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When your child asks difficult questions about religion

The Annunciation (c 1485-92), by Botticelli

Having already written an introductory blog about Sally Read’s new book, Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World (Ignatius), I had several questions to ask her about it – such as, what had given her the idea of using the Annunciation as a starting-point? Sally explains that “it came from a need. I converted from atheism to Catholicism in the space of nine months in 2010. At the time my daughter was aged 3/4. And she heard more about my ruminations and discoveries than just about anyone else. In a sense, she had a very great understanding of faith early on. She was always asking about prayer and what angels really are and she was very interested in the Marian apparitions. Importantly, she would never be fobbed off with superficial or “child-friendly” answers.”

“Then, when she was nine, the night before her First Communion, she suddenly declared that she wasn’t sure if she should go through with it. How could she know that God existed? She felt nothing during prayer; what was she supposed to think? That night what I told her, after a good deal of discussion, was that she just needed to open the door to God; that was what the Sacrament was – a very special channel for him. All she had to do was given him her “yes”.

“As the years went on, I could see that she was constantly being confronted by God’s proposal (mostly to go willingly to Mass!) and constantly seeing the alternative: to stay at home and ignore God (my Italian husband is non-practising, my family of origin is still atheist and none of her friends go to church). I wanted to write down for her the compelling reasons for hanging on to God and the Church and why Mass is so important. I wanted to write her own “Annunciation”, something that would explain the urgency of saying “Yes” to God.”

Sally explains that the Annunciation has always “obsessed me as an episode; even as an atheist I published poems on the subject. The actual structure of the book came to me in a very mysterious way. I was suddenly aware of how those few lines in Luke’s Gospel sum up so much of the spiritual life for all of us. In my book I take just five lines – a chapter for each line. Each one opens up so much: the intensity of God’s presence and proposal to us: his exhortation not to be anxious; how we can know our identity; our vocation; and how we cope when we feel left alone.”

She reflects: The line, “And the angel departed from her” has always seemed to me to be one of the most beautiful, desolate and loaded lines in Scripture. It says so much about Mary’s faith and courage; ultimately we are called to trust and walk in faith.”

I am wondering if the book was difficult to write and if Sally has shared it with her daughter. She responds that she doesn’t remember it being hard to write: “It felt very prayerful. In fact, I write at the end that the book really is a prayer. As I was finishing it Flo was preparing for Confirmation and I could see huge changes in her. I write about urgent matters, using anecdotes a lot. Many of the issues have touched me or those close to me; there are stories of grief, divorce, drug addiction, mysticism and divine joy. But I didn’t tell my daughter I had written it until it was finished.”

How old is Flo now and has she read the book yet? Sally tells me that her daughter is almost 13, adding that “we are reading it together, now that it’s out as a book. She was quite taken aback to hear herself addressed so directly in it! She’s listening carefully so far…”

Sally thinks that Flo’s “attitude to the Mass has changed recently. She seems to sense the importance of it now – though she doesn’t hesitate to tell me when she finds it boring. As a “rocking horse Catholic” [Caryll Houselander’s term for a child who converts alongside a parent], she seems, for now at least, to sometimes relish the difference between herself and others. She’s not a child who likes to stand out in a crowd but she tells her friends quite staunchly when they notice the Miraculous Medal around her neck that, yes, she is religious. She has all kinds of very secular and anti-religious people in her life, as well as devout Catholics, priests and Sisters and she’s at ease with both groups.”

Sally admits that “I went through a phase of feeling bleak that I couldn’t construct a 100 per cent Catholic environment for her, but then I realised that God puts us in places for a reason. We are on the margins, spiritually, and this calls us to defend our faith, bear witness and give that fiat, all the time.” She hopes that “this will help Flo’s faith not to become automatic or complacent.”

As Sally, her daughter and her husband live near Rome, I am interested in how strong Catholic practice is in Italy. She responds that it is hard to generalise about the country as a whole: “Each region is so distinct and there are even big differences from town to town. Our particular town is fairly irreligious. So you may have 50 children for First Communion catechism class and 30 in the Confirmation class and of those children about two or three will end up attending Sunday Mass.”

She adds, “But then the country produces the most extraordinary saints, like Chiara Corbella, whose Cause for canonisation is underway. It seems to me that wherever the Church is undergoing mortification and purification great sanctity also springs up.”

I remind Sally that in her book she alludes to a youthful obsession with “screens”. How does she counteract this widespread problem? She says it is a huge issue in Italy too, “but parents seem less bothered about it.” She adds earnestly that she believes “that lack of prayer makes people very hungry for the loving gaze of someone, or preferably many people. We are replacing God’s gaze with the camera lens on our phone. If only we could relax and learn to live in his gaze, to recognise his love and approval beyond anyone else’s, it would stop loneliness and self-harm.”

She explains that in Italy “almost all children have phones at a young age. Homework is often sent by phone, teachers get the children to use their phones in the classroom, social life is organised by phone. So my daughter has one, against my better judgement. There are positive aspects to phones though; for instance, Flo creates digital art and videos that are not about herself (I think this is crucial. It’s the constant emphasis on ourselves that can be unhealthy.) And she stays in touch with friends a long way away.

“My main proviso”, Sally explains, “is that there is complete transparency about what she does and I have full access to her phone. We also set time limits and encourage/insist on other activities. Thankfully she is a good sportswoman and loves to draw in the old-fashioned way too.”

Does she have a strong parish community or local supportive Catholic friends with children her daughter’s age? Sally tells me that since her daughter’s Confirmation “there is no local Catholic group for her to be involved with. This grieves me and is something I’m praying about. I have many Catholic friends in Rome, but none with friends her age. I am starting to look at Catholic summer camps…”

To conclude my questions, I enquire about the choices of SS Bernadette and Jacinta as Flo’s Conformation saints. Sally points out that her daughter “was always enthralled by the Marian apparitions – particularly Lourdes and Fatima. She identified with Bernadette from a very young age (they have similar dark eyes, Flo used to have asthma like Bernadette and they have similar characters in certain respects). And she was always astonished and impressed by Jacinta’s strength and transformation. I think, as a child, she could see herself in them and was moved by their courage. They are relatable and very strong – spiritual warriors really.”

“She couldn’t choose between the two. In the end we thought there was no need to choose – she could have both.” Sally reflects: “As she has ended up being an only child, this is rather lovely. It’s like she has two sisters.”