Advice from Master Catechists: October 2012

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by Chris Weber, Janet Schaeffler, Dan Thomas, Kate Ristow

How can I help a child who says Mary is appearing to her?

Q: I am not Celeste’s catechist this year; I was last year, though. One time last year, she told me in confidence that our Blessed Mother was appearing to her. She came into my classroom after class several weeks ago and said that she saw Mary five times during the summer. I am so perplexed about what to say to Celeste and what to say to anyone else. Help!

Fourth-grade catechist

Chris Weber’s Answer

A: This could be a serious situation. From your description, it seems to me that there are four possibilities: 1) The Blessed Mother is in fact appearing to Celeste; 2) Celeste is undergoing an occasional medical condition that causes her to hallucinate; 3) Celeste has a very active imagination and is toying with you; 4) Celeste has serious mental or emotional issues. All of these possibilities would require immediate attention.

If Mary is indeed appearing to her, Celeste needs spiritual guidance. If any of the other possibilities are true, Celeste may need medical or emotional guidance.

The situation is serious enough that I do not feel you are bound to keep Celeste’s confidence. Bring this situation to the attention of your catechetical leader. It would be a good idea for your catechetical leader to consult with Celeste’s current catechist to see if she has received a similar report. If the catechist’s response is negative, and all appears to be well with Celeste, then perhaps it was just an unusual blip on the spiritual radar screen. If Celeste continues to claim that she is seeing the Blessed Mother, the catechetical leader should contact Celeste’s parents.

If Celeste approaches you again about the situation, advise her to talk with her parent or guardian about it.

Chris Weber has worked in the field of catechesis for over 20 years as a catechist, a parish catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is the author of Jesus-Style Recruiting: A Fresh Look at Recruiting and Forming Parish Volunteers, published by Visual Dynamics Publishing. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.

Janet Schaeffler’s Answer

A: Let’s explore two reminders and some suggestions that might help you compassionately respond to Celeste.

The two reminders flow from the training for catechists/ministers with regard to providing safe environments in our parishes.

First, we adults/ministers need to be careful about agreeing to keep confidences without first knowing the information we are expected to keep confidential. If we do agree to keep information confidential before being told the information, then we need to let the student know that it is important for him or her to share the information with those who will be able to help.

Second, we need to assess our own capabilities. Many of the suggestions (again from safe-environment training) remind us to “report things to the experts; don’t investigate.” You need to ask yourself if you have the needed skills and background to talk with Celeste about her experience. Would others—your DRE, for example, or a psychologist who has experience working with children of this age, or a spiritual director who is trained in the discernment of spirits—be better equipped to respond to her or be able to help you respond to her?

With these two reminders, the following suggestions might be helpful:

Find a time when you can talk further with Celeste about her experience. Ask her for the facts: When did Mary appear to you? Where? In what way? What did Mary say? Who else knows about your experience?

Form gentle questions for Celeste to answer: What makes you think this person is Mary? What do you feel about the experience? Have you told your parents about your experience? (If not, why?) What do you want to happen next?

Much of the information you gather through these gentle questions will help you decide to whom you should go with the situation.

Try to discover what Celeste really means when she says that Mary is appearing to her. Attempt to determine if she recently read or heard about apparitions; perhaps her experiences have been introduced by these things she read or heard.

What do you know about Celeste’s parents and family? (Talk with your DRE; he or she might have additional information.) Is Celeste’s family active in the parish? Are there any serious concerns in the family? Might Celeste be experiencing a need for attention, and this is a way to get that attention or to divert attention from some other issue?

In this situation—and in most other situations of concern—our aim as catechists is to be sure that the child talks with an adult who has professional and spiritual skills, who respects the child’s experience, and who is qualified to evaluate the child’s experience.

After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats, and teaching. Her website is

What should I do when a child says that he and his family are leaving the Church?

Q: In a class discussion about the Church as the Body of Christ, Noah told the class that he and his family aren’t going to be members of the parish anymore because they are going to join the Life in God Church, a new mega-congregation in the area. I am deeply distressed about this. All I said was, “My, that’s interesting news, Noah,” and went on with the discussion. Should I have said more? If so, what?

—E. C., teaching sixth grade

Dan Thomas’s Answer

A: Your question is one that many catechists face. What’s more, we often feel concerned when families leave our parishes for other denominations. That concern comes from our love for the faith and the fact that we are sharing it with these students. We want them to be a part of what we value so deeply, and we may feel hurt by this choice on the part of the parents.

I think your response was a good one.

First of all, Noah has no say in where his parents take him to church. To respond to Noah with something negative doesn’t fit the situation. To have Noah feel responsible for this isn’t helpful to him. His freedom is limited here, so nothing should be said that makes him feel guilty or somehow responsible.

Second, we must respect families who make choices with which we disagree. It is difficult to do sometimes, but it’s important. If we fail to respect a choice like this, the family could be driven even further from the Church. Mega-churches do many good things and reach many people in many ways. But there are needs that they fail to meet, and it is possible that this family may return if they know that the door remains open. It seems to me that your response allows this.

One of the realities of our cultural/religious situation is the freedom to choose where we go to church. All of us have friends and family members who don’t go to church or leave the Church in which they were raised. This is an unchangeable reality that we can respond to with anger and frustration.

But a better choice is to look at what we do and what more we can do in our parishes and programs, and then ask ourselves how we can be more welcoming and friendly. If we are to be the best ministers we can be, it is essential that we listen carefully and remain open.

In Noah’s situation, the parents are sending him to your class for some reason. There is something there that Noah’s parents want their child to experience. Trust that. And trust that you are doing a good job. Then put it all in God’s hands.

If you do what is caring and pastoral, some good will come. The challenge is to trust—even if the choice made is not one you or I would make. This is what our God does for us. God gives us free will. God lets us choose—and loves us no matter our choice.

Dan Thomas served in catechetical leadership for over 30 years and remains involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two adult sons.

Kate Ristow’s Answer

A: You are much better on your feet than I am, my friend! Your response dead-headed the discussion without making the moment argumentative or putting Noah in a defensive situation. It would have been so natural to say, “Oh, Noah, why?” which would have forced him to respond.

And you can only imagine the variety of replies Noah might have given and how awkward this situation could have been for the whole class! You handled the moment deftly and also managed to avoid giving the rest of your sixth-graders gossip to share with parents on the car ride home.

However, the situation does call for further action. You need to share what you heard with your catechetical leader. Clearly, this family needs some special attention. The DRE or pastor may be rebuffed, but the effort needs to be made.

It seems odd that, if the family has already made the decision to leave the Church, they would have bothered to send Noah to his religious ed session. Do his parents intend to keep Noah (and his siblings, if he is not an only child) enrolled in your program while being active members of the Life in God Church.

Your DRE or even your pastor will want to handle this with a pastoral visit or phone call to see what’s going on with the family. The family may be in need of healing due to a personal situation, or they may have some special need that caused this upheaval in their lives.

At any rate, sincere attempts need to be made to reach out to the family to determine if something can be done to help them or if they have made this decision simply because Life in God is a more appealing place to them right now.

If Noah does continue to show up at your sessions, welcome him as you always have. Keep in mind that whatever is going on is probably all about the adults. No doubt the kids are caught in the middle. Carry on as usual. This is an opportunity for you to show through your words and actions how Jesus’ disciples treat one another, and to let Noah know that he always has a home in your classroom, your parish, and the Catholic Church.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, September 2012.

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