Raising Kids Catholic: Participating in the Life of the Parish Community

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This is the second of a three-part series, originally posted in the Prairie Messenger.

In the first part of this series we looked at things we can do in the home to help our kids appropriate the faith given to them in their baptism. Much more could be said, and my suggestions could serve just as well as sparks to your own imagination as examples to strictly follow. The larger point is to be intentional about your life of faith in the home.  

But our faith is not a private family affair. It is also concerned with our whole Christian community. How can a family participate in the life of the Christian community? And how can the community support families striving to raise Catholic kids?

In the first place, families need to be rooted in a parish. That means, at the very least, weekly mass. But that is not enough. Being parishioners also means participating beyond Sunday mass. There is usually something more going on. Some are spiritual, some are social, some are service-oriented. If there’s nothing going on — get on that!

Many events are related to the liturgical calendar. This can serve as a great link between parish and home. In early November, for example, our kids can print the names of their beloved dead in the parish prayer book and then be conscious to pray for them at home before bed all month. Family traditions for Advent and Lent that provide explicit links to the liturgies experienced at the parish are also great.

Things like going to confession at the parish as a family, or being a welcoming presence to others at fowl suppers and pancake breakfasts, are other ways to build up both the faith of the child and the Christian community that is the social context for that faith. Helping at the parish soup kitchen teaches us that faith must express itself in love or it will die.

As an aside, in many cases it will be beneficial to supplement the Christian community and the life of the parish with participation in something like a lay apostolate or even an informal gathering of Catholic families. If your parish does not seem to be meeting your needs, the answer is not, barring exceptional circumstances, to find a new parish. It is rather to find other forms of Christian community that can support you while you work to build up the life of the parish.

In our family we have a rule: once you are confirmed, you are responsible for the church and that means you have a service role at the parish. It might be reading, or singing, or altar serving, or collecting relief funds, but a confirmed Christian is not along for the ride. If kids are old enough to be confirmed, they are old enough to be full participants in the life of the parish. Kids should even put their own money in the collection plate and donate to other worthy causes.

This leads into what parishes can do to support families. Why not sign kids up for ministries as part of their confirmation program? Once you’re confirmed you can choose to be put on the parish roster as altar serve or reader or something, but a confirmed Christian gets signed up for a role in the parish automatically. It may even help keep families that would drift away after confirmation a little more engaged with the parish if their child has to serve once or twice a month.

One of the key strengths of this approach is that it makes the kids part of the whole community, not a parallel community for children that stops existing when they grow up. I am not against things like children’s liturgy or youth masses in principle, but the danger is they give the impression that regular mass is for other people. I was delighted when my seven-year-old chose to stay with us rather than go for children’s liturgy because he didn’t want to miss all the great readings! Once he receives first communion and confirmation this year, he’ll always stay with us.

There is nothing wrong with youth masses, but there is something wrong if that is the only time kids see themselves and other kids serving in church. They need to know this is their church too, and youth programming that leads to too much segregation from the community undermines that message.

Just as parishes and our Catholic community at large need to avoid segregating our kids from the community, we need to avoid the temptation to entertain them.

It is easy to think that children need kid-friendly music or more jokes to keep them from being bored at mass. This never works. When we do this we are trying to compete with an entertainment culture that has vastly more resources than we do. We won’t win.

The good news is that we shouldn’t even want to win. If we did, we’d stop being the church and start being just more of the culture. Kids don’t need to be entertained. They need to learn that they don’t need to be entertained. So, on top of not letting your kids play on a smart phone or tablet during mass, don’t give the impression the mass is there to entertain them.

Mass isn’t boring. There is something going on at every second. But if kids don’t have the mental space to sit quietly sometimes without being entertained, they won’t have eyes to see what is going on at mass. We live in a culture of distraction. Mass should be an antidote to this, not a supplement. This may be one reason young people today seem so open to devotional practices like eucharistic adoration. Sure, it might seem boring at first. But it doesn’t take long before young people realize that just being with God is an immense freedom that their plugged-in distracted life does not often afford them. Kids don’t need to be entertained. Like the rest of us, they need God.

In the final piece in this series we will look at specific challenges our culture poses to the task of raising kids Catholic and what we can do to meet those challenges.

Salkeld is archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina where he is responsible for the academic formation of diaconate candidates. He serves the CCCB on the national Roman Catholic — Evangelical Dialogue. Salkeld lives in Wilcox, Sask., with his wife, Flannery, and their family.