“Ask a Priest: Should I Insist That My Atheist Daughter Attend Mass?”

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Q: About two years ago my now 17-year-old daughter announced that she doesn’t believe in God anymore. I am heartbroken over this. We talked about it, and I asked her to keep an open mind and an open heart and to continue to attend weekly Mass with me. She was willing, at first, but has since become angry and defiant when I tell her she has to come to Mass. She has such a sour attitude about it that I am finding myself distracted and sad when we attend Mass. Is it the best thing for me to continue to require her to attend Mass? I pray constantly that she will find her faith again. However, I’m concerned that by forcing her to attend Mass, I am making matters worse. It seems clear that forcing her is making her more resentful rather than fostering any positive feelings toward the Church. Any advice you have will be very much appreciated. – B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I am sorry to hear about your daughter. It must be heartbreaking to see a loved one drift from the faith.

She is at that age when she is questioning things and rebelling. Which means she is trying to figure out things for herself. This is normal in some regards, since she needs to internalize beliefs and make them her own.

That said, it would be wise to continue to pray for her. She might face serious issues in these next few years, at which point she might rediscover the beauty of the faith.

As to whether you should force her to attend Mass, it seems as though you already have a sense that that could backfire and alienate her further from the Church.

Here, you just have to make your best decision. True, your daughter is still under your roof, but you want to keep the long term in view. In another year or so she will be legally an adult and out of the house and might reject the Church with a vengeance.

If you want to let her make her own decision now, you could let her know you are disappointed. This would make clear that you don’t approve of her missing Mass. But you would signal that you have a respect for her freedom, and that could help you later as you try to help her return to the faith.

There are no guarantees, of course, which is why she needs lots of prayer. But respecting her decisions as much as your conscience allows might provide the backdrop for fruitful dialogue in the future.

That she was open about her doubts about God is a sign of a certain sincerity. It’s not as though she kept things quiet and just kept up her Mass attendance for the sake of appearances.

The fact that you still love her and treat her as part of the family might help reassure her of her worth in your eyes. That, too, will be a good basis for the future.

In the meantime you might to try to engage her and see where her doubts are coming from. What is it that she rejects specifically about the Church? What might be the reason behind her self-professed atheism? There might be all kinds of issues under the surface.

As a concrete way to show that you want to respect her search, you might think about getting her a copy of a book such as “From Atheism to Catholicism: Nine Converts Explain Their Journey Home.”

You could suggest, perhaps, that both of you read a chapter a week and talk about the person’s experience. This might help you understand where she is coming from, and help her feel supported and begin to clarify some of her doubts.

Some people in your situation decide to continue insisting on their children attending Mass as long as they live in the family home. Here, for instance, is an explanation of that point of view (https://aleteia.org/2017/08/17/should-i-force-my-16-year-old-to-go-to-mass/).

In the end, many different factors come into play, and you as a parent have to make as prudent a decision as you can. One “policy” might be helpful for one child but harmful to another.

You might want to discuss the different options (and the reasons behind them) with your daughter and together come to a mutual agreement about how to proceed. That will show her that you respect her, and it will also foster mutual understanding.

As a mom you have a grace of state to help your daughter rediscover the God and Church who love her. Stay close to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And count on my prayers.

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