Thursday, March 15, 2007

"No Father -- No Family -- No Faith"

Some years ago, George Wesolek, (a friend of mine, now a member of the Cornerstone Forum board of directors) and I collaborated as part of a Lenten series of presentations at a Catholic parish in Sonoma, California where I lived at the time. One thing that George said had a great impact on me and on those to whom we spoke. He described, as I recall, how his father was a formidable sort of man, not one who wore his heart on his sleeve. But each Sunday when the family attended Mass, George would look over and see his father kneeling in prayer, his head in his hands. At those moments George said he glimpsed out of the corner of his eye something about his father that left a deep impression on him. He concluded his reverie about his childhood by saying something to this effect: “If I hadn’t seen father kneeling in prayer like that, I’m not sure what would have become of me, but I doubt that I would be standing here before you today bearing witness to my faith.”

I was raised by a single mother, my father having been killed in the closing days of World War II. There were a few father figures whom I managed to glimpse out of the corner of my eye, and I developed a gift for finding surrogate father figures. But it was chiefly from my mother (and my grandmother) that I received my faith. I am ever in their debt for that gift.

In looking back, however, I realize now that in many ways my mother became my father and the Church became my mother – the Church which was at the time so marvelously represented by nuns galore, most of whom were paragons of selfless fidelity. Those were the days – I entered the first grade in a little Catholic grammar school in 1950 – when such things were possible.

These memories are stirred by a recent piece in the Canadian National Post by Barbara Kay entitled "Men of the church," in which she cites a facinating report from Switzerland on demographics and religious practice. She summarizes the report's findings this way:
A statistical report from Switzerland in 2000, “The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland,” reviewed the results of a 1994 survey of Swiss religious practice, and arrives at a fascinating conclusion about the impact of mothers’ vs. fathers’ church attendance on the future religious observance of their children.

The detailed survey indicated that if the father attended church regularly, and the mother was non-practising, then 44% of their children became regular church-goers. But if the mother attended regularly, and the father was non-practising, then only two per cent of their children became regular church attenders.
Even when the father was an irregular attender and the mother non-practising, a full 25% of their children became regular attenders, while if a mother was a regular attender and the father irregular, only three per cent of the children became regular attenders.

In short, if a father does not attend church, it won’t matter how dedicated the mother is in her observance, only one child in 50 will become a regular attender. But if a father is even somewhat observant, then regardless of the mother’s practice, at least one child in three will become a regular church-goer. The disparity is too stunningly wide to be culturally insignificant.
The rather provocative title of this weblog post is from a comment Barbara Kay quotes in her article. It is a must read. It has been reissued by the Catholic Education Resource Center here.

For the time being, no post is complete without some mention of Liz, for which I again ask your patience.

Liz's experience, though roughly analogous to mine, was a good deal more emotionally complicated. The seeds of her faith, as I mentioned at her wake, were planted in her childhood by her grandmother, a Lebanese immigrant for whom Liz often served as companion and English translator. Liz fondly recalled how her grandmother would occasionally hold her in her arms while reciting the rosary in Lebanese, and it was to this experience that Liz attributed the seeds of her faith. But Liz, too, had the experience that my friend George described, for the seeds of faith planted by her grandmother sprouted into a very robust adult faith when Liz caught sight (metaphorically) of Thomas Merton at prayer (from his books) and (literally) of Fr. Mark Delery (her spiritual adviser) and the other monks at St. Joseph's Abbey as they worshiped in song and witnessed in silence.

Faith is something we catch from others, and apparently there is something about the faith of a father (or father figure) that is all but indispensable, the snickering at all things paternal and the fashionable idea of gender interchangeability notwithstanding.

1 comment:

Athos said...

Hi Gil,

In attempting (and failing) to find an online copy of Barbara Defoe Whitehead's article, "The Failure of Sex Education" (Atlantic Monthly '93), I came across an excellent article on fatherlessness and criminality: