Getting Past a 2nd-Grade Faith with Pope Francis

Getting Past a 2nd-Grade Faith with Pope Francis September 27, 2015

One of my pleasures lately has been the privilege of getting to watch bunches of priests and laypeople do the Catholic thing and do it well.  It is heartening to see so many faithful people love God so fully, and put that love into action.

Thus last week I found myself watching two priests do exactly the thing they needed to be to doing, mentoring a dozen or so disciples-in-formation.  In the course of group conversation, Father G.* posed a question in passing, and I paraphrase:

So many adult Catholics are walking around with a faith that stopped maturing in second grade.  How do we get them past second grade?

So that’s the question I want to talk about, and about how that ties into the way that Pope Francis is carrying out such a love affair with the whole world.

What’s It Like in Second Grade?

Second-graders are fun.  They are lively and enthusiastic, and they will try to do what you teach them to do.  They have questions, but mostly they count on you for answers, and they count on you to tell them the answers to questions they don’t know to ask.  If you tell a second-grader it’s important to memorize the Our Father or to make the Sign of the Cross correctly, he’ll do his best to please you.  My son who hated uncomfortable shoes with a passion  freely chose to wear the dreaded dress shoes for his First Communion because our DRE had given a talk about wearing your very best for Jesus.

Second-graders are followers.  They don’t know a whole lot, and they count on adults to keep leading them into the world of adulthood.  They are experts at complaining, but it’s the job of the adult to translate the many variations on  “I’m not happy” into meaningful solutions.

This doesn’t mean second graders are helpless or useless.  They enjoy learning and contributing.  They can help take care of the baby or get dinner ready or clean out the car, or any other task suited to someone who is smart but not so world-wise and not always 100% reliable.

From Second Grade to Adulthood

There’s eleven years from second grade to high school graduation, and anyone over forty will tack on another decade or so when estimating at what age someone becomes an “adult.”  (You should not necessarily believe everything people over 40 say.)

I like that we call teens “young adults” because that’s what they are: People who are ready to take on serious responsibilities and begin navigating the trials and terrors of the adult world, but who are still very young. They don’t have much experience, and they need guidance from those who do.

But the process of getting from seven to seventeen isn’t just second grade repeated over and over again, and it’s not a process that’s carried out by snapping your fingers and telling the kid to grow up already.  To see what that process involves, let’s think about the people we know who “never grew up.”

Big Body, Childish Soul

What are the characteristics of people who remain immature into adulthood?

  • They’ve never been held accountable for their actions.  When they mess-up, someone always swoops in to rescue them.
  • They’ve never been given real responsibility.  There’s always someone to pay the bills, sort out problems, and generally ensure they can cruise through life like one long visit to Disneyland.
  • They’ve often never been given the tools of adulthood.  No one taught them how to budget, or how to use self-control to resist various temptations, or how to get a job and keep it.

One of the reasons parenthood will cause you to finish growing up is that for the first time in your life you’ve got some real, sacrificial responsibility, and no one to bail you out.  Following through is the only option.

How Do You Help Someone Grow Up?

If you have a child, or a class full of children, or a parish full of grown-up children in your life, there are some things you do to help those children mature.  None of the things are magic formulas.  You are in a relationship with human beings endowed with free will, not robots in need of better code.  Still, there are some general principles that mostly apply:

1. You have to know the person.  Walk into a room of strangers, and the best you can do aim for a general target — people in this situation generally seem to need ______.  The better we know somebody — and we can never know another person perfectly — the better we can identify interests, personality traits, strengths and weaknesses, and thus we have a better chance of being able to offer help that is in fact helpful.

This is one of the reason parish life is so daunting: Two priests putting in hour after hour mentoring just a dozen or so adults is not big-bang.  It doesn’t produce quick results.  We have to invest in individuals, trusting that those few people will in turn grow into mature Christians who will go and take what they received and in turn mentor others.

2. You have to teach.  There are people who just seem to naturally “know what to do.”  Everyone has gifts, and everyone has personal interests that cause them to seek out skills independently.   But humans have long childhoods for a reason: We need to be taught.  We need someone to teach us how to put our pants on, how to go to the toilet, how to wash our hands properly.  It does no good to tsk tsk that those people don’t know how to ________ — someone has to step in and teach the skill, even if it’s galling that someone must be taught ______ so late in life.

It’s true that some people, given a lecture on the importance of Algebra or housekeeping or being more reverent at Mass will stand up, take notice, and get right to work.  But most of us can use a few pointers, and actually most of us need a lot of pointers.

3. You have to get out of the way. Here’s my failed method of helping a certain teenager learn Algebra:

  • Mom reads through the text.
  • Mom does a few problems.
  • Mom says, “See, that’s not so hard is it?”

This method doesn’t work.  Sooner or later you reach the point where you have to hand over the pencil.  You have to let the student work through the problem on his own, even though he’s probably going to be slow and sloppy and make mistakes.

This is where Catholics tend to fall down.  We want parents to take responsibility for teaching their children the faith, but we don’t dare let them teach their children the faith.  We want parishioners to take the initiative in carrying out the works of mercy, but we don’t dare let them take any initiatives.

We have a fear, and that fear is grounded in reality: If you let people do things, they will screw it up.

That’s the law.  Let people do things, and they will screw it up.

But what’s the alternative? Perpetual childishness.

Pope Francis Makes a Mess

The reason Pope Francis has charmed the whole world, and exasperated no small number of Catholics in the process, is that he’s willing try his hand at being Pope and he’s an experiential learner.  We love him because he does bold things that aren’t in the Pope Manual, and that we instinctively know are the right thing do to do.  He also sometimes makes us crazy when he tries things that aren’t in the Pope Manual and he talks himself into a hot mess in the process.

All the Popes have been like this, trying out the business of being Pope as best they can, doing some things right and getting some things wrong.  No one’s born knowing how to be Pope, and the only way to learn how to do it is to get in there and try.

This is how it is for all of us.  We each bring our own personalities.  Some of us are too cautious, some of us not cautious enough; some of us can be counted on to stick to the proven, some of us love nothing more than a new problem, never solved, waiting for someone to step in experiment.  As a general rule, the person who washes the altar linens should be the cautious, precision-obsessed, do-it-right-the-first-time type.

Having “the Talk” With Your Spiritual Children

When my husband and I showed Father E. Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, he gave us his informal blessing: No, at this time the parish wasn’t ready to take on that project, but he encouraged us to go out and make our mess.  We put together a discipleship group, felt our way through it, and two years down the road the group has borne much fruit.  We started with relatively mature Christians, and with very little prompting they’ve moved on to making messes of their own (including running the follow-on to the original discipleship group).

Not everyone is ready to leap out of the nest unprompted.

This afternoon I posed a question to my fifteen-year-old: How eager are you to move out and live on your own?  I’m not trying to get rid of the kid, but the question is one we have to address.  Each young person reaches that point when he is ready to try his hand at going solo, and it’s our job as parents to get our son to the point where he’s ready to go out and give it a shot. An eighteen-year-old who wants to try working full-time and paying his own bills needs a different type of preparation than one who’s mapped out a course of extensive post-secondary studies.

But we have to agree on the goal: You are going to grow into a full-fledged adult, and it’s our mutual job to work together and do what we need to do to get  you there.

So it is with the spiritual children.


File:Giddy Up!.jpg
Photo by Gonzo Carles (Giddy Up!) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

*G. is for “Gonzo,” which, interestingly, is not the part of the guy you see on the outside so much.  Fr. E. is for “Excellent.”

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