All of us are, by virtue of our baptism, members of the family of God.
Ideally our own families mirror the love God has for each of us as His beloved children. As Blessed John Paul II often said, the nuclear family is the essential building block of society. Sadly, however, today nearly a fourth of all American children live in single-parent homes. Even if this isn’t your experience, you probably know at least one single parent in your own extended family or parish who is trying to raise Catholic kids on his or her own.
It’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one. Here are a few things that can help single parents and those who love them turn the job into a holy calling.
Example the Best Teacher
In many ways, the faith is not so much taught as it is caught. When parents and other significant adults in a child’s life make the effort, and it often is a great effort, to regularly attend Mass, to participate in sacramental preparation programs and to genuinely live a faith-filled life, children are going to observe that. It’s easier, for sure, when you have two parents doing the instructing and modeling, but as many saints have shown, it’s possible for a single Catholic to raise godly children. St. Francis Borgia (the white sheep of the infamous Borgia family) raised his eight children after his wife’s death and none of them seems to have fallen prey to the depravities of many of the Borgia clan (a remarkable fact in itself!).
Living a faithful Catholic life, including frequent reception of the sacraments, especially reconciliation and the Eucharist, and making sure that children who are still living at home do the same is the single most effective way of creating a Catholic family for all parents, single or not.
In single parent families, grandparents and other family members can be a tremendous boon in helping raise children in the Faith. Scripture shows us just how effective this joint effort can be at raising a godly child. One of St. Paul’s favorite companions was a young man named Timothy. Apparently it was Timothy’s mother and grandmother who were his Christian teachers since Paul writes, “I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice” (2 Tm 1:5). We don’t even know if his father was alive because his only mention is in Acts 16:1 — “his father was a Greek” — but clearly St. Timothy’s faith came from his mother and grandmother.
Passing on the faith single-handedly isn’t limited to those who aren’t married. In about a third of all Catholic marriages, one spouse isn’t Catholic or sometimes isn’t even Christian. The Catholic parent in the marriage is going to be totally responsible for the Catholic upbringing because it doesn’t make much difference if there isn’t anyone to help or if there isn’t anyone willing to help. In many cases, one parent (frequently the mom) bears the brunt of responsibility for everything from teaching bedtime prayers to going to Mass to sacramental preparation. For whatever reason, the active Catholic parent is sometimes essentially a single Catholic parent.
An example of how such effort may be blessed comes from St. Monica. Her husband, Patricius, was a pagan and opposed to all Christian practices. Yet Monica’s faith prevailed and her son, Augustine, became a great saint himself. Notably, Patricius himself was baptized a year before his own death because of the example given by his holy wife.
A Gift and a Choice
Faith is always a gift and a choice. It is always up to the child to accept or reject, and a parent can only take so much responsibility for a child’s choices. At some point, children are accountable for their own decisions, their own reaffirmation of baptismal promises and their own relationship with God. A parent can point the way and cheer on the sidelines, but no parent can actually run a child’s race of salvation, as St. Paul puts it.
The fact is, not even a saint is assured that his or her children will be practicing Catholics for life. St. Rita of Cascia’s sons were so violent that she prayed that they would die before they committed more sins. (She actually got her prayer answered!) The best any parent can do is present the teachings of the Church, provide for sacramental reception, live their own faith as a clear and loving example, and pray constantly.
Divorce and Annulment
Finally, widespread misunderstanding about divorce and annulment, and their impact on Church standing, has led many divorced single parents to feel like outcasts or even pariahs. While the Church disapproves of divorce, divorce alone doesn’t excommunicate or bar anyone from reception of the sacraments.
It is only when a divorced person remarries without an annulment that he or she is prevented from receiving the Eucharist, although he or she is still encouraged to attend Mass.
And speaking of annulments, they only address the validity of the sacramental nature of a marriage; annulments do not invalidate the state-sanctioned aspects of matrimony, nor do they make children illegitimate.
It isn’t easy raising Catholic children, as part of a couple or as a single parent, but it isn’t impossible either. God has promised to be a spouse to the spouseless and a parent to the parentless, for as Romans 8:31 puts it, “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?” TCA