OK, so “joys” is ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek… I am swamped in paperwork for the beginning of the year. I cannot WAIT to actually begin teaching. But as with any job, you spend a good percentage of your time chasing people, solving problems, getting information up-to-date and hearing many, many individual stories about why people can’t come to your meeting.
Seriously, the pastoral side of parish life is messy because people’s lives are messy. In our particular area, parents can be pushy and intent on getting their own way. A good principle I heard at the DRE training in Steubenville this summer is to be strict on paper, but more lenient in person. Often, making the right decisions with parents requires excellent intuition in sussing out who is trying to pull a fast one, and who genuinely has an insurmountable problem. Luckily my parish priest has a good nose for this…
Why do we take such a hard-line with parents and insist they come to meetings for sacramental preparation? Because the Church teaches they are the first and the best educators of their children in the Faith (see Familiaris Consortio). In that sense, it is more important that they receive formation than that their children do. Lots of parents think that we or the school form their children in the faith for them. Nope…that’s not how it works. If parents are not living their faith authentically, there’s little chance their kids will either.
The Holy Family - model for all families
At the weekend I realised how hidden and subtle the fruits of our catechetical work are. One of the families of the First Communion children I taught last year were at Mass on Sunday. (Hooray!) The children both received Communion, then their mum took them and her other children over to light some candles. It made my heart totally sing to see the little boy, however, go straight back to their pew right at the back of church, to pray. It was a tiny moment but it gave me joy.
Sometimes it can seem like we are just preparing children for the sacraments of initiation when we should be preparing them for a sacramental life. John Paul II wrote very strongly about this:
“sacramental life is impoverished and very soon turns into hollow ritualism if it is not based on serious knowledge of the meaning of the sacraments, and catechesis becomes intellectualised if it fails to come alive in the sacramental practice” CT 23
Both of these dangers are apparent in our parishes, but it’s the second one – catechesis failing to come alive in a sacramental life – that I see becoming a danger in many families. The seven-year-olds we have prepared this year for First Communion have a really strong grasp of things at this stage. In the last few classes, our programme covered heaven, hell, purgatory, Mary and the saints – and we keep recapping all the time on the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. These are children with no material needs and who between them travel round the globe each half-term. But I started noticing little remarks which expressed a real desire for something more: “I want to go to Heaven!” one girl said during one class, and another, as we were going into church one day: “I want to be holy!” Even if it was just for a moment, I could see it was a real desire in them. Today I chatted to another mum as her son came out of Confession and looked super-fervent as he went to kneel down and do his penance. “He takes it so seriously!” she commented. “When we were in Malta he wanted me to buy him all these statues and crucifixes.”
The sad reality is that every year families who attended Mass the whole year during sacramental preparation suddenly fall off the radar after the First Communion Mass. This is really sad for the children, whose sacramental life will have just begun then abruptly finished. The role of parents as first catechists is SO VITAL!! How they can ensure that their children’s sacramental life continues to grow? Here are some practical suggestions we encourage in the parish:
- Weekly Sunday Mass (OK, so less of a suggestion and more of a rule…)
- Regular Confession (monthly) – as a parish this is possible for children after school on Tuesdays, on Saturday mornings, and during Mass on Sundays
- Ongoing catechesis (at church, school and home)
- Adoration for children (on Fridays)
- Mass on Saturday mornings and during school holidays
- Visits to the Blessed Sacrament
- Family prayer at home, reading Scripture together, praying the Rosary
- Practice of charity – witness of service of others particularly the poor, forgiveness, generosity, cardinal virtues, value of work and order, etc.
- Talking about faith in everyday life
- Use of sacramentals at home, e.g. holy water, miraculous medal, relics
- Memorisation of prayers, Ten Commandments, key Bible verses, etc.
- Avoiding influences in family life which actively destroy the sacramental life (e.g. individualism such as TV in children’s bedrooms)