How to engage children in the Faith

Bequeathing a vibrant Catholic faith to our children in a post-Christian era is no easy task. In his new book “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World” (Henry Holt & Co., $26), Archbishop Charles J. Chaput asserts that we’ve reached a critical mass of broken families. A societal avalanche of sorts is underway, and the fallout is multi-layered and complex.

The other night I was out with some other Catholic moms. One mom asked, “Where’s the closest monthly healing Mass with adoration and confessions available? My family is plugging through some generational healing and we all need it to stay on track.”

The four of us around the table were all from broken families of origin. One of the challenges of engaging our children in the Faith these days is that more than half the generation doing the parenting is working through the rubble of broken families, often bereft of deeply Catholic support within the extended family. This demands perseverance, creativity and intentional formation of a deep-knit community.

Broken families and the wounded motherhood/fatherhood issues that result can leave even adult children with a cavernous need for affirmation, guidance and support. The confidence and security naturally formed in a child that comes of age under the umbrella of a healthy marriage is not fully formed in those emerging from broken situations. This is a breeding ground for the self-medicating that leads to addiction. Couple this kind of brokenness with a sexually confused culture and deeply wounded sexuality abounds. The lack of integration that results from these types of wounds makes sacramental marriage and family life a challenge.

Pope Francis has a penetrating understanding of his wounded flock. He introduced the image of the Church as field hospital early in his pontificate. “Stop the bleeding,” the pope said, “and then you can talk about everything else.”

Whatever your story, commit to fostering a balanced spirituality within yourself so that you may serve as a joyful integrated conduit of the Faith for your children. This might involve activities like professional counseling, moms and dads socializing with other strong, faithful families, retreats, weekly multi-family fellowship, Holy Hours, family Rosary, book clubs, date nights, festivals, breaking into song, more participation in Mass, campfires, predictable down time and plenty of meals around all manner of tables.

“Find some other families that are doing what you’re doing so that your children grow up with some other kids that are swimming upstream in this culture,” one mom told me. “That way they see they’re not the only ones making these countercultural choices we’re working so hard to instill.”

The adventure of passing down the Faith to our children in a post-Christian world is the work of a lifetime. My friend, Agnes, mother of 10, reminds me from time to time that childrearing is akin to raising cathedrals. Sometimes you’re chiseling granite on the same buttress for years. Sometimes you just step back and marvel at the progress that has occurred since the inception. Pace yourself. You’re in this for the long haul.

Soldier on through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the inspiration of the Holy Family and the example of the immense cloud of witnesses who have gone before us in the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church. Jesus, we trust in you!

Sarah Dickerson writes from Pennsylvania.

Age Appropriate Suggestions

Ages 0-6

Quiet time
When we had four little girls ages 6 and under, a young woman from Germany stayed with us for three months. She had received a Montessori education through age 16 and was about to alter the course of our lives by introducing one little life-saving tradition to our family life. It’s called quiet time.

Shutterstock images

For nearly two hours in the early afternoon while the baby napped, we all embraced a ritual of quiet activity. We would pray the Divine Infant Chaplet, which is very short. Then I would read aloud a chapter or two from a book. Then we all enjoyed another hour of quiet dozing, paging through books, building puzzles, doing handcrafts. Each child had their own spot on the couch or a nest of blankets on the floor.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd — toddler atrium or Level 1 atrium (see below)
The specially prepared environment of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) atrium is wonderful for grounding young children in the fullness of the Catholic faith through direct encounter with child-sized scriptural and liturgical materials. Engage the hands to activate the brain! The pace of modern life is an affront to all of us, and especially to the very young child. CGS is helping to reclaim and model a healthy pace of life for children and families.

Bedtime ritual
A bedtime routine is a great time to incorporate prayers and family lore. Each night with our youngest three children, my husband and I sing a song, say a few prayers and tell stories from when we were little.


Ages 6-12

Individual child time
As our oldest was entering third grade, an older mother encouraged my husband and me to introduce individual child time. This can take many forms — running an errand together, for instance. In our family life it usually looks like mom or dad taking an individual child out for breakfast. Each month it is a different child. The benefit of starting this early in the child’s life is that, as the child grows, there is already a predictable time for one-on-one conversation in place.


Treating children as guests
Have you heard about treating your children as guests? When guests arrive we greet them at the door and eventually feed them. This is a helpful rule of thumb for our growing children as well. Greet them at the door when they come home off the bus or emerge from their rooms in the morning. Eye contact! Smiles! Food! They won’t be living with us too much longer.

One of my college buddies organized what he called a shrine hop in and around Philadelphia. In one day we visited the shrines of St. John Neumann, St. Katherine Drexel, St. Rita of Cascia and some others. We grabbed Philly cheesesteaks for lunch. Pilgrimages are a great way to introduce our children to holy people and holy places. Another mom runs “Mass and ...” trips in which she takes a group of children this age to Mass at a different urban parish each month and then to dinner at some local ethnic joint. These sorts of excursions will ready them for later-in-life trips to Rome, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Fatima or other sites around the world.



As young people begin making money of their own, it’s a natural opportunity to discuss being generous stewards of their time, energy and resources. Baby-sitting pro bono or at a reduced rate is always welcome. Youth groups often rake leaves or make themselves available as a volunteer work force for parish and community projects.


