Thursday, September 11, 2014

CATECHIST RESOURCE: Last Supper Skit/Reenactment

A few days ago a friend texted me. Her friend teaches junior high RE and needed a skit for the Last Supper. She was struggling and really liked what I had done with pre-K and Kindergarten students at her church over the summer so she asked Amy to contact me. 

For those of you familiar with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I did a modified version of The Cenacle presentation for Level I. These students had no CGS background so after presenting it, I had them return to their seats and draw pictures of themselves. Then, we placed their pictures around the set up Cenacle figures and discussed how that was what it would be like when they received First Communion. I touched on some themes from the Eucharistic Presence of the Good Shepherd without bringing in the shepherd imagery and all of those materials as well. It was a part of a 5-day VBS program and I only had 2 hours to cover the Eucharist with these kids.

I wanted something that bridged the Last Supper with the Mass. As a gift to you, here is what I came up with. I hope you enjoy it and share it with your DRE, catechist friends, etc. If you get a chance to do the skit, I am hoping you would record it and get parent permission for me to post it here. Just send your You Tube videos of the skit to 

I know this isn't really a "parent" issue but I figured many of you might be catechists or have a homeschool group who would enjoy doing this.

Thanks for reading and God bless! 

Sacramental prep year

Now that school, homeschooling, and religious education are back in full swing, I imagine a good percentage of you have children receiving sacraments this year. Regardless of their age and whether it's First  Reconciliation and First Eucharist or Confirmation or all 3, I wanted to talk about what you can do to be an active participant in the experience.

Sadly, many parishes do not have programs, curricula, etc. in place that intimately involve the parents in the formal preparation for these sacraments. The bulk of prep will take place in the classroom and maybe there will be a retreat or a few other meetings/events/prayer services, but that's about it. I, myself, will be preparing twenty 8th graders at my parish for Confirmation using the new program Decision Point from The Dynamic Catholic Institute. My kids will go on a retreat, but most all the prep will be done in class. I am still discerning how I want to go about engaging the parents more after Christmas when we begin most of the formal preparation for Confirmation. I'll keep you posted as I go along!

Regardless of whether or not your parish has a lot of activities set up for you and your child to do together, this is a great time to make some extra time for your child. Regardless of which sacrament(s) your child is preparing for, here are some ideas.

If your child is around 2nd grade age you can:

  • After Mass, have him/her draw a picture of the gospel and discuss that picture with him/her.
  • Spend a few minutes each week talking with your child about the Eucharist. Have them ask their questions and if they don't know, research an answer and get back to them! 
  • When your child is in trouble, use those moments to lovingly discuss Reconciliation and explain how important it will be for him/her to apologize to God as well so he/she can do better next time.  
  • Work on memorizing prayer/songs like the Gloria or Nicene Creed. Learn 2-3 lines each week and discuss what they mean as you go.
  • Go to Eucharistic Adoration. Even if it's just for 10-15 minutes once or twice a month, that special quiet time with your child in the Lord's Presence will benefit your entire family!
  • Invite your priest for dinner. Have your child help prepare the meal. Ask your priest to tell you about his First Communion. (You could also do this with your child's catechist, DRE or a deacon at the parish.)
  • Record some children's shows on EWTN and view them together. 
  • Get a book of the saints and read about a saint together each night. Ask that saint to pray for your child. 
  • Create a huge Eucharist collage on butcher paper. Start by gluing down an image of the Last Supper. Each week, add 1 or more new images: Catholic friends, family members, fellow parishioners, local clergy or religious, etc. If possible, use photos from their First Communions. Make sure to include saints and deceased relatives. Talk about how all these people are part of the Eucharist each and every week. Put the collage in your child's bedroom. Put a photo of your child somewhere in the house. Have that photo travel a few inches or feet closer to the Eucharist each week. It'll be a great visual countdown! The morning of their First Eucharist, they can move the photo onto the collage. 
If your child is closer to 8th grade you can:

  • Read the readings (or just the gospel) before Mass and discuss it on the drive/walk to church.
  • Make a Holy Hour once/month or so.
  • Receive Reconciliation with him/her every 1-2 months. 
  • Each week  pick a Gift or Fruit of the Holy Spirit. Discuss what it means, how to live it out, how you've experienced it that week, etc. There are 16 total, so after you've gone through each of them, go through them again. You can probably get through each one 2 or 3 times before Confirmation so they'll really get to comprehend how the Holy Spirit is active in his/her life.
  • Pick 3 or 4 saints your son/daughter is interested in or might feel a connection to. Read about their lives together and/or read some of their writings. If your child is expected to pick a saint's name for Confirmation, this will help immensely with the decision process.
Regardless of the age of your child, as a family you can:

  • Create a special prayer table or add special items to your current prayer table that will help remind everyone to pray especially for the child preparing. This could include: a photo of that child, his or her baptismal candle, or his/her artwork depicting the sacrament(s) being prepared for.
  • Attend daily Mass once/week (in addition to Sunday and Holy Days)
  • Attend Mass on the Feast Day of  your child's patron saint. 
  • Find service projects to do as a family such as making cards for parishioners who are homebound, preparing a meal at a homeless shelter, or doing house or yardwork for an elderly neighbor. 
Don't get me wrong, many of these are suggestions I hope you might use at any time in your child's life. However, I know that during this special, holy, exciting year you may be looking to do something extra,  new or different. I hope my suggestions help! What things have you done at home or, if you're a catechist, what things have you suggested parents do at home, to help better prepare a child for the sacraments? 

I'm baaaaaaaack

Dear Readers,

     Sorry for the nearly 2 month hiatus. It's been crazy! What have I been up to? On a personal front, I was dealing with some (minor) health issues which seem to have resolved themselves after eliminating all corn from my diet. My brother is allergic to corn and it seemed I was developing some aversions. I've just been getting my energy back to normal the past 2-3 weeks and sleeping through the night. HURRAY!
Professionally, I was applying for and interviewing for a number of ministry jobs. Sadly, none panned out but I'm trusting it's for a reason. Writing-wise, I've been working with the USCCB to figure out some licensing issues. I have a few things I am looking into getting self-published, but still need to get that squared away. I will also be contacting my bishop, but since my materials are more spiritual than catechetical in nature they likely will not require the imprimatur. Blog-wise, I'm still in need of a better computer. I am using a laptop provided by friends (which is terrific!), but it needs to be plugged in and doesn't hold a charge. This means if I accidentally shift and unplug something, I lose a bit of work (I'm becoming OCD about saving due to this!). It also means if I go to the library, Starbucks, etc. to work and can't find a place near an outlet, I'm out of luck.

     So, I've had a lot of stuff on my plate but now want to get back to making this a priority. With school back underway, it's easier for me to keep a schedule. In addition to my several part-time jobs, I am teaching 8th grade RE at my parish and will be preparing an 18 year-old with moderate special needs for RCIA. I cannot wait to see how that goes!

     And now, back to business as usual on First Catechist!

Love and prayers,
First Catechist

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Radical Ideas?

I'm realizing that some of you must think I am crazy. In an earlier post, I made some radical suggestions. Do away with Children's Liturgy of the Word? Abolish nurseries and cry rooms? Get rid of the convenience of Sunday morning religious education classes?  I think it's important you see how these issues have been addressed on Catholic blogs and in Catholic publications in recent years. Every post I've read validates what I have experienced as an aunt and stepmom or heard from dozens, if not hundreds, of parents I have worked with over the years.

As you see how many others agree with me about the concerns on these programs, I hope you can come to appreciate my vision for parish reform. None of these changes need to take place overnight. In fact, they should be part of a 3, 5 or 10 year vision (depending how much reform you feel is necessary in your parish) to change the minds and hearts of parents while offering them tools and practical alternatives. I also think you see it's important to truly evaluate if these programs and ideas are more for parental convenience or are truly in the best spiritual interests of the children in your parish.

