As pastoral ministry consultants, one of sentiments frequently expressed to us from catechetical leaders is the desire for a consistent relationship with parish families. In most parishes, there is a decline in catechetical enrollment after First Communion, and an increase when these children return to prepare for Confirmation.
Fluctuations in interest are common in parish life. Many music ministers are challenged by a similar phenomenon, and choirs often shrink between Christmas and Easter. Parishes experience seasonal drop-offs in attendance which ultimately affect operating revenue. Moreover, the sacramental interest-gap is not unique to the span between First Communion and Confirmation. On many occasions, adults who did not complete their initiation as children develop renewed enthusiasm for their faith when they begin marriage preparation. In other instances, Catholics return to the church when it’s time for their baby to be baptized. Sometimes, people become actively involved in their parish after a loved one has died.
If you’re a catechist or catechetical leader who feels discouraged by fluctuations in engagement, you’re not alone. Instead of throwing up your hands in exasperation, here are five practical questions which can help you create an actionable plan for cultivating relationships with families as their children complete initiation.
- What’s our local poverty? Jesus says, “The poor will always be with us.” In some parishes, the poverty might clearly be economic. In the midst of financial abundance, poverty could be more subtle. Divorce, addiction, and debt are three difficult realities that affect families regardless of their economic means.
- How can we lift people- and particularly parents- from the local poverty? For one parish, it might be a retreat day for blended families, or a support group for families affected by addiction. For another parish, this could be an immigration law clinic, hosted at the parish, and staffed by attorneys who want to give back to the community.
- What can we do that the public schools can’t do? Free public education delivers a variety of fringe benefits. Some school districts have dozens of extracurricular activities while others lack the funding to offer as much. In some states, summer is a difficult time for children who receive federally funded free lunch during the school year. When they don’t go to school, they don’t eat. In middle-class communities, summer camp is an unreasonably priced necessity for families where both parents work full time. Among extremely affluent communities, perhaps the only thing the school can’t provide is a place to talk about what happens when everything isn’t enough. Do we know what are local schools offer, and where they fall short?
- What’s our priority? Are we so worried about the people who aren’t there, who’ve dropped out, who stopped participating that we neglect the ones who are sitting in front of us? Have we allowed our discouragement to discourage others or are we focusing on our abundance? How would things look if we empowered each of the 99 to bring back one lost sheep a piece? Do we bombard families with endless requirements, classes and retreats for first Eucharist, or have we designed a formation program that consists of fun, relevant 90-minute family activities?
- Do we know what we’re talking about? Do we treat the sacraments as rewards for the perfect, or do we invite people to experience God’s grace?
Do we understand what is outlined in the Code of Canon Law?
Canon 843 reads:
“Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”
If a child wants to receive first Eucharist at 6 1/2, and they have an understanding of the sacrament, should a pastor deny them? If someone wants to be confirmed at 9- perhaps because they are hungry for God’s grace, perhaps because they need that grace to face the challenges of bullying or peer-pressure- isn’t it preferable for them receive God’s grace sooner, rather than later?
Do we also understand that, for good reasons, our diocese may have additional norms? Do we know who to petition, and how to request some additional consideration when there are unique pastoral circumstances regarding initiation?
Ultimately, are we able to talk about the faith in such exciting, family friendly ways that parents are encouraging their children to approach the pastor and ask to compete their initiation, perhaps even a few months earlier than the local/canonical norm? It’s time to look beyond a paradigm of intellectual preparedness, educatio or instruction to that of spiritual formation.
If we want bridge the sacrament gap, we have to stretch our minds hearts just little bit. How are we truly reaching out to families and meeting the poor, hungry, vulnerable Christ who dwells in each of them? Are our own words and actions contagious moments of faith, hope and love?