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Kids Who Become

The special initiation process for youth joining the Church often has a surprising side effect: The parents who dropped out now come back to Church.

By Jan Dunlap


Children Undergo Conversion, Too
Welcoming Families
Encouraging the Domestic Church

Recognizing the Family's Role
Founding Faith Communities
Lessons for Everyone

When Jessica, Justin and Michael Heroux (ages 11, nine and seven) asked their parents if they could be baptized into the Catholic Church, it threw their dad, Arthur Heroux, into a spin. Not only did the topic open new avenues of family discussion, but it also opened old wounds: Heroux, a cradle Catholic, had left the Church 27 years earlier in the wake of what he terms a "bad experience" with a priest and parish. When Jessica began going to Mass with friends, he had no idea that her interest in attending would grow to involve the entire family.

"At first, I went with my friends," Jessica remembers, "and I thought it was fun. Then my mom started going with me. She was Catholic, but hadn't been going to church." After they came home each week, they'd tell the other members of the family about their experiences at Mass and soon Justin decided he wanted to go, too.

"They had a lot to talk about and it seemed cool," Justin explains, "so I wanted to get into it. Pretty soon, we all started going."

Heroux, though, still harbored a lot of anger toward the Church and resisted his children's wishes to be initiated. In the course of family discussion, however, he began to acknowledge the depth of his children's desire to join the Church and finally he agreed to attend the Catechumenate classes with his children—a required commitment of all parents enrolling their children in the program.

At the time, Heroux says, he fully expected for someone to challenge him, especially since he "walked in to the process with a chip on my shoulder." What he didn't expect, however, was the conversion and transformation he himself experienced as he studied the Catholic faith with his children. "I've always believed that you lead by example, and as a parent I've always tried to do that," he explains. "In this case, it was the children who were leading by example. They were the ones who converted me."

A growing number of U.S. children and their families are entering, or reentering, the Catholic Church. Diocesan officials across the nation credit much of the increase to the dynamic nature of the Children's Catechumenate now in place in many parishes. It was drawn directly from the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), and mandated for use in all U.S. parishes by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1988. The Children's Catechumenate follows the same format of inquiry, instruction and initiation rites as the adult process, though somewhat scaled down to meet the needs of children.

The Children's Catechumenate is actually a rite, explains Maureen Kelly, who has become a nationally known advocate for this adaptation of the RCIA. She is former associate director of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, a grass-roots organization of people involved in the initiation ministry of the Church. "Rome has said and the American bishops have said that the RCIA is the normative ritual for how anyone, including children, comes into the Church."

Children Undergo Conversion, Too

In Arizona, the Children's Catechumenate has seen significant enrollment growth in recent years. John Myers, director of catechetical ministry for the Diocese of Phoenix, estimates that some 400 children between the ages of seven and 16 joined the Catholic Church in the diocese within the last year, reflecting a definite increase in the number of kids becoming Catholic.

Myers also reports that more parishes are offering the process for children and their families, and that more coordinators are being trained to implement the program. "The numbers have grown in the last few years," he says, "and while I think that the process reflects an increased understanding of the whole process of conversion of children, I think it also reflects a growing sensitivity to, a greater awareness of and a concern for diverse family situations among families in the Church."

Louise English, director of catechetical ministry at St. Bernadette Parish in nearby Scottsdale, agrees with Myers's assessment of the Children's Catechumenate. As a seven-year veteran of directing the children's process, she, too, has seen a steady increase in the numbers of parishes implementing the program, and witnessed a deepening appreciation for the specific needs of children who seek faith.

"It used to be that the only way we knew how to do it was to have 'catch-up' classes for kids," she notes. "In these classes, we were trying to deal with subjects light-years removed from where they were (or weren't) in faith development—subjects like Eucharist and Reconciliation—when what they really wanted to ask was, 'Who is God?' Now, in the Children's Catechumenate, we recognize that a whole conversion process is needed for these kids, not just 'catch-up' classes."

Like the adult process, the Children's Catechumenate adheres to family involvement, peer catechetical support, the gradual admission of the catechumen to the sacraments of initiation, and the tenet that even the unbaptized is a member of the household of faith. The RCIA ritual book is used in every parish, yet the exact shape of the children's process is defined by individual parishes.

Recognizing the Family's Role

In the Diocese of Dallas, parishes have been using the RCIA for the Children's Catechumenate since 1986, according to Diocesan Director of Christian Initiation Bill Hebekeuser. "We do everything the rite demands," he explains, "but how to implement the process of forming and making disciples is up to the parishes themselves."

One parish uses sponsoring families to bring new families into the Church; the families hold catechetical sessions in their own homes. Other parishes use prayer partners, classroom instruction, discussion and community service projects as components of the nine-month process. In addition, parents of children in the Catechumenate are asked to enroll those children at the same time in the parish CCD classes.

In English's program in Scottsdale, 10 weekly classes are devoted to a parental inquiry period, during which parents meet without the children to talk about their expectations, their own experiences with the Church and their understanding of faith. "We ask them over and over again if this is really what they want for their children," English says. "Unless parents are willing to bring their children to Mass, to raise them Catholic, we don't encourage them to remain in the process. We say, 'If it's not for you, then wait, because it's not fair to your family. Maybe another time would be the right time.'"

