This workshop was led by Marguerite Martin, Pastoral Associate at St Vincent's parish, Ashfield and assisted by Sinead Kent, Family Educator at St Vincent's parish, Ashfield.
(Just a reminder that these notes are rough and do not convey everything that was said, nor the nuances with which it was said.)
Why am I Catholic? That is the big question for me. I've been part of an ecumenical youth team, and have had many lively discussions with the team members. As part of the team we were invited to 'leave church baggage behind and go into State High Schools'. On the positive side it gave me lots of insight into other Christian denominations and what we commonly held as true.
Why am I Catholic? The answer lay in the sacraments, and I grew to love those sacraments with a passion. Around this time, the Parish Priest needed help with Sacramental preparation. The wonder of sacramental preparation is that the people come to us! We don't have to go seeking them. So I helped, and later on I was offered the position of Pastoral Associate.
Ashfield is an inner west suburb of Sydney, close to a railway station. Some people call it 'Little Shanghai' because of its multiplicity of restaurants.
You are here at this workshop because you share the same passion for the sacraments.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program is part of my role in the parish. Through that I met a beautiful Chinese girl who wanted to join the biggest organisation in the western world. I asked her to join me at Mass, and that Sunday Mass happened to have a baptism in it. At the Sign of Peace I encouraged her to say, Peace be with you', and she loved that. At the cup of tea after Mass that day, I left it to the parish community to answer her questions. She asked, 'Why are you Catholic?' and really wanted to know the answer, which was a challenge we all needed.
My role to prepare families for the sacraments is a bit like painting the Harbour Bridge, because as soon as you finish one end, you have to start over at the other end. However, it is such an opportunity to contemplate the intimacy of God in the sacraments and an opportunity to see the action of God in their lives.
When meeting people, everybody matters absolutely. Everybody has a story, and we are lucky of they share that story with us. Then we need to respect that story.
We are the gate keepers of the golden gate. Pope Francis tells us that we need to be warm and welcoming. You can have the best program, but if you can't smell like the sheep it won't resonate in any heart.
I got talking to a woman from a previous parish of mine, a week before her grandchild's First Communion. They had arrived from Italy years ago, and all they knew First Communion was about was faith in God and getting on with it. As a family they were great at celebrating the big things, baptisms, confirmations, weddings etc. Us Catholics, we are the party people. For her this First Communion was an opportunity to dress up and go to a party with the family.
We need to examine whether we are too rigorous, too by the rule, and too possessive when we deal with families who come to us seeking sacramental preparation for their child. Do we reject a family from outside the parish boundaries without asking for their reasons? Do we focus on 'What's your connection to this parish?' when a couple comes looking for a place to get married more than on how great it is that they want to undertake this sacramental commitment? Do we say, 'You've missed a meeting, therefore you can't…..' without finding out the circumstances and offering a catch-up opportunity? Do we insist, 'You have to attend Mass every Sunday, and if not in this parish, you will need proof you attended elsewhere'?
I've actually seen a sign outside a Confessional that had the message, 'God's mercy has a time limit – keep it brief'. It might have got the message across better if it had said, 'The priest is available for confession for a half hour prior to him serving the 6pm Mass. Please be conscious of how many others might want to receive God's mercy too, and adjust how much detail you give accordingly.' God's mercy, of course, has no time limit while we are still breathing.
How accommodating are we towards children with disabilities, eg autism? Sacramental preparation should not be an educational test or exercise in completing worksheets if a child has fine motor skill problems, dyslexia, or any other hurdle that can be got around aurally with a scribe. There are other ways of gauging whether a child has sufficient understanding to receive a sacrament than a pencil and paper test. The Jesuits (Loyola Press) have put together Adaptive Kits for First Communion, Penance and Confirmation specifically for individuals with Autism and other special needs. You can give a family one of these kits and let them work through it at their own pace.
The Adaptive First Eucharist Kit for individuals with autism or other special needs includes eight pieces:
• My Picture Missal Flip Book and Mass Picture Cards are for use at Mass. They help the individual maintain focus and actively participate in the Mass.