Vibrant mentors and partnerships
Passion rightly ordered is formative in a way that helps others make up for lost time. Find folks with a particular charism to share and place your teens in their path. In the teen years it increasingly is important for young people to know well other people, in addition to their parents, who live a deeply integrated Catholic life. Our friend, Jenn, regularly takes supplies to the homeless, works with special-needs children and adults, and prays outside of abortion clinics. This woman embodies social justice in a way that is natural and contagious. She helps the young people move out of their comfort zone with each act of service.

Embrace vocations
Find holy priests and religious young and old to share life with your teens. Youth conferences can be a good source of this kind of interaction. Consider a road trip to the Sisters of Life or the Franciscan Friars, or an order closer to your home.


Catholic media
Hearts Afire Parish Program, Dynamic Catholic Institute, Augustine Institute’s FORMED, Ascension Press, Theology of the Body Institute and countless others are offering all kinds of fantastic formation materials. Consider joining forces with some other families for a few Friday nights and offer a Theology of the Body or Divine Mercy Explained study group, or watch a good film and have a discussion afterwards.

Emphasize spiritual friendship
Keep teens in groups and generally discourage exclusive dating until they are of an age to discern marriage. Get to know St. Aelred of Rievaulx, patron of Christ-centered relationships, and his description of spiritual friendship. It is marked by purity of intention, direction of reason, restraint of moderation and valuing the friend’s love in itself. The qualities of a spiritual friend are loyalty, discretion, right intention and patience. These descriptions and qualities will provide them with an objective framework to evaluate their relationships while their bodies are undergoing so many changes.

Help your teen practice life-giving boundaries with technology. Model for them technology at the service of the family. Attend a workshop on social media with your teens so that they get a realistic understanding of the permanence of digital speech and the fallout from a lack of virtue online.

Remedies for our time

As we continue to try to push our families uphill in a world that often rejects Catholic morality, here are a few suggestions on how parents can get their kids to take ownership the Faith:

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
A life-changing collaboration began for my family 10 years ago when a home-schooling mom introduced us to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS). I had no idea how much it would aid us in the formation of our children on every front, from Scripture, liturgy, sacramental preparation, social justice, the role of Mary, discipleship and stewardship, to the mysteries of life and death.


CGS was sort of founded by accident when a Scripture scholar in Rome named Sofia Cavalletti was asked to prepare a few neighborhood children for their first holy Communion in the 1950s. In her quest to boil down mysteries of Scripture and liturgy to the most essential moments, something magnificent was born.

Very little is said in the various presentations. Questions are posed to foster wonder and to facilitate the child’s encounter with God. Catechists use simple materials to demonstrate parables, prophecies, moments of the Mass and the mystery of the Incarnation. Children then are able to work with those same materials and more fully internalize the mysteries in an atmosphere of near silence. I learned the epiclesis gesture from my four-year-old! For an excellent point of entry into this whole approach to catechesis, check out the children’s book “A Child’s Book of the Mass” (Liturgy Training Publications, $14.93) by Betsy Puntel and Hannah Roberts.

Classical education
Another great tool for parents in engaging their children in the Faith is opting for a Catholic classical education, which seeks excellence in both moral and academic formation. In this post-Christian era it is increasingly difficult to find entire educational communities committed to the Church’s understanding of human anthropology, and so it has become necessary for families to cobble together creative communities of their own in which to form their children in the fullness of truth.


Borrowing from the founding document of the newly founded Martin Saints Classical High School near Philadelphia: “In brief, the classical model believes in the integration of knowledge. In other words, history class and math class, English class and biology class — all knowledge is connected and unified through our commitment to the Catholic faith. To borrow an ancient phrase, nothing human is alien to a Catholic. Whatever is good, true and beautiful — that is what we want to study. Whether it be Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton and Jane Austen, Renaissance art and Gregorian chant, or modern math and science—we want to learn from the best of the Western tradition from classical times to the present. We are convinced that the Catholic faith provides the perspective to integrate the wisdom of our civilization.”

Silence and the solitude of nature
Another key ingredient to engagement in the Faith is silence. Technology, as Pope Benedict XVI warned, is rewiring our brains and ushering in a shift in human anthropology. Giving children pockets of silence is a game-changer. They are growing up in an era of perpetual, often virtual, noise and distraction, but as the adults in their lives, we can help them create space for wonder, just as our parents and grandparents did for us.


My grandparents had a little mountain cabin with no television and no phone. It was magical. During my childhood and teenage trips there we read, played horseshoes, cards, Legos, Play-Doh. There was no shortage of hiking, boating, hunting for crayfish and water sports! Sunday Mass was a priority, as was quality conversation.

Giving children unscheduled time in nature is an essential element in the formation of their person. The wonder of creation is a springboard into self-knowledge and knowledge of the divine. Any time a child is lost in wholesome wonder, playing along a creek or exploring in the woods, a holy communion is taking place.

Parents and grandparents have a wealth of resources at their fingertips to help educate their families in the Faith. Shutterstock

Powerful prayers and devotions
In addition to Mass, monthly confession, the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, when praying with and for our families, our Church and our world in the midst of this critical mass of brokenness, let us consider this prayer recipe to combat addictive tendencies and rediscover what it means to be fully alive: