The Catechism of the Catholic Church upholds the biblical directive that parents are the first (and most important) teachers of their children. What we often fail to realize is that what we do can have much more effect on our children than what we say or how we instruct. Who hasn’t seen one of their less than desirable actions or words mimicked by a child and felt a sudden blush of guilt? Sometimes, though, a child learns an important lesson from the mistakes in a parent’s life, and how they rise to the occasion. That was the case for me.
Born in Germany, to a Lutheran father and Catholic mother, my earliest memories revolve around spirited fights between my parents. Although Mom was devout, he approached atheism, but she somehow managed to have my younger brother and I baptized as infants. It became painfully evident that my father was not a nice man. He cheated even before marriage and was abusive as well. Too young to fully understand the implications then, as I matured and later became an adult, the woeful tale became clearer. Long before I could fully comprehend it all, he left, covertly spiriting my younger brother away and leaving my mother as a divorcee with a young daughter. Through all of this turmoil, my mother maintained her faith.
By the time I was five, someone new had entered the picture. This American Airman was kind and gentle. I fondly remember playing circus, with him carrying me on his back, while my mother warmheartedly looked on. Things don’t always work out neatly, however. Red tape and language barriers between the Air Force, the United States government, and Germany greatly hindered attempted annulment proceedings. As a result, a civil marriage was performed and then a little sister was born into the family. I can still remember hearing that my baby sister had been denied baptism because she was born into an illicit marriage. My mother, however, tenaciously persisted and found a kindly old priest to confer the sacrament. To complete the family unit, I was also adopted and became the daughter of an American. By this time, any efforts to reunite us with my little brother had been exhausted. Our family of four moved to the U.S. without him; he could not be found.
Fast forward a few years, after assignments to several states and retirement from the Air Force, we settled in Dad’s native Kentucky. We had become a family of seven—Mom, Dad, and a collection of five children. There was still no annulment, but we had never lacked catechesis. We were all baptized, received First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and were frequently taken to Confession. The poignant vision of our mother, tears of joy (for us) and pain (for her situation) was impossible to ignore at each of these special occasions. As each of us matured in the faith life as Catholic citizens, she was our teacher, our champion, and immovable anchor. We never missed Mass, attended Catholic schools when available, and had priest friends who frequently visited our home. For all practical purposes, we appeared to be the optimal Catholic family, with one exception—our parents were unable to join us in an actively Catholic life.
All of that changed one beautiful October afternoon, when after a long, tedious, multi-linguistic annulment process, Mom and Dad were married in the Church. Our small church community and five children were present. The long awaited celebration of love and faith had finally become reality! After the reception, we decorated our family station wagon with cans and ribbons. The sign on the back read, ‘Congratulations, Mom and Dad—Just Married!’
A few years later, we were reunited with my missing brother, now an adult. He had been raised to think his father’s wife was his mother. It wasn’t until her death that he was told the truth: \”She wasn’t your real mother. Your mother lives somewhere in Kentucky.\” What a reunion that was! At last, all eight of us were united! It was a true lesson in faith, love, and hope. Our mother had surely illustrated a strong faith in the face of adversity. Mom died of breast cancer a few years later, at the young age of 58. Yet, she had been an incredible witness to us. She lived through many trials but never lost her faith. She even met her estranged husband at one point and offered her forgiveness. His comment to her? \”There was one thing I could never break—your Catholic faith. I always respected that.\” Her years of persistent love and hope had culminated in a family strengthened by adversity. She had illustrated, with her very life, what it means to live your Catholic faith.
All of us are adults now, with children and even grandchildren of our own. The Catholic faith persists as the most important thing in our lives. We have learned, from loving example, what it means to stay faithful—no matter where your choices lead you. Mistakes will be made but how you face the resulting strife, determines who you are. If nurtured and fed, Faith will always win out!