Confirmation as a Near-Baptist Experience

As promised, up at the Register: Is Your Parish Bogged Down in a Pay-to-Pray Evangelism?

Feedback on this topic has been about 90% AMEN from people who have lived the experience of getting priced out of parish life, 5% Doesn’t Happen Here from people who live in awesome parishes and dioceses where making the sacraments accessible to all is the central goal (looking at you, Wichita), and 5% But How Would We Pay Our Staff???

If you’re in that last group, consider aiming for some doable, baby-step Non-Scale Victories in the serving-the-poor department.  Change is hard.  Keep pointing yourself in the right direction whenever you can, even if you can’t transform your parish overnight.

And on that note, here’s a thought that came up in a private discussion of the pay-to-pray problem:  What the heck is Confirmation???

For most of us Latin-rite folk, our experience of Confirmation happens sometime between 3rd and 12th grade, and involves taking classes and doing service projects and attending retreats in order to “prepare” ourselves for the sacrament.  A friend and I both observed that the whole scheme was much more pared down back in the day (1990’s).  My best guess is that with each new crop of fallen-away college students, bishop-panic escalates and graduation-requirements become more stringent.

(Recap: Confirmation is not “graduation.”  It is a free gift of God that can only be obtained by paying tuition, attending classes, completing assignments, and undergoing an evaluation once you have accomplished all your check-off requirements.  If you don’t do the things, you can’t be confirmed, and there’s a form for you to sign stating you understand you have to do the things.  But it is definitely a free gift. That you earn the right to receive by doing the things.)

For non-Latin-rite folk, though, the experience of Confirmation is typically quite different: You’re born, your parents haul you to church, and you bob around wiggling and fussing while your infant self receives all three sacraments of initiation in one fell swoop.

Interestingly the Latin-non-Latin divide extends into the wider Christian community.  If you are Orthodox, you probably received confirmation (chrismation) as an infant.  If you are part of the Protestant communiy, and hence your congregation traces its lineage back to Latin-rite western Europe, you probably experienced confirmation, or a non-sacramental equivalent, as an age-of-reason, formally and publicly pronounced, personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Catholics across the Rites maintain the course on infant baptism, pointing out that there’s nothing like it for underscoring the “free gift” aspect of salvation.  Catholics and Orthodox agree with Protestants that once someone reaches the age reason, he or she must make the on-going decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

What is troubling in the Confirmation Prep arms race is that by out-Baptisting-the-Baptists Catholics are increasingly turning, lex vivendi, a sacrament of initiation into a sacrament of service.

Marriage and Ordination are sacraments of service.  They are sacraments that commission a vocation.  While we would hope that growing up in a Christian home, being properly educated by one’s parents, and carrying out the appropriate course of discernment would go far in preparing someone for either vocation, it is reasonable that we take certain steps to ensure those embarking on their lifelong vocation are as equipped as possible to begin the task.

What seems to be happening with Confirmation in the Latin rite is that because we have (for now) the practice of delaying the sacrament until after the age of reason, we are losing hold on the free gift of the Holy Spirit reality of what this sacrament of initiation is.  We are instead treating it like a sacrament of service.  We are demanding proof of our young people not that they wish to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that they are already able to use them.

This is not what the sacrament is.  Confirmation confers the gifts that we need to live our Christian vocation.  Furthermore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are limitless and divine.  We don’t have to fear, like handing a child an enormous check on his eighteenth birthday, that he’ll run out and spend the money foolishly for lack of adequate budgeting skills.  You aren’t going to blow all your gift of piety in one wild afternoon of Adoration and be left broke and wondering what you’ll pray tomorrow.

Confirmation Prep as typically prescribed, though, isn’t usually about cultivating a spiritual state of desire for intimate union with Holy Spirit.  Rather, our bishops look at the results of Confirmation — the fruits — of the Spirit, and prescribe a set of lessons and practice exercises to prove the child already possesses what the sacrament is supposed to confer and unleash.

Frankly, this verges on spiritual fornication.  You say you want to be a fully-initiated disciple? Well act like one by doing these requirements that put you through the paces of disciple-activities!  Show yourself able and worthy!  To freely receive something you can never deserve, and which is about God’s action in you, not you working of your own power, we’d like to see ten hours of it accomplished and documented!

This is not the way God’s glory is made manifest.  Repentance, the calling of sinners, the invitation to sit at the table of the Lord . . . these are preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The sacraments of service are vocations to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.  They come after the sacraments of initiation because the ability to love our neighbor flows from Christ.  First we receive from God, then we give to others what we have received.  Confirmation is a sacrament of receiving.

Rather than a checklist of activities proving we are worthy and able to give what we do not yet possess, the question for those us of tasked with preparing young people for Confirmation is: How can I help you open your heart to receive this gift for which you were created, and which, so hard to believe in our meritocratic society, you can never earn?

