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? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Roles of Pastors, DREs, and Others

Pastors, DREs, deacons, catechists, teachers, and others definitely have a role in helping raise your child in the faith, but they are not to be the primary educator. How can they back parents and support them in their catechetical role? Would it surprise you to hear that many of the things they do, inadvertently, take away from the child's faith experience and formation rather than enhance it? Let's discuss...

How many of you belong to parishes that offer Children's Liturgy of the Word? These are programs that remove the children from the Mass- typically from the beginning of the homily until the Offeratory or so. They are typically taken to a location where they can discuss the scriptures or do activities relating to the readings. In theory, this sounds great: let's keep the kids from squirming during the homily, let's help them understand what's happening, and let's give their parents a break. This seems wonderful, doesn't it?Unfortunately, here's what often happens: kids don't learn to sit through Mass and are more antsy on weeks they do not have this opportunity. They also learn that whatever parts of the Mass they miss are non-essential and/or not for them. This attitude can only serve to harm them, spiritually, as they grow. Additionally, children are not as engaged as the grow older (and outgrow CLOW) because they have learned this part of Mass is boring and not for young people.

Pastors, we need to review our nurseries/cry rooms for this same reason. We need programs to help parents sit with their kids through the Mass. It can be done and done well if parents, pastors, and parish staff work together to come up with creative solutions. Kids look at the cry room as a reward for fussing during Mass. They need to be encouraged and invited to stay and participate in the Liturgy. If you have a cry room, it should have seats and nothing else- no toys, books, or other distractions. What about an adopt-a-grandparent program? Your parishes are full of elderly widows who have snuggled dozens of children and grandchildren over the years. Invite them to meet up with families with 2, 3, or more little ones to help them sit through the Mass. Often, parents could keep little ones situated if they just had one or two extra sets of hands. Or what about using this as a service hour opportunity for your teens?

My other major pet peeve is RE classes on Sunday morning. Whether it's during Mass times or sandwiched between Mass times, it typically creates a problem. During Mass times, we are telling parents to get rid of their kids and implying that class is more important than Mass attendance. Oh, we say this isn't the case. We tell the parents we expect them to attend Mass at a different time, but we know the majority aren't doing this. Why even make this a possibility? If you must have Sunday religious education (tight facility scheduling is often the reasoning as well as it being the only day students are free), do it in the late afternoons or evenings, separate from Mass times. This might seem like an inconvenience, but at some point we have to gently and lovingly guide parents to make RE a priority over other activities of the week.

I once worked at a parish where RE classes were sandwiched between 9 and 11 AM Masses. What a disaster! There was constant pressure to finish Mass in 55 minutes to get the students to class. Catechists who attended 9 AM Mass had no set up time and were rushing in the room at the same time as the kids. Many left after communion because Mass often ran a tad over an hour. We had 60 minutes for class, but catechists were lucky to get 40 minutes of teaching time. Around 10:15 you could finally start. We dismissed at 11 which meant those who attended the later Mass were forever wandering in late. It was awful for everyone: students & catechists, parents, etc. The worst part was the disruptions from the constant stream of kids and catechists coming in late for the 11 AM Mass. Please, please, please offer classes during the afternoons/evenings of the week and avoid the temptation to fall into the Sunday morning "convenience" routine.

Curriculum choice is an enormous struggle. I won't lambaste specific publishers here, but there are a number of curriculum that I won't touch with a 10-foot pole. They are either watered down, overly simplistic, teach to the head and not the heart, or are just poorly written. Let me list some of my favorite resources here:

  • Catechesis of the Good Shepherd does a terrific job at spiritually reaching the kids where they are at. Love their program and cannot promote it enough.
  • While I haven't used it yet, I am very intrigued by Our Sunday Visitor's Alive in Christ and think it could be an amazing program. I was planning to adapt it at my last parish after it had been out a year or two. I continue to hear wonderful things about it.
  • There are too many to list here, but St. Mary's Press and Ascension Press have some amazing books, resources, and supplements I cannot live without. 
  • Ignatius Press puts out a great curriculum which is very solid.
  • I am smitten with the work of Matthew Kelly and the Dynamic Catholic Institute. I write my own sacramental prep curricula, but I think his could prove to be outstanding. I am eager to preview their Confirmation and other prep programs as they are released. 

