My father in law is a first generation American. About ten years ago I read his life story in a self-published book written for the extended family in which he describes growing up dirt poor in the Philippines under the harsh tutelage of his father (his mother had died when he was young). He would gather snails and coconuts and prawns, but also managed to obtain a scholarship to attend UP to study medicine. He came to the United States with my mother in law in the early 1960's, where he began his residency in New York in the field of gastroenterology. They bought a house in the suburbs, and raised a family. His was a laudable but also relatively commonplace story of those immigrated for a better life and future.
Like many immigrants, my in laws did not want their kids going through the same hardships they themselves experienced and provided admirably for their needs, including Catholic education K-12. Despite twelve years of Catholic schooling, my wife never really had an encounter with the living Christ until her thirties, right before her and I met. All the formal schooling and religion classes, in the end, only amounted to head knowledge. It was through a lifelong Protestant Christian friend's prayers and encouragement that she began to really have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ," whom she encountered in prayer and reading the holy scriptures. In fact, just prior to us meeting, my wife was "dating Jesus" for a year after a long-term relationship ended. She did have a sense, however, that she wanted to remain Catholic rather then attend a non-denominational church.
I think my wife and I really connected on our first date at a coffee shop because we had both had those "personal encounters" with the living God and recounted them to one another. It was alive and well in our collective memory, and we drew from those past encounters with the Holy Spirit; in essence, we knew God was real because we both had experienced Him.
Whereas my wife's parents sent her to Catholic school to more or less transmit the faith (it was never really talked about or taught at home), my faith generated from the latent roots of my infant baptism in a Episcopal church and by proxy to my father's attendance at the Divine Liturgy, but without teaching and without ever having been confirmed or having received the Eucharist. It was an authentic and real encounter in the wilderness at age sixteen that I recognized, by grace, the fundamentals of my condition--a sinner aware of his inability to save himself and his need for redemption and meaning. I was lost, and was found. I formally became a Catholic a couple years later at the age of eighteen.
As a convert not raised in the Faith, I feel like I am a "first generation" Catholic in practice. Like my father in law who knew the stakes and what it took to get to America for a better life despite the odds, I recognized that I was saved by grace but had to search out it's confirmation, learning the faith by my own volition and continuing to believe because I knew, empirically, that it was true.
The other night I was laying in bed talking with my son, who wanted to join me. He had been having doubts about God--how do I know He really exists? What if when we die there's 'nothing there?' My wife and I have been very intentional about teaching and passing on the faith to our kids, while recognizing they have not had those same adult experiences we have of coming to know the Truth first-hand. They are more or less taking our word for the fact that God exists and that we should live lives of virtue, that our citizenship is in Heaven, and that this life in the world is not our final home. Which, it occurred to me, is maybe why my son was struggling with doubt. Something I know innately, he only knows by way of word-of-mouth. His is a second-generation Catholicism.
Like the wise virgins with their oil, you want so badly to give your children the lived experience you have had so that they "know the truth that sets one free," but by it's very nature, it is not something that can be transferred. Like character, you can only live it out yourself, not transfer it to someone else to put on like a borrowed suit.
We can and should pray fervently and often for our children, that they may receive that grace that was so lavishly poured upon us and which we know the Lord desires to give to all those who ask for it, and that they might have a real encounter with the Living God. We should desire the consistent "both/and" so fitting for our Catholic faith of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" as well as our religion with all its rich teaching and doctrine which allows us to live sacramentally and gives us a compass to navigate by.
It's difficult for me to navigate as a parent--if I put too much pressure on my son and panic at his reasonable doubts, there is the possibility of pushing him farther from faith. If I don't use it as a teaching moment and let him drift away on his own, who knows what kind of teaching he will find downstream in the culture. Knowing our children belong to God (and are consecrated to Mary and St. Joseph as well), I don't fear, but I don't always know how to direct things. As a first generation Catholic, I'm learning as I go!
I also realize there are no guarantees that our children will persist in the faith. We pray and hope that they do and do everything we can to teach and prepare them while living it out ourselves with joy. But our children do not ultimately belong to us, but to God. We can only control them so much when they are younger, and they have free will of their own, the double-edged gift from God Himself, exercising it more and more as they get older. Life is not so easily controlled.
I do, however, pray they will encounter the Holy Spirit of God, which cut through me like a wind for the first time at a punk-rock show in a Church basement as a preacher prayed over the crowd on stage. It was an unlikely and unscripted place to have such a genuine and razing encounter. Maybe that's why the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the "wild goose." I followed Him where He led, and He led me to the doors of the Church. I can only pray my own children encounter this God who saves in a real way, so that it's not just second-hand head knowledge we are passing down. I experienced every one of their births for the first time; but I hope to see them 'born again' in the Spirit so that they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that He exists, that He is Truth, and that He is as real as the air we breathe.