Religious faith isn't like a loaf of bread you send your kids to the corner church to pick up. "Religious truths need to be connected to experience, and that's where parents come in," says Kathleen O'Connell Chesto. Passing on the faith needs the parents' touch, and it's up to the church to "stop convincing parents that it can pass on faith by simply sacramentalizing their kids."
Chesto, a national consultant on family spirituality and religious education, believes that people have within them the religious truths to enrich their lives but haven't developed the religious language yet to talk about them. She helped develop the group FIRE - Family-Centered Intergenerational Religious Education - as a religious-educational process to help people express their spirituality in their families and faith communities.
Chesto holds degrees in ministry and religious studies and is the author of Risking Hope: Fragile Faith in the Healing Process (Sheed and Ward, 1990), Children's Scripture Puzzles (Sheed and Ward, 1992), co-authored with her daughter Elizabeth, and Why are Dandelions Weeds? (Sheed and Ward, 1993).
What should religious educators be telling parents?
I really believe we, as a church, have to tell parents that we can't give faith to their children. As long as we tell them we can do it, they'll let us. We're all busy. If you tell me you'll wash my car every week, I'll let you.
So we have to come right out and say the church is going to help you, but it cannot do the work for you. You have to learn to depend on your own faith. The church can help you raise moral children - people will come to a church that offers to help them do that. We will teach you how to be nonviolent and to cope with violence; we can teach you how to live a more happy family life. But it is up to you to take it all on and live it.
The church needs to put more into the hands of parents and live with the fact that parents are going to flounder for a while before they look for help. If we keep running in and picking them up, they're never going to realize that they didn't learn to swim. We have to stop convincing parents that we can pass on faith by simply sacramentalizing their kids.
Forming our kids' faith starts at home?
Passing on the faith is the role of parents, and the ability to talk about God starts in the family. The role of the church is to identify the language and stories of God and to share the stories of the larger faith community. But if the development of faith doesn't happen in the family first, I don't think it's going to happen when these kids come into church at 6 or 7 years old. By the ages of 2 to 4, a child's morality is already formed. Children have already developed whatever sense of storytelling they're probably ever going to have. If parents don't tell the story of their experiences through the eyes of faith, then children will not find God in their own experiences. It was Moses telling the story of Abraham to his people that helped his people to understand the call.
The only people who are telling stories to our children right now are on television. And the problem isn't just the kind of stories they're telling; it's the reasons they're telling them. We tell our kids stories so they'll grow in wisdom and courage and will know who they are. Television tells them stories to sell them. And if your child hasn't learned who he or she is yet and what the family stories are, how can he or she decipher the truths from the media and the importance of passing on these truths?
Are there problems in the church that hinder passing on the faith?
First, I think the church has a language problem that is not being confronted. When the church talks about "passing on the faith," it often fails to recognize that means very different things to different people. For many parents, "passing on the faith" means sacramentalizing their children. So when the parish says to the parents, "We can't do this without you," the parents hear the church saying it cannot baptize their children or prepare First Communion services. …