A reflection on faith formation


By Patrick Schmadeke

Life is full of tests. Mid-term tests, blood tests, glucose tests, driver’s tests, certification tests, and the list goes on. Many such tests are about knowing the right information, as they attempt to measure one’s cognitive capacity in a particular area.


However, questions of faith, which necessarily include intellectual dimensions, transcend our intellectual capacities. Beyond the intellectual are moral, spiritual and psychic dimensions that undergird and intertwine the intellectual dimensions of faith.

One common model of understanding the faith life, however, can reduce the many dimensions of faith to the intellectual. In a model that appeals to the “age of reason,” once children cross this threshold, they are equipped to receive the Eucharist for the first time. In theory, children have achieved the capacity to “know what they are doing” when they receive the Eucharist for the first time.


This model is not without its drawbacks. The cognitive dimension of faith all too often is encrusted in the jargon of terms such as “transubstantiation” and other foreign terminology. Teasing out the details of such ideas is an intellectual and essential exercise. However, intellectual comprehension does not seem to be the most fundamental dimension to faith.

A richer model that gets at the spiritual grounding of faith might be called the formational model. Consider the following example. Like many people, my wife Rachel, our son Matthew and I pray the following prayer before we eat: “Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Matthew, at the ripe old age of 3, can now join us in reciting this prayer in full. It is a joy for us to pray like this as a family.

The formational model has much to say about the life of faith in this example. While Matthew probably does not grasp the meaning of words such as Lord, thy, bounty or amen, since he does not use them in other contexts throughout everyday life, that does not mean the prayer isn’t worth praying. It is precisely through the act of praying that he will continue to learn the web of meaning associated with these terms. The prayer itself is formative.

A final illustration will drive the point home. We have adopted the practice from friends where at the conclusion of this prayer we go around the table one by one and say, “God bless (the name of the person to your right). Matthew says, “God Bless mommy.” Rachel says, “God bless Patrick.” I say, “God bless Matthew.” This gesture has also been formational in the way it grows the affection we all share.

Now that my wife is expecting our second child, the prayer has acquired an anticipatory quality. Matthew, in concluding this sharing of blessings, grins his big 3-year-old grin, focuses his eyes on Rachel’s 24-week baby bump, and proudly states, “God bless baby!”

I know I can learn from this anticipatory quality of prayer. I can learn from the formational nature of the spiritual life. We’re all mixed bags. We’re all works in progress. We’re all in this together. In the humility proper to human nature, our spiritual formation is rooted in the deep awareness that we are loved with an unconditional and unwavering love, the origin of which cannot be any source but God.

Children so often seem to be the most authentic vehicles of this love. Maybe it is not so much we who form the children, but the children who form us. After all, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The cognitive is essential but it is only part of the picture. It only makes sense when properly situated in its rightful context of loving relationship.

(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic Tradition and its relevance to the world today.)

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