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When Your Child Leaves the Faith

It's okay to feel pain over wayward children, but always trust that God wants to save them

We tend to think of the relationship between a parent and a child as fundamentally a biological reality, a consequence of the way animals propagate life. But since the revelation of Jesus Christ, the revelation that God is a Father who from all eternity has begotten a Son, we now know that in God’s plan the relationship between a parent and a child is fundamentally a theological reality. That is, God’s fundamental purpose in creating the world so that there would be parents and children in it was to reflect the eternal parenthood of God. St. Paul implies this when he says: “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15).

Because of this, the natural love you bear toward your children, the way in which you identify your very self with them, is a faint yet true reflection of the disposition God the Father has toward his eternally begotten Son, Jesus Christ. And since we have become members of Christ by our baptism, God the Father looks upon us with the same love, the same identification of self, with which he looks at Jesus.

This is not just my opinion; it is the teaching of Jesus: “The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (John 17:22-23). Read those words again. God the Father loves you just as he loves Jesus, his eternally begotten Son! How can a soul who reads and believes these words ever despair of any good thing? For if God has given us even his only Son, will he not also give to us every good thing besides?

What is the practical consequence of this theological truth? God looks upon your Catholic children as his own sons and daughters. He loves them with the love of a perfect Father, more pure and more intense than your love could ever be. And he loves them with his whole being, infinitely. So he understands your desires for the salvation of your children. He understands your deep pain when they are away from the truth and the life of the Catholic faith. And he wants you to believe that he understands. As Jesus is said to have told St. Catherine of Siena, “Nothing that you do or can do pleases me as much as when you believe that I love you.”

Not only does it please God when you believe that he loves you, but it pleases him also when you believe that he loves those whom you love: your children. It is God who has planted the love of your children in your heart as a reflection of the love in his heart. St. Faustina records in her Diary that “after Holy Communion today, I spoke at length to the Lord Jesus about people who are special to me. Then I heard these words: My daughter, don’t be exerting yourself so much with words. Those whom you love in a special way, I too love in a special way, and for your sake, I shower my graces upon them.”

This same truth is found in Scripture. The Gospels record three times when Jesus raised someone from the dead: the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Naim, and the brother of Martha and Mary. Those are all the relationships within an immediate family: father/daughter; mother/son; brother/sister. So Jesus reserved his greatest miracles for the prayers of family members. The Lord also saved Abraham’s nephew Lot from the punishment of Sodom because of Abraham’s prayers. Just as the Lord loved and saved Lot for Abraham’s sake, the Lord also loves your children for your sake. Try to put yourself in the Lord’s shoes for a moment, and ask: what would you do for your children if you had all the power and wisdom that God has at his disposal?

Above all, as you endure the separation of your child, the Lord is asking for trust from you: trust in his love, trust that he loves you more than you love yourself and that he loves your children more than you do.

Sometimes, after coming to this realization, a parent will ask me, “Father, if this is true, does it mean that I should not feel pain because my child is away from the Church? Is my sorrow a sign that I do not trust God enough?”

Some sorrows are compatible with trust in God, even perfect trust. Jesus sorrowed intensely upon the cross, yet his trust was perfect. If your child were sick, even if you had perfect trust that God would heal your child, you would still be right to feel compassion for your child’s suffering. Love makes the lover and beloved one: they rejoice in the same goods and suffer the same evils. So it is okay to feel sadness that your child is still separated from God. Even that pain itself is salvific; for God wants to use that pain that you bear in your heart as an instrument of your child’s salvation. As a saintly bishop once said to St. Monica as she poured out her sorrows over her wayward son Augustine, “It is not possible that the child of so many tears should perish!”

That being said, it is also true that some crosses are of our own making. And by lacking trust that God loves your child, you can weigh down your heart with the shackles of needless suffering. A lesson from the Gospels will help to illustrate this fact. We read about two people who are obviously being compared to one another. One person is a centurion, a Roman military leader. He has built a synagogue, and he has a child at home who was gravely ill. He comes to Jesus asking for the healing of this child. But when Jesus expresses his intention to come all the way to his home, the centurion replies that he is unworthy that Jesus should enter under his roof. Moreover, he expresses complete faith in Jesus’ power to heal the child. And so at that very moment, Jesus heals the child, and the centurion, secure in this faith, goes back to his home confident that Jesus has done what he asked. When he arrives home, he finds it just as his faith had believed.

The other person is a man named Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue. And like the centurion, he too has a child at home who is gravely ill. He also asks Jesus for the healing of his child, but his faith is not as strong as the centurion’s. He needs Jesus to come all the way to his house and lay his hands on the child so that she might get well. He needs to feel Jesus’ sensible presence all along the journey. The word of Jesus is not enough for Jairus. Well, on the way back to Jairus’s home, his daughter dies. Jairus is disconsolate, but Jesus strengthens his faith and helps him to continue on. And when Jesus gets to the house, he raises the child from the dead.

The good news is that even for those whose faith is imperfect, Jesus ultimately accomplishes what they ask for. But because of his lack of trust, Jairus suffers so much more than the centurion who had perfect trust. If Jairus had only said the words of the centurion to Jesus: “Only say the word and my child will be healed,” then Jairus could have gone home secure in the knowledge that his daughter was already well. But because he did not have this perfect faith, he had to endure the suffering of hearing that his daughter had died.

We have the same choice before us. Either we can trust Jesus perfectly, and say to him, “Lord, I believe that you will save my child. I do not need to see it with my own eyes. I will walk in faith and trust back to my heavenly home knowing that when I get there, I will find my child safe and sound.” Or we can tell Jesus that we need to see our child’s conversion with our own eyes. That we need to feel his presence all along the way. The problem with that lack of trust is that we will only add to our own suffering that way. And Jesus doesn’t want us to suffer on a cross of our own making. He wants us to believe with our whole heart that he can and will save our children.

This article on parents suffering for their children is excerpted from Fr. Sebastian Walshe’s new book, Always a Catholicavailable now at the Catholic Answers Shop.

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