In this post  I'll address each of these topics as well as link to other Catholic authors and bloggers who have addressed these topics.I don't agree 100% with each link I post, but it will offer a varied perspective. I will also  provide practical alternatives so if/when your parish decides a change is needed, they have some practical ideas to build their plan. Brace yourself- I'm going to provide tons of links in this post. If you agree with me, great. If you are skeptical, the links are there so you can read/see what others are saying.

Last year, the Catholic blogosphere blew up with comments after Deacon Greg addressed the sensitive topic of dhildren crying during Mass. I followed his page and several others in the coming days as they wrote about this frustrating topic. No one likes a screaming child during Mass, but we need to know, accept, and appreciate that babies cry. Loudly. Suddenly. For no reason at all. Parents need to be able to discern when their child needs a 5 minute time out in the back of church or when a pacifier, bottle, or cuddle will bring a swift end to the disruption. Children belong in Mass. I believe children should be brought to Mass weekly and that much can be done to make Mass a calm, relaxing, loving, and positive experience for all.

Cry rooms do have their place, but in many parishes, they have become glorified toy rooms. Parents sit while their children play, often loudly, with toys bearing no religious significance. No one can hear Mass over the noise and parents get little to nothing out of Mass except the relief of not being glared at when their child makes childlike noises or engages in childlike behavior during Mass. A cry room should be a place where parents can take that loud or unruly infant/toddler (or special needs individual) to get the tantrum out before returning to Mass. Cry rooms should have some comfy chairs for mothers who don't wish to nurse in the sanctuary (though this doesn't bother me... or Pope Francis!). There should be hymnals and missalettes to encourage ongoing participation in the liturgy. Soft lighting will provide a soothing environment. If there are any other items, they should be geared towards prayer, not play. A good selection of children's missals and maybe some large rosaries or dolls of saints should be about it. Make it a holy, sacred place as well... a continuation of the sanctuary. Most of all, let's remember that some crying/noise in church is necessary and a beautiful sign of life in abundance!

Children should be welcome everywhere in church. Not just in Mass, but adoration as well. Read the heartbreaking story of a mother who was discouraged from bringing her children to adoration. We need more little ones in adoration, not fewer! At one parish I worked, they not only offered perpetual adoration but, also, a Family Hour once/month where cries, giggling, wiggling, and noise are celebrated, all in Christ's presence. Praise God! Family Hours should not take the place of kids going to adoration with parents, but it's a great way to introduce adoration unless/until your children are ready for more quiet prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. The little girl in the story above is definitely ready for as much time as she can get with our Lord.

I used to volunteer in the church nursery when I was a young girl. Children were running around, screaming, yelling... nothing holy or sacred took place there. The problem I see with nurseries is that it implies to children that Mass is boring and/or not for them. Once they hit the age of 3, 4, or 5 we expect them to start sitting through Mass and behaving? Probably won't happen without lots of fights, stress, and tears. If they've been eased into it from infancy, it is likely to go much smoother.

But getting kids to sit through Mass is hard, especially if parents have a large family with several infants/toddlers. The answer is simple, in my opinion. Get a team of willing individuals (widows and widowers, teens needing service hours, couples waiting to become parents, etc.) to serve as family helpers. You can either have a system where parents and volunteers can sign up to be paired at specified Mass time or have these volunteers with designated badges in the back of church available on a first-come, first-served basis. How often are your kids better behaved for strangers than for you? An extra adult/teen in the pew could allow you to separate fighting little ones, pass off a sleeping baby but still keep the family together for prayer and worship. I've had many friends say how easy Mass would be if they just had "one more adult with them" or "an extra set of hands". GIVE THEM THAT! This builds a sense of family and community within your parish and helps families pray together. Can I get an, 'Amen'?

Just as nurseries convince children that Mass isn't for them, Children's Liturgy of the Word (CLOW) can have the same impact on slightly older children. At age 10, I served on the altar some weeks and was dismissed during the readings on other weeks. What kind of confusing message did that deliver? Often, CLOW is well-meaning volunteers offering a watered-down version of the gospel and/or a craft or activity page designed to teach what the readings are. Rarely, in my opinion, do children receive spiritual benefits from this time. Granted, they aren't wiggling and distracting parents in the pews, but is the craft or activity page going to help them grow in their faith? I would prefer to see CLOW be done as intended, which is with a deacon or priest delivering an age-appropriate homily after proclaiming the gospel. I think children would get far greater benefits staying in the pew but being handed age-appropriate materials such as my Liturgical Reflections to provide understanding and application of the readings. I much prefer children do these reflections before Mass, but I realize some parents like giving the kids something to do in the pews. I think it's a better alternative than dismissing them to make a sheep puppet or draw Zacchaeus in a tree. Other Catholic bloggers tend to agree with me here so I know my ideas aren't too far-fetched.

Lastly, let's address Sunday Religious Education classes. First of all, many of us know that the traditional methods of religious education need much attention, change, and revision. There are many ways to do this. Perhaps, your parish has found an ideal Mass schedule where kids get to RE without disruption of the Mass and the majority of parents follow/precede class with family Mass attendance. This is great, but I've rarely seen it in my years of experience.

What did God intend for Sabbath to be? For worship and rest. Traditional RE classes are not about worship and it's certainly far from rest. Sunday has always been a family day of worship and rest in my parents' home (where I'm temporarily living): Mass attendance followed by leisurely reading of the paper or watching TV (often in the same room), Sunday dinner with the whole family, (brother, niece, brother's fiance & sister's boyfriend come when they can), and an afternoon of napping or watching TV. It's peaceful, quiet, and relaxing. I <3 it, but I know that returning to full-time ministry will likely mean working every Sunday morning and having to attend Saturday or Sunday night Mass so as not to conflict with when I'm working. This means, DREs are rarely at Mass with the families they are serving. What a travesty, in my opinion.

In this country, we've developed an attitude that Religious Education classes should be offered at the most convenient possible times for families- when the kids don't have conflicts with school, sports, or other activities. I agree that religious education needs to be accessible and I appreciate that Sundays might be an ideal day. However,I challenge you to rethink what accessible/convenient RE looks like. There are an amazing number of different models for Religious Education including, but not limited to:

  • Text-based programs
  • Montessori-based (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd)
  • special needs religious education
  • whole family catechesis
  • homeschooling options (using text-based curricula)

I think an ideal parish will offer as many of these options as possible so busy families can choose the method that works best for them and their children, rather than the most ideal day/time. Larger parishes will ALWAYS have to have several days and times, but home school and whole family catechesis options force families to (appropriately) decide on their priorities. Do they want to have a catechist instruct their child or are they willing/able to take on that responsibility themselves? I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here since there are so many different circumstances and situations that change things. If they want a catechist to instruct their child, they will find a way to make it work and reschedule their child's other activities. I do not want to do away with parishes offering religious education, but with the complicated schedules of kids these days, I think we are having to think outside the box. I do think whole family catechesis and home school families should check in monthly (or so) with the pastor or DRE to ensure they are on track with their peers.

Sunday scheduling of RE is so tough because you have to cancel for many 3-day weekends throughout the year. It's very tough to get a reasonable number of hours of instruction in on any day other than Tuesday-Thursday. I think Tuesdays and Thursdays should provide both afternoon and evening options to give families choices (4-5:30 and 6-7:30, for instance). Those days/times can also be used for monthly check-ins or group activities with families opting to home school or use whole family catechesis.

