New Year’s resolutions aren’t exactly a Christian thing, but maybe they should be. Here are three powerful resolutions for improving your family’s spiritual life this year.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t exactly a Christian thing, but maybe they should be. Our liturgical calendar doesn’t really have a formal time when we stop and intentionally reflect on how we could be doing better in our spiritual life, with the idea of setting a “stretch goal” to work towards. Yeah, we have Lent, but giving up coffee or complaining or chocolate really isn’t in the same category. Yeah, we have the daily examen (thanks, Jesuits), but how many of us actually do a daily (or weekly…or monthly) examen? New Year’s resolutions are the poor man’s examen.
There are endless possibilities for making resolutions to improve your own spiritual life, but since this is a family show, let’s talk about resolutions around family spirituality. You can do personal spiritual resolutions, too—and in fact, improving your own spiritual life will have a halo effect on your family life—but what can you also do to take the spiritual lives of your kids up a notch?
An examen of the year
The Ignatian examen wouldn’t be a bad way to dive into that question. Stop right now and think over the past year of your family life. What were the high points? What were the low points? How was God present in all of it?
What about the dynamic in your family? When did your family feel most in tune with beauty, truth, goodness, and love? When did your family exhibit the fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity?
That is to say, when did your family feel most in tune with God? When did your family feel most disconnected from God? What were the “triggers” or starting conditions that set your family up for being connected with God or not?
Spending a little time reflecting on the dynamic of your family’s spirituality ought to spark some ideas for spiritual New Year’s resolutions for your family. Just to get you started, though, here are three resolutions that could have a powerful impact on your family’s spiritual life in the coming year.
1. Get your family to confession once a month
Kids in school take tests. Kids in sports get critiqued by their coaches. And most kids have an annual health exam, too. We don’t think twice about these regular “check ins” because we know that their ultimate aim is to help our kids grow into healthy, strong people living life to the fullest.
And yet, when it comes to a “spiritual checkup,” we parents are often less diligent. Maybe that’s because we’re uncomfortable with the sacrament of Reconciliation ourselves . . . especially if we haven’t been since our First Communion.
It could also be the whole sharing-our-worst-selves-with-Father thing. Confessing our faults—especially in front of another person, and especially in front of an authority figure—goes against our deepest instincts.
Or maybe we don’t like thinking about our own dark side. It feels safer to hold onto the fiction of ourselves as “good enough” Christians.
But avoiding our shadow side has the same kind of long-term negatives as cheating on a test, skipping that dentist appointment, or slacking off during practice. In the long run, we’re selling ourselves short. In a worst case scenario, we might even be nursing a “cancer” that is slowly killing us.
The same goes for our kids. Teaching them to honestly examine themselves, then go before God with a heart that is open to his healing touch, is a gift that will bear fruit for their entire lives. No matter how old and wise we become, the ability to see ourselves as we truly are—and then humbly present ourselves before God so he can make us who we are truly meant to be—is absolutely essential to living life to the fullest.
You can catch some of our tips for overcoming obstacles to going to confession here: Celebrating Reconciliation with Kids: 9 Ways to Get Into the Habit.
2. Commit to previewing the Mass readings
If your kids can’t remember what the Mass readings were about even as they’re munching donuts right after Mass, don’t worry—most adults don’t do much better. The fact is, anyone would be hard-pressed to recall the content of any but the most compelling text even a few minutes after hearing it (think about classroom lectures). The Scripture readings are even more difficult to absorb because they were written by ancient authors for an ancient audience, and we’re hearing them out of context. (What if we heard an excerpt from the letter of a soldier, a teen’s diary entry, and a Shakespearean sonnet?)
That’s a shame, because those readings are the God’s living Word, spoken to us today; it has the power to shape and change our lives, if we let it. But first we have to hear it.
One simple solution is to preview those readings before you go to Mass. You can find the coming Sunday’s readings on the USCCB website, in your parish bulletin, through a daily missal such as Give Us This Day (Liturgical Press) or Magnificat, or any number of Catholic apps. If your kids are old enough to read, have them read the readings to the whole family. If not, read the readings to them—or, for really young kids, choose a line or two from each reading; they can listen for the lines during Mass.
After you’ve read the readings once, talk about what you heard. What was the most interesting line? What was the author trying to say? What stuck out as weird? It can help to refer to a study guide, such as the notes from the New American Bible Revised Edition, or the commentary from your daily missal. Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit used the human authors, including their writing style and historical context, to convey God’s message of salvation.
Another fun fact: Most of the time, the Sunday readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel are coordinated around a central theme. During the weeks of Ordinary Time, we usually are working our way through one of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). We usually only hear the Gospel of John on special occasions. The second reading is generally taken from one of the New Testament epistles, or letters. For much of Ordinary Time, we work our way through those letters sequentially—a little bit each week.
If you already do this for the Sunday readings, the next step is to read the daily Mass readings as a family.
3. Get to know twelve saints really well
Quick, name your ten favorite saints.
Can you do it? If you can’t—or if your kids can’t—then a worthy resolution for the coming year would be to spend more time getting to know the saints. Focus on one “big” saint during each month of the year.
The lives and writings of the saints are like a “third text” for Catholics, alongside the tradition of the Church and the Bible.
What will your kids get out of knowing the stories of the saints?
First off, the lives of the saints give us concrete examples of what it looks like to live the Gospel to the fullest. If the Bible and the teaching of the Church provide us with recipes for the Christian life, the saints are like master cooks who show us how to execute those recipes in different life circumstances. The saints come from every age, every country in the world, every race, and every class; they come from a myriad of social settings as diverse as tribal Africa, feudal Europe, and communist Asia; they were children and teenagers and young adults and older; and they had every personality type under the sun. No matter what your child’s circumstances, there is probably a saint who can be his or her kindred spirit.
The saints teach us that while there may be one Gospel, there are many ways to live it. The only “right way” to a life of holiness is the way to which God calls us. This is a critical message for kids, especially teens, who may think of “being holy” as conforming to some bland cookie-cutter lifestyle. The sheer diversity of the saints underscores that life in Christ actually brings out our unique identity, freeing us to live to our full potential.
At the same time, as your family gets to know more and more saints, you should begin to notice some common patterns and themes. Certain virtues and practices keep cropping up—humility, hard work, prayer, zeal, and a broader, deeper sense of life than most people, among other things. The lives of the saints serve as a sort of school of basic Christian spirituality.
Telling your kids the stories of the saints is also a great way of teaching them the story of the Church. Since the saints come from every age and every land in the world, their stories, taken together, will give your kids a sense of the broader sweep of Church history. Moreover, those stories show that the Church has always been a bit messy; virtually all of the saints experienced opposition, or even persecution, from people within the Church. Teens in particular need to be reassured that the Church has weathered scandals, hypocrisy, and corruption throughout its history; as unfortunate as those things are, they are no reason to leave the Church.
The Church will always have its great sinners—it exists for them, after all. But ultimately, the Church is not its sinners, nor the hierarchy. Ultimately, the Church manifests itself most fully in the lives of the saints. Telling your kids the stories of the saints, then, gives them a vision of the Church triumphant—and a model for pursuing holiness in their own lives.
Becoming a saint . . . come to think of it, that’s not a bad New Year’s resolution in itself.