File:Brooklyn Museum - God the Father with Four Angels and the Dove of the Holy Spirit - Giovanni Francesco da Rimini.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Towards an Authentic Spirituality of Confirmation

I wrote to the DRE at the start of the school year, explaining that my teen wanted to be confirmed but that I was in the middle of a new job that was requiring 70-80 hour work weeks, so I really *could not* be the hand-holding parent going to a bazillion meetings and all that.  I requested that the parish come up with a formation program my teen could complete without parent attendance, and what with it being she, not I, getting confirmed, it seemed reasonable.

Despite the steady nagging of teens to become “adults in the faith,” the parish struggled intensely with the idea of working directly with a teenager.  I can get this, because I work directly with young persons, so I know that they are not universally organized and conscientious.   Teaching children to become adults requires risk-taking and persistence.  DRE’s thus tend to have an Augustinian wish: Give these teens responsibility, oh Lord, but not yet.

***

Over at the Register, Jason Craig writes “Why Confirmation is Not a Mere Rite of Passage.”  I give it a hearty amen in part because  I have shown up to a couple parent Confirmation-prep things lately, and apparently the indoctrination at religious ed on the “becoming an adult in the faith” is so strong that when I whispered to my teen a corrective to the presenter’s assertion that the sacrament of Confirmation was about you as a teen confirming you wanted to be Catholic, she whispered back, surprised, “It’s not??” I let the deacon feel my ire.  The mother is not amused by pseudo-theology.

The mother is, however, grateful.  If you’re going to lay into the parish staff for their irresponsibility, you have to be willing to do the work to offer something better.  We came home from that dreadful formation meeting with a challenge: What is the point of Confirmation?  It’s all well and good to say it gives you the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but what does that mean?  How is it different from Baptism and the Eucharist?

A few days contemplation bore much fruit.  My husband and I, and hopefully the kids as well, found ourselves moved very deeply as we considered with awe the reality of this sacrament which, described imprecisely, is for your relationship with the Holy Spirit what the Eucharist is for your relationship with Jesus Christ.  That intimate union, that indwelling, that receiving of life . . . to speak of the action of the Trinity is risk material heresy, but whoa!  You want to shake a few shoulders and shout at the bishop with his well-meaning video for teens DO YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS YOU ARE FAILING TO TELL THESE KIDS?!!  Tithing and church service are great, and yeah I’d like more priests too (though I want to find out if there’s a trustworthy seminary first), but seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, guys!  Confirmation is one of the seven great mystical things, and you are missing out terribly if you think it is just a glorified membership drive.

Fortunately, the sacrament doesn’t wear off.  Even if your parish has hidden the glory of the Holy Spirit under the table cloth of mandatory service hours, and your teen’s formation program consists of Catholic-brand career-counseling, God in His humility is waiting, like the preschooler behind the door calling out “I’m hiding come find me!”  Ignore the distractions.  Go into the quiet room where God dwells and find Him there.  He wants to live in you.  He wants to make you His home.  He wants to make His life your life.  You were made for this.

***
The children are taught to list the Gifts of the Holy Spirit when asked what it is they receive at Confirmation.  You’re supposed to say that, instead of “Green light for my quince,”  or “To get my parents off my back,” when they ask why you want to be confirmed.  There’s an awful lot of talking about the gifts, and using the gifts, and of course you had to work hard attending classes and doing service projects and writing papers in order to be allowed to have the gifts.

It is so much noise.  Blather.  Idiocy.  Too smart for your own good.  Ditch the growing-up talk, because it is a childlike faith that our Lord requests.  Children, unsophisticated, believing, accepting, are unafraid to ask for what Confirmation is: I want the Power of God to live inside me.

That’s more than enough.

File:A Taraxacum Ruderalia dandelion clock.jpg

Photo by Richard Bartz courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 2.5.

Instead of Mel Gibson’s Passion, Try These . . .

Simcha Fisher’s review of the The Passion of the Christ is up, and worth a look.  For many years, my husband and I have watched The Passion on Good Friday evening (not every year, but often) and have found it edifying and spiritually helpful.  It certainly takes the edge off your hunger.  Also, it is extremely violent (as was the event it portrays), and if you aren’t the sort of person who can stomach depictions of violence, there are other more helpful options.

My go-to for our kids’ Holy Week viewing has been The Gospel of John movie. We’ve tended to watch it during the day sometime during Holy Week when the kids are lounging around.  There are a few moments of artistic interpretation that I would stage differently were it my film to produce (it is not a Catholic film, FYI), but overall it’s quite good.  The crucifixion is portrayed with a deft hand, providing the necessary impact but without extreme gore.  It is suitable for children who are comfortable watching action-adventure films like The Lord of the Rings series, but obviously if your child is extremely sensitive to violence, movies about torture and execution are not a good choice — go pray the stations and leave it at that.

