Friday, October 26, 2012

Holding Fast to Tradition

So then, brothers, stand firm, and cling to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. – 2 Thessalonians 2:15 

The Catholic Church has a lot of traditions, most of them dating back from the first apostles to the present day. Some of those traditions developed as a way of identifying one another during times of persecution. Some of those traditions developed as a way of keeping alive things which Jesus did when He walked the earth. These traditions serve 5 distinct purposes for Catholics throughout the world: Affirming Identity, Creating Safety, Connecting Generations, Preserving the Past, and Making New Places Home. These are all things we can do for our own children.

Affirming Identity

Every Catholic knows to make the sign of the Cross. It’s a simple gesture that clearly marks one as being Catholic. It identifies the person who does it as belonging to the Catholic family. This is a tradition that was passed down from the early apostles to the present day, marking us as belonging to Christ and to the Church. This feeling of belonging, of being a part of something special, is a desire all human beings share.

Thus, in learning from the Catholic Church’s special school of parenting, we see that creating special traditions for our family is an important part of helping reassure our children that they do belong to our family. However, it isn’t done by accident. Before you can pass on a family identity you should think about what kind of identity you want that to be. Last chapter, I shared that my family growing up was known for being readers. Although I have my own family today, I have kept that tradition alive and made it part of my son’s inheritance.

Creating Safety

The world is a sometimes dark and scary place. Bad things happen, crisis occur, and your life can fall apart in an instant. Traditions create a place of safety, a refuge from the insanity, by giving you a place to go to where you know what to expect and there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. I think this is one of the biggest reasons there was so much upheaval over the Second Vatican Council. Although the traditions that were changed – such as allowing the common language to be used during Mass rather than the Latin – were not central to our Christian beliefs and did not alter anything that truly mattered, it changed that place of safety and introduced uncertainty to something that had gone unchanged for more than a thousand years.

Routines and traditions create a safe place for a child, a place where they can count on things being the same. They know what’s going to be expected of them, and they know how they are supposed to behave. They can relax and simply enjoy the tradition or routine without fear or worry. One study by the University of Washington shows that variations in family routines and rituals are directly related to variations in children’s emotional health and school performance (

A mother recently wrote to me about her three year old daughter whose behavior had gone from angelic to demonic in the space of six months. She then went on to tell me that in that six months, her daughters biological father had gone to jail, her husband had come home from being overseas, the husband had been transferred out of state so the three year old and mother had gone with him, which now meant that the three year old almost never got to see the grandparents she had been raised around her whole life, and on top of that the mother had taken a part-time job to help make ends meet. She wondered if the changes were related to the behavior problems, and then wondered what to do for her daughter.

My answer was yes. Those changes were like dropping a nuclear bomb in the middle of that three year olds life. They’d be tough for anyone to handle. I reassured the mother, though, that while it would take time for her daughter to adjust it would happen eventually. The best thing she could do to help her daughter in the meantime was to create traditions for their family. Establish routines, things that child could depend upon and rely upon in order to help overcome her fears.

Connecting Generations

The Catholic Church has many thousands of children spanning hundreds of generations. Each Sunday, she directs her children to come together for a meal provided by their Heavenly Father. During that meal, the love letters their father has written them over the years are read and the children are reminded of the reason they gather together that day before they join in sharing the meal provided by the Lamb. This is an unbroken tradition arising from the resurrection of Christ on that Easter Sunday morning. From newborn baby to dying grandmother, all of her children unite at table together. This shared tradition serves the function of connecting together the generations.

As families grow larger and spread further apart, fewer children live near their aunts, uncles, or cousins. Without traditions like gathering for a family meal at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter or going to an annual Family Reunion, it is unlikely that many of those children would ever even see their other family members. Gathering together on a regular basis serves to give the generations shared memories to talk and laugh about later on.

Preserving the Past

Some of the traditions that the Church hands on to her children are ways of living and doing things that aren’t found in the letters of their father. These traditions are the wisdom gleaned from the past, preserved from one generation to the next, and handed to the children of each new generation. Simple things, like the Order of the Mass which echoes the worship services of the Synagogues, and the liturgical calendars which mark the days of feasting and the days of penance.

Traditions of telling stories about our parents and grandparents, of sharing those memories with our children and grandchildren are one way that tradition helps to preserve the past. As we cook Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter dinners, we recall the same dinners being prepared for us by other hands and pass on to our children the techniques for cooking dinners like that for their own children. These small things add up into a bigger picture, giving the child a sense of their history and making present for them the events of the past that shape their world today.

Making New Places Home

If you are Catholic, you can go to any Catholic Church in the whole world and feel at home even if you do not speak the local language. There are things that will always be present in any Catholic Church, and the order of the Mass does not vary from place to place. The songs may change, the language may change, the outward appearance may change, but a Catholic Church is a Catholic Church. This makes it easier for Catholics when they must move to a new place because they know that no matter where they go they will have at least something in common with the people in that location.

This is the fifth primary function of holding fast to traditions – it makes new places feel more like home.
If you have traditions and routines in one home, doing those same things in a new place can make the new place feel more like home. A friend of ours has a tradition of decorating every nook and cranny of her home for holidays like Christmas and Easter. When she moved her children to a new home, they kept that tradition going. Tradition made a strange place feel and look more like home.


Holding fast to traditions is one important thing we can learn from our mother, the Catholic Church. As you can see, there are plenty of benefits to this and plenty of reasons to create your own traditions if you don’t already have them. It may take effort and creativity on your part – but your kids are worth it!

I hope you've enjoyed reading this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you're just joining us, you can click the link above to find the introduction and previous chapters.  I hope you will join us tomorrow for Chapter 14: Sharing Meals Regularly

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