What makes a Catholic? I imagine there are as many unique answers to this question as there are readers.
Consider your own experience. You might recall a particularly inspiring priest or mentor. Perhaps many years of attendance at Mass slowly formed your Catholic identity. An education in Catholic schools may have enriched your understanding of your religion. Maybe a Sunday school class, a youth group, or a “mountaintop” experience like a mission trip or pilgrimage shaped you into a person of strong faith.
All of these are wonderful examples of significant influences on our personal Catholic identity, but do you know which is the most important for forming religious behavior? According to the experts, it is none of these. The answer, they say, is parenting.
The National Study of Youth and Religion observed that among children raised in homes where both the mother and father talked about and practiced their faith, 82% were “highly religious” as young adults. This was true even in cases where the child experienced a period of low interest in religion (for example, during the college years). Among other factors, like religious schooling, clergy, and service projects, none come remotely close to equaling the impact of parents. Other studies echo these findings. Family is a nearly deterministic factor in faith practice.
As we approach the holiday season and, for many, an increase in time spent with family, I think it is important to consider the ways we practice our faith in our homes. Are our homes obviously Catholic in the ways we talk, decorate, eat, and plan our activities? Or do we consider religion a private matter, rarely discussed or made visible? If the studies are correct, then developing good Catholic home habits may be the very best way to pass on the faith.
I want to share one simple practice from my household: prayer around the Advent wreath. Our wreath comes out with the other holiday decorations at Thanksgiving and forms the centerpiece of our dining room table until Christmas. In my ideal world, Advent prayer happens to begin a family dinner. But at this stage of life, mealtime is too hectic to realize that vision. So instead we gather each Sunday night before bed, when we are likely to all be together and activity-free.
A simple order of prayer, adapted from the Book of Blessings and other sources, is printed on sturdy sheets. We open and close by singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which everyone knows nearly by heart. Each week, a different person gets to light the candles, and we divide up the readings and prayers. The whole thing takes five minutes.
Perhaps you have similar family prayer traditions. If not, the holidays are a great time to start creating memorable and impactful faith practices at home. A sample Advent wreath prayer service like the one we use is available to view and print at www.archlou.org/adventwreath. There is one for each week of the Advent season. Feel free to use and adapt these for your own family. I pray that Catholic traditions will infuse our homes and help pass on the faith, this season and always.