< Family Forum

Forming our Children in Faith

A guide for parents

 “Jesus said: ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’”

Introduction

Our greatest treasure

Our children are our greatest treasure and a gift to us from God. They are our joy of today and our hope for tomorrow. We never fail to marvel at the wonder of creation how something so tiny can be made out of nothing and grow into a full human person. We are so grateful to God for this wonderful gift to us and that is why we are concerned to protect, safeguard and encourage our children at all times. We want them to have long and fruitful lives that are interesting and stimulating, we want them to be safe when in difficulty, strong when faced with disappointment and sorrow, flexible enough to adapt to changed circumstances and cheerful people who bring life and light to others, and we want them to love and serve the God who made them for the whole of their lives. Every parent has such a dream for their children but how can it be fulfilled? That depends for the most part on the parents themselves. In the majority of cases, their ideals will become their children’s ideals, their hopes their children’s hopes, their likes their children’s likes and so on. What is therefore most important to parents is more than likely to be most important to their children; what is not so important to parents will probably not be important to their children either. 

The faith of parents

This applies most obviously with religion, the life of faith. If parents believe that God has given them their children, they will be filled with gratitude to Him and want even more to serve and honour Him in their family and outside. They will also want their children to feel likewise. It is they, the parents, “the first teachers in the ways of faith”, as they are described in the Rite of Baptism, who will be the first to teach their children to say the name of God. It is they who will teach their little ones how to sense the promptings of Almighty God in their heart and give them the example of how to respond to Him. If the parents do not have an active and devoted life of faith, then it is hardly likely that their children will either. This is a logical and simple truth.

Difficulties in believing

In the present climate, however, it is not easy to believe or keep on believing. The world has become more secular and people have made their own gods to worship, usually something connected with their own well-being and wish-fulfilment. We see horrible things happening around us and begin to question the faith we have always professed: How can God allow this to happen? Why are some nations and people so cruel to each other, even those within their own families? Why do innocent and good people seem to suffer when they do not deserve it? These are questions which are very difficult to answer if indeed they can be answered at all, and this can make us uncertain about the faith in a loving God which we inherited from our parents. Coupled with this, we seem to be always in a rush with no time for prayer or deep reflection, and there are many demands on us which may prevent or at least inhibit us from loving and serving God on a regular basis within the community of the Church.

Many people have to work on Sundays now and cannot avoid doing so if they wish to keep their job. This means that they are often not able to bring their children to Mass each week and pray together with the rest of the community as they used to do.

For many parents, one party may not share the Catholic or Christian faith and not understand why it is so important to celebrate Mass regularly as Jesus asked us to do, and to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. They may feel that there are lots of other things that could be done on Sunday, such as shopping, sport or visits to relatives, rather than coming along to Mass. This lack of understanding can cause tension and sadly even division when it comes to the matter of how to bring up your children. For some families, a life of faith is no longer necessary, and ‘church’ should always be there for their benefit and convenience. This is a sad but true situation.

What this booklet is for

The purpose of this small booklet is to help parents to bring up their children to know and love God. It is based on the experience of other parents who have been trying to do just that, and some of their comments you made find surprising. But we must be realistic. We cannot compare the situation now with that of 30, 40 or 50 years ago in regard to forming our children in faith. The climate is entirely different. Life seems much quicker now, and children are profoundly different. Their concentration span is much shorter, as any teacher will tell you, and in some respects, they have become over-stimulated, with the result that very little makes them excited, they may have lost any sense of ‘wonder’ they might have had and they are easily bored. Keeping them reasonably quiet in church has therefore become a real challenge for many parents and for some engaging them in what is happening in front of them almost an impossibility. Some parents admit to feeling bereft when faced with all that is involved in a life of faith for their children and are all too conscious of the fact that they do not feel they have anything to offer them because their own faith has waned or even died. For this reason, they are only too happy for teachers or catechists to take over the work that is properly theirs and carry out their responsibilities for them. This is not a good thing, as it may mean that a parent no longer has to look into their own soul to see what is really there or be ashamed at the barrenness of it. If someone else is teaching their children then they are saved, so they think, from the embarrassment of having to face up to the truth about what has actually happened to them. They want their children to believe, because it was important to them when they were young, even though they are no longer fully engaged in a life of faith themselves. But children are very cute. They can spot any hypocrisy or insincerity from a long way off, and it will not be long before they are asking why their parents are telling them what is important without actually practising it themselves.

