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.