After that point children join their parents in attending the classes, which focus on religious instruction in the context of the children's lives. Relationships with family members and friends, sex, drugs and violence, peer pressure—these and more are discussed from the perspective of faith. Children learn how Christian teaching can play a role in decisionmaking, how being a Catholic can guide them in interpreting and acting upon the events of their lives.

Sometimes, parents and children address issues together; other times, they separate to encourage peer interaction and exchange. Prayer, Scripture, role-playing and skits all find a place in the process, as do group celebrations and blessings. For some of the youth, the Catechumenate gives a name to what they have already learned informally in their homes; for others, it offers them their first opportunity to become knowledgeable about Catholicism, even though it is—or once was—the faith of their parents.

Welcoming Families

Many parents find that their children's interest in Catholicism calls a big question in their own lives. Maggie Seliga, director of the School of Religion at St. Theresa Parish in Phoenix, explains that children who come to the Catechumenate represent a variety of family situations. In some cases, a parent newly divorced from a spouse of a different faith wants the child to join the Church. For other couples, a second marriage has occurred in which both spouses are now Catholic and the family wishes to practice a shared faith.

Sometimes spouses in mixed-faith marriages elect to allow their children to make their own choices in joining the Church of their preference. These kids frequently are already enrolled in a Catholic school, but have yet to be initiated into the community. Quite often, Seliga adds, children in the Catechumenate have not been baptized as infants because "time has simply gotten away from the family," she says. "Mom and Dad are upwardly mobile in their career track and have moved so often they haven't been anywhere long enough to have established family roots in parishes." In other cases one or both parents have previously left (or drifted away from) the Church and are reluctant to allow their children to be initiated into a faith from which they are estranged.

In this light, the Children's Catechumenate "is a definite response to contemporary needs," Seliga affirms. "What used to be the atypical family is now typical. What is so wonderful about this process is how it helps us reach out and welcome families into our parishes. It used to be, 'Give your children to us and we'll educate them in the faith,' but now it's, 'Come with your children.'"

Louise English, of St. Bernadette's in Scottsdale, amplifies the point. Her Catechumenate program "is absolutely a reflection of the Church's ministry to diverse families," she states. "Some of these parents come shaking to the door, ashamed, ready to be ridiculed, criticized, because they fear people will say they're not good parents, that they've been negligent in not baptizing their children. Often the reason they haven't brought the children before this is because there was a traumatic experience with the Church in their past. To come now with their children is a healing thing."

English goes on to relate several stories of parents who have participated in the program with their children and have been changed by it. "I hear lots of parents who came strictly for their kids say, 'Gosh, I think I'd like to go back to Communion,' or 'I've never had my marriage blessed,' or 'I never had an annulment.' In the course of bringing their children to the Church, they begin to feel welcomed back to the Church themselves."

Founding Faith Communities

Maggie Wark hadn't attended an Ash Wednesday Mass in 20 years when her mother came to visit at the beginning of Lent a few years ago. "After going with her," Wark recalls, "I decided it was something I wanted to do: go back to the Church. And I wanted my daughter Julie to come with me."

Wark considered enrolling Julie in a Children's Catechumenate program and weighed the commitment it would require of both herself and her daughter. As a young Catholic, Wark had married outside the Church, had a child, divorced and remarried. When the pastor of the local Catholic Church refused to allow that child to enroll in religious education classes unless her new husband (also not a Catholic) joined the Church, Wark walked away. She raised her first child "without religion," she explains, and had assumed she'd do the same with Julie.

Faced with the weekly classes and Mass attendance required by the Children's Catechumenate, Wark wondered if it was the right decision to return to the Church. "I kept asking myself, 'Do I really want to do this?'" she recalls. "But I knew I did."

As her daughter Julie began the process of learning about the Catholic faith, Wark rediscovered her own. "I was able to share my experiences of growing up Catholic with others who were in similar situations," she remembers. "I felt welcomed in the group and everyone was so warm. Julie became close to the other kids and she really wanted to go each week, she enjoyed it so much. We began to feel the community aspect of the Church that we didn't have in our lives before we started the classes, and it really supported and encouraged us." In reflecting upon their experience with the Catechumenate, Wark concludes that community building is at the heart of the Catechumenate.

She isn't alone in her evaluation of the role that community plays in conversion. Directors of Catechumenate programs frequently experience firsthand the bonding that occurs between participants in the classes. "The very personal nature of the process allows us to bond at a level you can't reach in a casual class," Phoenix's Maggie Seliga says. "When you journey spiritually with someone, that person becomes a part of your life."

Often, friendships that were formed during the classes last far beyond the culminating sacramental celebration at Easter when the children complete their ritual initiation into the Church. Maggie Wark's daughter Julie still keeps in touch with some of her Catechumenate classmates daily. Wark herself now volunteers with the Children's Catechumenate team at her parish.

Encouraging the Domestic Church

Community bonds are not the only ones strengthened by the dynamics of the Catechumenate process: Family relationships are also nourished by the child-parent companionship nurtured by the program.

