INDIANAPOLIS — With summer nearly here, parents can be in a difficult situation in choosing a vacation Bible school. There are more than ever to choose from.
Most vacation Bible schools share a similar format: one week long, three hours per day, where children from 4 to 12 years old learn something of the faith through Scripture, music, crafts, skits, fun and snacks.
Themes change or rotate yearly. But parents now have many Catholic programs to choose from.
“There’s a big difference between a program that is permeated with the Catholic faith and one that has a Catholic overlay,” said Ken Ogorek, director of catechesis for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
William Keimig, director of the Association of Catechumenal Ministry in the United States and Canada, spelled it out.
“Protestant vacation Bible school is non-sacramental, and it’s a distinctly non-Catholic way of learning how to grow in virtue,” he said. “There’s never the bottom line that the Eucharist is going to make you holy.”
Keimig said they also ignore “the living witnesses following Jesus’ way that the Church put forth as models for us,” that is, the saints.
Together, those two omissions mean they “miss the entire point of the means to holiness that we understand as Catholic.”
A strongly Catholic vacation Bible study that Keimig points out is Kids for Jesus (K4J).
“We’re firmly based on Catholic teaching so the kids get a solid foundation,” said Kathleen Conklin, co-founder and national director of Catholic Kids Net and its character formation program, K4J.
Each day in many ways, children learn about prayer, the sacraments (Eucharist is stressed), their own vocation and mission, the Blessed Mother and virtues.
“This year, it’s the virtue of holy daring,” said Conklin, speaking of the “Surfin’ With the Holy Spirit” vacation Bible school theme.
The learning doesn’t have to end in a week because children get an activity pack to do all summer and can continue virtue formation in K4J clubs all year.
Conklin remembers one boy who met the vacation Bible school character Mr. Tabernacle, then told his mother that Jesus is in the box. His mother, who hadn’t been to church in years, went to investigate. Result? The whole family returned to the Church at Easter.
In Woodbury, Minn., Carrie Mathews has seen the effects on her 7- and 9-year-olds.
“If they feel things getting tough,” she said, “they call on the Holy Spirit with their little whistle to have holy daring to do things for Jesus, like inviting a neighbor to church, or someone to go to confession who hasn’t been in a while.”
Said Don Conklin, Kathleen’s husband, “We want the kids to see they can affect more than they realize.” He explained that for the K4J vacation Bible school service project last summer, the children across the country raised $15,000 for Helping Hands Medical Missions. This year, K4J will be raising money for the Sisters of Life.
Indianapolis’ Ogorek identifies Growing With the Saints as another program that has helped raise the bar for vacation Bible school material.
“It’s very Catholic because of the emphasis of the saints and the Catechism, and it incorporates the sacraments,” said Lisa Hendey, founder and webmaster of CatholicMom.com. “It’s nice to send a child to vacation Bible school and know they are going to be taught this and not come home and ask, ‘Mommy, am I saved?’”
Susan Lawson founded Growing With the Saints with her family, seeing it was high time to offer a program with the fullness of the faith.
“Can you imagine not telling people about the Eucharist?” she said. “This is an incredible time to evangelize, and these solid programs are part of John Paul’s call for the New Evangelization.”
Among their hit vacation Bible school programs is this year’s “Parachute With the Angels and St. Catherine Labouré” that brings together stories of saints and their virtues and angels with Scripture, sacraments and sacramentals like the Miraculous Medal.
Allison Gleich, vacation Bible school coordinator at St. Patrick’s in Fredericksburg, Va., and mother of four in this vacation Bible school program, even utilizes its segments throughout the year to teach her second-graders readying for first reconciliation and Communion.
Of the Catholic versions of original Protestant Vacation Bible School programs, Keimig finds Our Sunday Visitor’s “Rainforest Adventure,” which they partner with Augsburg Fortress, “a middle ground in terms of a level.” Our Sunday Visitor customized the Protestant version with Catholic language.
Heidi Busse, the vacation Bible school editor and a director of faith formation in several Minneapolis-area parishes, explained she tailored the program to include the communal call of the universal Church and incorporate the Eucharist, which is missing in a lot of other vacation Bible school programs.
“We don’t get God’s revelation just from the Bible but from Tradition,” she added. Hence, saints also model themes for each day.
11-Year-Old Boys Singing
A bonus comes if the message is delivered through a consistent illustrated character the kids have learned to trust.
“Kids learn to listen to that character and they have a relationship with that character, said Keimig. “K4J found a way to do it seamlessly, deliberately dovetailing them through their other materials.”
He also observes how “kids do sing the vacation Bible school songs a year later. We all know the value of fighting the music war wisely. Vacation Bible school is invaluable in getting the kids regularly engaged in Christian music.”
K4J has a strong music program.
Hendey loves the music of Cat.Chat, another Catholic vacation Bible school built from Gerald and Denise Montpetit’s popular audio shows. (Like some others, it comes with an action DVD to teach kids body actions accompanying songs.) Their vacation Bible school is “Cool Kingdom Party: Mary Leads Me Closer to Jesus.”
“The whole goal we emphasize is Mary points us to Jesus,” Denise explained. “The whole point of this vacation Bible school is teaching the kids the importance of saying Yes to God every day in our lives, and how Mary teaches us saying Yes to God. We emphasize how kids can do this every day, like listening to and obeying their parents with a joyful heart.”
As vacation Bible school director in two parishes — St. Therese in San Diego and St. Martin of Tours in La Mesa, Calif. — Lisa Zikert finds the Cat.Chat vacation Bible school well-mapped out with everything needed. Her husband, Randy, and their four children participate fully.
What’s more, “The music appeals to the child’s heart and the adult’s heart,” Lisa said. “It’s very catchy, and the kids love to sing it. Getting 11-year-old boys to sing a ‘Yes Lord’ song is not an easy thing, but they do with smiling faces instead of the shrugged shoulders.”
“Catholic vacation Bible schools are coming into their own,” said Keimig.
With quality like this, Ogorek added, “In the end it just seems easier and more sensible to use a vacation Bible school that is Catholic through and through.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.