Towards A Better Education of Children
The Joy of Love - Chapter Seven
Near the end of this chapter of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis gives us a good interpretive lens for reading this entire document. He tells us that the purpose of the Church’s pastoral care for families is twofold: to enable them to be both domestic churches and a leaven of evangelization in society. Each implies the other. We cannot have one without the other.
The Holy Father focuses, in this chapter, on how children are educated in families. Although this chapter centers on parents who have the primary responsibility for the raising of their children, we should not forget that in previous chapters the pope points out how others are called to assist parents in this vital role: extended family members, the parish community, and the human community as a whole. We all have a stake in our children. We are all called to help parents do the best they can to raise their children to be good Catholics and good citizens.
In this brief essay, I will outline a few points for reflection that Pope Francis raises, in the hope that this will encourage more people to read this chapter carefully. It offers a good conceptual framework. If it is lacking in anything, it is in concrete examples. We need to hear stories from families who are doing their best to live this out in their daily lives. What helps them do so? What are the obstacles in their way? This will make implementation of this chapter more fruitful for the whole Catholic community.
The Holy Father asks us “Where are our children?” He is not referring so much to knowing their physical location (at home, at school, at a friend’s house), but where they are in their lives. What are their convictions, desires, hopes and dreams? Who or what is influencing them? What impact do smartphones, tablets, and other such devices have on them? How can children be taught to approach these messages critically, from a holistic Christian and human framework? It is in knowing where our children really are in their lives that parents will know what will help them and what may be dangers and obstacles for them. In this way, parents can both win a deeper trust from their children and offer more effective guidance.
One of the significant challenges to parents who wish to do this is the nature of life in our society – how work, school, and other commitments can make it difficult for families to have time together; how electronic devices can separate people as well as pull them together; how some messages in society can be damaging to our children. How do we help parents meet their responsibilities in the face of all this?
Following the principle that grace builds on nature, Pope Francis outlines the major areas where children need education in some way: the moral and ethical life, sex education, and, finally, passing on the Catholic faith to them. Education in each area needs to be done in ways that are appropriate to the age, maturity, and abilities of the child. Children need to be taught good habits, as virtues grow and strengthen in us by repetition. While good habits should be affirmed, parents also need to offer correction, in a loving way, to their children. Correction is one sign that children are truly loved and that parents truly want the best for their children.
Sex education cannot be focused on “safe sex” or “protection,” as this implies a negative attitude to procreation. Rather, children and adolescents need to be taught – in a manner appropriate to their age and maturity – that sex can be truly understood only in the context of a loving and committed relationship between a man and a woman which finds its natural expression in marriage. To encourage children or adolescents to experiment too soon with their bodies or with one another sexually runs the risk of teaching them to view others as merely means to their own pleasure.
In the area of passing on the faith, Pope Francis stresses that children need to see that faith matters to their parents. This is where evangelization begins. Children need to see that prayer is central to their parents’ lives. It is primarily in the witness of their own lives that parents hand on the faith as something essential and desirable and worthy of imitation.
If all who are involved in ministry to children – parents, other relatives, parish faith formation people, and more – read this chapter carefully and discuss it with one another, it will prove to be a great support for our parents and a gift for our children.
Father Mark P. Nolette, a priest/hermit of the Diocese of Portland, resides in Pittsfield and also does part-time ministry at Our Lady of the Snows and Saint Agnes parishes. Father Nolette also writes a regular blog which can be found at www.theanchorite.net/.