Family: a Winning Education in an Anti-religious Environment

Baroness Michaela von Heereman on Transmitting the Faith

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By Jan Bentz

ROME, JUNE 7, 2012 ( Last weekend the family was the center of attention, not only in Milan but also in Regensburg, where the initiative “Move 2012” for families was held. 

On the occasion, ZENIT interviewed Baroness Michaela von Heereman on topics such as the transmission of the faith and religious education in the family and outside the domestic walls, and the question of school subjects in conflict with the faith.

Baroness von Heereman is a theologian, writer and consultor of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Involved in volunteer work, she collaborated in the drafting of Youcat, the catechism for young people. She is also the mother of six children, and hence, a real expert on family matters.

ZENIT: In countries such as Germany, the so-called traditional family is increasingly considered less as the primary place of education. It seems ever more difficult to transmit the faith to the young generations, also in the family. Why is all this happening?

Baroness von Heereman: Not only does it seem more difficult but it is in fact so, and for a very simple reason: if there is something that children and young people fear it is to be an outsider. If they come from practicing families they are usually doubly outsiders. They are so, in the first place, in their parish, where they are in the minority and where the normal program, instead, is rarely tailored to fit their age. They are outsiders in school in seeking friends. 

Whereas half a century ago a youth who did not go to church had to justify himself; his family and the whole vicinity was worried. Today it is exactly the opposite: if a youth goes regularly to church on Sundays, he is a real exception, and he must justify himself, at least in his meetings with his friends. Hence, parents must educate their children in a strongly a-religious context.

When it is held that it is scientifically demonstrated that the world was born by chance and that man is, therefore, the mere product of purely biological processes, then God is no longer present in people’s minds. And, when in the industrialized societies of the Western world people can insure themselves against all sorts of risks, then it is rather easy to delay for the longest possible time the questions on the meaning of life, the questions “from where?”, “to where?”, and “why.”

Consequently, today a Christianity made up purely of tradition no longer has sufficient persuasive force. Only a personal relationship with God has a contagious effect! Hence, religious parents should – so to speak – come out from clandestinity. They must always tell their children what they have experienced with God, and why they are joyful and convinced Christians. They must address the discussions, speak of God and of the great works He has done for us and not wait for the school and the community to transmit the necessary knowledge of the faith. In the matter of Christian faith parents — and also teachers – cannot presuppose anything any longer; they must propose everything, everything must be explained.

ZENIT: From what presuppositions must parents initiate the transmission of the faith to their children?

Baroness von Heereman: In the first place children must learn to live, to know and to understand the faith of their parents, that is to say, their trust in God, their joy of being able to be Christians. To celebrate the liturgical year together offers a natural opportunity to recount the great works of God and to celebrate. For example, through the good night prayer, being seated on the edge of the child’s bed. Or in the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, or before Pentecost, etc. to take as an idea for prayer the message in question.

At Christmas, moreover, we can “wonder” together with the children on the fact that this great God made himself small as a newborn little brother just to be close to us, to share everything with us and to make himself known to us, interlaced now is the content of the faith and the child’s daily experience, becoming the premise to live the faith as something important for oneself and not as an abstract doctrine.

To live the liturgical year with the help of well-founded usages and traditions (fasting from sweets, from television, etc.) is not only a natural form of catechesis, but also a way – adapted to the age – to exercise oneself in the following of Christ, so that the children experience the faith as formative and important for daily life.

ZENIT: From your experience, how important is religious education outside the domestic walls, as well as parish life, living the liturgy and the catecheses?

Baroness von Heereman: Just as parents send their children at age six to school, because it is important for them to learn to read, write and calculate, so Christians must regularly take their children with them to church so that they know the word of God and learn to believe and to celebrate His presence.

Unfortunately, in the majority of the communities, children and especially young people feel themselves to be a miniscule minority. Hence, in the majority of cases, participation in the local community is not enough. From the beginning, and then later in puberty, parents must seek spiritual opportunities for their children as, for example, the new ecclesial Movements, where it is possible to live Easter and Pentecost together with many other families, or also religious summer camps for young people which are very useful, as they enable them to play with contemporaries, to engage in sports but also to listen to catecheses adapted to their age, to reflect on the faith and to learn to pray. Youcat was born, in fact, from two summer camps.

ZENIT: What is the impact on the family of education in the day nurseries promoted in a massive way by the government? Do children learn to socialize there? What are the implications of this tendency for the task of mothers and for the religious education imparted by them?

Baroness von Heereman: I see the generalizing at the national level of day nurseries for the smallest ones with a very critical eye. We need day nurseries, not only because in many families both parents must work to be able to live – this is especially the case of one-parent families – but also to offer protection and support to neglected children.

However, to regard day nurseries as an educational institution fundamentally superior to family education is simply foolish and ideologically motivated. Newborns and small children need the closeness and the love of their most important persons of reference. A daily separation for several hours is a stress for children. The anxieties of separation that stem from it do not promote the emotional or cognitive growth of children, but impede it.

In sensitive children all this can also lead in the long term to serious psychic problems, as many studies have proved. Hence, day nurseries are emergency solutions, no more and no less! Those who can should give their children — and themselves – in the first two or three years, family support: a reciprocal joy and a growing trust in ones capacities are, in fact, the fruits for both parties.

Religious education requires a trustful bond between parents, children, time, peace and serenity, a daily reliable rhythm and constant rituals and every so often a creative imagination. There are real and proper artists of the organization of nerves of iron, who succeed, even with the double burden of work and family on their shoulders. Even if it is not really necessary, mothers — and if possible also fathers – should dedicate more time to themselves and to their children. In fact, religious education will bring them benefit. Only one who still has firm nerves, who after a long day still has a breath of energy, will read something to his child in the evening, or will sing and then pray with him. Such “evening feasts,” as our children called them when they were a bit old
er, are the first stone of basic religious trust, which normally only the family can lay.

ZENIT: How should parents behave when topics such as sexual education, homosexuality and euthanasia are treated in school in a way that is in contradiction with the faith?

Baroness von Heereman: According to the Region, there is the possibility for parents of participating through the media or in after-school associations in the decision on sexual education. This parents should absolutely enjoy and demand, that is, at the first meeting of parents of the school year, they should ask when and what topics of sexual education are part of the program of studies.

By showing this interest they can push teachers to attune themselves to parents or to express themselves with greater caution. However, the most important thing is the dialogue with one’s children. Parents must always be a step ahead of the school formation so that the children know how their parents think when there is talk in school. And if we parents succeed in explaining human sexuality as a great and wonderful gift of God which enables us to love, to enjoy one another also physically and to bring into the world something very precious such as “you, my child,” then children are amply protected from purely biological-hedonistic expressions.

The alpha and omega of religious education on the part of parents is to give witness of their own experiences of faith and joy, without avoiding any discussion. No matter what topic children present at the table, never answer with silence! An answer must always be given, even if it is: “I don’t know,” because to go together in search of the answer is a wonderful way to grow together in the faith.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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