I see the role of the pastors, DREs, and others to truly discern what parents need and support them.  They need to pray on, discern, and explore long-term implications of the programs they offer. If programs look convenient but will not be best for the spiritual needs of the kids, the pastor and DRE need the backbone (and support) to make tough decisions such as eliminating programs, changing times, etc. These changes needn't happen overnight, but if your community works together and doesn't always resort to the easiest solution, real spiritual benefits can happen for families and change can start in the hearts of your youngest parishioners.

Pastors and parish staff also need to catechize parents, particularly from the period of baptism through First Communion. Parents need tools, ideas, help and resources to raise their children in the faith. They need the parish to reach out to them after baptismal prep and prior to enrolling in 1st grade for school/RE. They need to support parents in attending parish programs by offering child care during formation opportunities as often as possible. More parents would come if it were offered as a "night out" opportunity with wine, snacks, and free baby sitting!

Well formed parents are well formed primary catechists. Well formed primary catechists will help your parish make changes that keep the family together for Masses and make Mass the #1 priority of the week. Don't make sudden changes your parish isn't ready for. Improve adult education about the Mass and gently lead parents to see Children's Liturgy of the Word as nonessential. Build programs that allow older widows in the parish to sit with the parents of six kids to help hold babies and soothe cranky toddlers. The need for nurseries will diminish as families experience the joy of peacefully worshiping together. Find RE options that make Sunday morning RE unnecessary.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Helping others follow the Good Shepherd

Hopefully, by now, my readers know that I am not against talking during Mass. Sometimes it is essential to help kids understand what is happening. Unfortunately, I have become so cranky, particular, and caught up in myself that in my "old" age, I am not so understanding of adults talking during Mass. I'm also very anal retentive about what style music is sung during Mass and several other minute factors.  God is really challenging me with this lately and for that I am grateful. This is not so much about being a child's "first catechist" but how we are all called to catechize those who need it, regardless of age.

On Good Friday, I had got to church early and was sitting with close friends. Two women behind me kept whispering. Loudly. Over the prelude hymn. It continued, occasionally, during the Lord's Passion. I was frustrated and annoyed. I would, occasionally, glance over my shoulder hoping they would get the hint and shush. It wasn't until we neared the veneration of the cross that I made out enough of their conversation to understand what was happening behind me. The women weren't Catholic (or at least not currently practicing). They were flipping through the missalette and trying to figure out what things like "veneration of the cross" meant. Sheesh. I felt like a heel. Since we had to leave in silence, I didn't get to apologize for being so rude to them. I made sure to give a friendly smile, though, when I caught the eye of one of them.

My brother is struggling with returning to the Church right now. While I won't go into his private journey here, I will say that he asks lots of amazing questions about faith, scripture, and Catholicism. Fortunately, my mom (a high school theology teacher) and I usually have answers or know where to direct him. That's all you need to know to understand what happened today.

As a catechist in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I am always eager for Good Shepherd Sunday. As I sat down in the pew, I told my niece that these were my favorite readings of the year. I was as giddy as a school girl and couldn't wait for the readings and homily. My brother and his girlfriend arrived just as Mass was beginning and I ended up seated next to my brother. Even though he comes to Mass with some regularity, I haven't sat next to him recently.

During the second reading, he had questions about Peter: when was he born? when did he die? was he Jesus' contemporary? etc. They were excellent questions and important. I patiently answered them. I tried to get refocused for the gospel, but he had more questions. "Is this a parable?" When I explained it came from the Last Supper discourse, "why are we reading a Last Supper story after Easter?" During the homily, Fr. mentioned John, the Beloved Disciple. "Was that John the Baptist?" "What do you mean he died before Jesus? How?" "That book Fr. is recommending (on Marian consecration) sounds good. I need a tool like that."

I know I sighed a few times, but always with a smile. We were talking, a lot, and probably annoying people around us even though we tried to whisper. But it was SO GOOD. And fruitful. I love that my brother cares so much about Mass, scripture, and his faith, even if he is a little lost right now. Spiritually, my brother is like a skeptical, young child, trying to understand his faith. I need to honor this with the same patience and compassion as I would a child. I wouldn't have been at all annoyed if my niece was asking these questions. And I heard enough of the homily to know Father was talking about using Mary to learn how to follow the Good Shepherd. My brother might need to go through my mom and I to get to Mary right now while he sorts out his feelings/beliefs. And that's a good thing because any journey in the direction of Christ is an outstanding journey!!

