Granted – parents are the primary religious educators of their children. But before educating them, we must evangelize them. But when and how do we begin?
What does Scripture say to parents about evangelizing their children? At what age of the child should parents begin?
One day, the Pharisees tested Jesus with an important question – of all 613 of the Bible’s laws, which is most important? The Lord quickly shot back a response: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37).
Here Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which begins with “hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” Moses goes on to say “drill this into your children. Speak of this whether you are at home or abroad, whether busy or at rest. Write this on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” This verse was the first thing whispered into the ear of a newborn and the last thing heard by the dying. It was repeated three times a day by the pious Jew and is still written on a tiny scroll and attached to the doorjamb of a Jewish home. This “Mezuzah” is reverently touched on the way in and out of the house much the same way as we dip our fingers into holy water on the way in and out of Church.
To evangelize literally means to share good news. The gospel (“good news”) is that the Creator of the Universe invites us into a relationship with Himself that will last forever. He gives us his entire self – we respond by giving ourselves to Him. Religion is not about mechanical observance, but about an intimate love relationship that will transform us and fulfill us beyond our wildest imagination. Jesus reveals the full degree of this intimacy when he teaches us to call God “Father” and demonstrates the full extent of God’s love on Calvary.
The Bible commands us to get this message across to our children from the moment of birth. This is why the Catholic Church baptizes infants.
But it is important to note that sharing the gospel can’t be limited to periods of formal instruction. A small child learns his parents native language not by taking formal language classes, but by hearing people conversing day in and day out. Children pick up language by osmosis, so to speak. They “catch” it.
It is the same way with the gospel. For us, the crucifix and images of the saints displayed in the home are continuous reminders to everyone, even the smallest child, of the love of God and our spiritual family, the Church. A child first realizes God is important when he or she sees prayer integrated into every aspect of life – morning offering, grace before meals, and prayer before bed.
As children grow and develop, our evangelization strategy must develop as well. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important enough to warrant careful study in the classroom. Is the faith more or less important?
But formal classes have significant limitations. Kids’ curiosity is not always perfectly timed to coincide with class periods. It could be driving home from a friend’s house that a teen asks, “dad, why is it wrong to have sex with your girlfriend.” Will dad be ready? Can he present chastity as liberating good news instead of repressive prudishness? If he has no answer, a teenager, may conclude that there is no good answer.
For this reason, the Second Vatican Council clearly teaches that parents are the primary religious educators and evangelizers of their children. To fulfill our role effectively, we parents need first to be examples. Our kids will more quickly follow our footsteps than our words. But as they grow into young adulthood, children also need answers. They need for us not just to model our faith, but to help them understand it. We cannot give what we don’t have. Continuing education is necessary in our professional vocations – it is no less essential in our vocation as Christian parents.