My children are no longer Catholic

How I've learned to cope, and why I still have hope

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By Kerry Weber


When my son Jimmy decided to go to college in Oklahoma, the first thing we did was find him an apartment. The second thing we did was find a local Catholic church. I wanted to make sure he was going to Mass somewhere. We met the pastor, and Jimmy started going, but a few weeks later, he calledme to say he had a problem with the pastor and he didn’t like the music the choir director was using. He thought it was too New Age and not liturgical enough. I hoped he’d find another parish where he felt more comfortable, but he started going to a non-denominational church instead. Initially, it was a letdown. I started to ask myself: What went wrong?

My husband and I are Catholic, so it went without saying that we’d raise our children Catholic as well. We did our best to get them into parochial school. When we moved them to a public school, we continued our involvement with the church. Jimmy and his brother Roberto were altar servers and then they were involved in the youth ministry, cleaning, working. They made their Confirmation. Our daughter Julia wasn’t involved as much because she was younger, but we tried to make sure her foundations were strong. When Roberto was in college he was president of the Newman society. At one point he was thinking about becoming a deacon. Jimmy stayed involved with youth ministry until he went into the military. Julia made her Confirmation at our parish. Today, however, none of my children are practicing Catholics. Coming to terms with that has been a gradual process, and not always an easy one. Still, there have been sources of comfort — some of them surprising — along the way.

Jimmy was the first to slip away. Being so far away from him, I felt a little helpless: There was not a lot I could do. Ultimately, I was just grateful that he was searching for his spirituality and not just giving up and going to a bar.

A few years later, Jimmy, who’s 36 now, met the woman who would become his wife. After they became friends, he started playing his guitar at her Seventh-day Adventist church. He started going to church with her and working in youth ministry there. They observe her Sabbath, and he respects her religion and supports her 100 percent.

It wasn’t as much of a shock when Roberto told me he wasn’t going to Mass anymore. I guess I’d matured since Jimmy told me. Roberto is now 37 and is also in the military. I hope and pray each time he goes to a military base that he will find a good Catholic community, but that hasn’t been the case in his current situation. He and his wife Michelle found their comfort in a Protestant church, where they are Sunday school teachers and are involved with the community. However, he didn’t tell me about this until I went to visit him last year and it was time for us to go to church. His wife was really worried about telling me because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I went with them to their service, though, and the moment I walked in, I felt so welcome and comfortable. I had been sick at the time, and during the service the preacher said, “We’ve been praying for you, Mary.”

Wow, I thought. When was the last time a priest did something like that during Mass?

The power of the Spirit was very strong there. Still, some of the elements of the Catholic Mass were missing; I missed the Eucharist. But the word was proclaimed and the community was strong. I felt a slight sense of mourning, but it didn’t last too long, because I hope to see my children in the Church again someday.

My boys left the Church once they were out on their own. My daughter Julia, however, left it while she was still living here at home. Right now she’s 24 years old and in a difficult situation as a single parent. She isn’t involved with any church, and I don’t say much about religion to her anymore. She is out there trying to figure out her place in life; maybe at some point she’ll realize she has to grow up spiritually as well. As she matures and her priorities change, she may see things differently.

The foundation we’ve given her, though — what we have taught her — is in there somewhere. She remembers faces. The other day I was dropping her off at her home and she said to me,“Mom, a lot of the people that live around here are from your church.”

“You know, the funny thing is that that’s your church too,” I said. “You chose to leave it, but the Church is still there for you.” She didn’t say anything, but I know she’s been talking about baptizing the babies. So that’s good. I’ll take that.

At Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, my parish gives out food baskets with turkeys, hams, gift certificates. My parish makes sure that Julia’s name goes on the list of recipients. It lets her know that there are people in the Church who, even when she’s not paying heed to them, are thinking about her. It’s comforting to know that even though she’s not attending my church, my Church is attending to her.

In the end, if she decides to get involved with Trinity Baptist or Shiloh Baptist where her children’s paternal grandmother worships, it will be OK. It’s so important to be connected; we’re not meant to be alone. God is with us, but we need community — preferably a Christian community that will pray for us, be there when we need something, and hold us accountable. I hope in a couple of years she’ll come around. I want to be alive to see it, but if not, I’ll see it from wherever I’m at.

Although I’d like to see my children worshiping in the faith that they grew up in, I find comfort knowing that the essence of the Church has not left them. They may not observe the days of obligation, or experience all the rites and rituals that are such a part of the Catholic faith, but the foundations of faith my husband and I shared with them are still there, whether they understand them or not. They still live lives of the Spirit on a daily basis. They pray. They make a conscious effort to live good lives. And some of them — Jimmy and Roberto — are in Christian communities with people who love them and help them and support them. When Roberto was deployed in Iraq, for instance, there was a huge crowd there that supported his wife and their girls. And Jimmy’s faith community rallied around his family when his wife’s father got sick. I know that although Jimmy and Roberto and Julia are my children, they’re grown now, and they have to search their hearts and find their way.

