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September 5, 2003
Greetings and welcome to Faith Formation Update, a free monthly e-newsletter for catechetical leaders with a focus on parish catechesis beyond textbooks and classrooms. I'm Judith Dunlap. In each issue I offer a brief starter and my "Every Family" column. My co-worker and fellow religious educator Joan McKamey offers video resources and ideas in her "Seen and Heard" column. Our co-worker Chuck Blankenship suggests other faith formation resources for adults from St. Anthony Messenger Press in his column, "Sowing Sampler." Finally, we encourage YOU to share views and program ideas about this month's topic on our online bulletin board, "Faith Formation Forum." Blessings on your work!
—Judith Dunlap

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Preparing for First Sacraments

September is the time to get ready for catechizing and celebrating first sacraments. This is especially true if we are hoping to allow these sacramental occasions to touch the faith life of more than just our youngsters.

The celebration of first sacraments is an opportunity to catechize the parents and family of the child, as well as other adults in the parish. We can do this by taking time to meet with catechists before classes begin and by carefully planning the parents' preparation meeting. These prerequisites are especially necessary when preparing children for First Reconciliation.

Today's textbooks and family catechetical series do a great job of presenting the Sacrament of Penance in an upbeat, positive way. But sometimes catechists or parents can color a child's viewpoint, even unintentionally, with words and examples that reflect their own, perhaps less positive attitudes. We must try to ensure that everyone involved in preparing and celebrating with the children makes a conscious effort to present the sacrament as the positive, life-giving gift it is meant to be.

It is important to follow sound catechetical process in both catechist and parent meetings. Begin with the person's experience, connect that experience to what we hope to teach, provide the appropriate theological and scriptural references and invite each person to apply the teaching to his or her own life:

• A person's own experience—Let folks talk about their early and current experiences of the Sacrament of Penance. (Non-Catholic parents can share their perception of the sacrament from the media and what others have said.) Share in groups of two or three.

• The new idea—History is a great teacher, especially in this case. The history of the Sacrament of Penance can serve as a bridge to a healthier understanding of the sacrament. (Click here for a brief history of the sacrament.)

• Scripture and theology—Choose Scripture readings that emphasize the loving nature of God. The story of the prodigal son is always good (Luke 15:11-32). Check out the sample retreat offered in the Every Family column below for a way to explain what a sacrament is.

• Applying to one's life—Take some quiet time for reflection. Give participants one or two questions to reflect and share. Suggestions: What was the most significant thing you heard? In what way, if any, has your view of Penance changed?

The success of catechizing and celebrating a sacrament often depends on the time spent beforehand talking about what the sacrament and the sacramental experience mean. Taking that time can result in all sorts of good outcomes. I know that I discover new things each year. The children receive a more complete catechesis and parents and parish members are given an opportunity to understand and celebrate the sacraments on another level.

More about the book Taming the Media Monster: Family Guide to Television, Internet and All the Rest
Learning About Sacraments

Some of you who are close to my age may be familiar with the Baltimore Catechism's definition of a sacrament: "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." I think I memorized that sentence in the second grade and just kept repeating it for the next 16 years of my Catholic schooling. My mantra through the doubting years of college was, "If brilliant men like Aquinas and Augustine could believe, who am I to doubt?"

It wasn't until I began postgraduate theology study that I started asking questions. Sacramental Theology was one of my favorite courses. I was eager to share what I had learned with the people with whom I ministered. The challenge, of course, was to condense the theology I received in 40 or so hours into a two-hour presentation.

One year, in a Confirmation class, I came up with a process that I adapted later for intergenerational/family gatherings. It is a brief introduction into "what a sacrament is." It is far from definitive, but hopefully it will get young people and adults thinking about sacraments in a broader way.

The process is part of the retreat "Signs, Symbols and Sacraments" in the God Is Calling Leader's Guide, and it takes about 40 minutes. It asks participants to imagine what the world would be like if we all lived according to the plan of God. After sharing their ideas on newsprint, participants talk about what the world is really like today. These activities lead into a discussion of the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church.

After a brief explanation, participants are led to understand that sacraments mark the important stages in a person's life. "They are gifts, power coming forth (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1116) to initiate, strengthen, nurture, comfort, and empower us, as we continue within the Body of Christ to live out Jesus' mission to proclaim in word and action the Good News, destroying evil and making good things happen" (p. 144 of the Leader's Guide). To see the format of this section of the retreat, click here.