Taking it down a notch in intensity and adding Steve Ray’s legendary campy sense of humor, the The Footprints of God: Jesus would be a super choice for school-age kids (about 3rd grade and up, but for many kids younger) and people who want to dial back the experience, or just want to learn more.  The whole series is fantastic for both kids and adults.  I love these.  The Jesus episode is perfect for Holy Week.

This year, though, I’ve got a new favorite.  My weekly Bible study has been working through Edward Sri’s No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk Through Christ’s Passion from Ascension Press.  The total study comes with access to five 30-minute videos, a book, and a workbook.  The videos stream online with no difficulty, but head’s up: There are not subtitles.  Yikes.  Sorry.  The three resources cover the same material but in different formats, and all of them are a good value. The Study Pack gets you online access to the videos, but check the details as you may need to find a partner and create a parish Bible study in order to go that route.   There are no violent depictions so far (as of the end of session 4); the video is filmed in Jerusalem and for imagery there is the sacred art at the various holy sites.  The book goes more explicitly into the nature of Roman torture than the videos do.  It is truly a Bible study, and a solid one.

Here is why this Bible study comes to mind as an alternative to watching The Passion:  At the start of the evening when everyone arrives and grabs drinks, we are the usual ladies’ Bible study, joking around, sharing news, then easing into a conversation about the reading and how the week’s lesson touched us spiritually and so forth.  That’s all good.  We’re getting some great discussion going as the group gets to know each other better.  But here’s what happens next: We watch the evening’s video.  Remember, this is a 30-minute video of a professor talking to a couple of pilgrims as they stand in front of sacred art and architecture.  No blood splatters.  Bible verses are read.  Many mosaics are viewed.  Lots of pictures of pilgrims kneeling in devotion at holy sites.  Not. graphically. violent.  Just not.

AND YET: When the video ends we are reduced to complete silence.

We after week, I turn off the TV and shut down the PC, and we who were happily chatting 30 minutes earlier have nothing to say.  We just want to walk over to the church (it’s locked, no dice) and kneel down in adoration.

***
I’d recommend No Greater Love for older kids and up.  The target audience is an informed Christian in the pews who is generally familiar with the passion narrative (you’re at church on Palm Sunday every year, you maybe have prayed the Stations a few times) who is biblically literate at least at the beginner level.  For children, the audience would be from the age when your child can read the real Bible (my 5th grade CCD classes always did) and is interested in adult non-fiction as found on PBS or at your local public library.   Though it’s designed to be a weekly study throughout Lent, you could comfortably order the series now and watch two videos a week for the remainder of Lent or one a night during Holy Week.

No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk Through Christ's Passion

Artwork courtesy of Ascension Press.

Why Kids Like Sports Better than Religious Ed

I used to be one of those catechists with no patience for kids’ sports.  I believed in the value of athletics, I really did, but disapproved of the modern sports industry’s drain on society.  People who organized their lives around their kids’ games and practices were wrong-headed, period.

Then I had a kid who begged for three years straight to please be allowed to try a team sport — any sport at all, she just really, really wanted to be on a team.  That gateway drug of athletics, free summer practice, fell in our laps.  We committed to two months and no more.  And now I can explain to you why you are wrong-headed when you pit Church vs. Athletics.

Kids Want to Do Hard Things

Do you know another thing my junior athlete did? She co-founded a parish ministry.  At the end of fifth grade she sat on the church playground talking a mom of younger children in the parish, coming up with an idea for having parish families meet once a week for faith formation, academics, Adoration, Mass, and social time, faithfully Catholic but open to all-comers.

If the parents had to work the bureaucracy, it was the elementary schoolers who gave shape to the nuts and bolts of the ministry.

And for this they had to fight.  Over and over and over again my daughter saw how adults at every level of the church administration wanted to shut down a ministry that was operating under the complete supervision of the pastor, was explicitly open to every member of the parish (and got some great inter-generational participation as a result), and was in no way undermining any other parish or diocesan ministry.

Year after year my daughter tried different avenues for getting involved in parish life doing hard things.  Year after year, roadblocks came up.  Eventually she got the message: Kids who are serious about the faith aren’t welcome in the Catholic Church.

In contrast, over in the sports world, hard work and dedication was consistently welcomed and rewarded.  So that’s where she wants to be.

Kids Want to Be Themselves

When pastors and parish staff grumble about “sports,” something they overlook is that “sports” isn’t one single thing.  There are sports for every interest, body type, and personality, and leagues at every level of competitiveness.  You can be an elite ballerina or a rec bowler, and it’s all generic “sports” to the naysayers if it gets in the way of their plans for you.

Year after year my kids have listened to adults in authority tell them how beneficial it will be for them to commit two hours a week to sitting in classes they could literally teach themselves — as one honest catechist used to say with admiration to a child of mine.  These adults do not sit in the classes they so merrily foist on children whose names they can’t keep straight.  Staff time is valuable.  Children’s time is not.

