Last spring, The Atlantic published a series of articles under the headline of “Choosing my Religion.” The articles are diverse in scope, covering the mass exodus of millennials from organized religion, personal struggles under religion’s expectations, and one compelling series where readers responded to the question: “What was your biggest religious choice?”
I have read countless articles on the religious practice of millennials, but none has made me pause quite as much as the series about their readers’ biggest religious choice. The responses were filled with the honest struggle of living a life of faith. The series also included many tragic stories about faithful people becoming disillusioned by the hypocritical actions of religion’s elite.
Ever since discovering this discussion a couple of months ago, the question of my biggest religious choice has troubled me. Being part of a generation that is largely skeptical of organized religion, I feel having an answer to why I practice is important. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of anxiety about this because I find it really hard to come up with an answer.
Lately, every time I sit down next to my wife and son in the church pew, I wonder if not having an answer to that question is acceptable. Am I just wasting my time? Am I setting a bad example for my son? Why don’t I have a clear answer to why I am here?
I’ve always been an observant person, a by-product of my introverted personality. When I was growing up, my favorite place to people watch was church. In the pews ahead of me, I would watch older ladies pray the rosary during Father’s homily. Beside me, I would watch harried mothers attempt to control their bored children. And behind me, I would see men with polo shirts tucked into their jeans not utter a single word throughout the entire service.
It seemed obvious to me why the older ladies were at Mass. I figured they must be praying for something very important to not listen while Father gave his message. I certainly knew why the harried mothers and their children were at Mass, a lesson I learned quickly when I wouldn’t get up for church on time.
My mother, never weary of telling us what to do, would march into my room, pull the sheets off my bed, and tell me that I needed to go to church because Jesus required it of me. I just imagined all of those children were in the same position as me, at church with their mothers because that is what Jesus required.
The cadre of men with their polos tucked into their jeans always perplexed me. They never looked happy and they never said a word. Yet, they were there out of obligation to God, their wives or their children. When I think about not having an answer to my biggest religious choice, I think about this group of seemingly unhappy men. But luckily for me, there was another man I would often watch in church: my father.
My dad distinguished himself from this group of men in a number of ways. First and foremost, his standard church dress was, and still is, a polo tucked into khaki pants with a pair of white tennis shoes on his feet. That outfit is a product of many years in a public school classroom.
Second, he always sang and said the responses. Third, he prayed before church and always knelt down in prayer after communion. Finally, he was anything but faceless around our parish community. He was the director of religious education, the youth minister, a member of the parish council, and the one person everyone went to with a question about this or that.
On Sundays, my dad would wake up early and head to church to roll out tables in the parish school basement, set out religion books, prep the teachers, and then give a morning reflection before religion classes started. After religion, he would put the books away, clean up the tables and chairs, head over to the church to write his name on the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion sign-up sheet, and then sit down next to his wife and three boys in the pew.
He would lift me up and hold me on the church pew when I couldn’t see the priest, he would run his finger across the words in the hymnal so I knew what words to sing, and he would always actively participate in the liturgy.
In all of this, he never once spoke to me about the reasons he worked so hard for the church or why he helped me pray the liturgy. And honestly, I am not certain he has an answer for why he is so obviously committed to his faith. I can say that because my dad has never been a man of many words, but he has always been a man of faith-filled action.
I take comfort in my dad’s example when I am uncomfortable with not knowing the exact reason I show up to church each Sunday. Each time I open the hymnal to sing, kneel down to pray after communion and lift up my son to see the priest, I think of when my dad did that for me.
I am grateful for the faith handed down to me from my father, even if I don’t always understand it. In his example, when I don’t always have the words of faith, I can take comfort in the testimony of my actions. Actions that I sincerely hope my son will pass down one day to his family.
What is my biggest religious choice? Maybe it’s not something tied to a moment in time. Maybe it’s every Sunday when I walk into church next to my wife holding my baby boy and decide to follow the faith-filled example of my dad.
Originally published in Saint Meinrad’s Echoes from the Belltower blog on June 15, 2017