DREs, how many of you have had parents tell you, "Billy can't come these 8 weeks because of (insert commitment here)" or ask if their child can bounce back and forth between your different days/times to accommodate their schedules? Parents, how many of you have asked your DRE to do this? If the current days/times don't work with your child's activities, are you ready to make some tough choices? I feel for parents and DREs in these situations, but we need to think outside the box. Parents, could you:

  • Ban together with other church parents to request a team  or organization move their game/practice/rehearsal times to allow time for worship and religious instruction? 
  • Ask your DRE if you can home school your children to accommodate their busy/erratic schedules?
  • Offer to teach the kids on a given team, with the guidance of your DRE, outside of the church so you can best meet their needs without placing demands on the parish?
DREs and pastors, what  other creative options do you have for these families? I'm sure there are great ideas, so let's hear them!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Getting ready for Mass

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to Mass we go...  How many of you spend your Sunday mornings hustling people out of bed, getting them into decent clothes and fed, rushed into the car and often end up racing into Mass as the priest is heading up the aisle. Kids are fighting in the car and parents are yelling. Ugh. It's no wonder we enter Mass worked up and no one gets much out of it. What are some things your family can start doing to make Sundays more prayerful and less hectic?

First of all, look at the day/time you're attending Mass. Would Saturday evening be less hectic? Is Sunday morning the most ideal? Don't feel guilty about that Last Chance Mass on Sunday night if it works well with your household's schedule. We all get attached to "our" Mass, but with children you need to be flexible. If you're attending in the morning, these suggestions may make the morning easier:

  • Laying out clothes the night before (Have an extra outfit in mind if you have a potty-training toddler or a baby who's likely to spit up on you on your way out the door.)
  • Having a simple, continental breakfast before Mass as opposed to cooking a large meal (Especially if it's fruit and granola bars or something you can set out the night before, it should make the morning easier.)
  • Earlier bedtimes on Saturday night
  • Baths/showers before bed Saturday as opposed to in the morning
  • Moving the clocks ahead 10-15 minutes to give yourself that extra cushion
Whenever you go to Mass, plan to arrive 15-20 minutes early. This give you a buffer when you have delays getting out the door. It also provides time to hit the bathrooms when you arrive at Mass. Insist on this either just before leaving home and/or just before walking into church. It's not a 100% guarantee, but it may cut down on bathroom trips during Mass. 

What does your typical drive or walk to Mass look like? If driving, find some soothing music (classical? Gregorian chant?) to help calm everyone's nerves. Insist that the ride or walk to Mass be quiet and/or have discussions about Mass. As you get into the car or leave the house, remind everyone to let go of the other cares of the day: no yelling, no fighting, and no asking about going for pizza after Mass. What are things you are thankful for this week? What intentions does your family want to hold in prayer at Mass? Most importantly, what gifts are you bringing to God today? Perhaps, use an app such as Laudate to read the readings, or at least the gospel, on the way and discuss it. If you use a tool such as my Liturgical Reflections to better understand the readings, have the kids use those in the car (as opposed to during Mass). 

Do not let your children bring toys, blankets, books, etc. into the car unless they are for Mass use. Consider having a bag for each child containing a rosary, children's bible, and/or children's missalette- only the few items they may need to aid in prayer- that you distribute in the car en route to Mass. This way, they know that only those items are permissible once inside. If the car is filled with toys, dolls, juice boxes, and rattles you can guarantee someone will pitch a fit about not being able to bring that item into church with them. If they need those items for going somewhere after Mass, pack them in the trunk and keep them out of sight. 

By arriving 15-20 minutes early, you can quietly get out the wiggles in a calm way. Visit a statue or light a candle before Mass. Do you have a separate Adoration Chapel? Have someone pick seats while the little ones go say a prayer in front of Jesus. Let them continue using Liturgical Reflections in the pew or reading a children's bible, provided they know it gets put away once Mass begins. If the hymns are posted, look them up before Mass. Encourage older siblings to quietly read from the children's bible or missalette to the younger ones. 

Create a system where the kids pick seats at Mass- perhaps having a rotating basis so each child takes turns. Giving everyone a say might make them more agreeable. Most young kids don't like the back- they prefer the front so they can see everything. Give them this chance. You might be surprised that they will step up their behavior so as to enjoy the privilege of sitting where they want. 

It might seem tougher to keep children quiet/still at Mass longer, but I've found the opposite to be true. That extra few minutes in church before Mass can calm and relax everyone, making the Mass experience more pleasant for you and those around you. What Mass routines has your family created that help all to enjoy the experience?

UPDATE (7/12/14):

Acquaintance, Katie Choudhary, is CGS catetchist at the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet, IL. On Facebook this morning, Katie posted: Do you recognize anything from today's Gospel? Preparing the children for mass is an awesome gift we can give them. It helps them focus their attention as they hear key phrases they remember from when you read it earlier together! We sit in the recliner and read the Gospel (from our NRSV bible) on Sunday morning before mass. They sit on my lap and I read it straight out of the bible to them. Some days it works better than others and sometimes I cut it short. Today's Gospel was a PERFECT one ! I ended right before Jesus started to explain why He uses parables to teach. 


Thanks, Katie, for this perfect example of how preparing children for Mass can lead to the fruits of their faith. Children show a deep understanding of theology, when given the chance/resources. My Liturgical Reflections are for parents who don't feel capable/confident in guiding their children in this way and/or children who haven't experienced CGS. In CGS, kids learn to be open to hearing complex scripture stories and exploring them through their own "free art". Katie's calling to read sacred scripture with her children is her own and not inspired by my suggestion, but I want you to witness the beauty of like-minded thinking parents/catechists. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Taking Your Tween/Teen to Mass- Part 2

The Doubting Thomas Tween/Teen

I have had the pleasure of catechizing many young people who aren't sure God exists, aren't sure Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and/or aren't sure Catholicism is the faith founded by Christ. I relate strongly to these young people because I was one of them. Unfortunately, from the ages of 10-15, when my faith had the most doubts, I didn't have a safe place to share these doubts. I didn't feel I could tell my parents and I had no other close, adult mentors. Yup- I was an atheist altar server and no one knew it at the time.  Junior high youth ministry wasn't a thing yet and I wasn't old enough for my parish's youth ministry offerings until I was a sophomore. By then, I had struggled much and lost a lot of faith. I might have been in less turmoil if I'd had someone to help and encourage me much sooner.

First and foremost, do you know whether or not your child is one of these people? Like me, your teen/tween might not feel they can tell their parents. I received the Sacrament of Confirmation when I was 13 and in the 8th grade. Our parents gave us letters to read that morning, after rehearsal. My mom's letter upset me. It said, "I know most kids your age are just going through the motions, but I am so proud knowing you aren't one of them." (insert sucker punch to the gut here) I had lots of anger towards bullying at school and blamed God. I kept praying to God to make the bullying stop. The longer things went on and my prayers went "unanswered", I determined God didn't exist because a loving God would never make me suffer so much. At the time, I felt I shouldn't receive Confirmation but didn't know how to articulate that to my parents, teachers, or godmother/sponsor. Looking back, I'm grateful I received it when I did because I believe the Holy Spirit gave me the strength and courage to come back to the Catholic faith in two year's time. Without Confirmation, perhaps I wouldn't have been as open.

I always encourage my students to tell me if they don't believe in God/Christ. It helps me help them. I spend lots of extra time with my Doubting Thomas students discussing, debating, catechizing, theorizing, praying... you name it. They need someone to work through this with them, not someone to judge them, blame them, or ignore them.

Do your best to talk with your tween/teen about their level of belief. If he/she won't open up to you, find someone they can talk with. Your son or daughter might tell you they are an atheist and don't believe in God. The biggest reason most kids give me is that "science makes sense", "I believe in the big bang theory and/or evolution" or "science proves God doesn't exist". One of the best Catholic resources out there comes from the Magis Center. This Jesuit-run ministry has amazing tools (including a DVD and workbook series) to help teens study science and understand how scientific truths coexist side-by-side what we know about God. This series addresses every science/religion argument your child can throw at you. Consider asking someone at your parish to start a ministry to allow these kids to healthfully explore science in a Catholic context and see how science definitely does not disprove God's existence.

