Like many American Catholics who weren’t lucky enough to score tickets to a Papal Mass, I have been watching this week’s events unfold on my television screen. Viewing from my living room, with a gang of kids gathered around me on the couches, reminds me of the springtime three years ago when we watched the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI emerge from behind the curtain on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Back then, even my littlest ones, caught up in the moment, let out a whoop of joy. This year, my littlest ones listened in hushed silence as the Holy Father spoke at the White House and then joyfully joined in singing him “Happy Birthday.”
Each time, I am struck by the cultural significance of what it means to my kids to be raised a Catholic today. Because we are Catholic, we are interested in goings-on hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Because we are Catholic, our mother turns on the television in the middle of the day and wipes at her eyes when a white-cloaked, red-shoed man emerges from an airplane and sets foot on American soil.
Benedict first endeared himself to me three years ago when he admitted that he prayed not to be elected pope.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“At a certain point, I prayed to God, ‘Please don’t do this to me,’” he said. “Evidently, this time he didn’t listen.”
Benedict’s vulnerable admission of reluctance to take on responsibility made him seem delightfully more human to me. I may not be charged with shepherding the entire Catholic Church into the next generation, but I do understand fearsome responsibility: My husband and I are charged with the shepherding of eight small souls into the Catholic Church’s next generation.
This week, the Holy Father said that he trusts his visit to our nation “will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States.” He reminds us that “we can and must believe . . . that God is preparing a new springtime for Christianity.”
I cling to the confident hope in these statements, and yet at the same time I find myself wondering: How? Exactly how are we to bring about a springtime in the Catholic Church? In a world where so many grow up and abandon their faith in favor of secularism, exactly how do Catholic parents ensure that their children will resist worldly temptations and hold on to the gift of their Catholic upbringing?
These are the kinds of questions that keep Catholic parents lying awake at night. We want answers. We want guarantees. We want these things so desperately, that it can be tempting to seek security in formulas and labels. The key to raising good Catholic kids, we can convince ourselves, lies in homeschooling, Catholic schooling, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, living the liturgical year, Catholic lay movements, or any number of other commendable pursuits or activities.
I need look no further than my own upbringing, though, to know that many of today’s more popular “magic formulas” for raising good Catholics are not at all preconditions for success. Using public school and Dr. Spock, my parents raised my eight siblings and me through the 1970s and 1980s and into a new generation of practicing Catholic adults.
So how did they do it? How can we do it? The good news is, we don’t do it. God does.
When we put our faith in things and actions, we leave God out of the equation. We make gods of sciences, philosophies, and ourselves. We forget that faith is a gift. We forget that it is only by the grace of God that any of us ever accomplishes anything of value. Our job is to love, to pray, and to allow God to work His wonders through us.
Pope Benedict knows this.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” he announced on the day of his election, “the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in God’s vineyard. I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act, even with insufficient tools, and I especially trust in your prayers.”
Following the pope’s lead, Catholic parents can accept awesome responsibility with confidence. We can do our best to teach, to love, to pray, and to be open to God’s work in our families. We can let go of the ulcer-inducing consciousness of our own deficiencies.
Alone we are “insufficient tools,” but God can use us to raise a generation of Catholics that will become a new springtime of faith. We need only place our children and our Church firmly in God’s good hands, put our heads down, and get to work.