A number of Catholics have been developing new methods and programs to invite parents whose children are between baptism and first Holy Communion age deeper into the life of the Church.
Erin Murphy, a Catholic wife and mother of four children, told the Register that when she and her husband joined Sts. Peter and Paul in Loretto, Minnesota, five years ago, they had a 1- and 3-year-old in tow. When they saw a bulletin ad for the “Early Catholic Family Life” program, serving moms and dads with children from birth to 5 years old, Erin decided to give it a try. She discovered it was an opportunity to connect with other moms and grow in her own faith life, while helping their children meet Jesus in a real way. The program taught them to explore faith with their children in hands-on activities — playing with a child-size Mass kit or “baptizing” baby dolls. Then they would break away for an hour of faith formation and discussion with other parents.
“I think community was the biggest impact,” she said of her enjoyment of the program, noting they discussed concrete ideas on how to pray as a family, talk about Jesus with their small children and keep Sundays set aside for God and family time.
Going to Mass on Sunday also became more joyful for the Murphy family.
Joanne and Alan Foley started the “Early Catholic Family Life” program in 2000. It has since spread to 100 parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and to a number of other dioceses.
The Foleys told the Register they started the initiative to help Catholic parents connect with the parish and learn how to model and pass on the faith to their children.
“Children love this time. They look forward to coming each week,” Joanne told the Register.
The program consists of seven sessions. In the first part of the session, parents and their very young children engage in activities together that are geared to their age group and convey good Catholic catechesis. A play station helps children learn by pretending — for example, acting out with props the Mass, baptism rite, or the Nativity.
Every session involves learning about the different images and sacramentals for Catholic devotion on the “Faith Table.” Then the families join in “circle time,” where a teacher welcomes them, introduces the theme, and leads them in a song or a short group activity that is “fun, active and interesting.”
At the second half of the program, the children’s catechesis continues with a snack, reading stories about the faith, and other activities, while the parents break away to discuss among each other the life of faith and its role in their households.
“When they get together around a table, and you begin to ask very simple questions about their faith journey or how they learned to pray — when people respond to that question, it is just amazing to see the conversation that occurs,” Alan said. Both parents and children alike enjoy the experience.
Alan added that because these families form a bond together as a little community, they look forward to seeing each other at Mass every Sunday, which adds to the building up of the parish community.
Just 18% of parents with an infant will attend Mass weekly, according to research from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), even though Sunday Mass attendance is a precept of Church law. Another 35% will try to go at least once a month.
In order to encourage higher Mass attendance in this group, Rebeccah Pelle, who is a mother and a parish liturgist, has devised an amended curriculum for the “Children’s Liturgy of the Word” at Corpus Christi parish in Piedmont, California, to keep the needs of very young children and their parents in mind.
“For first-time parents, it starts to model for them ways to talk to your kids about the Bible, about Scripture, about prayer that they may not have thought about before or had any practice doing,” she said. The program helps parents embrace their role as the primary educators of their children in the faith, Pelle added, by showing them “how easy this conversation can go.”
After the opening Collect at Mass, infant to preschool-age children are dismissed with one parent — allowing the other to listen to the homily — for a welcoming song, reading of the Gospel from a children’s Bible, and discussion of simple, open-ended questions. After that, the children can go read more Bible stories or play with their parents over arts and crafts, before having their closing song and returning to the congregation as the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins.
Pelle started the program at her current parish because even as a “devoted, lifelong Catholic” with a master’s degree in divinity, she felt she needed some encouragement for Massgoing with noisy toddlers. Pelle said other parents have told her the program is a blessing, too.
“For the parents, it creates a less stressful Sunday morning,” she said. “They may not hear the homily every Sunday, but they get to engage with their kids and talk about Jesus, and that is something they may not have done staying at home or just sitting in the pews just hushing their child.”
Rediscovery of Faith
Lucas Pollice, a professor of theology and catechetics at the Denver-based Augustine Institute, told the Register that parishes have to take advantage of the opportunity to nourish parents’ “kernel of faith” and re-engage them if needed.
Pollice outlined that baptismal preparation needs to have evangelization in it, so they see “God inviting them into a relationship of love with him.”
“Parents are quasi-catechumens,” he said, and they should be instructed about why church attendance and commitment is key to ongoing faith.
Baptismal preparation needs to be presented as helping them be good parents, he added.
It also needs to awaken parents to their own baptismal calling to be Christ’s witnesses to the modern world; and the Church needs to be willing to help parents discover and live their call as the first evangelizers of their children, which St. John Paul II underscored was “irreplaceable.”
“The ministry of evangelization carried out by Christian parents is original and irreplaceable,” the Holy Father wrote in 1981 in Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World). “It assumes the characteristics typical of family life itself, which should be interwoven with love, simplicity, practicality and daily witness.”
He also explained in the 1979 apostolic exhortation Catechesis Tradendae (Catechesis in Our Time), “Family catechesis … precedes, accompanies and enriches all other forms of catechesis.”
Families that connect with other families through sacramental preparation need to be encouraged to carry on this apprenticeship in the Christian life, coming together as a Bible study or small discipleship group, in addition to Mass attendance, in order to nurture their faith.
“We have to start thinking very intentionally about this as a parish and use RCIA as a model for adult faith formation for these parents,” Pollice said.
Keeping Parents Engaged
St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, uses an outreach called “Parent Letters” (published by Our Sunday Visitor) — a series of seven letters addressed to the parent and child by name, sent out at different ages until a child is approximately preschool age, to encourage them to participate in sacraments and parish life.
Misty Jesse, the parish director of evangelization, said they believe the letters have effective components of family engagement.
Paul Canavese is director of The Pastoral Center in Alameda, California, which offers pastoral resources such as baptismal preparation materials and the follow-up resource “After the Plunge,” which allows a parish to stay in touch with parents throughout the year and provide support in family life — such as tips for a prayerful experience at Mass with children in tow — and also how to bring faith into the home with family rituals throughout the liturgical cycle, such as with the Advent wreath.
Canavese explained that the materials empower parents to be the primary educators of their children’s faith — and to start that process as early as possible.
He said, “We want to help parents learn how to talk about and teach the faith to their own kids.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a
Register staff reporter.