The talking didn't stop after the homily. During communion, they announced we would sing that Glory and Praise classic: Gift of Finest Wheat. My brother leans over and whispers, "I've always liked this song. It's a good one, isn't it?" I smiled and nodded. Inside, I was cringing. As I listened to my brother sing along, I realize how great it was that we had music at our parish that feeds him, even if it doesn't feed me. I'd prefer some nice chant, but I am SO GLAD that we attend a Mass where we can both be fed, especially while he isn't being fed by the Eucharist.

 At Communion ("ARGH. I'm trying to focus on the Eucharist right now!), my brother asked if he could go to a different communion line so my mom could give my niece (who just made First Communion two weeks ago) the Eucharist. Non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics cross their arms over their chest to get a blessing from the priest/deacons at our parish. If you are in a line with an EMHC, he/she places a hand on your shoulder and says, "Receive Jesus in your heart." After Mass, I heard my brother thank my mom for praying with him. I can only imagine that theirs was more intimate than just this simple phrase. I'm glad I didn't ignore him and encouraged him to go to Mom. I"m sure it made her Mother's Day.

If we are truly going to be stewards of the new evangelization, we need to be open to attending Mass with those like my brother and letting those like him sit and talk around us. My brother is not irreverent, rude, or disruptive at Mass. I mistook his behavior as disruptive at first because I was focused on what I wanted to think, hear and pray about. I wasn't focused on his needs. This is not my Mass. It is the congregation's Mass and I owe it to other members to help them get as much out of Mass as I am trying to. By stepping outside of myself, I can receive so many more gifts during Mass. Perhaps, one day, my brother will return to the Table of the Lord. In the meantime, it's terrific watching his journey.

So, I didn't hear the words of the Good Shepherd during Mass due to all the talking. But after Mass, I stopped to listen to the Good Shepherd in my heart. The Good Shepherd's message to me? "Be a catechist. Treasure these discussions with your brother. Be patient. Don't be annoyed. Help him, but let this journey be his own. These conversations and questions are more important than anything right now. How would you respond to a child in your atrium having these questions/doubts?" And my brother? He openly accepted two Lighthouse Catholic Media CDs I got for him after Mass. He's also due over here for dinner and drinks shortly. We promised to to continue the discussion. God is good.

Young children (3-6) and Mass attendance

As promised in my post about infants and toddlers during Mass, I'll continue to talk about ways you can help children of different ages engage during the Mass so you have less whining, trips to the cry room, and  climbing on the pews. I cannot guarantee I'll eliminate it completely, but with consistency, I am confident you will have better behaved little ones.

I actually think this is the most fun age to be with kids during Mass. There is so much to teach them and so many ways to engage them. I see so many parents with their children of this age sticking them in the pew with a bag of cheerios, a coloring book, and/or toys. My first piece of advice is: STOP! If you choose to allow anything, make sure it is Catholic in nature and make a plan for weaning off of it. For instance, start by only allowing it during the Liturgy of the Word (put away during the Offertory), then only allow it during the homily, and after 6 months- 1 year, tell them they may no longer bring anything to "do" during Mass.

First of all, try to find a Mass time that works well for your family schedule and doesn't interfere with meal/snack/nap times. Also, find a calming routine for the ride to Mass. It's likely you've spent the last hour feeding,diapering, and dressing little ones. There may have been yelling and tears by the kids and the parents.You need to use the walk/ride to Mass to get focused. You can play religious music in the car (preferably chant to quiet people down and get into that reflective mood), you can discuss what you're thankful for this week, you can practice learning prayers, and/or decide who you want to pray for when you get to church.

I highly recommend trying to get to Mass 10-15 minutes early when you're bringing little ones. This might seem ridiculous. If your children aren't behaving, why would you want to have more time at church with them? Here's why:

  • Upon arriving, visit the restrooms and make everyone TRY to go. This will cut down on/eliminate trips during Mass. 
  • Use the gathering space or narthex to say 'hi' to friends, visit, and ask any last minute questions not related to Mass. Remind your kids you will only answer questions about church once inside.
  • Let them wander a little. Take them to see a statue or stained glass window and discuss it. Pray in front of the tabernacle. Light a candle. Get the wiggles out, but in an appropriate way that gets them ready for Mass.
  • Find seats up front, preferably letting the children take turns choosing. Kids do better when they can see all the action and having a say in where they sit will help.
  • Assign jobs to your little ones: putting the kneeler up and down, passing out hymnals, and putting the envelope in the basket. Especially until they are only enough to receive the Eucharist, they need ways of feeling their presence is essential. These don't seem "religious" but it will help your child with paying attention to what is happening and when.
During the readings, let your children follow along and help them. I know some people are big on hearing the word of God proclaimed instead of reading it and I don't underestimate this importance. However, your children are going to be asking you "when is it over?" so being able to show them will help. They can learn patience this way. At this age, my niece used the missalette to anticipate her favorite part of Mass: the Alleluia. By age 5, she could find this word on the page and knew how many more readings until that song. Until they are old enough to follow orally and desire to do so, the missalette is a huge help! Plus, you're reinforcing reading skills! Be sure to do the same with ALL the prayers so your children can work on learning them. 