Is your tween/teen unsure Christ is who he says he is? Or unsure Catholicism is the one, true faith? Here is where Lighthouse Catholic Media offers some AMAZING tools. From talks by Scott Hahn and Matthew Kelly to books such as "Confessions of a Mega Pastor" you can find so many stories of conversion, including converts from Satanism, Mormonism, Judaism, and a variety of Protestant faiths. Talks like Mark Hart's "Remade" discuss lifelong Catholics strengthening and deepening their faith. Listen to and discuss them as a family or in small groups of tweens/teens. Some of them are even part of Lighthouse's teen series and made especially for their age.

Another great book for kids who are doubting is the series of daring teen saints by Colleen Swaim. Both Ablaze and Radiate are filled phenomenal stories that will soften the hardest of teens' hearts. These stories show them how relevant Catholicism is to young people- so relevant that they have been canonized. Read a few pages as a family each night and pray to those saints. Don't say it aloud, but ask the saint you're reading to pray for your child in doubt. Intercessory prayer is a great thing and underutilized tool in our faith.

Doing the Bare Minimum/Practical Matters

If your tween/teen fights you on Mass attendance, remind them of your baptismal call to raise them in the faith. Educate them on the precepts of the Church as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2041-2043:

1- You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
2- You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
3 - You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
4 - You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
5- You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church
Make an agreement that you will hold them to these, and only these, until they are 18. Tell them this isn't about them- it's about you. You, as a parent, made a promise to God and it's unfair of your tween/teen to expect you to break that promise. Set conditions you can both agree on such as:

  • If you willingly go to Mass each Sunday and Holy Day, I won't make you do chores on those days so as to rest from "servile labor" on those days. Any kid who gets a one day pass on lawn mowing or dishes is likely to do anything you want! Do not let them boast or brag about this privilege to siblings and, in fact, tell them if they mention it to their siblings then they will receive extra chores. This is a private matter between you and your struggling tween/teen. 
  • Don't force them to sit with you. Provided they have shown they can behave and pay reasonable attention, let them sit alone or with friends. A very wise RE parent called me one fall and said to please make sure my daughter is in the same class with so-and-so. We had Sunday morning RE. The girls (aged 9 or so) would sit together at Mass, attend RE together, and come home for a play date at one of the girls' homes. Make a more adult deal of sorts for older kids, but help find peers to reinforce whenever possible. 
  • Don't pressure your teen to participating in Mass. In fact, encourage them to sit there and talk with God about his/her doubts. Two things will happen: most self conscious tweens/teens will want to stand, pray, etc. once not forced to do so because they don't like standing out and, secondly, these "conversations" with God are a prayer, even in doubt. Sitting there and thinking, "God, I don't think you exist" is still prayer.
  • You must come to Reconciliation once/year (preferably during Lent) and speak with a priest. I cannot force you to go to confession, but think you should so as to prepare yourself for Easter Eucharist. Let them know it's perfectly acceptable (and probably more common than we think) to walk into a confessional and say, "Father, I don't know why I am here. I am unsure if I believe in God or not. I don't want to go to Mass and I don't consider myself Catholic." Let the priest and the Holy Spirit take it from there. 
  • Receive the Eucharist at Easter. Most of us forget that we are not required to receive the Eucharist every week. Tell your teen they may stay in the pew or go up for a blessing (as appropriate in your congregation). This sounds like a free pass but most teens are too self-conscious to stray from the norm. You'd be surprised that after being questioned by friends once or twice, they'll likely start going again on their own. Be patient with this process. 
  • Abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent and Ash Wednesday. (If your family observes no meat on any Friday, you should make that the expectation.)
  • Volunteer your time at Church in some capacity for a set number of days/hours per year. Whether it's helping in the nursery, greeting at Mass, or stuffing bulletins, find a benign ministry they can do that will not force them to pray or act on things they are doubting right now. Make the ministry as far removed from Mass/prayer as possible  but let them know the expectation. 
  • If they have a job, consider telling them they must tithe 10% (or a % more appropriate if you cannot afford to tithe 10%) - 5% to the parish and 5% to a special fund you're willing to match (this is instead of the 5% to a charity of choice often recommended). You and your son/daughter can agree on a "cause" for this fund even if the "charity" is as simple as taking the whole family out to dinner or something a tad selfish but that  benefits the household and reinforces the family. If they are willing to give the other 5% to an actual charity, awesome, but it may take years to build to that step.
If Confirmation falls during this time when your child is struggling, set basic expectations: they must attend any/all prep up to and including the retreat. They must not insult the faith of those around them. They must meet with the DRE, youth minister, a deacon, or a priest (someone will almost definitely be willing) once at the beginning of the process to explain why they don't want to do it and once after the retreat to discern if they still want to back out. As a DRE I always promised those students (and my pastor agreed) that since they had done all the prep, they could return to me anytime before the age of 18 and ask to receive Confirmation. I would expect them to go on retreat again to spiritually prepare, but that would be all.
Most of all, remember the less you fight them, the more open their hearts will remain.

Some additional things you can do to help during this age/phase are:

  • Discuss the readings and homily on the way home from Mass to help your child find relevance. 
  • Encourage "prayer" at home that doesn't look like prayer. "What are 3 things you were grateful for today?" 
  • Create more family time at meals or other occasions just to be together. The closer you are as a family, the more open your teen might be to discussing faith matters with you.
  • Pray for your child and try not to push him/her. If you pray together as a family and your tween/teen balks, help them politely and appropriately voice their doubts/complaints/feelings to God.
  • Within reason, help him/her explore other faiths. Accompany them to services at other churches and/or read on other faiths they think seem intriguing but always fall it up with a story of someone who converted to Catholicism from that faith and why. Help them see and understand both sides of it. You can appreciate the good things in ANY faith belief system provided you back it up with the how and why of what the Church teaches. You may even reaffirm your own faith along the way. 
  • When you get frustrated, take the frustration out on God (He can take it!) and not your child. Remember, God gave your child free will and all those fun, stubborn thoughts he/she is having! ;)

Most of all, love your tween/teen, doubts and all. Remember, at this age they often just want to rebel. Don't let faith be the thing you most fight about and don't give them reason to want to rebel. Pushing too much will just lead them to push away.  And lastly, don't ever tell them they should be a Catholic "just because" or "because that's how I was raised". Help them find reasons to stay Catholic and, if you don't have any reasons other than "just because", start searching for reasons alongside your child. Good luck and God bless!

My Doubting Thomas Experience

I told one of my Doubting Thomas relatives recently about my "Jewostic" phase in college. My undergraduate Christology course left me doubting our Lord's divinity and, spiritually, left me somewhere between Jewish and agnostic. This period of doubt happened just as Lent started. I told God that for Lent I would commit to continuing to attend Mass each Sunday and would keep praying with the goal that God would soften my heart and I would enter Easter with joy and faith. I would keep up with my religious choirs and Wednesday night prayer/spirituality group. What happened? On my way to receive the Eucharist I would pray, "Lord, I don't believe this is really you, but if I'm wrong please help me to see and know otherwise.". Forty days later, the burden of my heart was lifted. It was gradual, nothing earth shattering, but Celine Dion played an odd role in my spiritual healing. One night I turned on the radio after an angry shouting match at God. The song That's the Way it Is was playing and I suddenly imagined the Lord singing to me:

I can read your mind
And I know your story
I see what you're going through, yeah
It's an uphill climb
And I'm feeling sorry
But I know it will come to you, yeah
Don't surrender
'Cause you can win
In this thing called love

When you want it the most
There's no easy way out
When you're ready to go
And your heart's left in doubt
Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it
And that's the way it is

When you question me
For a simple answer
I don't know what to say, no
But it's plain to see
If you stick together
You're gonna find the way, yeah
So don't surrender
'Cause you can win
In this thing called love

When you want it the most
There's no easy way out
When you're ready to go
And your heart's left in doubt
Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it
And that's the way it is

That's the way it is
When life is empty,
With no tomorrow,
And loneliness starts to call
Baby don't worry
Forget your sorrow
'Cause love's gonna conquer it all all

When you want it the most
There's no easy way out
When you're ready to go
And your heart's left in doubt
Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it

(And that's the way it is
When you want it the most
There's no easy way out
When you're ready to go
And your heart's left to doubt)

Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it
And that's the way it is
That's the way it is
That's the way it is
Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it
And that's the way it is

So God and Celine got me through my roughest patch, eventually. There were other times of doubt where I pondered leaving the Catholic faith but Mass attendance, staying close to Our Lady, etc. helped me immensely and I don't think I'll ever face those doubts again. I have gone through VERY trying circumstances as an adult and with the help of God and Our Blessed Mother, my faith came out stronger than ever. During a potentially serious illness, the Anointing of the Sick, prayers from my parishioners, and Mass offered by my priest/boss brought me through. When I struggled to attend Mass because I was grieving a divorce (and barely got out of bed), friends prayed for me and countless hours were offered in front of the Blessed Sacrament for me. I know those prayers brought me safely to the other side.

