by Kathy Carlisle
Vacation Bible School has become a fruitful blessing to the Catholic Church in recent years. Once seen as a Protestant tradition, numerous Catholic publishers now provide informative and exciting thematic materials that celebrate great stories of the Bible and tenets of our Catholic faith. Today, most diocesan offices make recommendations for resources, and parishes can find online catalogs from their favorite publishers.
VBS is a tool for evangelization, catechesis, and cool summer fun—all amounting to an amazing gift to your parish and beyond.
United in Faith
As the worldwide Catholic community celebrates this Year of Faith, VBS offers a beautiful opportunity to rejoice in our Catholic beliefs. Pope Benedict XVI has called for a “renewed conversion to the Lord” (Apostolic Letter, Porta fidei, n. 6) so that people may rediscover the faith and profess it with conviction and hope in their daily lives. This is a universal call encompassing more than one billion Catholics who will see the logo and hear the message. Thus, the Year of Faith is a great gift to the global Church as well as to local VBS experiences this year.
Your Vacation Bible School program this year offers opportunities to encounter Christ in a variety of ways in a context of celebration, enthusiasm, joy, and prayer. Talking with children over the course of a couple of hours each day about their impressions provides new insight into their understanding of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Praying together and following Jesus’ example through various activities make these relationships real, renews faith, and fosters a sense of being united in faith with others.
A shared experience is an ideal time to forge new friendships and build relationships for the future. Gathering as a community of faith allows individuals to see one another and know one another on a more intimate level, thus growing closer to the Lord and others.
A successful parish-wide VBS program calls for many different people to get involved. It is a gift when all ages come together to serve as volunteers, prepare materials, and take part in the daily fun. What’s more, VBS unites the public and parochial school children, the teens with the adults, and the parish with the community. What a great manifestation of the Body of Christ!
Gift-Givers and Recipients
The gifts given and the gifts received in your parish Vacation Bible School touch every individual in some way.
Families: All ages are welcome to participate in VBS in some way. VBS allows parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family members, and friends to be with one another and those children who are participating in the daily program. Working side by side, families bond in their faith in an informal setting. Parents benefit from introductions to other parents and the peers of their children, whom they may not know. Children can see their parents crafting and playing in a faith context. Senior parishioners enjoy meeting new families and interacting with the little ones they see at church. Collectively, all witness to a living and breathing faith that transforms people’s lives.
The continuity of a week-long program provides sustained interest and discussion about biblical themes and events. Because of experiences associated with Scripture and the growing understanding of Catholic doctrine identified through VBS, this kind of involvement is a wonderful way for families to enrich their weekly Mass experience.
Staff: During VBS, parish staff members can connect with children in ways different from how they may connect with the children in other ministries. For example, when children interact with the pastor or other priests outside of Mass, it truly is a special experience for all involved. As a greeter, speaker, or visitor throughout the day, the pastor brings a presence that can enliven children’s understanding of his vocation.
Directors of religious education programs, too, may take on new roles—something different from their roles in the usual sacramental preparation programs or classroom settings. In new roles, they have opportunities to demonstrate the many facets of their positions and personalities.
Youth ministry leaders may reach beyond the teens and children to guide adult volunteers in an area of interest, such as team prayer or community service.
Those involved in music ministry may embrace more contemporary music to share with participants and enrich their own appreciation for the joyful sounds that celebrate the Catholic faith
Children: It is said that wisdom can come from the mouths of babes. Often, the most inspired moments of VBS come from the comments and actions of the young participants who embrace the event with open arms. This is truly a gift to all who witness the children’s unconditional love and faith. Assemblies and small group discussions offer the chance to hear specific examples of God’s presence—things like “helping my baby sister,” “when my big brother plays with me,” “the helper who held my hand when I was nervous.”
Fostering unique relationships through VBS is a gift difficult to replicate in other programs. Creating multi-age small groups allows children to work in teams that give them opportunities to learn from others without being competitive. When ages mix, individuals demonstrate compassion and caring, and share the gifts they have that can benefit others. It is a true blessing to see nine- and ten-year-olds become the responsible kids in a group where younger children hold their hands and follow their examples.
Volunteers: Sharing one’s gifts is what VBS is all about. Volunteers offer gifts of generosity and enthusiasm for the spirit of the VBS program. Whether they are laying the groundwork and gathering supplies or guiding groups at a game or craft station throughout the week, volunteers are essential to making it happen. Volunteers repeatedly say that they gain as much as they give by being part of the program.
