A mother and her son, with wooden rosaries on his shoulder, tour the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, during the 2015 pilgrimage sponsored by the Diocese of Trenton. Ken Falls photo

A mother and her son, with wooden rosaries on his shoulder, tour the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, during the 2015 pilgrimage sponsored by the Diocese of Trenton. Ken Falls photo

Story by Mary Morrell | Correspondent

The faith formation of children is one of the awesome privileges of parents, one that, for most families, is supported by the work of parish catechetical leaders. Each September, as the new school year begins, parents of children in parish religious education programs also plan their days to include one of a number of religious education options that may be offered including weekly classes in the parish, or, if they are part of a family catechesis program, one longer class a month, perhaps on a Saturday or Sunday.

For parents who jump into the new school year already with full plates and hectic schedules – facing the myriad challenges of raising children in an often difficult contemporary culture – it can be easy to view religious education as just one more thing to get through during the year.  But the interior and spiritual lives of children are a treasure, one that is worth the effort and one that is best cared for by those who love children the most – their parents.

So how can parents make the most of the new catechetical year?

Embrace Your Vocation

No one has the ability to better form children in faith than parents, because faith must flow from an experience of love. Parents, by virtue of their own Baptism, are called to form their children in the Catholic faith to the best of their ability. This parental vocation, which includes the mission of helping children discover their own vocation as children of God, is so important it is part of the teaching of the Catholic Church and described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

It is not necessary for parents to be theologians or experts in religious education to nurture their children’s spiritual lives. Keeping Christ at the heart of the family ensures that the family will be the best school of love and faith formation, where children will catch the faith by watching their parents’ examples of living the Gospel and loving God. These meaningful first-hand exchanges are not experiences to be found in a textbook.

Discover Joy

Jesus was undoubtedly a man of joy, and that joy of the Spirit was charismatic. Children should have that same experience with parents leading them on their faith journey, whether it be in the home or in the parish religious education classroom. Being joyful and confident in the faith is an invaluable expression when modeling the faith for children. It instills in them the truth that faith is a positive thing for their lives and encourages them to lean on God in times of trouble. Remember the words of St. Paul to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (4:4)

Know Their Stuff

Mining in a child’s backpack can be a challenging experience, but one that is essential in making the most of any catechetical year. Carefully review any materials your children bring home from school. There is nothing more stressful than missing a deadline for registering for something or not having an assignment completed because the child didn’t tell you it was needed. Many of their text books have sections especially for parents, either for a bit of catechesis or as an activity to share with your children. When you know what your children are learning, you will find inspiration in the most unexpected places to reinforce their lessons with real life experience.

Also, check out the parish website to discover any resources for parents posted by the religious education office. Oftentimes, Catholic publishers, like the ones responsible for children’s textbooks, have webpages dedicated for parent and student activities, or parent formation through newsletters and reading suggestions.

Establish Rules

Give this some thought before the school year starts, keeping in mind that any worthwhile endeavor requires rules of some kind. Classroom rules are essential to establish a healthy and effective learning environment. Children need, and feel safe in, an environment with both limitations and expectations. The same is true of the home and family. If you like to keep it simple, one effective rule for children of all ages is respect. That one word can open up a meaningful discussion with children on what is expected of them when it comes to undertaking their religion classes for the year – how are completing assignments, listening to the teacher, making sacrifices of time or missing an extracurricular activity, signs of self-respect, respect for God or the adults in their lives?

Stock Up On Stories

Children of all ages love stories. Jesus knew that, which is why he taught with parables – faith stories that are studied, reflected on and shared more than 2,000 years after Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. Children love to hear stories of their parents’ lives, especially when parents share those times when they made mistakes, bad decisions or were fearful, or times of courage and caring. These are wonderful times to share with children the role of faith in these extraordinary times of life. There are also wonderful Bible stories that help children see things from a faith perspective, like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, or the image Jesus shares of the hen gathering her chicks under her wings for protection. What child who has been wrapped in the arms of her mother or father wouldn’t understand what that means?

Pray, Pray, Pray

Prayer is essential for the growing spiritual life of each child and every family.  Praying with our children is a certain path to nurturing their relationship with God. We are blessed that our Church has given us many other prayers to lift up our hearts and minds to God. In addition, our own spontaneous prayers, our conversations with God, are times of asking for guidance and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as we enter into  faith formation of our children.

A revered tradition in the Church that often seems to have fallen by the way side in many families is praying the Rosary. This is a daily practice that should be taken up again. If you cannot manage the full 10 decades of the Rosary, start with one decade. It is easily managed by children who delight in having their own Rosary beads. Also, if you are not familiar with how to say the Rosary, most parishes have times when the Rosary is said in the church. It would be a wonderful opportunity for a visit to the Church with children aside from Sunday Mass.

Most importantly, we have the Mass, the greatest prayer of our Catholic faith and the Eucharist, the source and summit of our life as Catholics.  Our participation in the celebration of Mass strengthens us to go out into the world, share the Gospel and be Christ to others. We must take our children on the journey with us.

Mary Morrell has served as associate director of religious education for the Diocese of Metuchen; associate editor and catechetical consultant for RENEW International, Plainfield, and managing editor of The Monitor.