Just as my husband and I have tried to be understanding about our children’s choices, our children are understanding about ours. My husband and I continue being Catholic and our kids understand that. When they come to visit me, they go to my church. It’s wonderful when we’re able to go to Mass together. I brag about my sons and my grandchildren. I don’t mind talking about the fact that they’re in different churches. At this point, it’s just where we’re at. It’s not what I want, but I know that even if the Church doesn’t have my children right now, God does. And who knows what might develop?

I know a lot of parents get very upset when their kids leave the Church. My own mother, for instance, is upset because Julia hasn’t baptized her twins, who are now 1 year old. Gradually, I’ve come to accept my children’s spiritual journeys, and to see that I just need to keep praying for my children. Every time I visit them, I’m so grateful to see the growth in their lives. I also know my grandkids are getting guidance from the family. My oldest granddaughter loves to pray, and I pray with her when I can. The best time is when she’s in bed and then we pray for everybody in the family and ask Jesus to take care of everybody. As my mother has watched how I’ve handled these situations, she’s come to see that everything will be OK as well.

Sometimes you don’t realize how much your children really are learning. When the kids were growing up, there were times when we thought there might not be enough food for dinner. But we’d invite people over for dinner anyway, and somehow there’d be enough. We just knew the Lord would provide. When Jimmy was headed to college, we didn’t know where he was going to get the money for school. But he just looked at us and said, “Mom, Dad, the Lord will provide.” And He did. So I know that bond between my children and God is there. My son was reminding us of what we’d taught him.

There are so many reasons why children may leave the Church or rebel; this is just my family’s story. Of course I hope that someday my children will come back to the Church. I’m almost certain Roberto will because I think he’s serious about someday being a deacon. I don’t know about Jimmy. He still considers himself a Catholic, but he’s definitely into his own thing. I’m waiting for Julia to come to us to ask for our advice. When that happens, I’ll be involved in any way I can.

Right now, I’m happy that the kids are seeking God. I have to trust that God will take care of me, take care of them. God has a reason for everything. Sometimes that’s not easy to accept: You say, Well, when I’m face to face with Him I’m going to ask all those questions for which I’ve never been able to get an answer. But for now, I’ll make the best of today, and pray that tomorrow is a good tomorrow. We can’t divide up our lives into “faith” and “everything else”; faith is a part of all the decisions we make. So I try not to tell my kids what to do; I try to respect their decisions. You just have to hope that you’ve taught them well enough, and that when it’s time, they will blossom. CD

BY MARY GONZALEZ* AS TOLD TO KERRY WEBER
* names have been changed for privacy

What the numbers say

The headlines have been daunting: “Catholic tradition fading in U.S.,” one newspaper trumpeted; “Immigrants keeping American Catholic Church afloat,” another charged in February after the release of a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reporting the Catholic Church was losing members rapidly.

But the truth, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, is that the percentage of Americans who call themselves Catholic — roughly a quarter of the United States population — has remained relatively steady over the last 50 years. About 72 percent of people who grew up Catholic remain Catholic as adults, according to CARA. Further, CARA claims Pew may have underestimated the number of Hispanic Catholics by as many as 2.7 million, considerably skewing the findings.

CARA concluded: “There is no reason to believe that there has been some recent mass exodus from the Catholic faith, nor are those who have left disproportionately among any specific racial, ethnic, or citizenship group.”

Number of Catholics in 1965

45.6 million

Number of Catholics in 2007
64.4 million

Percentage of Americans raised Catholic, but no longer Catholic
8.1%

Percentage of Latinos identifying as Catholic

64%

Number of new Catholics in 2007 (includes Baptism of adults and infants; people received into full communion)

1.1 million

 

A parent’s prayer for a child who has left the Church
You can easily adapt this prayer to apply to a grandchild, friend, relative, etc.

Lord, I want (Name)
to know and love You as I do.
I worry, Lord, what paths
(Name) may take
without the wisdom of your
Church to guide the way.

Ever since (Name) was little, Lord,
I was there to hold (his/her) hand,
to help guide (his/her) choices.
I know this is a journey (Name) has
to make alone, Lord,
but it’s hard for me to let go.

Help me, Lord, to surrender my fears to You.
Help me to place (Name) totally in your hands.
Help me to remember that even when
(Name) pulls away from You
that You are never away from (Name).

Help me to respond with patience and wisdom
to (Name)’s journey, Lord.
Help me to be gentle and understanding.
Help me to fi nd the right ways to
encourage (Name), Lord,
and to speak to (Name) through my example.
Help (Name) never to forget that the doors
of the Church,
like a (mother/father)’s arms,
are always open to (him/her).

Amen.

- Julie Rattey

Kerry Weber

Kerry Weber is an assistant editor for America magazine, a national Catholic weekly. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and earned her B.A. from Providence College. Prior to enrolling at Columbia, Kerry was an associate editor for Catholic Digest. She also has worked as a staff reporter for The Greenwich Post and The Catholic Observer and as a producer and reporter for Real to Reel a television news magazine. After graduation, she volunteered for one year as a full-time special-education teacher in St. Michaels, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Her interests include running, reading, social justice issues, hiking, the Boston Red Sox, quilting, road trips, sheep, Nuts4Nuts, good concerts, tea, pie, and the work of Flannery O’Connor and Nick Hornby.