The kids aren’t lazy.  They are choosing to spend their time on activities that are intellectually and physically demanding, often having to skip a friend’s birthday party or go without luxuries other kids enjoy because the family budget will only allow so much.  Trust me: If the only sport on offer was 2nd grade kickball, very few kids would be sacrificing for it.  Kids sacrifice for sports because athletics are one of the few venues where kids can take control of their formation and push themselves to make the most of their own personal talents and abilities and gifts.

Kids Want Competence

Coaches aren’t getting rich in children’s athletics.  Most are volunteers, and even those at higher levels who are getting a stipend have to support themselves with a full-time day job.  The question athletes ask isn’t, “What kind of degrees do you have in this field?” They just want proof you are a good coach.

When a team has a lousy coach, players vote with their feet.  A lousy club or league doesn’t hold onto athletes.

This is exactly like catechesis.  The difference is that because Church culture opposes personal growth and initiative (witness the resistance my daughter faced when she tried to meet with her friends to study the faith outside of the mandated religious-ed program), there aren’t “other teams” to turn to if a given program or instructor doesn’t work out for you.

Sadly, the monopoly of the local parish program’s age-mandated classing system creates incompetence.  It does this because no one teacher can be the best at meeting every child’s needs.  Just like some coaches are better at preparing future Olympic gymnasts and others are better at getting a pile of nervous t-baller’s to look at the ball, every catechist has strengths and weaknesses.  If you were told you had to meet the spiritual needs of every child in your neighborhood who was born in a certain 12-month span, you’d fail too.  It’s an impossible job.

Children Have Bodies

Do you know who is jealous of the human body?  Satan.

Humans use our bodies to express our souls.  We are unlike any other creature, having both a rational immortal soul and a physical body that will be resurrected and endure for all eternity in its glorified form.   What we do with our bodies matters, so learning to use our bodies well is important.  To hate the body is to hate the person.

This doesn’t mean the body is more important than the soul.  It isn’t.  Parishes need to up their game significantly when it comes to caring for children’s souls.  But sports isn’t competition.  We live in a society which offers few options for helping children develop physically.  The era when children grew in strength and endurance and agility by helping out with farm chores or physically-demanding skilled manual labor has largely passed.

As a teacher, I beg my restless students to go out for a sport every season, just so they can get the hours of running-around time they need so they are calm enough to sit still in class.  Kids (and adults) need physical activity in order to function well because we are made for it.

Kids Have Souls

What is the proper response of the Church to “competition” from sports?  The Church needs to do her own job.  Kids and parents don’t take faith formation seriously because parishes don’t take it seriously.

Unfortunately, at every level the credibility of church leaders has been lost.  After enough years of being told they should want to live on a diet of spiritual pablum, children quit believing their pastors.

Teenagers accuse “You don’t trust me!” and parents rightly observe that trust is earned.  Pastors must hold themselves to the same standard.  If your parish has only offered twaddle, kids and parents aren’t going to jump every time you announce a hot new thing is going to be great.  The American youth sports edifice wasn’t born in six months, and the rebuilding of evangelization won’t happen instantly either.

As good as sports are, we should be gravely concerned when parents and children neglect their souls in favor of their bodies.  It is a profound and shameful problem.

But the solution isn’t for parish staff to take children’s bodies less seriously.  The solution is to take children’s souls more seriously.

Related: Are Sports Sabotaging or Strengthening Your Family’s Faith?

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

Back-to-School Means Back-to-Apologetics

Last night’s report from the corner public high school: “My history teacher explained to the class that the difference between Catholics and Protestants was that Catholics idolize Mary.”

Ah.  Well, there’s academic precision for you.

After learning that this particular teacher was a Lutheran, I produced my go-to book for children who have to deal with Lutherans who can’t be nice to the BVM:

Beginning Apologetics 6

Begining Apologetics 6: How to Explain and Defend Mary from San Juan Catholic Seminars has a page devoted to key quotes from Martin Luther concerning the Blessed Mother.

If you let your kids out in public, they need to know Catholic apologetics.   Parents, don’t count on your local parish to provide this education to your children.  Maybe your parish offers excellent religious education or maybe they don’t, but it’s your job to oversee your children’s formation.

A good Catholic upbringing doesn’t erase free will.  All the best formation in the world is no guarantee your children will remain Catholic into adulthood.  But if you don’t even give them the tools they need to attempt a defense of their faith, you’re kinda asking for it.

Parish Programs vs. Discipleship Relationships

As parish programs are starting up with the school year, I want to talk about the necessity of one-on-one discipleship.  This is something that many people on parish staff have zero experience with.  But it’s just spending time with someone listening to them and providing a type of companionship that is ordered towards helping each other become better Christians.

This time could include praying together, talking about problems or personal struggles, answering questions about the faith, sharing good resources, doing a Bible study together, or providing practical how-to help – but it isn’t one thing: It’s paying attention to what the other person needs, and responding to that need.

