Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An appeal to Helicopter Catholics

Today is the feast of St. Monica. She is a popular patroness of Catholic mothers because her son, Augustine (yes, eventually St. Augustine), lived a pretty loose and Church-free life for a while. But through all of the rough years, Monica remained steadfast in her prayers for her son who had gone astray. And, in the end, due in large part to her prayers and example, he became one of the greatest saints in the Church's history. Monica is held up for us Catholics as a great model of a devoted Christian parent.

Most Catholic parents today can identify with Monica's tenacious devotion to her children. She wanted the best for her children and knew that ultimate happiness is rooted in living out the Catholic faith and following God's will. She did all that she could to see that her children had a close relationship with God and with his Church.

Most (all?) Catholic parents have times, too, when the outlook for their son or daughter seems to be dim and they worry that the flame of faith has smoldered. Other difficulties and trials in life can shake their sense of security and challenge their own faith. Here, too, Monica's life can provide inspiration.

To say that Monica had a tough time is definitely an understatement. Raised as a Catholic Christian, she was married off to a pagan named Patricius who had a violent temper and was both abusive and unfaithful to Monica. However, Monica and Patricius had three children together but it was their oldest, Augustine, who became the problem child.

Monica did her best to be a model of Christian peace and virtue for her family. She wanted her children to be successful so she sent Augustine off to boarding school at the age of 11 so that he could learn the art of rhetoric --- a necessary skill for anyone who hoped to have a successful career in law or politics.

Although Patricius had originally refused to allow Monica to have the children baptized, things began to improve. Patricius allowed the teenage Augustine became a catechumen, studying and preparing for Baptism. Patritius himself became a Christian but he died shortly afterward, when Augustine was 19. Monica decided not to remarry.

After his father's death, Augustine became an ever-growing source of pain and sorrow for his mother. He enjoyed wine and women and, as he himself later admitted, was very lazy. Augustine eventually left home to further his career. Soon thereafter, he left the Church and fathered a child with his girlfriend.

Monica, though, never gave up on her son and continued to pray fervently for him. When she confided her anxieties to the local bishop, he assured her of God's providence and care for all his children. "Don't worry," he said, "it is not possible that a son of so many tears should be forever lost."

Monica's example sheds light on some important components of Catholic parenthood: faithfulness in God's plan and trust his love for her children. These themes arise again and again in Monica's life. Despite the obstacles and hardships she remained steadfast in her faith that God is good and wise, and she maintained her trust that God loved her son and would take care of him in his own time.

Monica was not, then, a helicopter Catholic.

Those of us who are blessed to work with college students are familiar with the term "helicopter parent." If you don't know what that is, think of what a helicopter does: it hovers. And "helicopter parents" hover, too. They swoop in to do things--lots of things--for their college-age (i.e. adult) son or daughter who is "so busy" or "bogged down with schoolwork." They make phone calls to the Registrar's Office, they email professors and they fill out applications on behalf of their young adult child.

They've probably been doing it for their son or daughter ever since junior high and they see it as nothing other than being a good and caring parent. Studies show that helicopter parenting is even following this generation of college students past college. As the Millennial Generation is beginning to transition from college to the work force, employers have begun to notice the same type of activity (yep--imagine your mom negotiating your job salary and benefits for you... this is actually a thing now).

This parenting mentality can seep into faith lives, too. But while there is room for debate on the merits or detriments in helicopter parenting, I'd argue that helicopter Catholicism is almost never a good approach.

As the end goal, helicopter Catholicism is rooted in wanting the best for one's son or daughter. But the similarities end there because while college financial aid, faculty advising and job-hunting may be things that a parent can do on behalf of their adult son or daughter, an adult's faith life is purely personal and, despite anyone's best intentions, can never be handled by someone else -- even by a parent.

This is a difficult thing for some Catholic parents to grasp because they were, for so long, responsible for passing the faith on to their children. Think about it: for most Catholics, faith starts not with themselves but with their parents. The very first steps that they took towards faith were not even taken by them at all, but by their parents who carried them to the font of Baptism. From the font of Baptism, they emerged as a wet-headed, newborn child of God, "a new creation ... clothed ... with Christ" and imbued with dignity and a healthy dose of God's grace.

Their faith had to be nurtured in the home and their parents continued to play an important part. According to God's plan, though, a parent can only live their child's faith for them for a short time. Eventually, as children grow older, it becomes their own responsibility to "own" their own faith and to live it out. As the Catechism explains: "Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God .... and assent to his truth." (CCC 150, emphasis mine) Faith, then, fully realized, is inherently personal.

Monica did all that she could for her son Augustine, at the proper time, to prepare him to make good decisions and to maintain a loving relationship with God and his Church. At times, Augustine seemed to be keeping to the path of Christ, but at other times, he blatantly veered from the road of Christian discipleship. Monica, though, through the good and the bad of Augustine's decision-making, maintained her life of faithfulness to God and prayers for her children.

Monica realized, and we must realize, that God wants to be loved by each of us through a conscious decision of faith. He wants each of us to be ultimately and eternally happy and he knows that the only way for us to achieve this is through a transformative faith - one in which we allow him to change us to the very core; to make us ever more Christ-like over time and with experience.

What she did not do for her son was to attempt to live his faith life for him. Certainly, when Augustine was a child, Monica fulfilled her duties to him as a Christian parent. She tried to have him baptized (though her husband prevented it), but she taught him about God and about how Christ calls us to live. When Augustine was growing up, she regularly took him to Mass and prayed with him.

But as Augustine came of age and became a young adult, Monica changed tactics: she accepted that he was an adult and that he would make his own decisions, so she continued to gently encourage him toward Christian discipleship through gentle word and silent example. And, above all, she continuously prayed for him.

Eventually, every young adult, like Augustine, must make the Catholic faith their own. And their parents have to allow them to make decisions. Adults can't be forced into a relationship with God (that's not how God operates). Anything else can lead to disenchantment, resentment and rejection.

Monica's plan in dealing with Augustine was simple: she trusted God and prayed for her son. In time, her prayers were answered. Augustine, as we know, returned to the Church, was baptized, and went on to become a bishop and theologian and, of course, a saint. And his mother, for her great example of Catholic parenthood, was declared a saint herself.

If you have a wayward son or daughter, pray for them -- fervently -- in the example of St. Monica. And trust that God will ultimately take care of them in his own time and in his own way. And, if necessary, take comfort in the words of St. Monica's bishop: "[I]t is not possible that a son of so many tears should be forever lost."