At a recent Sunday Mass, one of the young children said to his parents during my homily, “If God doesn’t stop talking soon he’s going to lose his voice!” I’m hoping it was because my voice was a bit sore and not due to the length of my homily!
While pastors can sometimes be accused of playing God, it’s not often that someone actually thinks we’re God. Of course, when it does happen, as it has in all my parishes, it’s always one of the young children who thinks that the priest is God or Jesus. I’ve never gotten the impression that they’re approaching this from the theological concept of the priest as an “alter-Christus.” But they’re obviously assimilating something from the priest’s role at mass to make these connections.
Working with children is certainly one of the delights of parish ministry. While we do not have a school associated with Holy Cross Parish, there are many opportunities for me to interact with and enjoy our parish children.
Something as common as greeting the children before and after Mass is an opportunity to make a connection with them. I like to joke around and kid with them, which helps them see that I’m down to earth, friendly, and caring. I’m likewise able to do this when I visit the Religious Education classes held for the children on Sundays after the 8:30 a.m. Children’s Mass. Because of the number of children involved in our Faith Formation program, we have two sections that meet on alternating Sundays for an hour and a half. Each class has one or two catechists as well as a couple of aids to ensure that the children have adequate attention and support. Our director of faith formation is then able to bring individual classes to our Brother Andre Chapel in the parish center for a video or special presentation.
We offer a Children’s Liturgy of the Word during the Children’s Mass. After the opening prayer, the children gather in the front of the church for a blessing and are then led to the church hall by one of the children carrying the children’s Book of Readings. They hear two of the readings followed by an explanation from a catechist and an activity that helps them better understand the readings. They then rejoin their families for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Each year our first graders put on the Christmas Pageant at the children’s Christmas Eve Mass. There are plenty of angels and shepherds adoring the baby Jesus during the pageant! The homily is then addressed to them and the other children in the church. These first graders are even well enough behaved to remain in the sanctuary for the remainder of the Mass.
One of the highlights of the year for me is our Summer Vacation Bible School. Now in its fourth year, we have seen the number of participants grow each year. Along with the many adults who dedicate this week each August to the children, I’ve been particularly impressed with the number of parish teenagers who assist. They organize the fun physical activities for the children as well as put on skits for them, with a brief play on the last day. Many teenagers also work with the children at our fall festival, holly fair, monthly children’s movie night, and other family-oriented social activities. I always remind the teenagers that they are making a great impression on the children by participating with them in church-oriented programs and activities.
As priests, we have a wonderful opportunity to shape these children’s perceptions of church and religion from the very beginning of their faith lives. In each of my four parishes I have found my ministry to the children to be one of the most rewarding aspects of parochial ministry.
Fr. Jim Fenstermaker, C.S.C., is Pastor of Holy Cross Parish in South Easton, Mass. He is a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica Blog, reflecting on the work of Holy Cross in parish ministry. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross priests and brothers in parochial ministry as we seek to bring hope to the Church and world.