I pause here to note: Discipleship isn’t grooming successors.  If you run a parish program, of course you keep your eye out for people who can take on responsibility within your program.  But discipleship is about helping the other person to daily answer their individual call from God, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with your program.

(Indeed: I find it very fruitful to be in mutual-discipleship relationships with people whose work is entirely separate from mine.)

Discipling someone is time-intensive.  You have to spend quantity-time being with each other, and at least some of that time has to be one-on-one time, when personal difficulties can be discussed in confidence.

Everybody in your parish needs this.

Parish staff cannot, therefore, meet the needs of all parishioners (unless your parish only has four people in it, maybe).

Therefore a parish communal life that consists of bringing in the herd, giving them a message, and then sending them home to their separate lives will not work.

Parish staff can hope to personally disciple a very small number of people. The goal should be to work towards helping those few people in turn be mature enough Christians that they can disciple others, and on and on.

A culture of “discipleship” is not just a culture where growing in one’s Christian faith is highly valued; it’s a culture where personally spending time helping each other grow is a normal activity for all members of the community.

Furthermore, to be successful, the two people in a discipleship relationship must like each other.  Otherwise spending time with each other won’t be any fun.

Therefore blind-date discipleship doesn’t work all that well.  As a result, the parish culture needs to be one where people meet each other, get to know each other, and form “horizontal” relationships.  It’s not 100 parents who each know the DRE and smile at each other in the car line.  It’s 100 parents who form friendships in a crystalline network among each other.

You can easily see that it is also therefore necessary that welcoming and incorporating newcomers into that web of parish friendships is essential.  We don’t stop at greeting the stranger.  We don’t stop at inviting the stranger to the potluck.  We learn the stranger’s name, we make sure the stranger has someone to sit with, we create opportunities to get to know the stranger one-on-one, and now the stranger is no longer a stranger and the process of getting involved in discipling one another is underway.

Finally let me clarify that a culture of discipleship doesn’t mean every parishioner is paired with exactly one other parishioner in a formal disciple-teacher relationship.  Some people might have that experience, such as if you are working one-on-one as a catechist with an RCIA candidate receiving individual instruction.  But what is normal and good is a network of discipling relationships.

For example: Jane gets out and walks every morning with Sue, and they talk about whatever’s on their minds; Sue meets Keisha once a week for Bible study; Keisha and Ann and Sarah have a girls’ night once a month where they talk about their work and family challenges; Jane and Ann do a monthly meeting where they talk about the ministry they run together;  Sarah and Maria having a monthly engineering meeting at work (all business), and then they go to lunch afterward and chat about their faith; Maria teaches religious ed on Sunday nights, and her helper Monica learns from her in class, and also they belong to the same quilting club.

Some will be relationships of teacher to student, some will be clearly peer-to-peer relationships, and most will be a combination, because everyone has their strengths and gifts and struggles.

This is copyright Jennifer Fitz 2017.  Permission granted to share it around freely for non-profit educational use; I only ask that you attribute and either share in its entirety or provide a link back here so people can read the whole thing if they like.  If you’re a glutton for this stuff, the Evangelization and Discipleship page on this site has links to other articles on related topics.

When You Can’t Shut Up About Evangelization & Discipleship

It turns out I have a lot to say on certain topics.

The start of my index of posts on Evangelization and Discipleship is now up here on this blog. I put it together because I happen to need to be reminded of things I kinda know but always forget.

The index is still in progress. I started by going through my posts at NewEvangelizers.com, then went through everything in the “Evangelization” category at my Patheos blog.  There’ll be more later, but for now we’ve got plenty.  The topmost section contains the basics, and I think I’ve managed to find all the posts I definitely wanted for the 101 pile.

Head’s up for the unaware: I can be a bit pointed.  The especially acerbic bits are down at the bottom of the page in a clearly-marked category of their own.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.  

Samaritan womans meets Jesus at the Well, by Annibate Carracci

Artwork: Annibale Carracci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Why I Love My Parish Catholic School

This time a year ago, my littlest homeschooler asked if she could go to St. Urban’s, the elementary school that serves several parishes in the region. We knew some of the families at the school and liked what we saw.  She had made friends with girls her age at parish events.  It was not an agonizing decision, because we had already been considering the move for about a year.  We did a little more research and decided this was the time.

Our experience so far has been nothing but positive.  Since this is Catholic Schools Week, let me share a few of the reasons we love our school.

Everyone is kind and friendly.

When I was researching the school, I spoke to a friend who had volunteered there and at a number of other elementary schools in the region.  She said to me: “I can honestly say that St. Urban’s is what a Christian school should be.”

The administration actively works to promote kindness and encouragement among the students.  Recently on the drive into town my daughter told me she had to write a persuasive paper, and she had chosen the topic of whether there ought to be school uniforms. She asked my opinion, and I gave her the long list of reasons mothers love uniforms (thank you, school, for a simple, stain-resistant, affordable set of uniform options).  I finished up by adding, “And that way, for example, a mean girl can’t say oh your skirt is so ugly, because she’s wearing the same skirt.”

