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20 feture

Praying for prodigals to return to us

Fr Kane shares the pain of parents whose children stray from the Faith and offers them some timely advice.

One of the privileges of priesthood is that, in general, people are unusually open with us in sharing the stories of their lives. By this I mean pouring out their joys and sufferings and the otherwise hidden parts of life. We are blessed to be given a key into the interior lives of the people we serve.

The most extraordinary part of all this is that it is completely unmerited on our part. We do not form part of a person’s inner circle of family or close friends. Nonetheless we are invited deep into the heart of people’s lives. It is a privilege, not a burden.

So much of this ministry is about listening. I have always found that speaking and advising are the lesser brothers of listening. We are blessed to hear the honest, sincere and unedited accounts of what occupies people’s daily lives and, crucially, what disturbs their peace.

Can you do more?

One of the major themes that reappear in these conversations is a deep unease that many Catholics have about the lack of practice among their close family members. Parents and grandparents, in particular, live with the heavy cross that their children or grandchildren no longer practise the faith that was so diligently handed on to them.

Such a burden does not come alone. Often it is accompanied by questions of self-doubt: what did I do wrong as a parent? Am I doing enough today to rectify it? Am I too accommodating to the present situation? Could I do more?

It is clear that such an experience creates very deep wounds in those who live and love their Faith. It is a daily preoccupation which can have a real impact on parents who struggle to understand how Faith could seemingly die in the children they love.

Parents’ pain

In some sense it is a deeply unjust wound to bear. Parents who practise have done all the Church has asked of them. They have baptised their children and raised them in the loving embrace of the Sacraments. They have made Sunday Mass a priority and shown diligence in praying and gently catechising at home.

They have shown a love for the Church and tried to instil that same love in the next generation. Yet, despite their best efforts, the spark of Faith has diminished to an ember of its former glow.

Hearing these stories can be difficult because they are almost always marked by pain, guilt and personal disappointment. ‘Where did I go wrong as a parent?’ is a question that a priest hears often.

Yet the truth must be spoken in these difficult situations. The diminishing of Faith in children who have grown into adults is not the fault of their parents, and nor should it be. Parents cannot be held responsible for the lapsing of adult Catholics.

Cannot be forced

Of course, Catholic parents who abdicate their responsibilities in the formative years are likely to accelerate the lapse of their children through poor example. If a child is not praying or attending Mass and the Sacraments, then this failing can be laid squarely at the feet of parents.

It is akin to teaching a child to ride a bike and then giving up halfway through the stabilisers phase. How could that child ever ride a bike independently if they had never been taught the basics? Likewise Faith will have little chance to flourish if the foundations were not properly laid as a matter of priority.

But this is not the case for practising parents. In these cases, Faith was passed on diligently and yet produced little fruit later in life. The necessary foundations were solidly laid.


Of course, it is easy for parents to wrestle to try to take control of such a painful situation. But this is not the solution to the problem. Faith, like love, cannot be forced into the heart of another, however well intentioned. Faith emerges from within a person as a free gift from God; it cannot be forced from outside.

This is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of dealing with the lapsing of another: a sense of helplessness. ‘What can I possibly do to reawaken what was there before?’ we ask, as if there was a purely human solution.

Some parents or grandparents choose to address the situation with a combative tone marked by sour disappointment. In my experience, this only builds walls in families and does little to convince the lapsed to embrace a God of unconditional love.

Allow God to be God

This does not mean that there is no room to evangelise or to remind our lapsed loved ones of the merits of Faith. It only means that it must be done gently, carefully and lovingly. We must have the prudence to know when to speak and when to keep silent; when to share our viewpoints and when to keep our own counsel.

In reality, we must allow God to be God, and remember that He—not us—is the source of Faith. This means handing control to Him and trusting in His ways. It also means seeking a solution in God’s time and discarding our own timescale. In the end, it is about trusting God and accepting that His ways are not our ways.

Yet there is also a legitimate space for us to inspire a change in heart in those who have fallen away from God. Above all, it is our example and Christian witness which must shine out in the sight of others.

Saintly example

If we are firm in our commitment to God, His Church and His Sacraments, then those graces will undoubtedly be felt by others. If people see the fruits of our relationship with God, then it may soften hearts to turn back to Him since there is nothing more evangelically compelling than a committed disciple of the Lord.

Above all, we need to follow the example of countless saints who prayed to God on bended knee to work small miracles in our families and reignite the gift of Faith in our lapsed loved ones.

The story of St Monica is particularly powerful as an example of a miraculous change of heart. She prayed continually for the conversion of her wayward son Augustine. Her prayers were answered a hundredfold when God gave her not only a Christian but a bishop and saint! May God likewise hear our humble and daily prayers for all those whose Faith has fallen asleep.

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