Eric Sammons writes that the best way to build and sustain strong generations of Catholic young people is by building and sustaining strong mothers and especially fathers:

The biggest influence on them is the parents. As a recent study by the Pew Research Center noted,

“Among those who were raised in a single religious background…the family’s religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one’s religion into adulthood. Those adults who say religion was very important to their family while growing up and whose parents frequently discussed religion are more likely than others to continue to identify with their parents’ religion as adults.”

For Catholics, if religion was “very important” in the family, then 73 percent of the time the kids remained Catholic after leaving the house. If it was “not too/not at all important,” only 38 percent remained Catholic. This shouldn’t be surprising to most people involved with youth outreach; they know it from experience. This is why many look for ways to involve parents in their youth activities. However, the model remains directed toward the kids, separate from their parents.

Research also points to the vital role specifically of the father’s faith. A 2000 report in Population Studies magazine concluded that “it is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.” More specifically, it states:

In short, if a father does not go to church—no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions—only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular).

Only 2 percent of kids whose fathers don’t practice the faith will end up practicing that faith! It’s clear, then, that fathers more than anyone dramatically impact their children’s future religious practice, and if parishes want children to retain their faith in adulthood (which is the purpose of youth ministry), they should focus not on the children but on the fathers.

Even with data supporting this conclusion, it still seems counterintuitive that to reach kids we shouldn’t focus on them but on their fathers instead. Yet this is the biblical method of salvation.

In the Bible, whenever God works with a group of people, He does not direct His energies toward the entire group, but toward a mediator. Think of Abraham, Moses, or David: each of these men represented a much larger group of people. God first influenced and converted the one man, then He allowed that individual to influence the group he led and represented. This is also the fundamental way in which the Catholic Church operates: we have bishops and priests who receive specific graces and powers that are then used to help the laity draw closer to Christ.

The father is the “mediator”—the “priest”—of the family, the domestic church. Therefore it makes sense, both sociologically and theologically, to focus on fathers in order to save the children.

At Penn State, we had a daily public affairs talk show on the campus radio station. At one point we had a conversation with a life coach/family counselor who made this point: if you want a strong marriage and a strong family, a husband and wife should be primarily in relationship with one another—and not primarily with their kids.

“Kids generally take care of themselves,” was his message. “But if the man and the woman forget that their relationship is what holds the family together, then everything is likelier to fall apart,” was more or less his point.