A self-help group for parents

Here are some thoughts, therefore, for concerned parents who want this situation to change and who are prepared to do something about it themselves rather than rely on others to do it for them. In the last two years, we have established a sort of ‘self-help group’ for parents called ‘Family Forum’ and we meet from time to time after Sunday 10.00am Mass in order to support and encourage each other. Of course, we do not believe in isolation – we are members of a community, the Church, and we profess our faith and live it together. Consequently, the formation of children is not something that parents have to do entirely on their own. While they are the most important people in this process, they are not the only ones. The community’s representatives – priests, teachers, catechists and liturgy leaders – also play a vital role in this task as you will see here, and most of them are actually parents themselves, so their insights and contributions are extremely valuable. 

Our experience

We are passing on our experience to you – the successes and failures, good things and not so good things – in a way which is honest and practical, rather than idealistic. You will read how parents teach their children the name of God in the first place, how they learn to pray, what to do when bringing them to church and what it is appropriate or otherwise to bring with you, how they are taught in infants’ liturgy groups and later encouraged, even at a young age, to take an active part in leading the liturgy of the Sunday Mass themselves, and how their formation is included in their school syllabus. 

Considerations on the Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism is not magic

For many people still in this day and age, our sacramental life is something rather ‘magical’, to be ‘done’ rather than celebrated. Parents will often talk about baptism as ‘getting their son done’, or ‘getting Christened’ as if it was something that the priest has to give and they had to receive. This is a throwback to the sacramental theology of the 19th century which stressed the ‘doing’ of the sacraments by the ministers and the proportionally small part that the ‘recipients’ had to play on the process. It has somehow passed into our psyche and got stuck there in the minds of countless Catholics in particular. Hence if a priest suggests to a family that it may not be appropriate for their child to be baptised or receive First Holy Communion because the family are not regular practising members of the community, this is often met with great resentment by those who feel it is their ‘right’, even though they have given no meaningful indication that they fully understand the real significance of these sacraments. Baptism is not magic. It does involve ritual, certainly, but so do many aspects of our lives even though we may not realise it. ‘Ritual’ is the gesture by which we communicate something that is inside us to others. It may be as simple a gesture as shaking hands, birthday cakes, Christmas customs or whatever, but we are surrounded by it. Sacred ritual is the means of communicating something about God and our relationship with him and the Catholic faith in particular is a very ‘physical’ one: making the sign of the cross with holy water on yourself as you enter church, lighting candles, using bread and wine for the Eucharist, oil for anointing at baptism, confirmation and when suffering from a prolonged illness. All these ‘signs’ speak to us of the nearness of God to us and we to Him. Jesus asked His first followers to gain more for him by preaching the Word of God to them and then, once they had accepted it and professed their faith in it, initiating them as disciples through baptism, a sign of cleansing and new life.

The life of discipleship

Those first followers were all adults who could make up their own minds. Children are not in a position to do so, but their parents are. It is the parents who are the ‘preachers’ and ‘teachers’ of the Word to their children who, already disciples of Jesus through their baptism, make their own act of faith and commitment in reaching out to receive the Body of their Lord in first Holy Communion, and seek his help through the Holy Spirit, to keep on believing in and loving Him through the sacrament of Confirmation. These three sacraments were initially all one – the sacrament of initiation – but became separated historically.

The promises that are made by parents on behalf of their children at baptism are solemn and binding; it then becomes their responsibility to keep these promises and to show their children as they grow up, what the implications of them are. This is what we mean by ‘formation in faith’.

Talking to children about God

The whole person

So how do we ‘form’ them in faith and where does it start? First of all, we need to remember that ‘formation’ is not simply an intellectual matter but involves the whole person, so we are not simply trying to ‘teach’ our children things about God for them to ‘learn’. We use every means at our disposal to ‘communicate’ something of God to them, even from their earliest age. This involves what we may call a ‘multi-sensory’ approach – sitting with Mum or Dad comfortably when listening to Bible stories, having a ‘quiet place’ somewhere in your home where you can light a candle or listen to some suitable music, saying simple prayers gently and repeatedly so that they learn to say them as well. All the parents involved in preparing this booklet have stressed the need to bring their children to church from an early age, so that the community life and prayer becomes a natural part of their lives very soon, and they begin to look forward to it: “we’re going to Mass today to see Jesus, to meet our friends, to pray and to sing”. Children learn through repetition, either by hearing the same word and phrase several times – eg. ‘Jesus loves you’ – or by their own continual behaviour, - eg. making time to pray each day, praying at meals, and when going to bed, or coming to Mass each week. Our parents have said that through this repetitive activity their children begin to pick up what faith might mean for them.