• Bless Yourself Matching Puzzle helps the individual learn how to make the Sign of the Cross. This activity can be paired with parent or catechist modelling so it becomes a gross motor imitation task.
• Who Is Jesus? Instructional Story introduces the individual to Jesus as the Son of God and relates God’s family to the individual’s family.
• Communion Is Not the Same as Food Matching Puzzle helps the individual distinguish between the Eucharist and ordinary food.
• How to Receive Communion Matching Puzzle shows all the steps of receiving Communion reverently, providing a guide for the individual to practice. This learning tool may be taught with sequencing or modelling.
• I Receive Communion Picture Book reinforces the reverence and proper steps of receiving Communion.
• Helper Guide includes tips on how to use the kit.
• A backpack so the individual can transport the items from home, faith formation sessions, and Mass.
Judith Lynch's blog on Finding God in the Everyday – Tarella Spirituality is worth a read. The article recommended, 'A Creed about God, Religion, Parents and Families', sadly no longer has an active hyperlink.
Family is the foundational Christian community. Family is where God is first encountered and imaged – physically. Experiences of life, love, forgiveness, community and symbol occur first in the family. Families generate their own rituals and liturgies, and they are good at this. Families share values, belief systems and stories. God's mercy makes sense in the life of family.
A gentleman shared his First Reconciliation story with me. He was frightened. Father disappeared into the 'box' and all the boys were lined up. When his turn came, he was so scared he wet his pants, and the boys following him had to kneel in that spot. He was still coming to church because he had grown beyond that experience. Some of his classmates might not have.
When it comes to Baptism, there are no conditions attached to how parents will exercise their responsibility to educate their children in the faith. Parents who present a child for sacraments of initiation have faith. Whatever experience of faith such parents have, it is to be valued.
How not to do it: Some years ago I was taking registrations for the sacrament of Penance. One of the pre-requisites was a baptismal certificate. One boy came up, but his baptism was in the Uniting Church. His mum was heavily pregnant. I said, 'but he's not baptised'. She left. The poor way I handled this, and the consequences for that mum and son have weighed heavily on me ever since.
A happier story: Thomas was a slightly older child. He was anxious and eager, wanting the sacraments, but not baptised. Finding out the stories behind the situation is crucial. The child's mum was married to a bloke who didn't want the boy baptised. But Thomas kept asking. It was worked out that he would get baptised with his school mates and mum present, because his school mates are his Christian community, and then get plugged back into the parish cycle of the other sacraments of initiation. His persistence, and having someone pick up on and actively listen to his story, made the critical difference.
The parents who come to us have within them the religious truths that enrich their lives, but sometimes just don't have the language to be able to talk about it. We must be careful not to confuse faith with religion. Parents need help to name, claim and proclaim the sacred in the ordinary stuff of their family lives. Parents underestimate their experience of the sacred.
Hugh MacKay's book, Beyond Belief, talks about five levels of belief. 1 Divine Presence 2. Omnipotent Judge 3. Heavenly Father 4. Imaginary Friend 5. Spirit within and among us.
The Church should help parents educate their children in the faith, not the reverse. Many of the things the Church tries to teach parents about God and faith lose their meaning in 'church speak'. Jesus spoke to us in relational terms, using images from everyday experience.
We can't pass on our faith by simply sacramentalising our children, and maintaining a 'getting them done' attitude.
Our church comes wrapped in families. The waters of baptism ripple through our lives. We underestimate the part that God plays in the sacraments.
A priest we know went as a secret missionary to China. He could take no books and no bible with him. He had to go incognito as a teacher. Only when his students began to ask him what he believed in, could he begin to organise illegal gatherings to share stories of his faith in Jesus. The one Gospel passage he took with him was the Sermon on the Mount. In a similar situation, what Gospel passage would you choose?
For me, it would be the story of the Prodigal Son. It is a story we use in our reconciliation programmes. We find it works well when dramatized with volunteers as the main characters, a good narration script and a few props. (Ed. During the workshop we saw this dramatization in action.)
Who do we minister to?