Community: Vacation Bible School is a vehicle for transformation, a true gift in today’s hectic world. It is also a tool for evangelization that can renew a community. While building relationships within a parish, it is important to offer those gifts—spiritual and/or physical—to the broader community as well.
This outreach can take the form of joint activities with a neighboring church, visiting a local senior residence, planting a community garden, or collecting money or canned goods for a local food pantry or other charity.
Parishes often embrace a multitude of gift-giving efforts during the Advent and Christmas season. Why not create a “Christmas in July” or “Halfway to Christmas” theme for your VBS in which outreach through service and community engagement are the focus? Participants could actually prepare something for a holiday craft fair or make plans for caroling at a local senior residence when it is closer to Christmas.
The gifts offered by your parish Vacation Bible School program come in many shapes and sizes. Depending on its strategic plan and priorities, a parish can choose a VBS theme that will enlighten parishioners and build interest among all members. For example, a theme could focus on the work of the patron saint of the parish (especially if a special anniversary year of the parish is being planned) or explore the Holy Land (if a pilgrimage is being planned). The multi-generational involvement and cooperative relationships can benefit any broader parish plan.
The Holy Father and local bishops often supply a faith focus for Catholics’ spiritual development. This may take the form of a Marian Year, a Year of the Eucharist, or this Year of Faith, when communities can examine each of the elements of the Nicene Creed and recommit themselves to living life as God intends. Parish programming, including VBS—which is developed with a holistic approach to these themes—will yield the greatest results for community and individual renewal. This is, indeed, a wonderful gift.
Gifts to Cultivate in Your VBS Team
You can train the individuals on your Vacation Bible School team to recognize their own gifts as well as offer their gifts so others may learn from them. Your volunteers might ask themselves the following questions:
Am I quick to respond with insight, prayer, and assistance in the face of changing circumstances (demonstrating the gift of spontaneity)?
Do I easily recognize what needs to be done and step in to take the initiative to get discussions started, raise spirits, or generate a sense of joy or team spirit (demonstrating the gift of initiative)?
Do I know how to make simple modifications and adjustments to activities or crafts so that a child or volunteer who is struggling can feel a sense of accomplishment (demonstrating the gift of sensitivity)?
Am I systematic in my preparation of supplies, planning for liturgies, arranging activity centers, or assembling children for the next event (demonstrating the gift of organization)?
Can I apply appropriate and healthy humor to ease people’s confusion, tension, disappointment, and frustration (demonstrating the gift of humor)?
Can I help others move to a more joyful space, realize their unique qualities, apply their special gifts, find their place in the group, acknowledge their generous hearts, or celebrate their special place in the heart of God (demonstrating the gift of affirmation)?
Whether you recognize these or other gifts—such as enthusiasm, creativity, wisdom, communication, generosity—working as a VBS team enables these gifts to be shared and cultivated as a source of Jesus’ living example among us.
Vacation Bible School: The Gift that Keeps on Giving!
Consider these ideas to keep the spirit of your parish Vacation Bible School alive throughout the year:
* Identify Sunday readings during the year that coincide with Bible stories studied at VBS. Invite VBS participants to serve in ministries during those Masses. See if music used during your VBS experience can be used at select Masses.
* Reflecting on the Bible stories used at your VBS, send a postcard to VBS families highlighting when those themes and readings will be proclaimed at Mass. Include a reflection question and consider a photo from VBS on the front of the postcard that reads: “Do You Remember?”
* Offer opportunities for “reunions” of participants and helpers by hosting donuts and juice after one of these Masses. All would be welcome to attend and talk to participants to learn more about what they did at VBS.
* Utilize displays from VBS in your parish center or vestibule. This might include crafts made by participants or posters with lines of Scripture that celebrate your VBS theme.
* Share any VBS publicity with the broader parish through the bulletin or displays. Include thank-you notes you may have received from those who benefited from your VBS outreach efforts.
* Play a video slideshow/DVD of your VBS activities at all parish events to encourage new participation and inquiries.
Kathy Carlisle has worked in ministry for over 17 years at national, diocesan, and parish levels. She holds an MEd from Loyola University Maryland. She directs the VBS program at her parish, St. Rose of Lima in York, PA, where she also assists with the religious education program.
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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, May 2013.
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