Praying with our child                     Joanne & Simon Ritchie

I suppose we are at the beginning of teaching our two year old daughter to pray, but there are little mimics and she is already starting. Here’s how:

She’s been dipping her hand in the holy water for ages now but has just started blessing herself (sort of) and we encourage her with this and praise her.

She has story books based on the gospels and the Old Testament and we read them with her. In church we encourage her to look at what the older children are holding up when they come back from their liturgy. We encourage her to put her hands together and pray the Lord’s prayer. We pray at bedtime – “God bless Mummy, God bless daddy” but not all the time.

My experience as a Dad at Church     Colin Amaral

I am married to Louise and a father of two, Joshua aged 8, and Leonie, aged nearly 6, who some of you may know has a cuddly toy that goes by the name of ‘stinky’. How did he get that name? Well, that’s another story which I will be happy to tell you some time. I am a Roman Catholic by birth and so have always had the belief in God and the whole idea of what he was all about, so it was just natural for me to go to church due to my upbringing. Then for a little while as I went to university, I seemed to lose sight of attending Mass, and saw this as a chore, especially when I got married and had children. When Joshua went to school, Louise and I forced ourselves to go to church as I still believed this to be important in our lives. But the reality was that the event was always challenging with the kids who, on many occasions push us to the limit.

More than just attending Mass

Do you find yourself whist at church, getting stressed telling them to ‘shoosh’ up for an hour and wonder that Father was going on about? Trust me, you are not alone! I found myself going through the motions of Sunday Mass but began to wonder was it really worth it, as I felt I was not gaining anything.

Sunday morning is usually a rush for us and much of the time we forget to bring church life home at all, a life style we are gradually starting to change. I find the under 7’s liturgy very useful as this brings the learning process down to a level that today both my two talk about Jesus and his life. For me, the church is more than just attending Mass; it is about being a community and so I try to help out in any way I can. The result of this is that I find myself with an amazing group of friends who all want to help each other. The after Mass coffee is also great as it helps me to catch up with my new-found friends whose children just seem to get along with ours – usually! When the children know they are going along to this afterwards, they are usually better behaved as they know they will meet the ‘sweetie lady’.! Yet she is such an important part of our lives making Sunday Mass a little easier.

Make use of the support around you

So where am I going with this? The more friendships build, the more we just seem to help support and be a part of the community. I totally get what church is about now: helping each other without any conditions, as the rewards will come much later and be all worthwhile. Without the church, I would probably not have so many local friends and acquaintances. For me, going beyond just attending Mass, helps me with the kids. The children have friends they meet on a regular basis as do we, so going to church is not seen as a burden. This helps me as a husband and father to continue to believe in God and hence help to pass down this to my children. There is no one thing you can do to make this process easier for you, in my mind, as families are different. But by making use of the support around you such as liturgy, the family forum and attending the organised events such as barbecues, they all help to build a life style that you and your family can enjoy and be part of. Make use of them and you will just seem to find introducing your children to God is a natural journey.

Bringing Children to church

Preparation

How do we then go about bringing our children to church? Much depends on what happens beforehand in our homes and the attitude of parents and other family members. How we speak to them before they come to Mass is very important; we talk of the special place that is the church, that it is God’s house where Jesus lives, and that we try very hard to be quiet there so that we can listen to Jesus speaking to us in our hearts and talk back to him. We hope then that the children will actually look forward to coming and not find it a surprise. If they see that we adults look forward to it as well, that will be a great help! For many, Sunday Mass is an organisational nightmare, trying to get everyone out the door and into the car, especially if you’ve had a late night. There is more than one set of breathless parents rushing in the door of the church as the priest, vested – who has only had to get himself over to church from the house! – stands waiting to start the Mass.  Then how are we supposed to keep them occupied for the hour of Mass without their making too much noise and disrupting everyone else’s prayers? It is clear from our experience that all sorts of ‘negotiation’ can go on in the pews! Some older people are often less than sympathetic to frustrated younger parents because they do not understand that things have changed so much over the years. This may result in the younger parents feeling embarrassed, or even hurt by comments made to them, so much so that they may not want to come again.

