Advice from Master Catechists—November/December 2011

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by Dan Thomas, Kate Ristow, Chris Weber, and Sr. Janet Schaeffler

Should I ask for the gift of going to Mass?

Q: Week after week, I see very few—sometimes none—of my students or their parents/families at Mass on Sunday. Knowing that the children will likely be giving me presents for Christmas, might I say early in Advent: “If you are thinking about giving me a present for Christmas, here’s what I want most of all: To see you at Mass Sunday all the time (very often).” Is this a good idea?
—Vera, Wanting more for my students

Chris Weber’s Answer
I advise against your statement for two reasons. First, it sends an implicit message that you expect everyone to give you a present for Christmas. Second, it places you in the role of a parent/guardian.

Do I need to elaborate on the first reason? Even if you found a way to reword it so that it didn’t sound like you are expecting gifts from everyone, it still sounds more like something a parent or a guardian would say. Here’s why:

Christmas gifts are meant to be occasional and timely, and this gift would be perpetual and habitual. The relationship you have with your students does not warrant this type of request. If, as you say, very few of them are coming to Mass, then coming regularly would amount to a complete reversal of their family’s weekly habits. This sea change has to come from one of two places: the hearts of your students or the passionate urging of your students’ parents or guardians.

There are times when a child is so moved by faith that he or she leads the rest of the family to faith. I have seen it happen! Therefore, do not give up hope that your regular faith witness will have a lasting effect on your students.

Profess your belief in Christ present in the Eucharist and the joy you receive by going to Mass. Invite your students to join you for a special spiritual activity before or after one of the Advent Masses. You can even encourage them to go to Mass as frequently as possible, but don’t ask them to do it for you. That request should only be made by parents, guardians, or others who are responsible for guiding them daily on life’s journey.

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.

Kate Ristow’s Answer

A: Vera, unless you teach junior-high kids who all live within walking distance of the church in a safe neighborhood, my response is “No. No. No. And no.”
I understand how frustrating it is to teach, knowing that, for many of the children, your class is the only spiritual experience they will have all week. That is not your fault. The National Directory for Catechesis tells us that parents are their children’s first catechists and that they “catechize primarily by the witness of their Christian lives and by their love for the faith” (n. 54C).

We have to do a better job helping parents see how important it is to participate in the Eucharist on a regular basis with the whole family. We need to help moms and dads appreciate the value of family prayer—at meals, at bedtime, in times of joy, and in moments of sorrow. By “we” I mean our Church leadership—pastors, catechetical leaders, school principals, and bishops.

This conversation needs to be more than a one-shot deal; a focused, multi-pronged approach must be undertaken. Let me give you an example.

At the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family last year (this is a moveable feast that is celebrated on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, which was December 26 in 2010), the presider railed against in vitro fertilization—a worthy topic, to be sure, and one that needs to be explained and discussed with couples preparing for marriage—but it was the Feast of the Holy Family for goodness’ sake!

This was a missed opportunity to celebrate, affirm, and bless the families in attendance. This could have been reinforced with a prominently placed article in the bulletin about the family as the domestic Church, and a social for families following all parish Masses that weekend.

Parishes might also inaugurate a monthly family Mass with family members acting as ushers, greeters, lectors, extraordinary ministers of Communion, and so forth. It’s the Field of Dreams model: If you build it, they will come.

Please don’t heap guilt on the kids. One of the things you might do is invite families to attend a specific Sunday liturgy together. Send invitations well in advance and reserve a place in church for everyone to gather. Tell the presider that your class and their families are in attendance so that he can acknowledge them. Invite parents to provide hospitality to share after the Mass. Before everyone leaves to go about their day, take a group picture. If possible, arrange for the photo to be printed in the bulletin along with a caption identifying the group.

Finally, if you have an open house that parents will attend without their kids, plan to emphasize the importance of Sunday worship during your presentation. But tread lightly! Be positive! Be upbeat! Be pastoral! Invite, do not demand. That is not your role.

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.

How can I graciously decline a very generous offer?

Q: We are an inner-city parish but some of our registered families “come in” from the suburbs because they are drawn to our parish’s charism of outreach. One of these families wants to host a catered reception at a restaurant (not in the neighborhood) after the celebration of First Reconciliation in December because their grandson is one of the students celebrating the Sacrament. Some of the families of children in the group would enjoy this immensely. However, I’m sure the family does not intend to set a precedent of offering this event in the future. How does one graciously decline a generous offer that would please so many people?
—DRE, Seattle, WA

Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
Graciously and gratefully acknowledge the generosity of these loving grandparents and the reality that they are genuinely and selflessly thinking of their grandson and the other children who are celebrating Reconciliation for the first time.

Then invite them to explore with you some of the ramifications of this gesture and event in the eyes of the children, in the eyes of the parish, and in the broader context of what you—and the Church—are trying to teach and live about our sacramental life.

The celebration of all our Sacraments calls us outward, beyond ourselves, to be concerned about others, to reach out especially to those who are hurting and in need. That’s what your parish does so well. As you continue to pass on the faith to your learners, you and the families should work hand in hand to support and deepen your parish outreach to others. You, as parish staff, and the families with you, have a responsibility to examine each and every thing you do, asking: What are we really teaching by this event, this action? What are we saying we believe?

We should certainly continue the celebration after the celebration of Sacraments, especially “first” Sacraments. And we should celebrate as a community. But isn’t it appropriate to celebrate at the parish, rather than to go to a place off the parish grounds, and not in the neighborhood? The parish church is the home of the faith community. Especially today, we are trying to help children and young people feel welcomed and at home in their parish. They need to know that their parish is a place—a spiritual home—where they can realize many types of faith-filled and joyful events in their lives.

Might this type of celebration overshadow the celebration of the Sacrament itself? For young children to go to a catered reception in a restaurant with the rest of their classmates and their families sounds like a grand event. With all Sacraments, our aim is to help children and adults focus on the Sacrament and its meaning—at that moment and how it continues in our lives.

You have mentioned another challenge: As soon as we do something once in parish life, it becomes a “tradition.” Should you do this again next year? If so, how?

Hopefully, inviting this generous family to explore these realities with you will lead you to a plan of action that is celebrative and meaningful.

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

Dan Thomas’s Answer
This is one of those decisions that is difficult to make and challenging to communicate.

The first and perhaps most important point is transparency. It is essential to communicate with this generous family, all the First Reconciliation families, and the parish community. Second, there may be ways to accept this offer after you share your concerns with the family.

Sit down with the family making this generous gesture and share your thoughts and feelings about the offer. It is kind of them to share this dinner with the whole group. So express sincere appreciation.

Then talk about your concerns regarding the offer. For example, accepting this offer could set a precedent, putting in place expectations for future years. Then again, maybe the family is amenable to continuing this event in future years in some form.

Or perhaps the family would be willing to sponsor a reception for the entire parish.

After the conversation with the family, make a prayerful decision and communicate your decision to the parents and children of the whole group. This needs to be done because whatever your decision, others will hear about it. Thus it will be talked about “underground” no matter what you do. So in whatever form of communication you normally use, let everyone know of the decision and the reasons for it.

It might be necessary to let the whole parish know as well because people hear about these kinds of things.

One of the challenges of this situation is finding a resolution that does not alienate the family that is offering something so wonderful. That is why it is important to appreciate the family’s generosity while being clear about your concerns.

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.

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