by Holly Mohr
“Do I have to be Catholic when I grow up, Mommy?”
The question comes from my 7-year-old in the middle of Mass, a Mass I had prepared for his sacramental preparation program. I wait a beat, quickly sifting through the thoughts of all flavors that arise for me.
“You can be and do what the Holy Spirit calls you to,” I whisper back. He nods, seemingly satisfied. I have tried to honor his autonomy and conscience (as well as the reality that this is not going to be my call to make when he’s an adult), while not downplaying the fact that I care about this, that yes, I do have a horse in this race. I’m also trying not to scandalize the people in the row behind us too badly, while still giving an honest and substantive answer. And, I figure, trusting the Holy Spirit has got to be the way for all of us. I definitely want to be on Team Holy Spirit, wherever and whatever that ends up meaning.
The truth is that his question is complicated for me. When he asked it, I’ll admit to my heart sinking a little. Almost everyone I know in the Catholic Church with adult children are people whose adult children have left the Catholic Church. To say this is an extremely common phenomenon is an understatement. And honestly, I probably sympathize with the adult children more often than not, whose reasons for leaving frequently resonate with me. But my husband and I have worked so hard for our kids’ experience of Catholicism to be intentional, dialogical, meaningful, life-giving. In truth, yes, I want them to stay.
But what does leaving mean? And what is it, exactly, that I hope most unequivocally to pass on?
I have very seriously considered leaving myself. It’s a continually open question for me, honestly, even as I currently dedicate my life to working in the Church and forming my own family (and myself) in faith. Even as the life of faith, spirituality, service, community is basically everything to me.
Yet it’s this questioning that keeps me honest, I think. It’s what allows me to be genuinely welcoming to people who find themselves on the margins of the Church. It gives me the capacity to be a functioning bridge between the treasures the institution has to offer, and the real and gaping needs of those who seek the divine yet have been burned one too many times by an often broken and unresponsive institution.
So what do I hope for my own children? First, I hope I have the courage to accompany them in love and trust and joyful affirmation, wherever life takes them.
But if I could chart a course for what their experience of faith and Catholicism would look like? I hope they would be wisdom-seekers, justice-workers. I would hope they would exist on that edge, that sharp but life-giving margin that would connect them to the deepest truths of our tradition, while having the internal fortitude to call bullshit on anything inside or outside the institution that crushes and disfigures.
I want them to see with clarity that their allegiance and obedience is first and foremost due to God-Mystery (who is not so far from their deepest, truest Self), that creator and sustainer who forms us in the fire of Love; then to their neighbor, especially their neighbor in need, who really is not so different from God-Mystery; and only then to institution and tribe and all other categories and divisions that are good, but smaller. I want them to be schooled in the Scriptures and the holy ones, but/and I want them to be liberated by them, not bound into rigidity. I want them to know a deep responsibility and conscientiousness for their life choices, but/and I want them to know an inner wildness that allows the Spirit to pulse through them where She/He/They will.
I want a sacramental lens of all of reality for them. I want them to see the sacred everywhere, to bow before all of it in reverence, knowing God is there (and there, and there, and beyond and within, too). I want them to have a disciplined practice of prayer and service and meaningful relationships. I want for them a consistent and accountable religious path that is nevertheless open to evolution and surprise so they can stay in the flow and know how to listen for the Spirit when She calls.
Most importantly, I want them to know their immutable dignity—I want them to be able to locate the Spirit within, subversively planted there at Baptism (but/and whose image they have existed within even before that). I want them to know how to drink of the silence of their interiority and meet the Eternal God there. I want them to know the deep rest of finding God within them, as well as the creative challenge of responding to whatever God calls them to do, whomever God calls them to be, however God calls them to serve and co-create this world.
So yeah, baby. I pray you go wherever the Holy Spirit leads you. I do pray you stay close to the Church, but nimbly, on your toes. I hope most of all you know yourself to be inextricably shaped by and connected to the Living God, wherever God is found.
And I pray I have the courage to meet you there.