EDUCATION IN FAITH SUNDAY – 5 FEBRUARY 2006
Theme: Nurturing Our Children’s Faith
PASTORAL LETTER – PLAIN TEXT
NURTURING OUR CHILDREN’S FAITH
As priests and bishops we have the privilege of being present at some
of the most important moments in the lives of families. We are very
grateful that we are welcomed to be part of such occasions, not only
in churches and schools, but also in homes. We are happy to be present
at joyful times for our young people, such as Baptisms, First Holy
Communions and Confirmations. We are also present and available at
times of pain, when a family is visited by sickness, or is distraught
with grief because of death and bereavement. Whether the occasion is
joyful or sorrowful, we can certainly say that faith makes a great
Our experience tells us that the faith of children is best nurtured
when home, school and parish work together in partnership. Firstly
and most importantly, children learn about faith in the home. Their
faith is supported in the school by the hard work of teachers and
chaplains, and by both priests and people in the wider parish
Importance of love
We see the love in Irish homes as the most important foundation for
faith. Love is a word that has been over-used, but what other word
could describe the sacrifices, large and small, that parents make
daily for children? There is love in the patient care of an adult
child for an elderly parent, and in the attention devoted to a child
with disabilities. Love is visible in husbands and wives, who, in
spite of all the challenges with which life presents them, still
manage to keep alive the spirit of their marriage vows. It is present
in the grief of childless couples who long for children. It motivates
the efforts that people parenting alone make to nurture and support
their children. It can be seen in the many single people who play
important roles in the lives of their families and friends. Since
God is love, it is not hard to find the face of Christ in the Irish
family today. This witness of love in the family is an irreplaceable
foundation out of which a child’s faith can grow and be nourished.
The gift of time
However, there are many pressures that affect families. A time of
increased prosperity has not benefited everyone. Not only those on
social welfare, but those in low-paid work, are often caught in
an ongoing struggle to provide for their families. Many young couples,
too, feel forced by the high cost of living, and especially housing,
to work long hours. As we have commented elsewhere, even among
those who have benefited materially, many people now seem to have
more of everything except time. (1) The gift of time spent with their
children is one of the most precious gifts that parents can give.
The frantic pace at which we live our lives has led many to look for
quiet spaces and opportunities for reflection. Jesus said ‘I am the
way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through
me’. Our Catholic tradition is full of rich opportunities for developing
our relationship with God; for example through the sacraments, especially
the Eucharist, and Christian meditation, novenas and places of pilgrimage.
In order to be able to help their children to pray parents need to pay
attention to their own prayer lives. Thankfully, in recent times, it
has become easier and easier to find books, magazines, websites and
other resources which are designed to help us sustain and develop
our prayer. All of these are ways of quietening down, of making
space for a vital connection with God who loves us.
Despite the pressures on you, many of you do manage to make time,
not only for your families, but for others. So many of you give
support to elderly relatives or neighbours, or other families in
need. Thousands of you give of your time, as members of caring
agencies such as St Vincent de Paul, Accord and Cura,(2) in family
ministry such as bereavement support and preparation for the
sacraments, as members of pastoral councils, ministers of the
Word and Eucharist, ushers, collectors and sacristans, choir members
and musicians, to give just some examples. Talk to your children
about what you do so that they will understand that caring for
others is an expression of your faith. Time given to others is
not time taken away from ourselves, but enriches all our lives.
Giving to others can be difficult in a culture where there is
so much emphasis on acquiring more and more for ourselves. There
are powerful commercial forces that are interested in your children,
not in their welfare, but in their disposable income. Such forces
have no interest in reinforcing parental influence on children. In
fact, it is truer to say that they are much more interested in a
child’s influence on his or her parents. Their market research has
shown that children influence the majority of household purchases,
from cereal to computers. The faster children leave childhood behind
and see themselves as consumers, the more it suits the market. Many
people, especially parents, are rightly worried by this trend.
It is not that people want to over-protect their children, but they
want them to make choices based on sound Christian values which
offer us an antidote to consumerism, and a perspective which enables
us to live more human and fulfilling lives.
As a Church we have always promoted the ideal of a man and a woman,
committed to each other in married love, as the best situation in
which to bring children into the world. Research has shown that
marriage is best able to provide the stability that allows children
to flourish. However, for a variety of reasons, some of them outside
the control of the people concerned, this ideal is not always reached.
At times we may have been less than sensitive to the goodness to be
found within all kinds of families in our Church. Widowed families
and people parenting alone often feel that there is not enough
acknowledgement of the efforts they make to create loving families.
Even those happily married will attest that they have their struggles,
and that their families are far from perfect. However, as the US
bishops put it in their Pastoral Letter on the Family, it is important
to remember that ‘a family is holy, not because it is perfect but
because God’s grace is at work in it, helping it to set out anew
every day on the way of love.'(3)
Parents make an enormous contribution not only to their children, but
to society. Families where parents are firm but fair, provide sensible
and flexible boundaries and listen to and make time for their children
give them a gift that will stand to them for their whole lives. It is
very important to make time for a strong home life and not to let the
pressures of work and commuting squeeze out more important priorities.
