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What we hand on

30 November, 1999

In an important article about handing on the faith in contemporary Ireland, Fr Paul Andrews SJ says, “What we hand on to our children is not so much doctrine or practices, as the capacity to love”. Eileen sat, a curious matriarch, amid three generations of her offspring. Her children and their spouses, and their children […]

In an important article about handing on the faith in contemporary Ireland, Fr Paul Andrews SJ says, “What we hand on to our children is not so much doctrine or practices, as the capacity to love”.

Eileen sat, a curious matriarch, amid three generations of her offspring. Her children and their spouses, and their children and grandchildren, happened to be near home in such numbers that they arranged a Sunday lunch in a hospitable pub.

Eileen looked, and listened, and wished that her lovely husband, killed by a hospital bug ten years ago, were here to share it all. They had given such thought and energy to each of their six children. They were a clever lot and a loving lot, like their parents, and they had reached adulthood in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. Here was a rare opportunity to see how they had turned out.

Time to reflect
‘Turned out’ may be the wrong word. Which of us can say we have finally turned out? We are still turning and changing until rigor mortis sets in. But when your children are themselves starting to be parents, you feel some sort of stage has been reached, that deserves reflection.

Not one but many mothers (fathers too, but less often) ask this question: how is it that the children we reared in the faith do not bother to get their children baptised? Religion was our lifeline; why is it either irrelevant or an optional devotion for many of them?

Eileen was past the illusion of blaming herself or her husband. They had done the best job they could. They had kept the love flowing in the family, and saw the futility of the question: What did I do wrong? Ireland itself is different.

Soft target
They can remember a time when on most mornings the front page of the Irish Independent reverently featured a bishop or priest making a speech or opening a school. That has changed; now almost any newspaper feels free to attack the majority religion and its representatives.

Journalists are no longer safe targetting Jews, but they can feel comfortable bashing the Church and its clergy. As Yale professor Peter Viereck commented, Catholic-baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals.

The bigger picture
That public hostility may impact on adults. A bigger influence on adolescents is the pressure of some peers who see Mass-going as something to be left behind in childhood. Moreover, religion and church are so absent from the most popular TV programmes that you can understand a girl or boy feeling that a godless life is normal. But that is not the whole picture.

In the Ireland of our times, our faith has had to depend more and more on inner strengths. We have seen religious values slowly eliminated from our laws. Society has become increasingly secular and multicultural. Good Christians maintain their faith without the props of an externally Christian society. We are pushed back to the smaller community of our parish or faith group; and also to our interior life, to the movements of our hearts. The same is true of our children.

How do you pray?
When teenagers are asked when they pray (clearly different from the question about attending church), it emerges that few of them – or of adults – have given up praying. I had a dear friend, a clever and deeply spiritual Donegal woman, whose fate it was to attend a lot of formal dinners – her husband was an ambassador.

Róisín would find herself sitting beside people of every religion and none. In such mixed and international company, the conversation tended to be about politics or the boring trivia of shopping and travel.

In such a conversation Róisín would sometimes break a pause by turning to her neighbour and asking: Tell me, how do you pray? There would be a shocked silence. It was not considered a proper question for a diplomatic dinner table. But Róisín’s interest was so real and lively that her question would generally lead to a real answer.

Praying was so important to Róisín, she assumed it was important to most human beings and she found that was the case. Whether her partner was agnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, post-Christian or whatever, she found that nearly all of them turned to God at times. Róisín told me that the question led to some of the best and most personal exchanges.

Age and experience
It is a question we have to be ready to hear from our children. What is our honest answer? There is no right answer except the truth of our experience, and that will change as we grow older and our prayer ‘reaches new depths, especially in times of crisis and distress.

It is then that the compassionate heart of Christ, and the meaning that he gives to redemptive suffering, can strengthen us. It was from moments like these that the prayer became popular: O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in thee.

What we hand on to our children is not so much doctrine or practices, as the capacity to love. In a culture dominated by the philosophy of unrestricted choice – go for anything you want, as long as you have the money for it – the family is a stark exception. It exists because father, mother and children have restricted their choice, and commit themselves to one another for life. Without that model of unearned and faithful love, it makes little sense to talk of the love of God. We have no experience to give content to the words.

Look into your hearts
We have probably overdone the stress on practice in our religion. You cannot read far into the Gospels without seeing the different emphasis of Jesus. He was constantly telling the Pharisees and scribes that they worried too much about regulations and practices, such as the washing of dishes and the detailed observance of the Sabbath. Instead he stressed: Look into your hearts; it is there that goodness or evil come into the world.

We do not want to sit in judgment on our children or grandchildren. But if we even start to worry about them, let us use the criteria that Jesus gives us: the love of God (shown in prayer), and the love of others. Let us look to their hearts. 


This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.  

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