To which my daughter replied: “Mom.  This is St. Urban’s.  We don’t have bullies.  The worst thing that happened is that Scholastica wanted to play with Benedicta at recess but not Ignatia, and then they all ended up playing together anyway.”

The friendliness is welcoming to me, too.  The administration respects my time.  The school’s academic reputation isn’t built on sending home young children with mountains of homework every night. We parents aren’t saddled with a bazillion overwhelming volunteer projects and fundraisers.  When teachers or staff do ask for parent help, they take into account our varying circumstances.

I know some private schools have a “type” of parent, and if you don’t fit in you’re on the outs.  Our school is truly Catholic — truly diverse.  Not just in terms of race and national origin (though there is that), but also in terms of the parents’ professions, state in life, personalities, and dare I say it: social class.  It’s not a prep school, it’s a parish school.

Our faith as Catholics is 100% supported.

The school Mass is both beautiful and edifying.  Prayer is part of the rhythm of the day.  There are Bible verses on the walls, a well-delivered religion curriculum, and an enthusiastic attitude towards Catholicism that permeates everything the school does.  I don’t know all the teachers very well, but I know that the two teachers who have the most influence on my daughter both exhibit a sincere and profound faith.

Before she went to school, my daughter was homeschooled by me.  There are ways the Catholic faith was shared in our homeschool that don’t happen at the parish school, but the reverse is also true.  When I came to eat lunch with my daughter, I asked her as we sat down and pulled out lunch bags, “Do we wait for grace?”

“We already said grace in our classroom,” she said.  “And also the Angelus.”

The children ate and then talked quietly.  The teacher who was serving as lunch monitor complimented the children, as a group, on how her husband had been moved to tears by their beautiful singing that Sunday at Mass.  The children swept up and prepared to leave.  Before dismissal to recess, everyone stood and faced the massive crucifix in the cafeteria and prayed the second grace, thanksgiving after the meal.

My daughter’s teachers know her.

The school is small.  There are about fifteen children in each grade (it varies), so that the total school enrollment hovers comfortably within knowable limits.  (See here for the theory of Dunbar’s Number, and here for The New Yorker’s explanation of it.  I have found this to be true in practice.)  My daughter has been with the school less than six months, and already knows the names of all the students except the very youngest.  But more important me: Her teachers have time to know her.

When I went to the parent-teacher conference after the first quarter, the 5th grade teacher sat down with me and talked about my daughter. She talked about my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; what she needed to work on; and how her transition to school was going.  To all of it, my only answer was: Yes, you are correct.

I’ve been teaching and rearing this child for ten years, I know her.  All these things you describe? That’s my girl.  You’ve paid attention, you’ve gotten to see the real her, you obviously care about her.  She’s not lost here.  There’s a real relationship going on, rooted in both love and quantity-time spent together getting to know one another.

The curriculum is well-chosen.

Between homeschooling and my years of small-format teaching in religious education, chastity education, parenting classes, French, economics, logic, debate, apologetics, can’t remember what else, and maybe a little tutoring here and there . . . I’ve evaluated curriculum.  Oh and I wrote a book that has a thing or two to say about how to structure a class.

If nothing else, I know how to see whether a class is working or not, and what is or isn’t successful.

Everything that happens at our parish school makes sense.

Sometimes the book the teacher is using is right off my shelves, sometimes it’s one I’ve never heard of before.  But I am still waiting for the day when I see some assignment or activity and can’t figure out what the point is. Everything I’ve seen so far fits with the goal.  I can immediately see why the teacher chose a particular activity, and how it fits into the bigger picture.  There is no busy-work. Everything converges on a well-built whole.

Sure, I’d heard it was a decent school, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this good.  I’ll take it.

The school makes the most of its strengths.

One of the mistakes people make about homeschooling is thinking that it’s supposed to be just like school.  That approach doesn’t work.  Homeschooling isn’t for that.  Homeschooling has a dynamic that’s unlike school, and that’s part of the point.  If you try to re-create school at home, you’ll be harried and overwhelmed.  The trick to homeschooling is to make the most of the distinctive strengths that only homeschooling can offer.

My parish school does that too.

There are ways to teach and learn that can only happen when you’ve got a dozen or so students the same age.  There are cooperative projects with other programs nearby that take advantage of St. Urban’s downtown location.  Even the way the classes are organized teacher-by-teacher makes sense developmentally — at least in the upper grades, which is what I’ve seen, the right teacher is assigned to each grade and specialty subject.

My daughter loves it there.

No school can be everything to everybody.  My daughter thrives on structure, gentle but firm discipline, clearly stated learning objectives, and frequent feedback via formal assessments.  Any time a child changes school systems there’s an adjustment period.  She didn’t arrive at school having mastered The Way Things Are Done Here.  Her teachers brought her up to speed through a steady combination of clear correction and enthusiastic encouragement.