Adolescence can be a particularly challenging time. While many young
people sail through their teenage years without too much difficulty,
for some it can be a confusing period as they struggle to come to terms
with finding their own identity and increasing their independence.
There are more acute pressures now than there ever were before. Many
young people have more disposable income. This means that they are
more exposed to pressures to take part in the excessive consumption
of alcohol and abuse of drugs. We live in a culture which is saturated
with sexual imagery, and it is no wonder that many young people feel
pressure to become prematurely sexually active, in situations in which
they are vulnerable to being exploited, or indeed, exploiting others.
Bullying and isolation mar many young people’s teenage years. Although
adolescents may seem more concerned about the opinions of their peers,
the presence of caring parents is enormously important to them. A strong
foundation in Christian values can be a vital support to young people
at this time. While parents may feel that their children are rejecting
everything, quite often once the storms of adolescence have subsided
they will return to the values that their parents instilled in them.
The home has always been central to our faith, to the extent of being
known as the ‘domestic church’. It is here that children learn the message
of Christ for the first time, in the love that their parents show them,
and in the ordinary, simple, everyday things like prayers before bedtime.
Family prayer is very important; even very small children can take part.
It has become harder and harder to gather the family around the kitchen
table for meals, but it is an investment of time that is repaid many times
over. Perhaps those of you who have fallen out of the habit of family
meals might try to eat together as a family at least once a week? In
some families, a candle is lit, followed by a short prayer, at the
beginning of the meal as a reminder that this is a special time.
Do not underestimate the power of little things. Children love rituals.
The use of holy water can be a way of reminding each other of the love
of God. Sacred images in the home are another way of reminding us of
the presence of God, as are customs such as displaying palm branches
of the St Brigid’s Cross.
As part of preparation for the sacrament of First Holy Communion, some
families create a ‘prayer space’ in their homes. It can be as simple as
a shelf with an icon, a candle, and a stand for a copy of the family Bible.
Regular attendance at Mass is important too because the domestic church
only thrives when it is part of a larger community. When children become
involved in sacramental preparation many parents find themselves rediscovering
the value of weekly Sunday Mass attendance which has a central place in the
lives of Catholics. Priests have a particular role in encouraging and
inviting parents and families to participate in life-giving liturgies. Gathering
together helps to strengthen a local community as people share and express
their faith in a public setting. The Eucharist is at the heart of many
community celebrations and occasions such as Easter and Christmas,
weddings and funerals, anniversaries and jubilees and school graduations.
Coming together to worship strengthens the bonds of unity within the local
and wider church.
Hope in Christ
As Christians, our hope is rooted in Christ. Hope in the person of Christ
is nurtured in his constant presence with us in the sacrament of the
Eucharist. He is the centre. We gather around him, especially in the
celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy when we gather around the altar
to welcome him and to receive him. As Pope John Paul II said, the Eucharist
‘is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey
through history’ (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 9). The Mass gives us
strength to develop a loving, sensitive, forgiving and nurturing home
Living the Gospel
Each of us has a responsibility to live in a way that bears witness to
the message of Christ. Many people in Ireland strive to live the gospel,
and do so in very practical ways. Still, we feel often that there is so
much more that we could do. Yet, when discouraged by our many failures,
it is a source of comfort that the grace of God continues to work through
the messiness of all our lives.
Parents are the ‘first and best teachers in the ways of faith’. Children
are most influenced not by words, but by example. However, families are
not alone in the work of nurturing children’s faith. We are fortunate in
the quality of teachers in our schools, and are grateful for their
dedication and commitment. Teachers working in partnership with parents,
and with the support of chaplains, diocesan advisors, members of religious
orders and others involved in this important work are achieving great
things. At parish level, along with diocesan and order priests there are
youth and family ministers working to ensure that the next generation has
a strong and vibrant faith.
We are not trying to minimise the difficulties that the family faces, but
neither do we wish to lose sight of its strengths. We would like to thank
all those who do so much to make family life strong, firstly parents and
children, but also grandparents and members of extended families. There
are so many signs of hope and growth in the Irish Church, which are
well-nigh invisible, because they happen ‘beneath the radar’ of the
media. To name but a few, there has been the resurgence in the tradition
of local pilgrimages, a great increase in parish-based programmes, and
many thousands of young people gather regularly for prayer in small
groups. All of these initiatives connect with, and depend upon, lively
and vibrant Catholic family life. Children’s faith is best nourished
when home, school and parish work together in partnership.
As a final thought, we would urge you to take pride in your Catholic
heritage, and to do your best to be part of keeping it strong by seeking
out and forming bonds with other families and individuals who value
their faith. The gift of faith is precious; it is God’s gift for us
with the Holy Spirit working through us. Let us appreciate and nurture
Glory be to him whose power, working in us,
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine;
glory be to him from generation
to generation in the Church and in
Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.
(1) Prosperity With A Purpose -Christian Faith and Values
in a Time of Rapid Economic Growth. Pages 55-60.
Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference 1999.
(2) For those unfamiliar with ACCORD and CURA, ACCORD works
primarily in marriage preparation and support, while CURA
supports those who find themselves in difficulty due to an
(3) Pastoral on the Family in the UN Year of the Family,
US Bishops, 1994