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When your grown children leave the church

30 November, 1999

Dale Francis offers some dos and don’ts for parents who experience the pain of seeing their adult children leave the church, sometimes to join another church or religious group. There was a letter from a distressed woman in today’s post. What she had always thought would be the hardest thing for her as a mother […]

Dale Francis offers some dos and don’ts for parents who experience the pain of seeing their adult children leave the church, sometimes to join another church or religious group.

There was a letter from a distressed woman in today’s post. What she had always thought would be the hardest thing for her as a mother to bear was happening. Her daughter, her daughter’s husband, and their children were leaving the Catholic Church and preparing to join another religious body.

The letter gave no information about the religious organisation her daughter’s family was joining. It could have been another Christian denomination or one of the current cults. However, whatever the details of the situation, my advice would be the same. I have been giving this same advice for several years. The advantage of having counselled hundreds of families is that by now I have heard from some who claim the advice I gave (and am still giving) was helpful. The following are some dos and don’ts that have worked for others and can work for you.

1. Don’t feel guilty
First of all, if you find yourself in a situation such as the one described above, you should examine your attitude toward yourself. Are you blaming yourself for what your adult children have decided to do? There is nothing to gain in retracing your past, thinking you should have done this or that, or feeling guilty about how they were reared. When your children became adults, they also became responsible for their own actions and decisions.

It is quite natural to feel some regret about the decision your children have made, but their decision is not your responsibility. You may, in other words, feel sadness, but avoid feeling guilty or responsible.

The importance of ridding yourself of guilt is not just to spare you anguish. If you blame yourself for what is not your responsibility, it could influence how you act in the present situation – where you do have some responsibility.

2. Don’t argue
It will do you little good to argue with your children about their decision. If they are preparing to join another religious denomination, they are undoubtedly under the influence and instruction of leaders who are giving them answers that appeal to them. Unless you are very unusual, you are probably not really knowledgeable enough to present arguments for the Catholic faith. But even if you happen to be a scholar of Catholic doctrine, you would also have to know the teachings of the denomination to which they are drawn to offer an effective argument.

The best approach, then, is not to argue at all. Make clear your own firm conviction, quietly and unemotionally. Your children are bound to know that you are disappointed. You don’t have to stress the sadness you feel.

3. Don’t say they “owe it to you”
Avoid making an emotional appeal on a personal basis for them to return to the Catholic Church. Don’t tell them they “owe” it to you or that the disappointment is more than you can bear. Even if this tactic did succeed, their return would have no meaning. If the only thing that kept them in the Catholic Church was their reluctance to hurt you, they would be without a reason for being Catholic, and once you were gone, there would be nothing to hold them.

4. Don’t disown them
The most important don’t of all is – do not do anything that will suggest in any way that you are disowning them because of their decision. The saddest people I have known in connection with this situation are those who, in their emotional anguish, have told their children that if they left the church, they would no longer be considered members of the family. This sort of unrelenting commitment to such a threat destroys any chance of family harmony.

5. Do stay close to them
Despite your sadness and disappointment, it is important at this time to remain close to your children. Love them and let them know that they are loved. Accept them as they are, even though it saddens you that they are no longer in the church. If they become active in another religious body, do not criticise it. If this is a subject of serious disagreement, it is best to avoid the subject rather than force them to defend their position – which will only firm up their decision.

Be charitable and really love your children. Work at breaking down barriers of antagonism that have arisen simply by showing your willingness to reach out to them in love.

6. Do stay close to God
Give witness by your own life as a Catholic. Pray for your children and for your whole family to remain close to him. Increase your own life in Christ in the church. Go to daily Mass whenever it is possible. Make your own life, in other words, a continuing statement about your faith.

7. Do leave a door open
As you remain close to your children, be sure to leave the way open for them to return to their faith with their pride intact. This is something that need not be spoken; it should simply be evident by your love. Do nothing or say nothing that would make them hold stubbornly to a decision they may one day regret.

If they come to a point where they are having a religious struggle or feel drawn back to the Catholic faith, do not rush in with arguments on why they must return. Just be receptive to opportunities to let them know they would be welcomed. Appreciate the turmoil they may be going through and have compassion for them. Your role is simply to love them and accept them.

The Christian response
I have heard from many parents who have had the rewarding experience of their children’s return to the Catholic faith. What they have told me is that this was made possible because they, the parents, did not denounce their children, did not separate themselves from them, did nothing but love them, pray for them, and offer the witness of their own lives as faithful Catholics – and, in doing this they left the way open for return.

However, I would not want to deceive you. When this has happened, it has been the exception. I do not suggest that if you follow all these rules your children will return to the faith. In other words, what I am offering is not some surefire solution for a situation that brings great distress to many parents but the Christian response to this situation, which, as in all Christian family situations, is love!

This article first appeared in Liguorian and was reprinted with permission in Reality (March 2003), an Irish Redemptorist publication.

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