Giving the right messages

All children are welcome in church. If they chatter a little bit, that is not the end of the world and if they start screaming we hope that their parents will have sufficient presence of mind to take them out to the special place reserved for them in the church porch until they have settled down. Toddlers like the space and often run around; if we are not sensitive and directive, this can get out of hand  and the whole celebration is disrupted. If you bring toys with them, bring appropriate ones – story books with Bible stories (there is a library you may borrow them from in the porch) are the best, colouring books with Bible events in them, and possibly soft toys to cuddle, but certainly not anything with wheels on or anything that makes a noise. This is giving entirely the wrong message to the children about where they are and what we are all doing.  Some parents feel the need to feed their children to keep them occupied – crisps and sweets are not a good idea because the packaging is too noisy and they can often leave a mess, so we have it on good authority from several families that raisins are a good idea here! Once the Mass has started, there are ways of involving even little children. We explain what the priest is doing and what is happening in a little whispered commentary, pointing out visual elements of the Mass in particular and encouraging them to sing the hymns and listen for the bell. When they are very young, we encourage them to look forward to joining the under 7’s liturgy group and later the full children’s liturgy group. There may also be ways of actually involving the toddlers in the liturgy at some stage and we are working on that idea together at the moment.

Essentials to bring with you

Don’t leave home without your ‘church bag’, which could include: A favourite cuddly friend – Would teddy like to go to church today? – books, drawing materials. raisins, tissues.

Once the Mass has started, there are ways of involving even little children.

Here are some ideas:

Under 7s Liturgy Group                  Mitch Donnelly

What do we do? The under7’s liturgy group meets every week at the 10 o’clock Mass except once a month when the older children lead us in prayer. We are not a crèche, nor are we in the business of ‘entertaining’ the children. We want them to pray their own prayers and learn what that particular Sunday Mass is about.  At the beginning of Mass, one of the children collects our bible from the priest and leads us out to the special room in our parish centre, where we have our own table covered with an altar cloth. The children gather round it and we light our candles or say our special prayers. We then ask the children to think what they could have done this week to be more helpful or kinder to other people and then together we sing or say our sorry prayer.

We then sit down together and the leader reads the gospel to the children – this is the same reading that everybody else hears in church that day, but expressed in a language the children can understand.

After we have read the gospel, we spend a few minutes talking about what we have heard to help the story ‘sink in’. We might act out what we have heard or ask questions like: Who were the  people in today’s story? What happened?  Where did it happen? How did the people in the story feel? Were they happy or sad? We do not preach to the children but present the gospel to them in a way they can understand.

After we have talked about the gospel we usually have some sort of craft activity related to the story by making something or colouring a picture. We ask them to take home what they have made and put it somewhere the can see it to remind them during the week of what they have heard at Sunday Mass.

All of our Liturgy leaders are volunteers and are CRB checked. There are always at least two adults in the room with the children. Though our leaders have children and even grandchildren of their own, they are not teachers. We are always happy to have new people join us. Over the last few months, some of our older children have asked if they can be involved in helping with the under 7’s group. We are very pleased about this and are hoping that when they are old enough, they will become liturgy leaders themselves. To make sure that we are not overwhelmed with help, we only allow 2 younger helpers to come along each week, and they must be at least of Year 8 age.

Who can take part?

The under 7’s liturgy group is open to all children over 3 years old until they make their First Holy Communion. If you child is over 3 and not able to take part in all of the activities we carry out – listening quietly and sensibly taking part in discussion or drama – then they are  probably still too young for our group.

While we are happy for parents to come along with us to see what we do, either because they are thinking of volunteering to help or because it is their child’s first time, we have limited space and having lots of adults in the room can be disruptive, so we would politely ask that you do not come along each week with your children. If you child is not able to be left without you, then again, they are probably not old enough for our group. If you are unsure about this, please speak to one of the leaders.

Our liturgy group has been running for 10 years now and has become very popular. Sometimes we have had as many as 38 or 39 children coming along to our group. However, we have only limited space and it is not practical for us to run the group with as many children. It is with great sadness that we need to think about how we can limit the numbers we have each week. We have decided that the maximum number of children we can accept is 28 and places will be allocated on a first come, first served basis each week. At the moment a lot of children come on their own to join us or are sent in after we have begun. We cannot allow this to continue. We would ask that in future you bring your child over to the liturgy leader before Mass and give their name and age, which we will record on our list so that we know who we have with us at all times.

Children’s Liturgy Group

No one is left out

This is a group of children at primary school who meet once a month on a Friday afternoon from 3.45-4.30pm, preparing to lead the Sunday 10.00am Mass. The readings are simplified so that they will be able to read them themselves, and every child, no matter how young, gets an opportunity to take part in some capacity. No one is left out. Often the gospel or homily will be presented as a little play, which they all enjoy, and then the children are asked to write the bidding prayers themselves. This can often indicate the depth of spiritual maturity even in young minds. None of this is done for show or entertainment but as a serious attempt to engage the children in the celebration of Mass. We select one ‘theme’ from the Mass and try to return to it several times and in different ways when we ask the children to read or act.  We also try very hard to point the children’s attention outwards to see the needs and sufferings of those around us, to pray for them and find ways of helping them practically where appropriate. The fact that they have their readings to take home, lines to learn or prayers to practise, means that they are actually thinking about the Sunday Mass all weekend and that therefore, the Word of God is more likely to take root in them than if they were coming to Mass unprepared. It is amazing how all this helps even the youngest child to become more confident in front of a lot of people and to feel special to God in proclaiming his Word to the rest of us. A number of parents very kindly help us and their encouragement can mean that even the most reticent of children can be feel able to stand up with confidence before the whole congregation.

Leading the prayer of the Mass

 In these celebrations, the children actually ‘lead’ the prayer of the whole community at Mass for that particular Sunday and this is far away from ‘being occupied’ or begrudgingly included. Their directness is often surprising and enlightening. It is not for nothing that Our Lord tells us that the kingdom of God belongs to them.

Religious formation in School          Louise Swinfield

In our parish primary school, the children follow the Nottingham Diocesan scheme of work called “Here I am”. This has a four-year cycle, so topics are revisited every four years. Each year group from Foundation Stage to Year 6 study the same topic at the appropriate level. There are three topics a term, so nine for every academic year. The scheme covers subjects such as Baptism, Creation, Reconciliation, the Church Community and the Holy Eucharist, under titles such as ‘Building Bridges’, ‘Self-Giving’, ‘Meals’, ‘Babies’, ‘Visitors’, ‘Books’, and ‘Myself’. The children also prepare and celebrate Masses throughout the year as individual classes, Key Stage Groups, or the Whole School, and these take place in church on Thursday mornings as the parish morning Mass for that day, to which all members of our community are invited. The Masses are based on the theme or topic, as are weekly assemblies and other services throughout the year both in school and in church. These liturgies are meant to be both educational and spiritual – ie. to help children learn more about a particular topic and also to reflect on it in their prayer. There is a prayer group which meets regularly in school with the Head Teacher for this purpose. During Year 3, children may begin to prepare for the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist if this is appropriate. They continue to follow the “Here I am” scheme during this year and a homework booklet is given to families to support the work done in class. Meetings are held for parents throughout the year to help them to take their part in the preparation of their children, there are several parish liturgies and two interactive mornings with families and their priest. The emphasis in school is twofold – to help children to know God, through the teaching of the syllabus, but, more importantly, to love Him, through their prayer life and their concern for others. We try to make the atmosphere of our school prayerful, loving and happy as well as meeting the necessary educational and social targets that are placed upon us, and particular emphasis is laid on older children taking care of the younger ones through the ‘buddy’ scheme, which they all appreciate.

Conclusion

This is not an exhaustive document of course. There remains far more to be said and thought about, but these few thoughts will hopefully help those parents who feel a bit lost when faced with the prospect of forming their children in faith. This enterprise is a partnership between parents, parish community (priests, catechists and liturgy leaders) and the school and each has something very special to offer to the others. In the course of this relationship we hope and pray that our children will grow to know and love God for themselves and become loving parents themselves in the fullness of time. What they have experienced as children themselves if it is something valuable and memorable, will stand them in very good stead in the formation of their own children in the future.