You might want to incorporate the above process in an intergenerational "Jesus Day" for youngsters and their parents who are preparing for first sacraments this year. From my own experience I know that the families who participated in similar retreat days found them most worthwhile.

More about the video On Fire With Faith: Forming Adult Disciples
Video Updates on Preparing for First Reconciliation

My first experience as a parish catechist occurred when I was a junior in college. I was a religious studies/religious education major, so it was only natural that I volunteer as a catechist in an area parish. I was asked to be a mid-year replacement. It was only after I had agreed to take the class that I was told I would be replacing a pair of catechists who had resigned after struggling with classroom management AND that I would be helping the children prepare to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I experienced some of the same inner turmoil that I'm sure many of my students' parents were feeling. I truly wanted the children to have a positive experience of this sacrament of God's love and forgiveness. I sincerely believe in God's forgiveness and certainly see it as something to celebrate. But my experiences of the sacrament to that point hadn't all been positive. In fact, a few—like the poorly planned high school retreat that had elderly priests hearing confessions at 1 a.m.—had left emotional scars. So I had some personal work to do if I was going to be authentic with these children.

And so began an important life lesson that I drew upon later in my ministry as a parish Director of Religious Education: Adults will do things for children that they won't do for themselves.

As a parish DRE, I found the First Reconciliation preparation meetings with parents to be very rewarding. I believe that every adult gathering is an adult faith formation opportunity. So I focused my energies on offering parents formation as both adults and as parents. I found the parents interested in learning so that they could answer their children's questions, but they also recognized their own need for an updated understanding of the sacrament. Without a required parent meeting, they might never have come forward to have their personal adult needs met.

A video resource that offers material for both children and their parents is Preparing Your Child for First Reconciliation. The segments designed for children may be viewed at a gathering of parents and children together with sharing and discussion following. Click here to see a video clip from the story segment of Preparing Your Child for First Reconciliation ( RealMedia | Windows Media). Click here to see a video clip from the teaching segment of Preparing Your Child for First Reconciliation ( RealMedia | Windows Media).


Other videos on Preparing for First Reconciliation (click on the video title for more information):

• The Church Celebrates the Reconciling God (adults; four segments: story, witness, teaching, music video)
• The God Who Reconciles (adults; four segments: story, witness, teaching, music video)
• Preparing Your Child for Reconciliation (adults, 25 minutes)
• The Forgiveness of the Lord (three 12-minute videos, grades 1-3)
• Pardon and Peace…Remembered (15 minutes, teen-adult)
• Skateboard (12 minutes, primary-adult)
• Reconciliation with Father Michael Himes (25 minutes, adult)
Preview the full text
Preview the full text
Appreciating a Sacramental Church

How often have you heard people walking out of Sunday Mass mumbling, "Why did we have those Baptisms during Mass? That's not why I came here today!" Or after the Rite of Acceptance is celebrated with the new catechumens, do you hear people talking about how it "made the Mass just too long"? Sometimes it seems that Catholics view the Eucharist as the only sacrament worth celebrating, and that the other six sacraments are just something to be "endured" only when absolutely necessary.

With all the beginnings at this time of year, we ought to take advantage of the opportunity to renew our appreciation for the role of the sacraments in the life of the Church. As we introduce more inquirers into the assembly celebrating the first stages of the RCIA, this would be a good time to update the assembly's understanding of the RCIA in the life of the Church. Rita Burns Senseman, a team member of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, provides an excellent picture of the RCIA process in her Catholic Update, "A New Look at the RCIA: Journey for the Entire Parish." Touching on the history of the RCIA, she carefully explains the four major steps in the initiation process. An extremely helpful handout, this Update can help your entire assembly better understand its role in the RCIA.

Small groups and study groups looking for a better understanding of the sacraments might consider using a helpful little book by Father Tom Richstatter, The Sacraments: How Catholics Pray. Eleven short chapters lead the reader through a review of sacraments and their place in the spiritual life of Catholics. Each chapter includes prayer and discussion questions, making it perfect for small-group use. For study groups, this book makes a great beginning and includes citations for further study at the end of each chapter.

Study guides from St. Anthony Messenger magazine
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How do you prepare for first sacraments? Our editors will screen and post your ideas on our online bulletin board at You can check the board from time to time to see others' ideas. Submit your ideas by clicking here.

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