Taking Your Tweens and Teens to Mass- Part I

 If you have a faith-filled child who willingly attends Mass between the ages of 11-18 you are blessed and lucky. In general, I think this is the toughest age to bring children to Mass though I haven't had children so trying to breastfeed twins while a toddler tap dances on the pews could be tougher. In all seriousness, I think because this is an age when kids begin to doubt, question, and/or rebel, it can be very difficult to help them grow in faith and take their faith seriously. It is important to note that this is also the age, in this country, when the majority of these young people will receive Confirmation or be expected to prepare for Confirmation. This means that just as they are losing their faith, we are asking them to reaffirm it.

In my experience, the major problems of tweens and teens at Mass typically falls into 2 camps: they are involved in a ministry such as children's choir or altar serving and enjoy Mass when they get to do that but otherwise have to be dragged to Mass or they begin expressing serious doubts about God, their faith, etc. and object to going at all. As a result, this blog entry will have two parts. This first part will address those kids who gripe about going to Mass because "it's boring" and help you engage your children through altar serving or other ministries. The second post will help you with children doubting Catholicism, Christianity, and/or God's existence. That post will also include practical tips on how to set expectations for your tween/teen, especially if he or she is balking.

Please know that I understand these struggles intimately. Twenty-five years ago I was that child. I had been raised Catholic but never had any reason to be Catholic other than all my family and friends were. Your tween/teen needs reasons in order to become an interested and engaged Catholic. Not knowing why I should be Catholic nor fully understanding the treasures of the Church nearly led to my leaving on more than one occasion. I don't want that for you or your child.

The I'll-Go-When-I-Have-a-Purpose Catholic

We've all known (or been!) this teen or tween. It's his/her week to cantor at a teen Mass, lector at a children's-focused Mass, or altar serve. They jump out of bed and are ready to leave for church an hour before Mass begins. Fast forward to the next week when they aren't participating in an assigned ministry. "Why do I have to go?" "I'm tired." "This is pointless." "We had a Mass at school on Friday. That should count for something." (Insert whiny rant/complaint here.)

The trouble with these young individuals is that they don't realize that they are at Mass simply for the Mass' sake. They are there to pray the Liturgy. Liturgy is the "work of the people". Mass is not the work of (just) the priest/altar server/usher/cantor/lector. We are all there do to our work- to pray the Liturgy with the priest, our fellow parishioners, and saints and angels. While the Mass can never be less or incomplete due to our inattentiveness, our participation is essential. Our prayers, singing, and participation are why we are there. Most importantly, we are there to receive our Lord's Body and Blood. Praying the Mass is how we prepare our mind, body, and soul for the Heavenly Banquet as well as spiritually gear up for the week ahead.

One of my favorite catechetical tools to help young people is the book "Do I Have to Go?" by Matthew Pinto & Christ Stefancik. I used this excellent read as a supplemental text for the Confirmation curriculum I compiled. My students always loved it. Parents, please suggest to your child's catechists and teachers of students in grades 6th+  that they should consider purchasing class copies and reading/discussing one or two questions a class. If you're a parent, find a young adult in your parish to lead a book discussion for 4-6 tweens or teens in your home. If you feel your child would respond well, read it as a family, but I know that can be tricky at the age we're dealing with here. The casual style will definitely get your kids to start understanding why the Mass is so essential to our lives as Catholics. Some of a sampling of the questions addressed:

  • Why should I go to Mass?
  • What is the difference between Mass and  my Protestant friend's Sunday worship service?
  • What exactly is a sacrament?
  • But why do we need to worship God with other people?
  • I don't feel any holier after receiving communion. Is that normal?

Answers are short, refer to scripture and/or the Catechism, and provide clear explanations that even adults can enjoy, learn from, and discuss with their child(ren).

There are a large number of resources and programs you and/or your parish/school can use to help tween/teens understand the Mass. Tools such as the "Do I Have to Go?" book can go very far in helping young people desire to go to Mass. If you have good relationships with your pastor, principal, DRE, youth ministers, etc. I highly recommend discussing tools or adding programming, to help students better understand the Mass. A well-done, teaching Mass offered once/year to this age group can go far if you don't have the luxury of spending money or offering extensive programming. In my opinion, the best teaching Masses are "dry" Masses where you can allow students to pass around or come up closely to look at things such as the lectionary, paten, chalice, hand bells, etc. Plus, you aren't taking away from the sanctity of Mass. You'd be surprised at how much this can engage students.

The Altar Server Connection

Also, I think reviewing how altar serving training is done can have an enormous impact on young students' understanding of the Mass and help engage them in weeks when they aren't serving. Unfortunately, how we go about instruction doesn't always help this. Altar server instruction should be detailed and in depth. If possible, a priest should instruct but if a priest isn't available, use someone who is extremely knowledgeable about liturgy. Someone who won't just say, "bring the priest a bowl and towel at point X" but, rather, someone who can walk the students through the Mass in an in-depth, engaging, and intimate manner explaining the purposes of different prayers and gestures- particularly since they'll need to listen and watch closely for those gestures as their cues.

 I used to attend a parish where altar server training was part of the school curriculum but signing up for the ministry was optional. Typically, catechesis for 5th grade covers Mass and Sacraments. This also tends to be around the age when students can become altar servers so there are many great reasons to do this formation at this age. (I will not engage in the altar boy versus altar server debate here as there are excellent grounds on both sides of things. I will touch on what you can offer the young ladies if only males are altar servers at your parish.)

Encourage whomever does altar server training to work with the school principal and/or DRE to build that into the catechetical instruction for students. Whether school or religious education, ensure all students get training in serving on the altar as part of their classroom time, hopefully inviting home school families to participate as well. After training is complete, send home permission slips for those who wish to sign up for the parish schedule. It is likely you'll get a much higher percentage of students stepping up to serve if they have had the training, know what it's about, and have had practice. Some students might be too embarrassed or hesitant to sign up for training, but this process could encourage those kids to become servers once they realize they can do well at it. Also, every DRE has gone through not having enough RE students trained as servers to help at RE Masses. This helps eliminate that problem.

If your parish only has male servers, what are they offering for the young ladies of that age? Is it feasible to start a Junior Altar and Rosary League or Mini Sacristans group? Educate and train young ladies on the tools of the Mass just as you do the young men. Can they assist older parishioners with upkeep of the sanctuary, washing/polishing vessels, laundering linens, etc.? The training is because they will treat the sanctuary area and vessels, etc. with more reverence when they fully understand the purpose of them and meaning behing them. How do you recruit ladies for such a ministry? Usually students need service hours for Confirmation and/or high school. What an excellent way to serve the parish and obtain those hours!

Stay tuned for my next post on dealing with those Doubting Thomas teens/tweens and more things you can do as a family to engage your children. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Older children (ages 6-10) and Mass attendance

Oh, joy! Your children are old enough to not **need** toys, bathroom breaks, or snacks during Mass. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they are any less antsy or less difficult to bring to Mass. At that age, my siblings and I were whiny, leaned on Mom & Dad regularly, asked if we could go to coffee and donuts every 5 minutes, and tried to crush one another with a death grip during the Our Father (back in the good, old, hand-holding days of 1986!!). What's a parent to do?

