St. Benedict’s – Sacramental Preparation

I spent Sunday morning, August 11th, in St. Benedict’s parish. I participated in the 9am Mass. Afterwards I met with Dinah, who has responsibility for Worship, Sacraments and Disciple formation team. I dropped in on

I had a long and fruitful conversation with Dinah, specifically in relation to Sacramental Preparation. Our discussion was wide ranging, she has been involved there from before it was this single church and she is a great advocate for change. There is far too much to cover here, however a couple of critical points are worth mentioning:

  • Everything is done with the Game Plan in mind.
  • Adults are invited into an exploration of what it is they are asking for their children.
  • There is no specific age for the Sacraments, the child receives the Sacrament when they are ready for it.
  • Families must commit to taking part in the programme, which includes participation in Mass.
  • If, for some reason during the programme, you miss out on some modules, then you complete these in the next programme.
  • Numbers accepted into a programme are based on the resources available to run the programme, not on the numbers applying. If this one is full, you will have a space on the next one. (The programme for First Reconciliation and Communion is run twice each year)
  • People who do not want to, or are not able to, commit to the programme are allowed to walk away.
  • There is a clear path for involvement in the paish for all family members afer the Sacramental moment is celebrated.
  • A key part of the programme is accompaniement, creating links within the faith community.
  • Their numbers are small but they are seeing a high rate of continuity beyond the Sacramental moment.

I asked Dinah about what isn’t working, what changes she would make. She was able to list out many changes that they are making, ways they are trying to evolve their engagment and how they measure what they are doing. It struck me strongly of a system that is continually evaluating itself and learning.

Pulling it all Together

There are many different approaches to parish renewal taking place. The two models that I explored over the past weeks and the parishes that I visited are certainly leading the way in a model for renewal of Catholic parishes. The proof is in what is taking place on the ground.

Different Methods

Nativity and Rebuilt
  • The Sunday experience is key.
  • Sacramental preparation is developed in-house. Parents are encouraged to attend Mass while their children take part in the preparation programme.
  • The weekend message is the catechises for the adults. Once engaged, the expectation is that you will want to stay for more.
  • And finally, there are ‘events’ for all ages during Mass so as to free the adults to be attentive to the message.
St. Benedict’s and Divine Renovation
  • Understanding what is expected of those who are part of the church is key.
  • The Sunday experience is an element in the chain.
  • Anyone coming for the first time or for the Sacraments are expected to undertake Alpha.
  • Sacramental preparation programmes must be attended together, parent and child, taking place after the Sunday Mass.

While the methods are different the goals are the same.

  • to awaken in people a relationship with Jesus the Christ
  • to awaken in people the call to ministry that arises from this relationship
  • to awaken in people the realisation of the deeper purpose of human living – a personal relationship with the presence of the Christ in the world in which we live.

While the methods are different the approach is the same

  • Define a vision
  • Take intentional steps towards that vision
  • Measure all activity against that vision
  • Make changes boldly
  • Measure responses
  • Adjust as needed
  • Review
  • Make changes boldly

While the methods are different the welcome is the same

There is a story that President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” he replied. The janitor understood the vision, his part in it, and he had purpose.
Everyone involved is grateful that you are there and they let you know it. In all sorts of small ways, the message is that you are important and they want you there. Things like:

  • You are invited, it is more than a casual welcome, into the church
  • The signs and directions presume it is your first time there. You don’t have to hunt for a bathroom, or wonder is there a bathroom available.
  • Music, invitations and responses, are all clearly displayed during the Mass so that you know what to say or sing
  • The welcome into the liturgy is again directed at all and at me specifically. The words of welcome, pick me out as a newcomer – ‘If you are new to the community here, we are grateful that you have chosen to join us here this day’
  • The music is loud so that it enables even the frogs to feel comfortable at joining in
  • The message is the central part of the experience – each week it anticipates that this may be your first encounter with this message so a review of the previous sessions is given, and there is a teaser for the next part, positioning this days message in the overall

These may seem obvious but we can discount the obvious all too often. They are intentional and every element is part of the weekly reviews.

While the methods are different the follow through is the same

  • Small groups meet regularly and are resourced from the message series.
  • There are paths of development as people begin to engage more. Nativity – Next Steps and St. Benedicts – Connect
  • There are monthly ‘orientation’ events for ‘new’ people

Application in our Pastoral Area

  • Yes it is doable
  • Yes it is essential
  • Yes it is time

Let us begin.

St. Benedict’s – from the inside

I spent Sunday morning, August 11th, in St. Benedict’s parish. I participated in the 9am Mass. Afterwards I met with Dinah, who has responsibility for Worship, Sacraments and Disciple formation team. I dropped in on the Children’s liturgy, known as SHINE and then later had lunch with Fr. Simon, Dinah and Fiona from the DR office.

The 9am Sunday Mass

I needed to put aside the comparisons with Nativity. It is not the same, they are not trying to be the same, and it is not necessary to compare the two.

Each of the Masses at the weekend are different in the style of music they offer and the ‘audience’ they aim to attract. The music was vibrant, the church was quite full and overall there was a sense of engagement and being part of something.

