Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Catholic community here.
Family prayer passes on the faith. Through it, faith is both caught and taught. Moreover, family prayer reminds our children that faith is not about what we say we know, but who we know. Prayer is an act of love, a conduit of grace that welcomes God in our midst, and aligns us in right relationship with Him and one another.
We take our example for family prayer from the Mass—the ultimate family prayer—where the entire family of God prays at the Sunday Eucharist. From this worship we are called to serve our own families—to make our homes a domestic church, as Vatican II suggested. This entails not only Sunday attendance, but also creating our families to become a school of prayer for our youngest members, and sturdy shelter of prayer for those who are older.
Family prayer happens with intentionality—a daily priority both spontaneous and scheduled. Over the years our family prayer has been varied, both in private moments one-to-one, and as a family unit. It is both informal, requiring parents to lead by example, and formal, relying on the traditional prayers of the Church.
When our children were small we taught them simple prayers: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, and the prayers of the Mass and the Rosary. We prayed a formal grace at every meal and never hesitated to add our own thankful prayers to it. Each child's bedtime was lavished with traditional and personal prayers.
Spontaneous prayers during the day were encouraged—prayers of adoration and supplication. A child can learn to offer prayer anytime throughout the day. Gratitude for a sunny day, or a win, or discovering a new friend, or finishing a project, can be moments of praise and thanksgiving. Turning to prayer when a fire truck or ambulance rolls by, or when somebody's boo-boo needs care: these too are opportunities for prayer. Easy intercessions can be prayers before school work or tests, or starting a race in a track or swim meet.
Praying with our children helps parents pay attention to what God is doing in each child's life. It is powerful to point out when a child's prayers get answered in the affirmative, and even more so when the answers are hard to accept.
Praying with the communion of saints can personalize family prayer. For us, each child had a patron they were named for, and we taught them about their saint's life and virtues, particularly on feast days. Other saints were discovered as they matched our children's interests, especially when seeking saints to emulate in Confirmation, or in following a vocation.
Formal and scheduled family prayer times tie our family to the universal church. When the children were little we read Bible stories and held simple devotions on Sunday nights to keep the Lord's Day holy. In the grade school and teen years, family prayer centered on the formal prayers of the Rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet, with different family members leading each decade. Short novenas or Bible readings for meditation can be good practice, especially in Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter.
Pre-teens and teens can be encouraged to have a daily quiet time with God themselves. Sometimes it is hard for parents to know what's going on inside of a teen's mind and heart. One question always helped unlock that door for us as parents: "What do you want us to pray for?" A teen's response offered a window to see what's really important to them at the moment. If it was something serious, we told them that whenever they were ready to talk about it, we would be, too. Our teens were reassured that our prayers were held in confidence. Equally important was asking our teens to pray for us, too!
Personal and family prayer are especially important in hard times, when our presence indicates our willingness to suffer alongside our children. Offering heartfelt prayers aloud with them helps them know they are not alone in their struggles. Over the years, prayers have been raised when a break-up occurs with boyfriend or girlfriend, or when strength is needed to overcome an obstacle, or grow in virtue when temptations strike.
A parent who prays is a gift to their children. Pray for your family needs in your personal daily prayers, but pray for each one by name. Ask God to inspire you to lead each one according to his or her needs.
And pray, within your family, for the Extraordinary Synod for the Family in October, that the Light of Christ may illuminate our leadership.