Depending on the context of the readings, you may wish to whisper a 1 or 2 sentence summary of the reading to your child at the end. It can be simple: This reading is about forgiving people. They just talked about listening to your mom and dad. Do the same during the homily. Your children will have more of a desire to sit still and behave if they can understand how this relates to them. If this isn't your forte, check out some samples of the curriculum I'm writing to help with this. I prefer this curriculum being used before Mass, but you may need to use it during until you get the hang of how to help the kids understand what's happening.

Don't be afraid to whisper narrative of other parts of the Mass to children. They will pay more attention if you are helping them understand what is happening and why. "Fr. is going to explain the readings now." "The bread and wine are coming up. They will become Jesus' Body and Blood." "The bread and wine are now Jesus in the Eucharist."

Find out how your church arranges for people to bring up the gifts. Usually, it involves checking with an usher or a sign up method of some sort. This morning, my niece asked to leave 10 minutes earlier than usual in hopes we could take up the gifts. We were too late, but she wasn't disappointed since she understands the system. I'm glad she was so eager to get to Mass and finds ways to make the experience more valuable to her.

A great way my parish engages kids is during the Offertory. Starting a few years ago, the ushers place several baskets around the foot of the altar. Baskets are still passed to the rest of the congregation. Children are encouraged to bring up their donations. (Our parish has awesome tithing envelopes the kids can get in the back of church. In addition or in place of gifts of treasure, kids write down their gifts of time/talent. More often than note, they publish 4-5 of these "gifts" in the bulletin the next week under a section labeled "Children's Stewardship". Each post is signed with first name and last initial. They are usually things such as: "Helped Mom with the dishes." "Read to my little brother." "Visited Grandma in the nursing home." My niece has felt like a celebrity each time she has been published over the years.) At Mass, I watch dozens of children race up around the altar with their envelopes, often holding the hands of their siblings to give their weekly contribution.  Again, this simple process helps the kids get more out of Mass and feel they are contributing.

If your parish permits, let your children come up to Communion with you for a blessing. Please take note of how your parish engages in this practice. Only priest and deacons can bless. At our parish, lay EMHC place a hand on the shoulder of individuals coming up with arms crossed. They do not bless, but rather pray aloud, "receive Jesus in your heart". Having your children come with you rather than sitting in the pew will help increase their desire for the Eucharist as they grow older.

The most important thing you can be doing throughout Mass is praying all prayers and responses and singing, even quietly. Your children need to see you participating to foster their own willingness to participate. It also teaches them (and reinforces for us) that the Mass is about offering ourselves back to God. We do that by praying fully and wholly with our hearts, minds, souls, voices, and bodies. Our gestures, attitude, and participation impact how our children  pray at Mass. Similarly, if you get int he car and complain about the length/content of homily, how the cantor was dressed, etc. your child will think there is nothing worthwhile at church and no point in attending.

After Mass, encourage the kids to talk with the priest and thank him. Visit with people you know (in the narthex or gathering space- not the sanctuary). Get to know someone new, especially if you sit by the same people each week. Building relationships with your church community will help the children want to go to be able to visit with their parish family. You want your children to equate Mass attendance with as many positive experiences as possible- not with the place where you go to not move or talk for an hour.

Lastly, parents need to look at the curriculum being used by their school and religious education programs. Does it help the children fall in love with Christ and the Eucharist? Does is help them understand the Mass (not just memorize what it includes)? Regular readers know that I am a huge advocate for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The reason is because it does all these things and more. As children get to know Christ, the Good Shepherd, they desire to be at Mass. It makes sense to them once they know the prayers and reasoning behind them. They know to look for certain gestures and prayers that are essential in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

I hope this helps all of you parents. Please post your other ideas for engaging your young children at Mass in the comments.

And, since I happened to complete this post today, let's add Happy Mother's Day to all mothers: natural, adopted, step, god. I add special prayers going out to mothers who have lost children through abortion, miscarriage, or dying young. No mom should ever have to bury a child and this day is tough for so many people.