She’s a normal kid.  Left to her own devices, she’d gladly sit around watching sitcoms and eating endless bowls of ice cream.  There’s a time and place for leisurely pleasures, but what she gets at St. Urban’s — the reason she’s excited to go to school every day — is the profound happiness that comes from having her genuine needs met so well.  Her need for love, her need for guidance, her need for growth: Everyone at the school works together to do their part in meeting those needs.

Addendum: About that award she got.

Some people from the parish who read this blog might be thinking You’re just all rosy in the afterglow of your kid getting an award after Mass this morning.  Truth?  It’s the other way around.  I started writing this post in my head months ago, and sat on it because I kept waiting for the inevitable bad day to show up so I wouldn’t be all honeymoon-googly-eyes.  I started writing this post on my PC earlier this week, but it’s been coming along slowly because my primary vocation keeps getting in the way.

And thus before I could finish writing, first semester Awards Day came around.  You know what happened?  They quick gave out certificates to the honor roll kids, and then moved on to the big event.

What’s the big event?  Grade by grade, each teacher gave a short talk about two students in her class who merited particular distinction.  One student was lauded for attitude, effort, and improvement academically — not for grades earned, but for the student’s perseverance and diligence regardless of academic difficulties.  The other honored student was praised, in descriptive detail, for kindness, integrity, piety, generosity — all the virtues that aren’t about being Number One, and are about being more like Jesus Christ.

That’s what I want in a Catholic school.

File:Pages from a hundred years of Dominican history - the story of the Congregation of Saint Catherine of Sienna - by Anna C. Minogue (1921) (14587455058).jpg
The sisters agree: If you cultivate the virtues, you’ll get the best academics you can have.

 

A page from 100 Years of Dominican History, published in 1921.  Photo by Anna Catherine Minogue, b. 1874 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Solution to the Big Parish Problem

Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle.  The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.

A large parish that is pulling this off right now is St. William’s in Round Rock, Texas.  Over at the blog discussion group, Martina Kreitzer writes:

You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.

You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.

Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:

Jesus is Lord Series Introduction

Week 1: God’s Love

Week 2: Sin and It’s Consequences

Week 3: Salvation – God’s Solution for Sin

Week 4: Repentance – Recognize and Receive

Confession

Week 5: Holy Spirit – Going from the Seat to the Feet

Prayer Session

Week 6: Jesus is Lord of My Talent

Week 7: Jesus is Lord of My Time

Week 8: Jesus is Lord of My Treasure

Week 9: Jesus is Lord of My Sexuality

Week 10: Intentional Discipleship and Commissioning

Is this program suitable for parishes not quite like St. William’s? Definitely.  It’s being used at Texas A&M’s legendary St. Mary’s Catholic Center, where vocations are flourishing.  You can watch the campus video series here.

What is this “Intentional Discipleship” business?

Back up a second though and notice the title for Week 10 of the Jesus is Lord series.  If you are not familiar with the concept of “Intentional Discipleship” you need to read Sherry Weddell’s excellent books on the topic, Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  The first book explains the problem, and the second tells you step-by-step how to solve it.  Book three, Fruitful Discipleship comes out in April 2017.

FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming.  After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.

For the whole dang parish, Brandon Vogt’s book Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church is an excellent 101 on evangelization and discipleship for the ordinary Catholic.  He offers a video course as well, which I haven’t reviewed but which you may find helpful.

So there you go.  And if all fails, The Catechism of the Catholic has a few pointers as well.

 

5 Ways We Keep Christ in Christmas at Our House

I was asked two related questions by parish friends this week, and I answered incorrectly:

  • What things do we do to help our kids “Keep Christ in Christmas”?
  • What are we doing for Advent?

I thought the answer to both was: Nothing.  This year, anyway.

I was sorely mistaken.  Since both these are going to be discussion topics for our Family Fellowship group this week, here are my notes so I can keep my facts straight.  These are things we do, and which have held together through the years, and which I think are probably helpful.  Some are easy for anyone to do, some of them maybe not.

#1 Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ

When the SuperHusband and I first became Christians, I was a little disconcerted to notice how little our extended family’s observances of the feast involved any particular worship of Christ.  It had not bothered me before, but now somehow it seemed wrong to gather together for a meal and gifts and not much Jesus-ing.  A lot of years later, I’m not bothered.  Those of us who are Christians get plenty of Jesus-ing all year long, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we don’t need every single moment of every single feast to have a little cross tacked on it.

(For the record, there is a very Christian grace before the big extended-family supper Christmas Eve and plenty of Christian-household backdrop going on.  We’re not celebrating Festivus or something.)

My point is this: When every day and every week of your life is built around the worship and service of Jesus Christ, there’s not a need to make sure your wrapping paper has manger scenes on it.  Both the “Christ” and the “Mass” in “Christmas” are patently obvious.  Forgetting that Christmas was about the birth of Christ would be like forgetting what your own birthday was about.  It’s unlikely to be problem.

