The learning year has just begun, and faith formation programs are in full swing. The children have registered and are filing into the classroom. You are ready to go and enthusiastic. But what happens if your students aren’t so excited about missing soccer practice, their favorite TV show, or piano lessons to attend class? Nothing is worse than to be absolutely certain that some children in your class are not very keen on being there. How do I know? Simple, I ask the children on the first night of class.
If parents are present with us in the class, I sometimes ask moms and dads to close their eyes so that the children feel they can answer honestly. (I’m pretty sure they peek, though.) I then ask who would rather be somewhere else or doing something else besides coming to class. It is very disheartening to see even a single hand go up. But, I would rather know the truth on the first night; however, sad it may be, so that I can plan my year accordingly, and show up next class ready to change their minds.
I recognize, that as a catechist, I am competing with the world for each child’s attention. Sporting events, television shows, school functions, video games, the internet, texting, social circles, and fatigue, are all realistic factors that make demands on children’s time and energy. I generally do not feel overwhelmed with the competition, on the contrary. I feel spurred on by the challenge to reach every single child with the message of the Church – and it doesn’t involve just reading in class.
1. Invite your pastor to visit your class with his Mass kit. Children always find this activity so fascinating. The Mass kit, sometimes called a Mass travel kit, is a smaller portable version of everything a priest needs to celebrate the holy Mass. Children will begin to recognize the importance of sacramentals as well as the need for serving those away from a formal parish, not to mention, slowly taking one thing out of the case at a time appeals to a child’s natural tendency to be awed by the truth.
2. Ask your sacristan to give a step by step tour of how he or she prepares the altar and sacristy to celebrate holy Mass. This activity helps children to recognize the parts of the church, the importance of the altar, and the sacramentals used in the celebration of the Eucharist.
3. If your church has a cemetery, have a knowledgeable long-time member of the parish, give a tour of the cemetery to the children. Not only do the children see historical names and dates of those who worshiped in their church before them, but it is a good opportunity for your accompanying catechist or DRE to teach about reverence for the dead, how to behave in a cemetery, and the Communion of Saints. When the tour is completed, appropriate prayers may be prayed as a class on-site or back in the church, including the “Eternal Rest” prayer or the “Litany for the Dead.”
4. Have your pastor give a personal tour and talk in the church about how he prepares to celebrate the holy Mass. What vestments does he don and what do they mean? Does he say any special prayers? Are there specific tasks that he performs in the sacristy, on the altar, or in the church to prepare for his parishioners and the presence of our Lord? This helps children see the importance and reverence associated with the holy Mass, and the love the pastor has for his Bridegroom, the Church.
5. Provide special opportunities for community prayer as a CCD class or Faith Formation Program. For example, you could pray the Rosary as a group, with each child using an individual rosary and a catechist leading the bead placement. Invite a few children to read appropriate reflections on the Mysteries from the ambo. Similar activities can be done for litanies, novenas, and other devotions.
6. Lead a church tour. Give children the opportunity to explore, ask questions about and become familiar with the place that we call God’s House. As Catholics we are asked to spend a minimum of about 60 hours a year (weekly Mass and Holy Days of Obligation) in the church. It is important that children become as familiar with and as comfortable as possible in the place we hold in such reverence, so that they will feel needed and welcomed. Children need to feel a sense of ownership and belonging just as adults do. After all, each generation will attend Mass and worship our Lord, support the Church socially and financially, and be given the task of evangelizing and spreading the Good News, just like the generation before it. Every generation is important!
7. Arrange a Meet the Ministries Night. Help children see that there are many different people who work together in various ministries or groups to allow the church to serve the parish community in a very meaningful and real way. Kiddos can meet new people while they are introduced to groups that might encourage their participation – prayer groups, youth or family groups, Mass lectors, or choirs.
8. Highlight a Relic. If your church has a relic or is planning on hosting a relic, use it as an opportunity to teach about relics, saints, and reverence. It is also a wonderful chance to talk about mysteries and miracles, and how they have been an integral part of the Catholic faith both historically and in modern times. A short talk or presentation especially for children could be given by your pastor or the organization responsible for procuring the visitation of the relic such as the Knights of Columbus or other ministry. Children should be able to get fairly close to the relic, handling it under supervision, if possible.
9. Hold a yearly retreat for children. Retreats are completely spiritually oriented and are much shorter, and easier to plan and facilitate than a week long VBS type program. This single day-long program can focus on any of a number of topics: highlighting a liturgical feast, teaching children to pray, learning about the Blessed Mother or the Trinity, preparing to receive first Reconciliation or first Eucharist. I have held day-long retreats for my CCD classes for quite a few years, and they have been very well received, enjoyed, and quite memorable.
10. Invite children and their families to a Parish Mission. If your parish organizes a yearly Mission, you may approach your pastor to have the speaker address the families and children during one particular speaking block. The children and their families may be invited to sit in a specially designated or reserved area to help the speaker more easily address them – even if only for a few minutes of the planned program.
11. Encourage Mass attendance by arranging for individual families or children to bring up the offertory gifts during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist at different times throughout the learning year.
12. Invite children to attend the next Baptism in the church. This is very easily accomplished within class hours if you will have a child within the CCD program who will be preparing to join the church community within the learning year. With your Pastor’s support and cooperation, plan for the Baptism to be the teaching event for your regularly scheduled class time. As a simple format, he could easily explain a bit about the sacrament of Baptism to the children and then baptize the child. This could be followed by a simple celebration of cake and welcoming into the church in the hall or designated room. It is important for children to celebrate as a community and see the sacraments in action. Reading about matter and form in a book is a nice introduction, but nothing takes the place of witnessing the dispensing of sacraments in the flesh.
13. Arrange for the CCD Program or a specific class within the program to lead the Stations of the Cross devotion. In some parishes, ministry groups take turns leading the traditional Lenten devotion weekly in the church. Ask for your ministry to be involved also. Ask for child volunteers to read individual stations. This can be a very exciting and welcomed task for many kiddos. If you do not have many volunteers, just a few children may be used and assigned a few stations a piece or catechists may also participate. Ask your parish secretary for copies of the devotion that is used and provide children with copies of their assigned stations so that they may practice ahead of time. Have a catechist with them during the devotion in case children stumble over words, or need help determining when to start or pause in their reading.
14. Inform families when the next sacrament of matrimony will be celebrated in the church and invite them to attend with the rest of the parish community.
15. Invite your pastor to a Q & A Night. Many children, and some adults, are not aware of all the tasks that a priest, and specifically, a pastor, performs. Ask students to prepare questions to ask their pastor, when he comes to speak. As a simple speaking idea, ask your pastor to perhaps do a Day in the Life account, which could then be followed by an open question period. For a bit older teens, this could even help lead a young person to explore the priesthood or religious life as a vocation.
16. Consider making Jesus a part of your class with Adoration. Whether you visit Jesus in the adoration chapel for a few minutes each class period or celebrate as a Religious Education Program for a half-hour monthly, incorporating Christ in the Real Presence into your year plan is awesome! We are blessed in our parish to have a pastor that holds 30 minutes of Adoration for our CCD children and families once a month. He leads and facilitates prayer, meditation, and allows for children to share any intentions they may have, which we pray for all together in the presence of our Lord. With children as young as five years old and those in the challenging tweens and early teens, the time with our Lord quickly became a monthly highlight for the children and teachers alike. Although some may be concerned about losing time to cover material in the classroom – there is nothing written in a textbook that is more important than actually being present with our Lord.
With a little planning and enthusiasm, the prospect of faith formation will slowly become a solid priority in the life of your young Catholic learners.
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