Wednesday, February 26, 2014

First Communion Retreat in Review

This past weekend A and I went to our final First Communion meeting. It was a three hour retreat for parent and child. We did the same thing for First Reconciliation. 

It was really very nice and she seemed to enjoy the whole thing. 

When I attend these sorts of things I have a hard time turning off the inner-catechist-trainer in me. No matter how hard I try not to, I critique. And since I have been writing about parish faith formation programs over the past few months, I had an even harder time on Saturday. 

Of course I began to formulate a blog post in my head, but I didn’t want to complain about my parish. I think they do such a good job with Sacramental prep. It is very parent focused. You have three meetings for each sacrament. One parents only meeting, where you get your materials and the schedule and a talk about the sacrament and your responsibility for preparing your child. Then there is a parent/child meeting where you listen to a talk or two and get some practical training—for First Communion that meant a tour of the church and practice receiving unconsecrated hosts and wine. Then there is the three hour retreat with parent and child. The talks were spot on, focused on the Real Presence and your relationship with Jesus. They used scripture as their foundation. And they tapped into the liturgy, ending  the retreat with Eucharistic adoration and Benediction. Who could complain about that, right? 

So the methods used (using scriptural foundations, a liturgical atmosphere), the doctrine presented (focus on the real presence), and the presenters themselves were all really great. I have no real criticism for them. 

But I realized, as I reflected on the critique running through my head, that really it all goes back to that structure thing that I talked about in my recent blog posts. If I were to change anything, it would be the elements that result from the assumption that religious education ought to be like school: mass education of children, hoping that you influence the parents in the meantime. 

For example, for one segment of the retreat the kids and parents are separated. But, since A was not into sitting in a room with a hundred other kids she didn’t know and a teacher she only knows by sight as “First Communion Lady”, I went with her to her segment and missed the parent’s segment. No big deal. I was the only parent sitting there with the kids, but no one said anything. As I sat there in the back and watched the other children with my teacher eyes, I could tell that a certain percentage of the kids seemed to be paying attention. Then there was a relatively big percentage of squirmers, looky-loos, and whispering gigglers. The presenters would be able to get their attention periodically and hold it, but not for long. They were not disruptive, really. There was really good crowd control as those things go. But I know that a large percentage of that second group wasn’t getting much of anything out of the talk. And a small percentage of the apparently paying attention kids were not really listening either. That is just the way it goes. 

Now, she did the usual things to keep a large group of kids “focused”. She asked questions, used props, walked around through the crowd, kept things moving along. But I noticed there was one part when she seemed to have the attention of most of the kids. That was when she had them reciting parts of the Mass aloud together. 

I thought that was a really good use of her time with them. Everyone was at least attending to the task at hand—reciting. They were getting practice saying the mass parts in a group (a thing kids sometimes struggle with), and they were getting the idea that it was now their job to make sure they were paying attention at Mass. 

So, as I said, the only real negative to the day was the structure. The focus was on educating that large group of children (I estimate 100, but I have never been good at estimating, so it may have been more). Even when parent and child were together in the beginning and at the end, the focus was mostly on the kids. The presenter would make asides to the parents, even so much as saying “This is for you parents now.” 

Each family brought a loaf of bread to be blessed. 
The problem with this is that you continue to give the impression that the “experts” are best equipped to teach the kids, and you hope the parents pick up a few things along the way. And in the meantime you haven’t really done anything to help the parents do their job. 

So, in retrospect, if I ever had to do this catechesis-in-the-parish-thing-again, here is what I think I would do. 

Leaving the schedule the same as what happened at our parish, I would address my talks in the whole group sessions to the adults mostly, and the talks would be about renewing our devotion, as families, to the Eucharist. I might make asides to the kids, but for the most part address them as a family unit. 

During the Adoration and Benediction part, the kids were brought up to the front to kneel on the steps in front of the altar. I understand the idea—get the kids close, so they can see. It might help make it more personal. And, for the record, the kids did a really good job, considering the circumstances: 100 kids bunched together and kneeling on a hard floor. It is no wonder there was some wiggling, a few pockets of whispered giggles. But, at the crucial moments of the Benediction, you could have heard a pin drop. 

That being said, the parents missed out on a huge opportunity. The chance to kneel next to their child in front of our Eucharistic Lord and whisper in the child’s ear, and help them kneel up straight, and help them focus on Jesus, and maybe even answer a question or two. 

We have 24 hour adoration at our parish from Sunday evening to Saturday morning every week. But, I would venture to guess that only a small percentage of those families have ever been to the chapel during those hours. To be fair, most parents are intimidated by the idea of bringing kids to adoration. And for good reason—it is hard to get the kids to sit still and quiet AND help them to pray, and you are in that small quiet place where you feel that you and your child are disrupting everyone else’s prayer. But here was a golden opportunity to practice that. The parents could have been equipped ahead of time with tips on what was going to happen and how to help the child focus. 

During the Adoration segment the main catechist led the group in a reflection, with the idea of helping to focus our minds on Jesus. The problem I had was that the reflections, though good, were not so much “adoration” as “petition”. They were definitely focused on “doing” rather than “being”. 

We began the whole retreat focusing on the image from the Gospel of John about the vine and the branches. We reflected on Jesus’ command to “Remain in Me”. Then here we are in front of HIM and we were too busy thinking about what we should DO (love our neighbor as ourselves) and not enough focused on remaining IN HIM (love our God with all our heart). I would have loved some help with words of Adoration. I am sure the other parents and the children could have used that too. 
The kids put a leaf with their name on it onto the vine. A is reaching for grapes. 

In my imaginary world where I direct the retreat, I would have found some words and phrases of praise and worship to say slowly, and suggest the participants repeat them silently, or whispered in the child’s ear. 

A Mama-Daughter Selfie
If it was necessary to separate kids and parents—if, for instance, you needed to talk about things you didn’t want the kids hearing, like how to deal with kids doubting, or challenging doctrine—then I would rework the kid time. 

Do not expect to teach much in that big session. And what you teach is best done by reciting—the whole group responding together. Reciting Mass parts, reciting doctrinal points (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—one of the presenters had us all repeat it several times and that was great!), learning a Eucharistic hymn. You have 30-40 minutes with these kids. You can’t make a personal enough connection to really impart deep knowledge or faith. You can only give an impression, and help them review what they already know, or perhaps memorize something they haven’t learned yet by reciting it aloud several times. Then, give the parents a list of what they recited, said, or sang. 

Again, all of these changes would, I think, naturally arise out of a restructuring of the faith formation programs for children. If, in fact, we were truly aiming to help the parents to form their kids in the Faith, we would naturally be giving them tools and opportunities to do that on the spot, during the retreat. We would not for a second act as if WE were the experts. We would not just tell them it was their job, we would truly help them do it. 


  1. Very good review! I completely agree. I see it up close every Wednesday night when I teach Confirmation class. How I wish more parents would equip and educate is such a terrible cycle that continues on. We need to build the church!

  2. There is so much for them to learn by First Communion, parents have to be that primary educator. Your posts help me rethink the best ways to reach the small,class I teach. Since we are only together 45 minutes a week, I know at best I am only a facilitator and the work has to be done at home. I like the idea of reciting Mass responses as part of the time together; may need to work this into my plans. Thanks for your insight!