Karen & Derek Boylen: Words a last resort for Gospel

18 Jun 2008

By The Record

“Always preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.”

These are the famous utterances of St Francis of Assisi to his followers.
It also happens to be a trait of those we consider to be the most Christian in our lives. People who stand out because of the virtuousness of their lives more than the words they say.
Christians bear the greatest witness, not when they are proclaiming from the roof tops, but when they live a gospel inspired life.
When we encounter someone in our lives who is virtuous it is natural for us to want to be around them, to spend time with them, and to model our lives on them. Wanting others to spend more time with us, to live the life Christ calls us too. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like evangelisation.
Often as parents, when we consider passing on our faith we think about helping our children to understand what the Catholic Church teaches or we focus on the sacraments often attained in childhood such as first reconciliation, first communion and confirmation. These are important understandings and stages in a child’s life. However, a crucial part of our role is helping our children to become virtuous people.
In today’s world the word virtue has become an antiquated term but simply put it is a character trait valued as being good. The Catholic Church teaches that there are four cardinal virtues upon which all other virtues are based. These are justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. The cardinal virtues have been elaborated and developed by the doctors of the Church and often appear in Christian art and iconography.
However, for parents with growing children it is simpler to broaden this list so that it includes such traits as, empathy, helpfulness, fairness, tolerance, caring, courage, joyfulness, excellence, honesty, etc. One the most basic virtues that all parents can teach their children and for which there are countless teachable moments every day is respect. From the moment a parent first teaches a child to say “ta” they are teaching their child to show respect.
Parents often don’t think about imparting manners and teaching respect as a component of Catholic formation. While we might not think of it that way it’s hard to imagine a good Christian with appalling manners and a lack of respect for others.
Teaching our children to show respect for others includes: using please and thank you; manners at the dinner table; apologising for hurting another; gentleness with other people’s things, etc. This is a formation in the Christian faith. Helping our children to develop the character trait of respect for others is helping them to develop a deep understanding that there is an inherent dignity in every person.
Later as they mature we can put words around why we show respect. We can talk to them about the way that every person is made in the image and likeness of God and that it is in serving others that we find Christ. In his first letter St Peter he tells us to “have respect for everyone…” (2:17). As Catholics, respect for the dignity of all human life is the corner stone of our social teaching.
Helping our children to develop virtuous traits like respect is like helping them to grow spiritual muscles; strength of character that will help them to live a gospel life on a daily basis. The foundation for the formation of our children as Christian adults who bear witness through their actions to the gospel way of life begins at home, in the early years. It begins with the cultivation of those virtuous traits by which Christians are recognised; which attract others to us; and which inspire others to want to follow Jesus. As the old hymn says “they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.”