Many lay Catholics answer the call to serve as a theology teacher because of the role they play in the formation of hearts and minds of the students they serve. So many parents, who sacrifice to send their children to a Catholic school, do an excellent job of preparing their hearts at home and providing a nurturing home environment. However, other students seem to have their identity shaped by various influences beyond the home.
One of the greatest challenges for teachers (in all levels of education) is they oftentimes find it necessary to offer formation that should normally be given at home. In my apostolate as a high school teacher, I have heard a number of cries for help from my students that have led me to conclude that families need to reclaim their role as the first school of faith for their children.
One student sat across from me in tears as she lamented that her mother acted more like a “friend” than her mother. Another student claimed that his parents gave him every material thing he ever wanted when all he really wanted was some of their time. A young woman once asked me if she was culpable for missing Sunday Mass if her parents refused to take her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are only a small sampling of many such stories that I have experienced as a theology teacher in a Catholic high school.
Most of the families that send their children to a Catholic school desire the formation in faith and morality. Yet what is overlooked is the consistent teaching of the Church: parents are the first educators of their children.
Catholic schools may share in the work of formation, but it is the school of the family that should have the primary role in forming their children in the truth of the faith and a life of charity.
The role of families as primary educators must be respected and protected by both the Church and the State. In his Letter to Families, Blessed Pope John Paul II emphasizes the principle of subsidiarity in relation to the family:
Subsidiarity thus complements paternal and maternal love and confirms its fundamental nature, inasmuch as all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent, and, to a certain degree, with their authorization (no. 16).
Parents have the freedom and the right to educate their children in the faith and moral life of the Church. But they need to claim this role and duty to help form their children’s identity as a member of God’s family.
The lack of vigilance on the part of some families will lead future generations to be formed unabashedly by the surrounding secularization that fills up the classrooms of both public and private schools—which influences the information doled out by the media, and shapes the themes of the songs and movies that they constantly subject themselves to without the knowledge or concern of their parents.
The English historian Christopher Dawson highlights the subsidiarity of the family and what is at stake should we continue to lose the influence of well-formed Christian households:
[U]nder the Roman Empire, the family formed an independent society which was almost immune from the state, so that it could become the primary cell of an unrecognized Christian society or culture. But today the very existence of the family as a social unity is threatened by the all-pervasive influence of the state and the secular mass culture. Yet without the Christian family there can be no Christian community life and indeed no church in the traditional sense of the word: only a few scattered individuals who maintain an isolated prophetic witness, like Elias in the wilderness.
Dawson wrote these words during the early part of the twentieth century. Yet there is always an element of sober hope in his writings that the witness of individual Christians can assist in turning the tide against the onslaught of secularism.
Renewal oftentimes begins with individuals receiving charisms that they share with others for the good of the Church: St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits, or more recently Blessed Theresa of Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity. Individuals are never formed in a vacuum. Their first school of life begins in the home.
Recently, Pope Francis in his first encyclical Lumen fidei writes, “In the family, faith accompanies every age of life, beginning with childhood: children learn to trust in the love of their parents. This is why it is so important that within their families parents encourage shared expressions of faith which can help children gradually to mature in their own faith” (no. 53). The family is the first school where young men and women can learn how to respond generously to the call to be a saint.
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Good parents know the friends of their children. They are aware of the kinds of books they read, the music they listen to and the movies they watch. These parents strive to strike the delicate balance between gently and at times firmly guiding their children toward the truly Good life in Christ.
When the surrounding culture is imbued with a secularized worldview, Christian families will often be forced to go against the stream. If current trends continue in our society in favor of a “new normal,” Christian households will face social persecution and ridicule. There is no need to be anxious or fearful of such an attitude from the surrounding culture because it is the fruit of climbing the ladder of the beatitudes: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
In an interview with Barbara Walters on 20/20, Lady Gaga stated that she viewed herself as a “teacher.” Her primary lesson was to teach students to “create their own space.” In other words, secular icons like Lady Gaga want to enable students to view freedom as mere license to do whatever they want with whomever they want. These celebrities become our children’s teachers. Subsequently, many young men and women identify with their values if we do not steer them in the direction to find their identity in our Lord and Savior.
Now more than ever we need good Christian families to reclaim their prophetic role as the primary educators of their children by leading them to true freedom in the life of Jesus Christ.
True Catholic identity begins first and foremost in the home.