Vision for Parents

The Way: Youth to Young Adult Initiative provides guidance and resources to assist parents and guardians in guiding their children from baptism through adult faith and commitment to their vocation.

This is a vision for parents, not a curriculum for parishes and Catholic schools. The Way primarily addresses parents because they are the most vital disciple-makers in their children’s lives.

 Educators, priests, parish staff, youth ministers, catechists, and others will provide essential support to parents in youth formation.

Resources from this initiative will provide clear formation objectives based on the stages of discipleship and developmental stages (shown on the map on pages 8-9). We will develop resources guiding parents in how to help children grow in faith and discipleship at different stages of the journey.

We have illustrated this as a trail map for an extended pilgrimage that lasts from infancy to young adulthood and lays the foundation for a lifetime of belief and practice. Like a pilgrimage, it has times for retreat and reflection, fellowship, formation, and perhaps a few moments of extra effort. Ultimately, it aims to help families and youth discover the direction of their lives as Catholics.

Recognizing the Changing Landscape of Faith Formation

We are challenging the entire Church to better foster discipleship throughout the stages of our children’s spiritual development. 

While our faith formation efforts effectively communicate the content of the faith, the changing culture presents new challenges.

Some formation approaches are not as effective as they once were. The aim is to tie what remains effective with this renewed approach.

This will create a clear, methodical, consistent vision toward a single goal—forming intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.

Understanding the Influence of Parents

This initiative is, first and foremost, addressed to parents.

Sociologist and researcher Christian Smith’s latest work, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation, heavily informed the methodology of this initiative. His work to understand the religious lives of American teens and young adults began in 2005 with the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR).


Down the Faith

christian smith - p.69

All research in the United States today shows clearly that parents are by far the most important factor influencing their children’s religion, not only as youth but also after they leave home. Not clergy, religious schools, youth ministers, neighborhoods, Sunday school, mission trips, service projects, summer camps, peers, or the media. Parents.

Over the last 18 years, Smith’s continued study of the original research group revealed the key factors to forming faith that endures. His conclusion? Parents are the deciding factor.

The fact that parents hold so much influence in the lives of American teens surprised Smith in 2005. He assumed Hollywood, the wizards of marketing on Madison Avenue, or even peers would hold primary influence. You may be thinking the same thing.


Down the Faith


Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. Parents set a ‘glass ceiling’ of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. Parental religious investment and involvement is in almost all cases the necessary and even sometimes sufficient condition for children’s religious investment and involvement.

However, Smith’s research argues that this is not true, and after 18 years of follow-up research, his original conclusions are confirmed. You are your child’s primary source of guidance for life’s toughest decisions.

That is not to say that parishes, Catholic schools, and solid preaching from clergy are irrelevant and no longer needed. Rather, it signals that parents must be essential resources and intimate partners with parish and Catholic school faith formation.

A true partnership between parents and parish/Catholic schools is even more crucial today. That is why this initiative is addressed to parents and why a more intentional family involvement will be integral to faith formation in this new vision.

Adapting to a Changing Culture

In Handing Down the Faith, Smith lays out several best practices for parenting styles that lead to children practicing the faith ten years after leaving home.

Notably, he finds that parents who have high standards and demand the best from their children but are also highly communicative and warm have the best results.

However, the highest associations of children continuing religious practice into adulthood came from “parents regularly talking with their children about religious matters as part of ordinary life.” (Smith, page 54)

The Family as the Center of Identity and Values Formation

In the past, religion played a central role in our communities.

  • Tight-knit towns and neighborhoods with strong Catholic roots often revolved around liturgical feasts, patron saint celebrations, and festivals.
  • These events shaped our community life, with the parish at the heart of it all.
  • Our behaviors were guided by “Christian values,” based on revelation, received teachings, and expert interpretation. The community then reinforced these values.

However, things have changed in recent decades.

  • Religion has evolved into more of a personal accessory, helping individuals cope with life’s challenges and make informed choices rather than dictating a fixed set of beliefs.
  • This shift can be attributed to a growing skepticism towards authority and institutions, driven by numerous scandals and perceived dishonesty.
  • For many, accepting religious teaching relies on what feels helpful and right, not revelation and tradition.
  • Personal beliefs are more subjective and self-reflective (we will return to this later).

This is the cultural landscape today.

We need to address the issue directly by serving individual needs, and leading the faithful into a fruitful community. 

To use a common phrase, we need to meet people where they are now and lead them to the full expression and experience of faith and community life.

It is not enough to depend on adult children remaining Catholic because they come from a Catholic family/went to a Catholic school/were confirmed, etc. These “reasons” are not keeping most of them Catholic. 

Obviously, this subjective cultural mindset makes faith formation difficult. However, there is something we can build upon. In this shifting cultural landscape, the family takes on a crucial role in identity and values formation.

It is the community unit capable of authentic, trustworthy interaction and influence. This is something the
Church has always advocated. Here the cultural tendency towards self-reflectivity can become our ally.

Education in the faith by the parents should begin in the child’s earliest years…Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith.

Catechism of the

Catholic Church

Paragraph 2226

Similar to an examination of conscience, we can reflect on our thoughts, actions, and identities in relation to cultural influences to understand the negative influences for what they are and reject them.

This skill allows us to critically examine what we want from life and make more informed decisions instead of simply being swept away by broader social forces.

This is why parents who regularly discuss faith with their children establish strong religious foundations.

Teaching children to critically self-reflect on the culture in light of authentic Catholic teaching equips them to navigate the culture—on their own.

They learn to find answers well after leaving home based on reasonable, sound concepts for living wisely and intentionally. This personal agency is critical in today’s post-modern world.

Ultimately, faith formation is a personal journey. While parents can offer guidance and support, individuals
must decide for themselves and take ownership of their faith.

This process is akin to releasing the brake on a car; it can only be done by the driver. In the same way, individuals must choose to follow their faith path willingly.

Nurturing Faith through Dialogue

Where to begin? First, by presenting solid Catholic doctrine.

Then, with dialogue, children are helped to see the reason and logic behind true Catholic teaching.

You want to allow hard questions and doubts to surface now when they can be addressed, not later when you have no influence.

Admittedly, it can be scary when a child expresses doubts or asks questions. It may be easier to come down hard and say believe it or else. Sometimes this works. However, research shows that another approach works to better outcomes in the long term. 

Rather than simply demanding assent, parents and other formators can see the expression of doubt as an opportunity. Questioning, even doubting, is a natural part of a child’s learning process. Beliefs that have been tested and chosen are more meaningful. Ultimately, this opens them to accepting God and putting Jesus in the center of their lives, which is the true goal.

Notably, these same principles are used in evangelization and missionary discipleship ministries for adults to great success. In essence, this approach provides the tools to navigate the complexities presented by society and culture.

It recognizes that true growth and transformation come from within, and education’s role is to facilitate that process rather than dictate outcomes. Exercising freedom is essential to being human, and it must be respected.

Salvation is an invitation that can be accepted or refused, and everyone must choose without coercion. Such decisions tend to last.

God invites all youth into a relationship by bringing initial faith through the stages of discipleship. This is the pilgrimage from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood that leads toward becoming intentional disciples of Jesus Christ on mission.