Matthew Kelly's lessons on passing down the faith

Matthew Kelly has broken lots of ground. Acclaimed speaker. Best-selling author. In his latest book, Kelly explores what is — for him — uncharted territory: fatherhood. 

A deeply personal reflection by a new dad, “The One Thing” (Beacon Publishing, $13.95) examines Kelly’s faith, hopes and fears about the Catholic Church, his own place in it, and what it will come to mean to his young son, Walter. It’s only coincidence that found Our Sunday Visitor talking with Kelly a mere two weeks after the birth of his second child, Isabel. OSV caught up with Kelly between diaper changes and 2 a.m. feedings. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Your book includes more than two dozen photographs of your son. How did that idea materialize? And what significance do the photographs have to your overall premise of passing on the Catholic faith to Walter? 

Matthew Kelly: Books have a life of their own. They come in their own time. Sometimes they require years of planning and preparation, and sometimes they just appear. This book just flowed onto the page the day after the experience I describe with my son in the book. The photos were just a chance to invite my readers, who have been so good to me over the years, into my life in a unique and personal way. 

OSV: “The One Thing” to which your title refers is — as you say in the book — difficult for many adult Catholics; how do you pass on the miracle of transubstantiation to a toddler, a tween or a young adult? 

Kelly: It is more about presence. The presence of God among us. I would rather be in a room with my wife than talk to her on the phone. Geographical closeness counts, just ask anyone who is separated from a loved one who is traveling for work or defending our country and values in the armed forces.  

I think it is the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist that we need to emphasize, and then, lead young people to sit quietly in the presence and experience the peace and joy that God wants to flood our lives with. My whole spiritual journey began by sitting in Church each day for 10 minutes. I knew Jesus was present. In that church in Sydney, Australia, where I grew up, there was a small sign below the tabernacle that said, “MY LORD AND MY GOD.” I was taught as an altar boy to say this every time I genuflected before the tabernacle. And that ingrained in me, that small habit, the reality that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. 

OSV: Congratulations on the birth of your second child. Have you had a chance to reflect on how having two kids (or more, for that matter) might affect how you think about the central theme of your book? 

Kelly: My second child, Isabel, was born just two weeks ago, and what strikes me is that it is very different to be a father to a daughter than it is to a son. In what ways I am not entirely sure yet. But I sense that it is going to require different skills and constant intentionality to father my daughter the way God wants me to.  

On a very natural level, I am delighted in a whole new way, as I am the fourth of eight boys … and didn’t know my gene pool was capable of producing females. I am so excited to watch Isabel grow up, and I feel honored to be in her life already. 

OSV: What advice would you give to parents who have raised their children in the faith, but whose children have moved away from the Church, either temporarily or permanently? 

Kelly: The best way to convince people of God’s interest in their lives and the genius of Catholicism is to manifest the love of God to them in real and practical ways. Love them, listen to them, seek to understand what the struggles are in their lives, answer their questions with respect and dignity ... and above all be patient. Each and every single one of us wanders from God at times in our lives, and God waits patiently for us to return. This is a difficult teaching. But it is the way God loves us.  

The love of God is like the sun shining. It just shines all the time. Sometimes clouds get in the way, but the sun does not stop shining. In this same way we are called to love regardless of obstacles. I also think it is helpful to ask how situations like this can enrich our faith, challenge us to change, and bring us closer to God. 

OSV: Do you think moms and dads have different roles in passing on the faith to our children, or is the message the message no matter the messenger? 

Kelly: Mothers and fathers have unique relationships with their children, though I am not clear about all that yet. I am still feeling my way. And I see my wife feeling her way, and I love that she is hungry to do the right thing and serve our children as best she can as a mother. Though I have reflected over the years on how people generally draw their first image of God the Father from their experience with their human father, and so I certainly feel the weight of that responsibility. 

OSV: Who were the big influences in your spiritual development? 

Kelly: I have been incredibly blessed to have encountered a series of very holy men and women throughout my life: laypeople, priests and religious. In particular there was one man in my teen years who helped answer many questions I had about religion in general and Catholicism in particular. He was patient with me, and I will always be grateful. It was a critical time in my human and spiritual development, and having answers to questions at that time can make all the difference. 

It is for this reason that I so often speak and write about my belief that people deserve answers to their questions. We now live in a time when people — Catholics and non-Catholics — have more questions about Catholicism than ever before. This is a great opportunity to unveil the genius of Catholicism for our generation, and that is one of the primary reasons we should all be reading a few pages from a great Catholic book every day. 

OSV: When you think back to your own upbringing and the way your faith developed, what lessons stick with you? 

Kelly: At the heart of any genuine spirituality you find gratitude. My father told me once when I asked him why going to Mass on Sunday was important, “God has given me another week, and I want to thank him for that.” It was simple and real. It was a personal testimony about why he was going, not a forced explanation of why I should go. It is these types of practical words and experiences that have always had the most impact on me. In anger, I once told my dad that I didn’t believe in God anymore. Many parents would be understandably alarmed, but he didn’t overreact. He just smiled and said, “That’s OK, he still believes in you.” 

OSV: What do you think you’ll do differently than your parents? 

Kelly: I don’t know. I often talk with my wife about how now as a parent myself I find myself constantly wondering, “How did they do it?” I have seven brothers, and I think my parents did an amazing job of loving us, raising us, giving us opportunities to experience the best of life and the world, and patiently allowing us to grow into ourselves. 

I don’t know what I will do differently, but I will try to do all these things for my children as they did for me. 

Cory Busse writes from Minnesota.