WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Greg Berube (right) assists Fr. Francis Folleh during the Eucharist at St. Vital Church in Beaumont.
Involving children in the liturgy is a priority for the Church. Come Sunday Mass at many parishes, however, few children are present.
Matthew Berube, 15, is a longtime altar server at St. Vital Parish in Beaumont.
"When I was around four or five I always wanted to (be an altar server), but it was at a different church where you had to be older. Then we moved here, and I started when I was six," said Berube.
His story is probably a rarity. All of his friends attend Mass, and his two younger brothers (Peter, 12, and Greg, 10) are also altar servers. Even with having other interests, serving at the church is still a priority for the three brothers.
Linda Boire, pastoral associate at St. Matthew's Parish in Edmonton, said three key elements that will inspire children to full and active participation at church are good preaching, good music and hospitality.
"Good preaching can have something in it that will appeal to each generation. Some little joke or anecdote, some mention of Spiderman or whoever the leading hero is, can make the kids feel welcome," said Boire.
"The music can be good liturgical music, and if it's done well, little kids dance to it for heaven's sake."
What can the Church do to welcome children and help develop their faith? Not necessarily catering to a younger audience's specific tastes, the liturgy can nevertheless incorporate elements that appeal to them.
Grades 5 and 6 students Armann Singh (on piano Bench), Dorrian Parsons, Amy Krevenchuk and Claudia Soares act out the story of the conversion of St. Paul at St. Dominic Savio Church in Edmonton.
"Good preaching, good music, and hospitality - are churches good at all of the above? Not always, not often," said Boire. "But I'm not sure what more the Church can do. I don't know if that's our mandate."
Being the primary educators of their children, parents play the central role in deciding their children's involvement in the liturgy. The foundation of a faith life begins at home, from the day a child is born.
"It makes me crazy when people ask, 'What's the Church doing for the kids?' I don't think the Church needs to be doing anything for the kids in that sense. The parents need to. We are expecting way too much of the Church," said Boire.
However, the Edmonton Archdiocese has targeted the need for a strategy for youth evangelization. An overall pastoral plan for evangelizing youth will be released at a youth summit, May 26-28 at Providence Renewal Centre.
Faith becomes a way of life for a child whose parents brought him to church from day one. If church isn't a part of their everyday life immediately, parents are fighting a losing battle.
St. Matthew Parish has four young people going to World Youth Day in Spain this summer. Two of them help in sacramental preparation, are parish council members and are former altar servers. They are active.
"What keeps these kids coming to church? I think it's their parents. They have a prayer life, and it's been developed through their families," she said.
These teens learned from a young age about dipping their hands in the holy water, making the sign of the cross, and paying close attention to what the priest is doing. At home, their parents read Bible-based bedtime stories and had God as part of their everyday lives.
"Parents have to develop a prayer life in their children. Go to bed and say, 'God bless my cat,'" said Boire.
In agreement is Sandra Talarico, director of religious education at Newman Theological College. "If we don't encourage them and welcome them at a young age, we're going to lose them - and we do. They become teenagers and we lose them."
Emily Aldana works on a Christmas craft at St. Dominic Savio Church.
Talarico said children should be integrated into the regular liturgy as much as possible. After a child receives their sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, they should be engaged with the regular community.
"We say that any person who receives the sacraments of initiation should be able to participate fully in the liturgy, so once they're confirmed they should be reading, they should be serving Mass, and they should be ushering, greeting at the doors, and assisting in the different ministries in the Church," said Talarico.
The Church family, she said, is no different than a regular family -children should have definite roles and feel a part of it. The only way for them to learn Catholic traditions is to be immersed in those traditions.
Among the ways to further expand a child's faith are youth groups, Bible studies and acting in Christmas plays. Holy Trinity Parish in Spruce Grove-Stony Plain has the Challenge Girls Club and Pure Fashion for teen girls. In the summer, youth from across the archdiocese go to Camp Encounter and Our Lady of Victory Camp.
St. Dominic Savio Parish is a child-friendly parish. It has books that explain the liturgy and stories about the saints that appeal to children. The parish has a junior youth group, held weekly for those in Grades 3 to 6. A Sunday missal explains difficult words and concepts from the readings for children. New this year, LEAP Ministries is coming to lead a Confirmation retreat. This is for youth in Grade 6, with some older youth.
Following the procession and the blessing song, kids go downstairs for children's liturgy. If not for the children's liturgy, the parents would be the primary catechists - an intimidating thought for some parents.
"Downstairs we include for them the penitential rite, and I do the Apostle's Creed with them, plus the Gospel and a little homily," said Ann Harding, pastoral assistant at St. Dominic Savio Parish.
"They are getting all the basics downstairs. Father Joseph (Vadaserry) is a very good homilist, and I quite enjoy his homilies. But if you're only five years old, you're probably not getting a whole lot from what he's saying."
Amanda Lutes, youth minister, said if parents take time at home to prepare their children for the liturgy, perhaps go over the readings with them beforehand, then having them in the regular Mass is not an issue.
"If the only formation or catechesis that the children receive is at children's liturgy, then I think that's more important than them being upstairs because at children's liturgy it's brought down to a level they can understand," said Lutes.
Every child who has received First Communion is encouraged to become an altar server. The parish currently has a recruitment drive for altar servers.
Knowing that children do not always comprehend what is happening during the liturgy, Father James Banu Bodula, associate pastor at Fort Saskatchewan's Our Lady of the Angels Parish, finds that having their own liturgy is vital.
A recent discussion on the genealogy of Jesus that would have been difficult for youngsters to follow was put into terms they could understand. Instructors drew a Jesse Tree to help them learn.
"The children are taken away from the main celebration that's going on because they may not grasp what the priest is saying in the homily," said Bodula. "The children might not understand the Word of God during the readings, so this is the time when children are given special training, their own liturgy."
Through classes, the children learn the sacraments of Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation. Bodula is disappointed that the zeal both the children and parents have while preparing for the sacraments is short-lived.
"During those days the children fantastically and enthusiastically partake in these celebrations," he said. "The parents are also actively involved in bringing their kids for all of the sacraments. But what happens after the sacraments are over? The same enthusiasm is not there."
This year, he is meeting with all of the parents ahead of time to bring them the message that preparing for the sacraments is not for one day, but is crucial for the ongoing life of the Church. Without inspired parents, the Church does not have inspired children.
"I want to enlighten the parents. I want them to reflect with me on what their role is, and why they are teaching the sacraments to their children. It is not only the responsibility of the parish, but also the responsibility of the parents to inculcate that faith. The grace received by the kids should carry on throughout their lives," said Bodula.