A Good Way of Implanting the Best of Sunday Habits
Alan Bancroft FAITH MAGAZINE January-February 2014
Alan Bancroft is a retired lawyer. His translations of works by Blessed Columba Marmion have appeared in this country and the the United States, and he is also a translator of the poems of St Thérèse of Lisieux into English verse. In this article he describes a remarkable phenomenon he encountered at a church in Italy.
A parish success story is always good news. It’s I who call it a “success” story. Those organising and operating the success seem to think it nothing unusual.
Ca’ Savio is reached by the half-hourly boat across the Venetian lagoon to Punta Sabbioni, and then a short bus ride. It is a small place, with some local shops of quality, fronting and off the road to Jesolo.
The parish church, San Francesco ad Litus, is a modern building with a very wide altar sanctuary. A transverse aisle marks off an “oblong” of pews at the front, covering a third in depth of the church’s seating area. And on that large front oblong of seats, the first time I went there for the 10.30 Sunday morning Mass, was a crowd, a phalanx, of children.
''I asked Don Alessandro whether pupils lapsed from Sunday Mass-going once they reached secondary school age. “No,” he replied, “for it’s then that preparation for Confirmation starts”
I wondered what special occasion this could be; so at the end of Mass I asked a parishioner. “No special occasion,” he replied; “this is usual at 10.30 on Sundays.” (My own later observation has borne that out.) No special dressing-up or anything; just a lot of children in casual attire. I was impressed by what I saw and was told, and by what I learned later concerning the formation of the children for regular attendance at Sunday Mass.
What is the secret at Ca’ Savio? I have been asking questions over there, to try to discover this. I think there are three beneficent strands in what is happening.
The first centres on the priest at San Francesco, Don Alessandro. He is a gentle person, with brown eyes, widened sometimes. A parishioner indicates what he says to parents. He is of course very happy to arrange for their children to be given instruction for the sacraments. But he tells parents very strongly that they should set themselves to accompany their young children to Sunday Mass or the vigil, and not only during periods when catechesis has been given during the preceding week, but on and on after that. (And it is not unreasonable of him to tell them this, is it? Catholic parents should be at weekly Mass in any case – it is a Commandment of the Church, for their spiritual good; and the parents have an obligation to steer their children towards a similar good habit. Parentalaccompanying, week after week, is a powerful didactic message in itself.)
Don Alessandro gives himself no especial credit for parents doing as he asks. He and the other parish priests, he says, are simply tapping into the piety of the Veneto, a heritage particularly of the family-oriented teachings of the popes who came from the Patriarchy of Venice – St Pius X and Blessed John XXIII. It is Don Alessandro’s approach nonetheless.
However, parental accompanying, though strongly urged, is not made an absolute condition determining whether a child shall proceed to receive the sacraments. Children are not to be disadvantaged simply because their parents unfortunately fail to be thus actively involved. Some of the children are accompanied by a grandparent or other responsible person. Should there be any problems regarding arrangements for enabling a child to be regularly at Mass, the parish will seek to help.
The second strand is what, for want of a better term, I call peer-solidarity. As a preliminary to explaining, I now sketch the background. The pupils are given Catholic RE in state-school. But catechesis specifically in preparation for the sacraments is given outside school hours in the church hall by knowledgeable, and very caring, parish catechists. It is there that the children who are being instructed receive encouragement of the “see you on Sunday” variety.
I spoke to one parent who cannot attend Sunday morning Mass because she has to work in a hotel. She comes with her young son to the Saturday vigil Mass, and that is fine. There is, however, a special provision for the children at the 10.30 Mass on Sundays. It is the normal adult liturgy; but Don Alessandro directs his homily especially to the children. At the end of the homily he makes a brief comment to the adults, usually suggesting how they can be a good example to the younger members of the parish.
Some of the youngsters sit with their parents at Mass; but most of those who have received instruction during the week sit together in that big front oblong of pews. Some of these chatter less than quietly to their chums before Mass (whereat I observed a catechist putting the gentlest of admonitory fingers to her lips); but when Mass begins they are silent and attentive. When the homily directs their attention to one of the bright stained glass windows to illustrate a point, one can see their faces turn interestedly in that direction. So, Sunday after Sunday, they come; and sit with their youthful peers. It is not, I think, something they are forced to do when they would rather not. It is what is done on a Sunday morning; it is what they do.
The third strand, if I’m not mistaken, is the length of time across which catechesis in preparation for the sacraments is given. Over there, after due catechetical preparation, the children usually make their First Confession at the age of eight or nine, and their First Communion the next year (when they are nine or 10). In the year after that, while the children are still at primary school, the catechists try to widen their general religious knowledge: saints, rosary, hymns, altar serving etc. I asked Don Alessandro whether pupils lapsed from Sunday Mass-going once they reached secondary school age. “No,” he replied, “for it’s then that preparation for Confirmation starts” (in the church hall). It continues there for two years, as prescribed by the Italian Episcopal Conference,including Bible study and moral issues, with reception of Confirmation usually at 12 or 13.
This is a long period across which preparation for and reception of those three sacraments takes place. One thinks of the opposite extreme, as in a small minority of English schemes whereby First Confession, Confirmation and First Communion take place in a single year, in that order. The priest’s homily at the First Communion Day, which crowns such one-year English schemes, will rightly be joyous. But, also, when gently or imploringly he adds a reminder to parents that that day should be not the goal and destination but an important stage in a continuing journey of regular Mass-going with parental support, he is saying a good and distinctly apposite word.
But to return to the subject of the long (indeed the very long, and three-stranded) arrangements that apply at Ca’ Savio. Over there, certainly, one sees a process of preparation continued from one primary year to the next; and the good habit already being formed by the children is then carried forward to that period of burgeoning independence which is secondary school age.
Of course, each of those three strands or something not entirely dissimilar is to be found in our country too. And, thanks be to God, we do not lack churches where parents and their children abound at Sunday Mass. What I am saying is that over there the three strands in combination, each strand complementing the others, seem to work remarkably well in effecting and underpinning that happy situation.