First of all, take time to discern if your child even understands the basics of the liturgy. Can they identify and articulate the Liturgy of the Word versus the Liturgy of the Eucharist? Do they have memorized most of the prayers/responses? Can they follow along with longer prayers using the missalette? Few of these are articulated with regularity in the curricula most of your schools or religious education programs are using. This isn't bad, but we must remember that religion classes are meant to support and supplement the spirituality of the child as lived in the home and at church. Your child may learn every 2 or 3 years about the different parts of the Mass or have some of these prayers (Gloria, Nicene Creed, Our Father, etc.) touched on in various lessons, but they often don't take time to explore the meaning.

Regular Mass attendance (minimum of each Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation) are the only way for children to grasp and retain the ebbs and flows of the Mass. On a recent Sunday evening, my 8 year-old niece asked if we were "almost done" while praying after Communion. Due to custody issues, she is only able to attend Mass about twice/month but I thought, by now, she surely knew enough that after Communion we only had one more prayer and hymn to go. Guess not. You may think your children know what's going on and what to expect, but perhaps they do not.

Which parts of the Mass does each child most like? My niece enjoys any time we are singing and, up until now, very much enjoyed getting to go up with the children to put her envelope in the basket for the children's collection. (Aunt side note: apparently, age 8 and 4 months makes one too told to go up with the other kids and also too grown up for children's tithing envelopes.) She used to look forward to getting her blessing, but excitement waned this last year or two. She kept saying, "when can I get that?" and expressed an eagerness to receive our Lord's Body and Blood. Now, she looks forward to receiving the Eucharist instead of a blessing.

Find out what he/she most enjoys  about Mass and help them find anticipation for those areas. Maybe they most enjoy visiting with school friends after Mass or high-fiving the summer seminarian, but it doesn't matter. Each little thing is worth it. Help them find value in the meaningful experiences at Mass. They will build as you continue working with them.

In the weeks and months before receiving First Communion, remind your child that he/she should be doing their best to show spiritual readiness. This can be done in a variety of ways, but active participation is key. Also, they can begin to grasp this concept of liturgy as the "work of the people". Try to help your child see what work he/she is called to (singing, praying, listening, etc.) to be a full part of Mass and be ready to receive Holy Communion.

Does your child have older siblings on the altar? Remind him/her that participating in the Mass shows you that they are ready for duties that may be available to them soon such as altar serving, children's choirs, etc. If not, do you participate in a ministry they can help with? If you are an usher, see if your parish will allow your child to seat people and pass out bulletins with you. Do you serve as sacristan? Have your child with you, helping, so he/she can see the important steps that go into preparing for Mass. Sometimes, our youngest children see these ministries as "prizes" of becoming older. While helping them to see and know that Mass is always of value whether or not he/she is old enough to receive the Eucharist or old enough to participate in a ministry, I don't think it's bad or wrong to help them set long-term goals of serving in a ministry and reminding them how current attentiveness and participation prepares them for these duties.

After having a great experience with my Pre-K and K Totus Tuus students last week, I was reminded how much our youngest can get out of Mass when given proper tools. Though we didn't attend Mass, we talked a lot about the Luminous Mysteries and spent time exploring how to keep holy the Sabbath. We need to continue to this practice of offering practical, simple, spiritual tools at all ages. I was at Mass this weekend with a relative (raised Catholic) who has been struggling with our faith. He asked me the point of all these prayers, rituals, incense and sequences (this was the Feast of Corpus Christi) that he had never been taught to understand. It saddened me and reminded me how lucky I am to have explored the Mass and other parts of my spiritual life on my own. He is trying to have the faith of a child but he has the cynicism of an adult.

The best thing we can do is help our child explore his/her spiritual life as early as possible. Helping him/her build a relationship with Christ through prayer, the Mass, and Sacraments as early as possible lessens the likelihood of leaving later. That doesn't mean he/she won't have challenges. It doesn't mean he/she won't leave. However, we need to give our youngest the spiritual tools to fight those battles within when those cynical moments arise. I'll have more on that when I address Mass attendance with tweens and teens in my next post.

In the meantime, what specific challenges do you face with children of this age at Mass? Let's dialogue and help one another find solutions. Pax!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Happy Birthday!

Whew! Pentecost is nearly here and I have been an absent blogger in recent weeks. I apologize, folks.

It's with good reason, though. I have been busy getting a Vacation Bible School program ready for a friend's parish and busy job interviewing (please pray I get a position as a campus minister at a local Catholic high school). Next week I head to Indianapolis for a week to teach a Pre-K and Kindergarten program I wrote to accompany Totus Tuus. As you may have read from my earlier post, Totus Tuus is my favorite, Catholic VBS program (though they prefer to call it a camp). The only, minor downside, is that it is for grades 1st and up. Many parishes like to cater VBS to the younger set. I have had success in the past using the daily themes to write my own companion curriculum which allows the little ones to attend too. I make it clear that this is my program and is not endorsed by Totus Tuus. It's had great response in the past and, hopefully, will this time too. I am super stoked that my best friend's awesome daughters will be in this class. Her oldest will be in the 4th grade class and her toddler will be doing his best to eat the crayons and supplies while his mom assists me. I cannot wait! If you are interested, please use this blog to contact me so we can get something ready for next year for your parish. And you don't have to bring me in- I'll send you complete lesson plans and materials for a nominal donation towards my ministry.

That said, I have been working hard to bring you a Pentecost/birthday gift: another FREE SAMPLE of my Liturgical Reflections curriculum. There are 3 different .pdfs which you can access by clicking on the level you desire. Level I (marked by 1 diamond) is for the 3-6 year-old mentality, Level II is for the 6-9 mentality, and Level III is for the 9-12 year old set. I use the diamonds so those working with special needs students can give them an appropriate material that is not blazoned with "designed for ages 3-6" if they are 20 years of age. We want all of our children to feel grown up when using these. It also allows you to challenge your advanced student with something better suited to their needs.

It is my preference and desire that these reflections be used before or after Mass and not during. That said, I understand how useful it can be to have something to give your more "active" child during a long homily and respect your parental choice to use these reflections in ways best suited to your needs. Also, please note that I used the Sunday readings and not the Vigil ones. If you attend Mass Saturday evening, you may have different readings.

I really hope you enjoy this Pentecost gift. I am so eager to share it with you! All the images are stock images and I do everything via MS Publisher. It's very labor intensive to get a good layout and find proper images to meet my needs. I would love to find a Catholic, graphic designer to collaborate with as  I write 3 year's worth of these reflections for use at home, school, and/or religious education. If you know someone, please encourage them to contact me through this blog.

Each bulletin is 4 pages long. Since they are on 8 1/2 x 11, you should be able to easily print them on your home computer and staple them together for each child. Once I get an artist and funding for a better computer and printer, I'll get them printed on 11 x 17 folded into a handy bulletin for easy distribution.

Please pass this link onto your Catholic friends and family. Share it with your pastor, DRE, or theology teacher. Most importantly, print to use with your own children and provide me with feedback in the comment section. Share the Pentecost joy with everyone you meet! My goal? 500 views by Sunday morning. Do you think we can do it? As Bob the Builder would say, "Yes, we can!"

Veni, Sancte Spiritus!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Vacation Bible School- what to do?

It's that time of year again. School is nearly out and summer lessons, programs, and activities are starting, including Vacation Bible School. This post was inspired after reading about some concerns on a Catholic Moms group FB page. The moms were debating about whether you could/should send your children to VBS at non Catholic parishes so they can attend with their friends. This post will discuss ideal Catholic curricula for VBS as well as what you should do if your child is invited to VBS at a non-Catholic parish.

