One Catholic family's evolving faith and practice, across three generations

Having been a priest for 49 years, I have been a participant observer in the evolution of faith and practice among American Catholics. As the eldest child of a large Connecticut Catholic family, I have observed this process in my eight siblings and their 27 children, now ranging in age from early 40s to mid-20s and living all over the country. I was eager to gather data from them to illuminate one family's journey. I felt this could be useful to those of us seeking to minister to today's American Catholics.

I had the ideal opportunity to pursue this while spending a sabbatical semester at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., from September to December of 2015. With much assistance from Professor Jeffrey Kaster, I developed a survey which I sent to my 27 nieces and nephews. I was delighted when 24 responded, and did so very thoughtfully and openly.

The data is fascinating and I believe representative of young Catholic adults today.

Core values of my parents have been transmitted through my generation to their children.

These include "family first," integrity, hard work, dedicated parenting, the importance of education, critical thinking, loyalty, an inclusive attitude towards all others, and generosity.

While for my parents and their children these are seen to be rooted in our Catholic Christian faith, many in the third generation no longer seem to make that connection.

The closed Catholic world in which we first two generations were raised is not the present-day America in which the third generation is living and raising families.

They and their children, now spread across the country and sometimes uprooted by work, live in an increasingly secular society where life is rarely able to be centered around the church. Catholic schooling is often unavailable or unappealing for their children. Neighbors, friends, social activities, playmates, sports teams, teachers, etc., by and large are not Catholic-church or -school based. Priests and nuns are not a regular influence nor personally connected with them and their children. Faithful practice and Catholic-based child rearing are no longer the norm in their communities, hence a big challenge for those wishing to do it.

Catholic schooling has had positive impact on some, but there doesn't seem to be a great difference between those who had much, little or no Catholic education.

I puzzle over what the responses from these intelligent, reflective young adults suggest concerning the quality of religious formation they received in Catholic schools and/or parish religious education.

Related: Retired priest surveys adult nieces, nephews about their faith journeys​

Perhaps reflecting their education and experience of today's world, the third generation no longer accepts the church and its teaching and practice unquestioningly, placing hierarchy, clergy and religious on a pedestal.

Those who continue to believe and practice do so with their eyes open and are not shy to note and criticize what they see as errors, shortcomings, insensitivity, even prejudice in the church and its personnel.

Traditional church teaching on such topics as homosexuality, marriage and divorce, etc., are questioned or rejected in general.

A constant theme is a call for the church to be welcoming, open, inclusive, non-judgmental, aware of the reality of today's world, and teaching and acting in a way supportive of its members and others who pass through its doors, as well as the overall community. Along with this is a sense of frustration that too often people's views, suggestions, needs are ignored; decisions are made without due consultation.

An underlying point seems to be that much of church teaching, practice and worship today is not in touch with the reality of their lives.

Ranging in practice from weekly Mass-goers raising their children in the church to non-believers, they maintain a loving, united family relationship with mutual respect.

The vast majority self-identify as Catholics, but also say they seldom go to Mass.

There is a striking distinction in motives for Mass-going between older and younger Catholics. While for the former the predominant reason is the Eucharist, not so for younger folks. Indeed, it was mentioned by none of the respondents. Good homilies, Bible teaching, music, family-friendliness, belonging, spiritual home, inclusiveness, etc., were what counted most for many. Also significant was Mass as something to share as a family.

Likewise, unmentioned as reasons for going to Mass were such things as to worship God, because Jesus said "Do this in memory of me," to grow in grace, union with the Lord and one another in holy Communion, although a couple did mention Sunday obligation.

They generally use the word "church" to mean the institution rather than the People of God.

Significant issues were problems with church structure, "rules," individual priests, disconnect between teaching and practice, negative preaching, awkward language in Mass texts, etc.

I have to say that I am proud of my family. As a believing priest, I have mixed feelings about the drift from the church by some. I'm saddened that today's church's imperfections and errors have caused some of this, but I respect the integrity of all who have followed their conscience wherever it has led them. I am tremendously grateful for their willingness to participate in this study. I am grateful that my dad's dying prayer that "my family may always be united as they are now" has been heard by God and by all of us across the generations.

[Fr. Rick LaBrecque is the retired pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Conway, S.C.]

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