Evangelii Gaudium 14-15 tells us they fall into 3 categories:
• the community of faithful that worships in the pews and those who express their faith in different ways but seldom take part in worship
• “the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism”; who lack a meaningful relationship to the Church and no longer experience the consolation born of faith.
• those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected Him.
We are on the right track when a father with a son at a Catholic school says, 'I need to know the story about Jesus. We are not doing so well if we are unable to answer a mum with a child who wants to be part of the sacramental programmes when she says, 'If we're doing OK without God, why would I need Him?'
Our constant challenge is how to keep those who come to us seeking the sacraments for their children, and how to keep them interested – especially if they don't feel the need to come to Mass on Sundays.
Pope Francis is eager for us to extend ourselves to evangelising those who come, with patience, with love, with maternal concern and with creativity. We have to be able to bend the rules at times, even though it is uncomfortable for us. Always we need to remind ourselves Whose hospitality we are extending.
No one comes away from a sacrament without receiving something.
It is always through the children that you reach the parents. If the same parent cannot bring them every week, maybe they can be brought by someone else. If they can't make it this Monday, maybe they could catch up with another group on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, or maybe the group leader can go to their home.
The model of going to church on Sunday is no longer there, which is a great sadness.
The sacramental model that Ashfield parish is working on is a school based model, with presumably the pastoral associate/sacramental co-ordinator and family educator not working as volunteers. I echo the question asked at the end of the workshop, 'How much of this is transferrable to a family based model led by volunteers?'
I agree that we need to get in touch with what God has already been doing in the lives of the families who come to us for the sacramental preparation of a child, and to respect and value it. Easily we fall into the trap of thinking that if we don't see them at church, then they don't have faith. At least that's one thing we can work on changing.
The other trap is thinking that they have the religious literacy to understand what we are talking about when we say 'church', 'Mass', 'Eucharist', 'sin', 'scripture'. We can't make those assumptions anymore. Just like an author of a story, requires some 'beta readers' to help him locate plot holes and inconsistencies' because he is too familiar with this specific story world that what seems obvious to the author is no longer obvious to the reader. So too, we need to find a group of unchurched people and ask them to help us decode our sacramental programmes so that every word makes sense to them. All too often our programmes are both written and reviewed by people fluent in 'church speak'.
With 15 years in the sacramental preparation trenches under my belt I'm not so sure that being as accommodating as possible is the correct call. Grace might be free, but it is by no means cheap, and I suspect we do a disservice to it if on one hand we say this is the pearl of great price and on the other hand we say you can have it if you do these bare minimums. Maybe I'd think differently if I had ever experienced gratitude from those I went out of my way to help complete the programmes. In quiet moments I've often wondered if things were closer to throwing pearls before swine (Matt 7:6) than good seed into good soil (Matthew 13:8). Getting the balance right between being accommodating and requesting commitment isn't easy.
As you may imagine, I have a lot of sympathy for Fr James Mallon's call to help get families truly hungry for the sacraments by giving them opportunities to be evangelised first. Adding a 'Yes, but not yet' to our response options when families come requesting to 'get their kids done', is something we should consider. By and large we use age of child or grade at school as the guarantee that the child is ready for the sacraments of initiation. Neither measures a individual child's understanding or hunger for the sacraments. The sacraments make sense in the context of a relationship with Jesus and His church, they don't make sense if either relationship is missing.
We still need to be warm and welcoming, and there's a lot we can improve on when first contact is made between family and parish. It shouldn't be first contact, but all too often it is, and all too often the experience resembles battle conflict instead of a family reunion.
Those Adaptive Kits for children with special needs look wonderful.
Getting to the story behind the request for sacramental initiation is a worthwhile aim, and would be very fruitful. However it could only be done with an interview process, and most volunteer sacramental co-ordinators I know already give innumerable hours of personal time answering the nuts and bolts questions of families regarding each sacramental programme – or chasing answers to unanswered questions on enrolment forms. To do the interviews would require a paid position, and not many parishes have the resources to make that possible.
In the next issue will be notes from the workshop on models of parish identity.