I grew up in a great parish where the school and the parish all worked together to support parents and families. I was aware from the time I was a teenager that I could participate in parish life. The local schools run by the Sisters of Mercy had established a great tradition of music and singing and the invitation was there for me to get involved in the school choir. I was not alone as many of my friends were involved too. We enjoyed singing at various liturgical celebrations and especially at Sunday Mass. At that time, it was not unpopular to be part of parish life. I had a sense of identity and belonging.
The parish is the local community of the Church.The mission of the parish is to be a living witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Effective witness cannot happen without hospitality.We see this mirrored in the actions of Jesus in the Gospels. There is a wise African saying that brings home the importance of the role of the wider parish family, “It takes a village to raise a child”. It takes a vibrant parish to nurture children as they grow through the stages of faith. All parishioners have a responsibility to make children preparing for Confirmation feel welcome in their parish church.
John Westerhoff writing about his understanding of the stages of faith development remarks on the importance of the first stage, “experienced faith”as the foundation for lifelong faith formation. The sights, sounds, and smells contained in the liturgical rituals of the Church, help children to experience faith. They may not fully understand the meaning behind the rituals but participating in them can instill a belief that they are meaningful and important. Liturgy is formative, it is first theology. The rituals that take place in the parish church have the power to reflect the experience of God’s love. Parish sacramental programmes can offer a reason for families to come into the parish church and hopefully experience an environment that is warm, welcoming and spiritually nourishing.
For some time now, parishes have been actively supporting parish preparation programmes for Confirmation such as You Shall be My Witnesses and Confirming our Children. The latter developed by the Irish Episcopal Commission on Catechetics in 2004 is situated within the context of Sunday Mass. The rituals used are associated with Baptism and Confirmation, and are designed around the symbols, gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Parishes have a certain flexibility with the various themes in the programme, enabling them to have sufficient time for preparation between each Mass. The rituals contain Scripture texts but care needs to be taken that they do not clash with the Sunday Mass readings. Such themes as Affirming our Baptism would be more appropriate taking place on the feast of The Baptism of Our Lord.
You Shall be My Witnesses (2008) devised by Maeve Mahon, catechetical coordinator in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin, offers catechesis for parents supporting them to share faith with their children outside the classroom. The first four sessions take place before the celebration of Confirmation and a fifth session takes place after Confirmation reinforcing the idea that we are not simply preparing for a one day event but beginning a new journey as full members of the Church. The content explores what it means to belong to the Christian family, what we believe, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and how we can witness to the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Parents who may lack confidence in their role as first teachers of faith are drawn into more active participation with their children.
Training and participation in parish sacramental programmes is a form of adult faith formation neglected for so many years. The children are in small groups facilitated by two parent leaders. For those parents who are very interested in supporting their child’s faith formation, You Shall be My Witnesses offers them an opportunity to grow in a deeper understanding of their own faith which can only serve to further their child’s ongoing faith journey. Parent leaders have the opportunity to share their faith with the candidates and hopefully create a space where all can learn from each other. Parishioners are encouraged by the increase in the presence of families at Sunday Mass while teachers are supported in their catechetical role because the children are coming more regularly to Mass and being formed by the ritual. There are benefits for all.
Both programmes facilitate the parish, the school and the parents working together giving the children a sense of belonging to a wider family of faith where they are acknowledged and welcomed in the parish celebrations. When children experience a welcome and acceptance in their parish they are more likely to value church and, most importantly, associate God and Church with love.
Rosemary Lavelle is Pastoral Coordinator at the Office for Evangelisation and Ecumenism in the Archdiocese of Dublin.