Sending your child to VBS at a non-Catholic parish can be very risky. I would highly advise against it, but I can appreciate a desire to join in if all your child's friends are attending and/or there isn't a Catholic program in your area. If you are considering sending your child to a program at a non-Catholic parish,  here's what I would advise:

  • Ask your parish priest if this congregation has ever shown negativity or hostility towards Catholics and/or if he has other concerns about your child attending this program. Take his advice seriously! 
  • Call the program director and ask if the program will be negative towards children not of the faith and/or if children will be pressured into following that parish's denomination
  • Ask the name of the curriculum and preview it online to determine if you are comfortable with it and/or if it contains anything you wouldn't want your child hearing.
  • Have a "process" time each day. Ask your child what he/she learned. Add to it what Catholics believe and/or clarify as needed. 
If your reason for considering VBS at a Protestant church is because your parish doesn't have VBS, talk to your pastor and other parents. With ingenuity and some luck, you can get something started so this doesn't become an ongoing issue. But how do you start a Vacation Bible School if your parish has never had it? Isn't this a ridiculous amount of work? Possibly, but it depends how you go about it!

If money is tight and you aren't sure if there is interest, start small. Most catechists and religion teachers didn't get to finish the last 1-3 chapters of their textbooks. Have VBS for 2 hours/day and use that curriculum with the guidance of your DRE/CRE. Be sure to incorporate time for group prayer, songs, crafts, and games. See if the  priest can have Mass with the kids. If not, perhaps you can have a lay-led Communion service (get your pastor's guidance on how this is done). "Google" the lessons of the day and many Catholic parenting and catechist sites will give you great ideas for thematic crafts and games to help teach that concept. If you don't need to buy a program, you can charge a small amount ($5-10/child) to defray costs and supplement your parish's catechesis budget. 

If your parish can afford it, it is a wonderful option to have a Catholic program, but even here you have to be careful. Have you seen the theme being offered by the local Protestant churches? Several major, Catholic publishing companies buy the rights to these programs, "fix" them so they are Catholic, and rebrand them. I've used many of these programs. I don't want to bash their publishers, but you can easily figure out who it is by googling the VBS theme to see if other publishers use it. Chances are if every craft store in town has materials for this "theme", it'a  rebranded product. I have typically found these programs to be light in content with little to no Catholic identity. They aren't bad and the great thing is you can often share sets and props with your Protestant neighbors. However, I find it less than ideal.

There are two Catholic programs I am very fond of. The first is I have seen this program used at my home parish and I also purchased it for use at the parish where I once worked. The kits are easy to follow and have everything you need to offer an excellent VBS experience with a true Catholic identity. My one complaint is that it still uses some of the gimmicky things to teach the faith such as talking animals and songs the kids won't hear again outside of VBS. Those are the only drawbacks  I see and it's an outstanding program in so many ways. Don't let my personal preferences get in the way of an excellent ministry resource! The blogger over at Catholic Icing reviewed Growing With the Saints and other Catholic products. I haven't used the other programs she discusses, but they sound worth checking out too. 

So, I am not a fan of things that use gimmicks, puppets, cartoons, etc. to teach the faith. That doesn't mean there aren't solid materials, like the ones mentioned above but as a catechist in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I know we can do better. Children do an excellent job when handed the sacraments and the truth in all their seriousness, beauty, and solemnity. This is why Totus Tuus is my hands-down, favorite, Catholic, summer program. Totus Tuus was started in Wichita and is taking Catholic dioceses by storm! If your parish is in Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, or many other diocese throughout the country, chances are you have access to Totus Tuus. If not, contact the Wichita location and ask how you can get it. Hopefully their national directory of dioceses will be up soon! 

The best thing about Totus Tuus is that the team (4 adults- 3 college students and 1 seminarian) bring all the materials to you. There is no planning or organizing the curriculum. The parish's sole duties are to house and feed 4 individuals (2 men, 2 women) for a week. This is very easy as many people in your parish have guest rooms and/or love to cook. The fee you charge families goes solely to cover the cost of "hiring" the Totus Tuus team for the week. The best part is, you know you are getting a totally, Orthodox program with trained catechists. Sometimes well-meaning individuals sign up to help with VBS but aren't great at teaching or understanding the faith. This saves you that hassle since these individuals are trained for a week before they come to your parish. They know and live their faith inside and out and don't use gimmicks: they use the Mass, Adoration, and Reconciliation to teach your children. Their programming is also for grades 1-12 which is an added bonus.

Starting in 1st grade is the only downfall I've encountered with Totus Tuus. As a result, I have prepared a supplemental curriculum (not with the approval of Totus Tuus, though they freely give me their curriculum outline so I can plan) for grades pre-K and K to use at parishes where I have worked and helped. This take some serious effort, but is worth it to get the whole family there together. The Totus Tuus teams I have worked with have been very responsive to this. If you're interested, contact me through my blog and I can help your parish supplement the Totus Tuus curriculum if you want to include your younger parishioners. 

The final option, and one I have yet to try is simply offering extended atrium times in the summer for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. If your parish has CGS, you know that an ideal atrium session is 2-3 hours. You also know there are presentations you would like to do every year but don't always get to. The children often yearn for more atrium time. Why not take advantage of the summer months to do this? It's also a great way to have a "beginner" class and expose new families to CGS who may be in doubt. You can charge a small fee or take donations to help repair or make new materials for the coming year. 

I hope these VBS ideas help. I know it's too late to implement many of them for this year but it's never too soon to start looking ahead to next year. God bless and thanks for reading! 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Catholics with (Dis)abilities and Special Needs

So many Catholics  are differently-abled. Conditions such as an autism spectrum disorder, Down's Syndrome, or a developmental delay can drastically impact how your child understands his/her faith and when he/she is ready for catechesis, sacraments, etc. This blog post is largely taken from an email to a high school friend whose son has Angelman Syndrome. She was struggling with a pastor who didn't feel her child needed the sacraments and wanted him to stop receiving the Eucharist even though he had gone through special needs catechesis and had received First Communion months before moving to that parish.

The key things I think parents of a child with a disability (particularly one that impacts his/her mental capacity) should consider:

  • Your child has a right to catechesis. Work with your pastor, diocesan employees, religious educators, and/or others until you find a method for catechizing that works for your child's needs and abilities. If you send your child to school, you should send your child to religious education in some fashion.
  • Be patient. Not all 7 year-olds are ready for First Communion and a disability might mean your child needs more time to prepare. Whether 7, 27, or 77- as soon as someone shows an understanding of the Eucharist- he/she should be able to receive.
  • Ongoing catechesis is the best way (and only way, in my opinion) to determine if your child will ever be ready to receive Eucharist (and perhaps Confirmation and/or Reconciliation too).
  • Expose your child to the faith daily through: prayer, music, rosary, Mass attendance, etc. God can cut through all barriers and the more you give God to your child the more God will give back in abundance to your family. 
  • If your child lives in a group home or care facility, work with care providers to ensure the Catholic faith is encouraged/practiced. The same goes for during hospital stays (chaplains are your best friends!). 
  • Daily Masses are often shorter and without music. If your child struggles to get through Sunday Mass, take him/her to a daily Mass. The quieter, shorter, and simpler environment might be better for him/her until they are ready to handle a Sunday Mass. 
  • PRAY! Ask God to help your child grow in faith and stay close to the Church. 
  • Trust the Holy Spirit. Your child received the gift of Understanding at baptism. The Holy Spirit will help your child demonstrate his/her understanding of the Eucharist at the right time in the right way. This requires immense patience, but chances are, if you have a child with a disability you have a doctoral degree in patience by now! 
  • The rituals and repetitiveness of the Catholic rituals (think Mass, Liturgical Calendar, rosary, novenas, etc.) can be therapeutic tools for those who strive on structure and order.
  • Look at yourself first. Do you, your spouse, and the child's siblings show reverence for the sacraments, discuss the Catholic faith with respect, and/or live out your faith at home? Your child is absorbing everything around him/her even if he/she cannot communicate that back to you. You need to be that much more conscientious if your child has a disability so he/she can absorb that desire to partake in the Sacramental Life of the Church. 
We know so much more about the human mind and disabilities than we did decades ago. We treat those with different mental capacities with much more human dignity, but there is still a long way to go in our political, social, and educational systems. I'm sure every parent of a child with a disability would agree. The same goes for our spiritual systems- our churches.