When Cindy Hynes and her daughter, Linda, began the Children's Catechumenate at St. Theresa's in Phoenix, they found a warm welcome waiting for them. After an almost eight-year absence from the Church precipitated by a difficult family breakup and divorce, Hynes wanted 12-year-old Linda, a baptized Catholic, to "get back on track with the Church." She also wanted Linda to be able to participate fully in her upcoming wedding to Bernie, a fellow Catholic. They decided to attend the process together as a family.

"Even though we weren't married yet," Hynes recalls, "it helped draw our future family together. We talked a lot about the discussions we had in class, and it really helped solidify our relationships with each other as family. But most of all, from a spiritual perspective, it was good for us all to attend. That way, as a parent, you're there for your child every step of the way."

Hynes observes that many cradle Catholics get pushed through religious instruction almost automatically. "In the Catechumenate, you make the decision to take that walk with your child, to make that journey of faith together," she says. "For us, it really reinforced what we wanted to be as a faith-full family."

Linda, too, was impressed by the ways she learned to share faith with her mother and future stepfather. "We talked about faith more than we ever had," she explains, "and I really felt a lot of support for what I was doing from my mom and Bernie. It was neat to have them there in class with me, and to share the stuff we did." She also feels her Catechumenate classes gave her a solid understanding of Catholicism and the Bible. "I had a lot of time to think about it between Sundays," she says, "and I liked reading the Bible."

Now attending a Catholic high school, Linda observes that she is "definitely more clued-in to and comfortable with" the Bible than many of her classmates. "I definitely am glad I went through the process," Linda adds. "I became friends with the other kids in the group, our facilitator was great and it helped bring me to more faith."

For Louise English, supporting families in their faith development is a key outcome of the Catechumenate process. "The Domestic Church is our goal," she states. "We want to help families learn how to pray together, how to make decisions together, how to spend their time, money, resources, energy—through a new lens, a new light of faith. Through the Catechumenate, parents have the opportunity to learn with their children, and to learn how to talk to their children about God."

Talking with his kids through the Catechumenate process was both eye-opening and humbling for Arthur Heroux, whose story opened this article. "I had no idea what my kids had to deal with in school these days with drugs and sex and violence," he points out. "I just assumed life at school was like the school days I experienced 30-plus years ago: safe, secure, beautiful." But in the course of family conversations stimulated by Catechumenate class sessions, Heroux began to see and appreciate the challenges his children deal with daily.

"Talking about those things brought us closer together in that we discussed these issues in light of Church teachings," says Heroux. "My kids know right and wrong but, if I were faced with all they encounter, I feel I couldn't have done it by myself. Discovering something so positive was a godsend," he explains, "and it made it clear to my children that, even for adults, learning and growing in faith doesn't end."

He considers the Children's Catechumenate a healing opportunity "for the millions of Catholics out there floundering with their kids."

Lessons for Everyone

Like a pebble thrown into a pool, the ripples of impact spread by the Children's Catechumenate continue to expand. While some parishes are still unsure of the value or demand for the process—despite the bishops' mandate—those that do offer it are experiencing a continual stream of child enrollment. Families that have been alienated from the Church are finding it a 'safe' way to return—a way that enables parents to feel welcomed back into the community, while their children are invited into a life-giving and life-guiding relationship with God. For many of the families, the Catechumenate experience is transforming. While their stories are personal journeys of faith, they offer lessons that can benefit every Catholic family and community as well.

"These families are just glowing," Maggie Seliga says of the groups she has directed, "and they have affected me deeply. I have gained from them a deeper understanding of my own faith, thanks in part to the different perspectives they bring." She has been impressed with the commitment and willingness of the parents to share their faith journeys honestly and openly with their children.

"I think the children benefit most from actually witnessing their parents growing in faith," Seliga notes. "To see their parents questioning, participating in discussions, praying and joining in religious activities with them is a wonderful thing for any child." The children come to see growing in faith as a lifelong event, not just a stage of early development, she says. Every family can use that reminder from time to time, as well as the encouragement that in matters of faith, the Church is "looking with renewed interest at families as the primary educators of children," she adds.

Bringing new perspective to faith has always been one of the gifts that converts bring to the Church; the children and parents of the Catechumenate are no exception. Their different paths, caused by diverse, sometimes difficult, family histories, give them unique points of view for understanding Catholic teaching and integrating it into their lives. "So many people who are born and raised Catholic don't have a view outside of that," Hynes suggests. "By looking at the experience of those who have been outside the Church, maybe it would help Catholics see more clearly where others are coming from in their faith. It would certainly increase our tolerance, because then our understanding of each other would be more complete."

That may be the best lesson of all that the Children's Catechumenate has to offer: its invitation to, and inclusion of, families in all situations of life. As Jesus admonished his disciples in Galilee almost two thousand years ago, "Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (Luke 18:16). Thanks to the family-focused nature of the Children's Catechumenate, kids who become Catholic don't have to come alone. Their families are welcome to come along with them.

Jan Dunlap is a free-lance writer and mother of five who is an active parish volunteer in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has an B.A. in English from Regis University.

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