John and Fiona were very distraught parents. They stayed behind in church after Mass and asked to see Father Ignatius.
He suggested they wait until everyone had gone, and eventually he came back in the church from the car park, having seen the last of the parishioners leave.
The couple were sitting up front next to the statue of Our Lord. Father Ignatius joined them and said jovially, “how are you both? And where is Lea today?”
“It’s about Lea that we want to talk about Father,” said Fiona.
“She doesn’t want to come to church any more,” added John, “she’s met some new friends and they’re leading her astray. She says church is boring … and she wants to do her own thing.”
“And you feel there’s nothing you can do about it …” continued the priest.
“That’s right Father, the more we argue with her the more she becomes stubborn.”
“That’s understandable,” said Father Ignatius gently, “parenting is not that easy despite what many people might think; and despite what the experts would tell you to do.
“In reality, there’s nothing you can do about it. Your daughter is old enough to do what she wants.
“As they grow up, children want their independence. Lea may get in with bad company, as you say; she may go totally off the rails, get into real trouble, and there’s very little a parent can do.
“I don’t mean to sound harsh, and I sympathize with you and what you must feel; but in reality we can only live our lives and not the lives of others.
“We may try to control other peoples’ behavior, through persuasion, pleading or downright force. But success depends on a number of factors and to a large extent the other person should be willing to alter their behavior to what you wish it to be.
“This isn’t helping much is it?” asked the priest quietly as he prepared them to understand the situation.
“Do you mean we do nothing?” asked Fiona holding back her tears.
“I didn’t say that …” continued Father Ignatius.
“I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt when they lost Jesus when He was twelve. They looked everywhere and were concerned about their young teenager.
“But in reality, they had no need to worry did they? Perhaps they should have trusted God a little more. Maybe they did, and I’m judging them too harshly …”
“What exactly are you saying Father?” asked John.
“Do you trust God?” was the direct reply from the gentle priest.
“Eh … yes, of course …” mumbled John.
“OK … let’s consider the facts … you say she met some new friends.”
“Yes … she’s left school now and she is at college. She’s made new friends there … they’re OK I suppose. But they’re not Christian and she feels she’s becoming independent by not going to church.”
“And does God know about this?” asked Father Ignatius.
The couple were stumped and said nothing. The priest continued.
“I suggest you let her be. If she doesn’t want to go to church, don’t make an issue of it!”
“But … it’s a mortal sin!” exclaimed Fiona.
“It’s her mortal sin … not yours,” said the priest. “Besides, let’s assume you can force her to get to church every Sunday, and she does attend against her wishes, and sits there fuming and cursing under her breath. Would that make you feel better? Would it be a bigger sin do you think, than not attending church at all?”
“So you’re advocating we do nothing? I’m surprised at you Father,” said John getting a little angry.
Father Ignatius smiled.
“That’s the second time I’ve been asked whether I’m suggesting you do nothing; and I repeat, I did not say that.
“I suggest first of all that you trust God, and I mean really trust Him that He has a hold on this situation and He is in full control. Can you do that?”
They nodded silently.
“Good, then I suggest you don’t force her to come to church on Sunday. Or even mention it. Just come by yourselves as you always do.
“If you do so already, continue with your family prayers. Before meals, evening prayers or whatever prayers you say together as a family.
“She may or may not join you; leave it to her to decide.
“Lead by example. If you really trust in God you will hand over your daughter to His care. If you stumble and wobble and if your Faith falters you will set her a bad example; and you’ll give her proof that your own Faith is only skin deep.
“She is free to decide what she wants in her life. It’s a gift given to all of us by God. Not to be restricted or controlled by any one else; this is what you’d be doing, albeit with good intentions, if you force her to go to church.
“Pray for her, like you’ve never prayed before. Ask God to protect her, to guide her and to bless her.
“Praying is not doing nothing; it is the most positive action we can take.
“She may well return to God in due course, or she may never do so. It’s a risk we all have to take with our loved ones. But it is their choice to make, no matter how hard or how painful it is for us to watch and to accept.
“We can only live our lives, not that of others. Let us be a living example to others rather than pay lip service to it.
“I’ll visit your home perhaps a little more often than I usually do, and let us pray that God will one day soon welcome her back as He does any prodigal child.”