Look what I have in my backyard today!!
It's tiny and fragile, and I'm holding my breath that we're done with the hailstorms for the year. But from experience we know that very young, small trees have a better chance to take root in the rocky soil around here than larger, more mature trees do; I've seen more than one neighbor have to remove a taller tree that seemed to be taking root, only to have leaves turn brown and scatter out of season, and branches dry from top to bottom revealing that the tree was now only wood.
Which makes me think of the Parable of the Sower, and the vital importance of the religious education of children.
Our culture today is full of rocky soil. Beneath the surface of what appears to be good, rich ground lurk the stones of indifference, the boulders of cultural mores which are so opposed to the Gospel, the pebbles of persistent and draining materialism, the fossils of old paganism dressed up in New Age colors, and so many other lithic liabilities buried deep under the loam that people who don't even realize the danger to their faith may be digging in unwholesome earth long before the roots of religion begin to contract and shrivel.
When a child is born into a family that takes the faith seriously, that child is going to be given a chance to develop deep, strong roots, roots that will not shrink at the first encounter with a stone, but will either be powerful enough to break the rock in two, or wise enough to go around it. Being nourished in an environment of daily prayer, a focus on the saints as our helpers in trials big and small, a belief in the power of the sacraments, especially confession and Holy Communion, a desire to mend even their infant faults and strive to live in a way that is pleasing to God gives a child an advantage; he or she will not see the Catholic faith as a Sunday chore, but as a powerful blessing in his or her life, one that will help him or her to grow in strength and maturity as a Christian, as a follower of Christ and a member of His Church.
The child who is raised in a "bare minimum" faith environment, however, will not benefit from this early training. Even for those who rediscover their faith as adults, the journey may be arduous, and the rocks within the soil may seem as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China. The temptation to see religion as worthless or weak will be all around them, and they may lack the strength to resist that temptation when the time comes. The winds of hardship, the storms of suffering that will come may uproot them entirely; though flowers may bud upon the branches, fruit may seem a long time in coming.
There are, of course, no absolutes in this analogy, which is imperfect as most analogies are. Most of us know people raised to be good Catholics who have ceased to be anything even remotely good or Catholic; many of us also know people who became Catholic later in life, and display a strength and joyful fruitfulness we cradle Catholics are hard-pressed to match. The point isn't to make sweeping generalizations, but to say that we're just now beginning to rediscover what previous generations took for granted, which is that if you want your children to follow Christ, you have to share your faith with them, teach them, strengthen them, admonish them, encourage them, form them, and celebrate with them when they are young.
Children are closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than we adults are, as Christ told us. Mysteries which the adult mind will ponder in vain are accepted as simple truth by the little ones. And that training, that raising, that accepting is all about putting down their roots in the faith--down away from the bird-gnawed path of novelty, down beyond the choking weeds that whisper temptation to the tender shoots, down past rocky doubt that waylays the weaving tendrils and attempts to undo them--down to the good soil, where the roots will be strong, and the tree will flourish.
If my little Japanese Red Maple doesn't survive the spring, it's not so hard to take it out of the ground and plant a new one next year; but how hard it is to replant a faith once lost, or to help recover the trust in God if it has ever been destroyed upon the rocks that lie just below the surface of our lives.