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How to cope when your child leaves the Catholic Church

When adult children leave the faith, parents feel hopeless on how to bring them back

Published: November 27, 2023   
Aprille Hanson Spivey
Jeff Hines, diocesan faith formation director, said less school-like faith formation can help young people develop a relationship with Jesus that can help anchor them to the faith as they grow. He uses Sherry A. Weddell’s book, “Forming Intentional Disciples” as a guide.

When a child is born, parents have a flood of hopes for their future — health, happiness, love, a successful career and maybe a family of their own one day. For many Catholic parents, those hopes are centered around the Catholic faith guiding each step of that child’s life. 

There are many ways parents, along with the Church, can help guide their children to have a strong foundation of faith, as well as ways to cope when they choose a different path as adults. 


Foundation at home

Building a faith foundation at home for children can impact their whole lives, even their decision on whether or not to remain Catholic as an adult. 

Early in the baptismal ceremony, the priest says to parents, “You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so, you are accepting the responsibility of training your child in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring your child up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?” 

This undertaking does not just mean driving children to catechism classes, ensuring they receive their sacraments or sending them to Catholic schools. Teaching the faith starts at home by praying together as a family and attending Mass with a spirit of longing to grow closer to Christ, rather than purely out of obligation, said Father Mark Wood, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Malvern and St. Mary Church in Arkadelphia. 

“I guess the wrong way would be if it comes across as hypocritical or false,” he said. “Praying together as a family, yes, you can say it’s forced, but there’s some things that children don’t get a choice in the matter. … But if it seems false or inconsistent or it’s just for show; as we know, sadly, even going to Mass it seems like for some people it’s more for show or out of a sense of obligation. Obligation can be OK, but it should not be the highest motive. God wants us to love him out of our own free will, not out of obligation or fear.” 

It also means parents must develop their own relationship with God, participate in the sacraments and live their faith joyfully to be authentic examples to their children. No parent is called to perfection but to do the best they can. 

“If I find a young adult or adult who is active and practicing their faith, usually I can trace it back to their parents, the example of their parents in the home,” Father Wood said. 

However, in his 35 years of priesthood, he said there are “always exceptions to the rule.” He has seen children who do not have a stable faith foundation at home cling to the Catholic faith as adults and those whose parents “seemingly did everything right” fall away from the Catholic faith or any faith in God as adults. 

Father Wood explained that God created each person to have a relationship with him — to know him, love him and to serve him in this life and heaven. 

“I encourage parents to remember, ultimately, we’re talking about something that’s between God and each individual,” he said. 


Should I feel guilty? 

Guilt can creep into a parent’s life if their adult child leaves the faith. Guilt of not fostering a solid faith foundation at home is understandable and can be brought to confession. While Father Wood said he doesn’t want parents to feel unnecessary guilt when their adult children stop attending Mass, sometimes an examination of conscience can be healing. 

“Do I have some fault? Because that can be true. If they’re going to have spiritual healing I have to help them look at that with honest eyes,” he said. “It’s not the whole story. Adult children are responsible for their own actions. But say, ‘You know, maybe yeah, I sent my kids to Catholic school and did this and that, but in all honesty, I didn’t really practice the faith very well in the home or teach it.’ And they might just need to accept it” and seek forgiveness.

However, guilt is different from shame. Guilt is about what a person does and shame is about who a person is.

“God is God. It’s a challenge because we can be tempted to act like God or think ‘I have to do it. I’m responsible for my child’s soul.’ It’s almost a temptation to take too much guilt if we think too much of ourselves. I’m not God. I can’t do everything. I’m not responsible for everything,” Father Wood said. 

Parents who feel shame and extreme feelings that they have to fix it can pray for his grace to understand what they’re responsible for and what is not their responsibility. 

“Accept whatever guilt and seek to atone for that. And, in this case, it might be to pray for my (adult) child and be the best example I can be for that child; treating that child with love and respect,” Father Wood said. 


Church’s responsibility

Even though faith begins at home, that does not mean the Catholic Church does not need to be a place of growth alongside families. 

Jeff Hines, diocesan faith formation director, said formation that “looks less like school” can help young people stay connected to their faith as they grow. Hines explained faith formation should not be about culture, behavior and obligation but about knowing Jesus, what he’s done for us and how to be a disciple. 

“When young people do not come back to Church after confirmation, they may be doing exactly what we have trained them to do,” he said. “Faith formation that looks and feels like school reinforces the notion that confirmation is graduation. We say with words, ‘confirmation is not graduation,’ but our actions may say the opposite. Parents learn how to share Christ with their children, and children see faith connect with their real life at home. Formation in small groups outside of a classroom setting brings young people together to discuss faith and life, accompanied by a catechist who helps them apply faith to their real life. We need to stop trying to make ‘good Catholics’ and start trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ who desire to encounter him in the sacraments.”

Father Wood said even from the pulpit, the emphasis should be the love of God, not fear. While awe and fear of the Lord are gifts from the Holy Spirit, they are meant to remind us we are not God, not scare us into a relationship with God. 

“With what spirit do we teach the faith? I grew up Baptist, and I stopped going to church in the seventh and eighth grades because every service was negative and shame-based,” Father Wood said. “… So sometimes we know in the Church we’ve been our own worst enemies because the theology we’ve taught children has not been good at all. That we do things out of obligation or fear to think God will owe us a reward. No, God loves us. … We are doing this out of love and our own free will.” 


What can I do? 

While a parent cannot force their adult child to remain a practicing Catholic, they can cope and move forward in faith. Father Wood said prayer and discernment are vital in helping a parent understand what their motivations are for trying to get their adult child back to Mass and what they believe about their child. Parents trying to scare, shame or fix their perceived mistakes to bring their adult children back to Mass are improper motivations. 

“Sometimes we assume they’re not going to Mass, they’re not active Catholics, so they’re going to hell. We assume the worst, and we have no reason to,” Father Wood said. “God loves this child and created this child for himself. God’s love and mercy are infinite. God wants us with him. God is going to do everything he can to bring us to heaven. We have to accept God won’t force us.” 

Hines said parents must “lead with love” when speaking to adult children. 

“If we do not agree with their lifestyle or their politics, remember that Jesus did not agree with the lifestyle and politics of prostitutes and tax collectors, but he joined them for dinner, loved them and did not condemn them,” Hines said. “He gave himself for them so that he could save them. Philippians 2 says that Jesus ‘emptied himself,’ which St. Paul says should be our attitude, too.” 

Parents need to accept their own limits, pray for their adult child and pray for the grace to see their child through God’s eyes.

“‘I respect it’s a decision between God and my child,’ not, ‘Oh, I think you’ve made a mistake. If you’ll just listen to me, I’ll point out to you how you’re wrong.’... That’s probably not going to be effective,” Father Wood said. “Instead, “I respect you; this is between you and God. And I’m going to pray for you. You were baptized Catholic, so you are Catholic; this is your home. Because I want the best for you, that’s where I hope you come to.” 

Discernment also means to pray for the wisdom and insight to speak to an adult child in the way that will reach their heart most effectively.

“You can encourage them, invite them, but you have to be careful not to nag. It’s discernment. You have to get a feel for it. Pray for a sense of ‘OK, here’s what I can say or do that will most encourage’” my adult child, Father Wood added. 

Above all, parents should remember God is a God of impossibilities, changing people’s lives each moment. It’s something Father Wood has seen countless times in his ministry. 

“I always tell parents that you always have to have hope,” he said.

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