#2 Dang I Love My Parish

My DRE has a passion for keeping Advent, and the pastor’s completely on board.  (Yes, it unrolled in that order — she predates him on the staff roster.)  Rather than rushing to quick celebrate Christmas with the kids before the break, there are Advent events throughout Advent, and Christmas is unleashed on — get this — Christmas.  The religious ed classes host Christmas parties the first class back after the break, while it’s still Christmas season.

This is not just good for holding onto Catholic liturgical order.  This is good because it causes us all to be keenly aware we are out of sync with the wider culture, and therefore aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  It also gives me a little bit of ammo in my effort to keep things purple around the house, though admittedly that’s push-and-pull.  Yes, in fact we do have the best Advent Lights on the block.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But I would say the biggest help we get in terms of the parish enthusiasm for observing Advent is that it completely prevents our brains from equating what we do as Catholics with that merchandising event going on at the mall.

#3 We’ve got a great Advent calendar.

The one we happen to own is the Tony Wolf Advent Calendar, which I reviewed when I first got it years ago. Each day from December 1st through 24th there is a mini boardbook ornament that contains a Bible story, prayer, hymn or carol.  All put together you get the highlights of the story of Christmas from Adam and Eve forward.  There is no Christmas Advent tree up yet this year, so I told my ten-year-old to hang the ornaments on the hooks on the mantel where our stockings will eventually go.

She loves this.  She loves reading aloud the day’s mini-book, singing along if it’s a hymn, and keeping all the ornaments organized on their hooks.  The other kids are older now, so the ten-year-old’s the chief user. I remember myself having a little mini-book Christmas ornament and how much I liked to read it (mine was The Night Before Christmas).  Bite-sized books are captivating.

There are other similarly good options, it doesn’t have to be this exact product.  I remember growing up that my best friend’s family had a homemade Advent calendar with pertinent Bible verses for each day — same principle.  I think the takeaway here on why this concept works so well is that kids like to open a new thing every day, so they bring the momentum to the daily observance, and the day’s thing isn’t just a piece of chocolate or a picture from a snowy village, it’s a piece of the Good News.

#3.5 We Stink At Advent Wreaths, Forever and Ever Amen

For your amusement, here’s a photo from a glorious Advent past:

 Monstrous silver Santa and Reindeer Candlebra with clashing candles in various shades of purple.

I would have kept the thing, but it was too bulky to store easily.  This year we’ve got an assortment of mismatched white candles with purple or pink ribbon tied around the base.  We never remember to light them.

I’m completely in favor of Advent wreaths.  I have happy childhood memories of lighting the candles at dinner every evening.  We just aren’t there.  Sorry.

#4 But We’re Good at Caroling!

Way back before we had kids, the SuperHusband and I started up hosting an annual caroling party.  It’s easy and fun and you can do it too.

As we dropped the ball on this one in recent years, some friends have picked up the relay.  Mrs. A who first started hosting an Advent tea party every year (most years) when our girls were little has merged that tradition with a potluck supper and caroling party afterwards.  It’s a good event.  We stick to classic Christian carols (Silent Night, We Three Kings, What Child Is This, etc.) plus We Wish You a Merry Christmas.  We only plague neighbors who show evidence of celebrating Christmas, so we’re not foisting our zeal on innocent bystanders.  The response has been 100% positive.

We’re up to 4/6ths of the family now singing in some choir or another at church, so the kids get a strong dose of sacred music there as well.  We go to one of those parishes where the songs are all about Jesus, which is a big boost.

#5 Jesus Fairyland

Or Bethlehem, as you prefer.  Way back at the time of our first caroling party (before kids), I didn’t have a nativity set, so I made one out of Lego bricks.  Since that time we’ve added humans to the family and all kinds of toys.  Playmobil. Fisher Price.  Little Woodzees.  All that stuff.  Thus we have evolved an annual tradition of creating not just the manger scene but a good bit of Bethlehem and environs.

We’ve had years that featured Herod’s castle and a Roman circus (the better to eat you with, my dear), though the best was during the preschool years when we had the big red barn with the door that mooed.  A traditional nativity set can sometimes look too much like Camping with Baby Jesus — Pass the S’mores.  The circumstances of the Incarnation hit home more soundly when you’ve got a neighborhood of cozy cheerful dollhouses, and then the Holy Family camped out in what truly looks to modern eyes like a place only fit for farm animals. 

This year, having just pared back the toy collection, we’re focusing on the unrolling of the historic events day by day.  Right now the angels are all up in Heaven, at the top of the bookshelf in front of the vintage Hardy Boys collection, waiting for the big day.  (That is what Heaven is like, right?)  Mary and Joseph are in a caravan headed towards the city of David. The Wise Men are still home watching the sky.  The stable is busy being just a stable, though the innkeeper — you might remember this from your Bible study — likes to come by every day and visit with his pet bunnies.  St. Ignatius Montessori, pray for us.