There are many excellent resources for Catholic parents who have a child with a disability- mental and/or physical- since the disability will almost inevitably lead to a difference in how that child is catechized. This is no different than an IEP or other school accommodations. It's a simple, basic fact. Loss of sight or hearing are probably the easiest to compensate for. When you get into diagnoses like autism spectrum disorders, Down's Syndrome, brain injury, stroke, developmental delay, and other disabilities, things get trickier. 

Here are some resources I've used:

The Xavier Society for the Blind offers excellent resources- many free- for those who need Braille and/or books-on-CD materials. I am not sure if their on-CD materials can be borrowed for sighted individuals who cannot read, but it would be worth inquiring about.

SPRED or Special Religious Education Development is the longest-standing form of catechesis for those with developmental and/or mental disabilities that I am aware of. It was started in Chicago about 30 years ago or so and can be found all over the world. At least in Chicago, the way SPRED works is that they do not have SPRED at each parish. Rather, the goal is to offer each level of SPRED (ages 6-10, 11-17, 18-21, 21+) at parishes in each area of the diocese. The difficulty with SPRED is you have to offer at least one level at your parish in order for your child to receive the other levels at other parishes. For instance, per the rules, since we offered the 6-10 program at the parish where I once worked, my parishioners were eligible for the older age programs at neighboring parishes. If your parish didn't offer SPRED, you needed to enroll in a parish that offered at least one level of it. So, unless/until your parish opens a SPRED center, your children wouldn't be eligible.

A friend of a friend designed a wonderful program at her parish called the Children of St. Angela Merici. I really like the Angela Merici program since it t isn't bound by the same policies as SPRED. The SPRED policies aren't bad- since they don't publish the curriculum and parishes have to pay the Archdiocese for use of the curriculum, they don't want it abused. It's just a factor that makes it trickier. Also, the woman who designed Angela Merici based it off of what she knew about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Myself and many CGS catechists use CGS to help our special needs students. Less reading combined with a very hands-on approach can make it a great tool for special needs parishioners.

Loyola Press does an amazing job with sacramental prep and I am VERY eager to see their upcoming adaptive curriculum for children with disabilities. These curricula are all-inclusive and have everything you need. Parents and/or parishioners could order them and use them in the home or outside of formalized parish programs. They are particularly designed for use with the non-verbal child and my catechists and I have found great success with them! 

A great, national resource for parents is the the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. Their site is full of terrific information. Locally, you should contact your diocese to learn who their rep or department is for special needs Catholics. Most dioceses I am familiar with have some staff dedicated to this important need. 
Most importantly, you need to know what ways your child best takes in information as well as which ways (if any) the child shows comprehension of that information.That will dictate the most ideal method(s) of catechetical instruction. I have often developed an individualized program for special needs students.

So, what does all this have to do with sacramental prep, particularly Eucharist? How the child  relays comprehension is where things get complicated. Priests, deacons, and/or Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are advised to use their discretion and shouldn't deny someone communion unless they believe there is serious reason to do so. If/when anyone denies a special needs individual communion, please know they are doing so to protect themselves. Just as they wouldn't wish to give communion to someone in a known state of mortal sin, they don't wish to give someone communion if they don't believe the person knows what/who they are receiving. Don't hold it against anyone, though I recognize how extremely painful, isolating, and discouraging this can be. Try to gently approach them after Mass and advocate by explaining how/why that person is prepared. Let them know there are no hard feelings!

The NCPD has an excellent article on sacraments and individuals with disabilities. In my opinion, this paragraph is of utmost importance:

Parents, those who take the place of parents, and pastors are to see to it that children who have reached the use of reason are correctly prepared and are nourished by the Eucharist as early as possible. Pastors are to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom they judge are not sufficiently disposed (Canon 914). It is important to note, however, that the criterion for reception of holy communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally. Pastors are encouraged to consult with parents, those who take the place of parents, diocesan personnel involved with disability issues, psychologists, religious educators, and other experts in making their judgment. If it is determined that a parishioner who is disabled is not ready to receive the sacrament, great care is to be taken in explaining the reasons for this decision. Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament. The existence of a disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from receiving the Eucharist. 

In my special needs work, understanding of the Eucharist has been demonstrated by those with severe disabilities and/or communication struggles by:

  • using nonverbal indicators to show comprehension of catechesis
  • seeing cues of greater reverence when in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament
  • showing improved health and/or calmness after reception of Holy Communion
  • using communication devices to better articulate understanding

Special needs parishioners don't just need catechesis and sacraments. They need to be active, engaged parishioners.
This is a lovely story about a relative of mine. I think it shows how much someone who is differently-abled can contribute to a parish community. 

Most importantly, pastors, youth ministers, DREs, and others need to do their best to be open to creative solutions:

  • Allowing for a companion to help someone maneuver around the altar and/or complete their ministerial duties.
  • Allowing someone to lector or cantor from someplace other than the ambo if it is not handicap accessible. 
  • Allowing a child or person with a cognitive disability to receive Communion and Confirmation (once properly catechized) even if he/she cannot receive Reconciliation (often due to inability to communicate or inability to understand right from wrong).
  • Providing a stool or adjustable chair for someone who cannot stand at the ambo to proclaim the Word.
  • Bringing a ciborium or chalice down to a parishioner who cannot, physically, climb the altar but wishes to be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.
  • Improving sound systems and/or having special devices for those with hearing disabilities.
  • Translating documents, forms, etc. into Braille when needed. (There may be volunteers in your community who can do this.)
  • Offering sign language interpretation when needed. (There may be volunteers in your community who can do this.)
  • Providing large print and/or Braille materials. (Side note: I once had trouble finding a large print copy of a novena to St. Lucy. The novena I liked wasn't published in large print. This meant I had to use a copier to blow up a copy of a novena for two parishioners loosing their eye sight. #epicCatholicfail
  • Providing transportation for those who cannot drive to Mass, parish events, etc.
  • Installing a ramp when building a new church or redoing an altar.
  • Making sure all parish meetings/events take place in the handicapped accessible parts of your campus.
  • Permitting parents to accompany someone to a youth group or asking a teen to befriend an individual (say on the autism spectrum) so he/she can enjoy the benefits of youth programming.
  • Ensuring staff are trained to administer treatments such as Epi pens, insulin shots, etc. if someone in a their ministry may require this. 
  • Learning about gluten-free hosts and developing a plan for their use to accommodate parishioners with dietary needs. 
  • Having members of K of C, CRHP, or other parish groups "sponsor" a special needs individual who wishes to join the group but may need someone to occasionally simplify themes being discussed, etc.
  • Using catechetical and prayer materials designed for children if this better matches the cognitive understanding of an adult who has a disability.
  • Working with neighboring parishes to build ministries for those with disabilities (both physical and intellectual), particularly if your parish is small.
  • Having special needs religious formation, in some capacity, for parishioners who need it.
  • Providing spiritual formation for adults who do not have the intellectual abilities of their peers but  need a safe, fun place to go to grow in their knowledge of Catholicism, discuss their faith, etc.
  • Offering a small or private First Communion Mass to someone who may struggle at a regular, busy, loud parish Mass.
  • Making sure service dogs are permitted in the choir loft, on the altar, etc. as needed so the person needing the dog can minister.
  • Asking your special needs parishioners and/or their caretakers how you can better involve them in the life of the parish.
I hope this helps and sparks interesting dialogue in your parish about including special needs parishioners in the life of the Church. Please email at if I can help you advocate for a special needs parishioners, develop a curriculum, and/or provide guidance on how to help a parishioner with a particular special need. 

What tools have you used to help Catholics with special needs? What other tips do priest and parish staff need?