidity of the formative period (childhood or adolescence) and by the saliency of parents’ partisanship. Timing (appropriate formative period) is important but still more important is the saliency of parents’ partisanship. The more vital party identification is in the parents’ social identity, the more likely will these parents pass on their views to their children in an early age. This is true not only in the political context of party identification but also in other contexts including faith transmission. Psychology tells us that the development of a child takes place in a context where other agents with their beliefs and practices play an important role in the determination of the human paths the child’s development can take (Schachter & Ventura, 2008). Parents play a crucial role as “co-participants” in determining the human paths development of their children; they are the primary “partners-in-identity-formation” or “co-constructers of their children’s identity”.
Thus parents are responsible for their children’s progress in faith. The social doctrine of the Church affirms that parents have the right and duty to educate their children; they have the mission to form their children in faith. The importance the Church attaches to the parents’ role in the religious/spiritual development of their children is evidenced by the convocation in 2006 of the World Theological-Pastoral Congress on the theme “The Transmission of Faith in the Family” (L’OsservatoreRomano, Aug. 16, 2006). Considered as the privileged place for forging the personality, the Congress acknowledged that the family is the basic reality with regard to the transmission of the faith to children. The Congress argued that when parents live like real Christians, that is, when their words and behavior translate generosity and Christian meaning of life, their children gradually learn to follow their example and are oriented towards religious values and sacramental life.
Parents can help their children develop devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, the ultimate concern should be how to have their children on board for the journey of faith. Having an infant be baptized is just the beginning of the training journey; many other agents will contribute in this training, but the parents’ role is crucial. They lay the foundations and monitor the progress by checking the contribution of other agents. The Congress above mentioned stated: “Parents must take on this mission (children’s formation in faith) both in the home … and by following carefully the formation given in school and other educational centers”. This requires that parents remain authentic in practicing Christian values, that they are actively involved in Church’s activities, and that they show practical interest in their children’s progress in religious education. It is the salience of their Christian living that will be their strongest weapon to win the battle of keeping their children as active members of the faith community. How genuinely pervasive their professed faith is in their day-to-day life will be a determinant of the transmission of that faith to their children.
Catechism lessons or knowledge of catholic doctrine does not guarantee faith unless someone incarnates or models what is taught. Telling beautiful stories about the Blessed Virgin Mary or teaching the doctrine of the Church about Mary is important but more important is a life that embodies the virtues inspired by the Blessed Mother. Knowledge is needed that leads to faith as an expression of a relationship, relationship with God. But for the knowledge to lead to faith, especially in the case of children, the importance of parents’ role modeling cannot be overstated. It was his encounters with the Blessed Mother full of tenderness and unconditional love that deepened Juan Diego’ s devotion, trust and dedication to her. Juan Diego once delayed his rendez-vous with Our Lady because he was overwhelmed by a family concern (a very sick uncle) and he intended to avoid meeting her by using a different path to reach the city (Johnston, 1984). But in his attempt to avoid her he meets her. And she was the same loving, tender, understanding Lady who called him as in previous encounters and asked: “what is the matter, my little son?” That is not what a disobedient child would expect to hear from most mothers. In his disobedience Juan Diego still heard the low, gentle, and full of esteem voice calling him “Juanito”. That made a deep impression on him. His worry for his sick uncle, his shame and confusion for attempting to avoid her, all these immediately gave way to an enthusiastic commitment to execute what she was requesting. Are the catholic mothers who want their children to develop devotion to the Blessed Mother reflecting her image in their daily life? The sad thing with most of us is the gap between what we preach and what we do. That can sabotage the effort to bring children to authentic devotion and true faith.
Take the case of a mother, member of the Legion of Mary, about to leave the house for the weekly prayer meeting and is told by one of her daughters: “Mom, you always go to those prayer meetings and you call each other sister Malta, sister Beth, sister Rose… Yet yesterday I overheard two of your sisters saying negative things about another sister. What kind of sisters are you?” When I heard this remark I said to myself, this young lady could also call my attention if one day I would blatantly fail to practice what I preach when on the pulpit. These two were my mother and one of my sisters. Yes, we are not perfect but the point I am trying to make here is this: how can my mom convincingly introduce the Legion of Mary to my sister or invite her to join the group if she (my sister) repeatedly sees that its members are not incarnating basic values of the Christian faith following the example of the Blessed Mother? And this is more of a concern when it comes to transmitting faith or a devotion to children because, as someone said, “children are sensitive and astute with an uncanny ability to distinguish between adults who only talk a good game and those who play the game by the rules they preach”. The parents’ own faith needs to be conspicuous in the sense of permeating all aspects of their life if they want to pass on that faith to their children.
One ingredient characteristic of parents’ living faith is their unconditional love for their children. All steps taken to bring children to faith or to a particular devotion should be imbued with love. In 1Cor. 13: 1-13 St. Paul gives the features of that love. “…If I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing” (v. 2). I mentioned earlier that Juan Diego’s devotion, trust and dedication to the Blessed Mother were strengthened by Our Lady’s unconditional love for him. He disobeyed her by delaying the appointment and he was attempting to avoid her. Still she goes to meet him with the same tenderness and loving attitude. Her question to him does not have an accusatory tone but an invitation to talk, she wants to listen. Such unconditional love melts resistance and instillsconfidence, trust and commitment.
The question we are reflecting on is: how do we help our children develop a love or devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary? We may focus on how the devotion can be inculcated on children or on how the devotion can be impacted on children. I advocate the latter. Rather than forcing it, the devotion should be induced. To impact the faith or the devotion on children emphasizes change, transformation on the parents’ side which will affect and induce change on their children. That requires integrity of Christian life coupled with conscious, intentional, purposeful initiatives to embark the children in the faith journey with its varied devotional expressions.
Parents concerned with their children’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary might want to consider living their faith in a conspicuous, genuine and pervasive way. Their role modeling is the key. Let the mothers look at the Blessed Mother and emulate her; let the fathers look at St. Joseph and emulate him. Then children will eventually look at the Child Jesus and imitate him. Thus the call is to replicate the Holy Family. Let our families become holy families where faith in God who loves and saves us through His Son Jesus Christ permeates all aspects of life.
By Fr. Gabriel Ngombedua
Johnston, F. (1984) The wonder of Guadalupe. The story of the miraculous image of the Blessed
Virgin in Mexico. Manila: Sinag-Tala Publishers.
Kroh, M. (2010) The Formative Period of Party Identification: Parental Education in Childhood
and Adolescence. American Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting.
Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1669285
Schachter, E.P. & Ventura, J.J. (2008) Identity Agents: Parents as Active and Reflective
Participants in Their Children’s Identity Formation. Journal of Research on
adolescence, 18 (3), 449-476