Fr. Simon delivered the homily, it was about 20 minutes long, and it was engaging. There were appropriate slides along with it and there was, to me anyway, a good mix of humour and catechesis to engage those taking part in the Mass. It was the first homily in a series of four, entitled Amazing Race. I will want to follow it over the coming weeks.

There was a baptism of twins during the Mass. The first part, naming and welcome, took place as part of the opening of the Mass, the remainder after the homily.

Communion was under both species and all in all the Mass lasted 1 hour and 20 minutes and nobody was complaining or leaving early that I noticed.

SHINE – Children’s Liturgy

This takes place, in a large room downstairs, for the full Mass, during the 9am and 11:15 Masses. Parents are invited to sign their children in before Mass. There is also an invitation given before the liturgy of the word for any who wish to go to do so then.

Children preparing for First Communion and those who receive communion, return to the church after the homily. Parents of younger children can also opt to have their children return at that time if they so wish.

The programme on each Sunday involves a snack, music, play, catechesis and prayer. The theme follows that of the message that the adults are following upstairs at the Mass.

I sat in for a short while, during one of the catechesis moments. It was typical of such a programme. I’d imagine the leader is tired after the morning.

Laura currently is the primary leader, She is developing others who are involved, through the ministry leadership programme.

The Game Plan

In wandering around their space there, the sense of being part of something vibrant and engaging was strong. I don’t know how many people were signed up to it all, but certainly I had a strong feeling of an intentional community, actively participating in this vision of growth and transformation.

On the weend of 17/18 August, they are running a survey at all of the Masses asking questions in relation to people’s participation at the Mass and their interest in inviting others to take part. (Not in a get people to come to Mass sense, but if this is really growing my relationship with God then I will want to invite others to be part of that).
This survey takes place within the Mass, people will be given time to complete it after the homily. This is a regular survey, the results will be compared against previous ones and used as a way of understanding where to focus change.

The DR Office

At 8:30am on Friday the 9th August, I joined the team for prayer, a light breakfast of coffee and home made muffins and good conversation. What a way to start the work day. There were nine people there plus myself. From the moment I arrived I was made to feel welcome, with comments of, ‘oh you must be Paul’, I knew it was known that I would be there, and that was nice.

I got a tour of the offices and then we got talking about some of the questions that I am carrying with me.

First off I had a conversation with Fiona. She is involved in the area of leadership coaching.

We covered a wide range of ideas, too much to write about here. Some of the key ideas I took from her are as follows:

  • Start with forming a leadership group and have that group study the Divine Renovation book, ideally using the reading guide.
  • Identify some areas, from that, as a place to start and use the study guide to help work out an approach.
  • Use their freely available podcasts and videos relevant to the area of interest to go deeper.
  • It takes 3 to 4 years to get the concept of change embedded
  • It takes another 3 to 4 years for the change to become norm.
  • Start small.
  • Focus on one or two or three Masses and build them into vibrant liturgies.
  • Link in with other parishes in Ireland and the UK who are on this journey also.
  • Keep going.

The underlying approach to bringing change to parish is outlined on their website as:

We believe that there the three keys to parish renewal: the primacy of evangelization, the best of leadership principles, and the power of the Holy Spirit held together by the celebration of the Eucharist.

Divine Renovation inspires and equips parishes to move from maintenance to mission. This is accomplished through events, resources, and hands-on coaching all designed to help parishes make and form missionary disciples.

Next I met with Pam on Sacramental preparation.
She is part of the team in St. Benedicts and also works in this area in the DR office.
Again I got a lot of information from her about what works for them and how their methods have changed over the years. A couple of key areas she mentioned were:

  • Their preparation programme for First Reconciliation and Communion (PACT – Preparing And Celebrating Together) takes place in Autumn / Spring.
  • It takes place after the 9am Mass on alternate Sundays.
  • Parents and children are expected to attend all sessions.
  • Each session has a family part, then the adults and children separate for catechesis, then they are back together to complete the session in prayer.
  • There are companions who accompany the families, taking part in the programme sessions. These companions are people who themselves completed some programmes in the past.
  • It is open to everyone, but the expectation of participation in the weekend liturgy and beyond the sacramental moment itself is highlighted.
  • The numbers are small, though they fill each programme and have a number that they cannot accomodate in the current year, each year.
  • They see a 95% follow through
  • Having a path beyond the preparation programme is critical for them.
  • Following through into the liturgies is critical also.

I’m looking forward to Sunday as I will be participating in the Masses. Between two of the Masses I will have a conversation with the sacramental co-ordinator in St. Benedicts itself and then I am also having lunch with Fr. Simon.

Moving on

My time with Nativity and the Rebuilt model has come to an end and I’m turning my focus now to St. Benedict’s and Divine Renovation in Halifax.

In preparation for the journey I’ve been reading two books. The first is a set of reflections really, by Fr. Simon Lobo. The book title is Divine Renovation Apprentice: Learning to Lead a Disciple-Making Parish. As the title suggests, it is his writing on taking over as the pastor of St. Benedict parish and his journey of learning to be part of the leadership team there.

In talking about Alpha, he points out that many parishes use it as a tool to grow those who participate in Church. He acknowledges that this has its uses, however he goes on to say that the real power of it that he has discovered is in it “Giving people, the ‘unchurched’ a ‘shallow end’ through which to enter the deep waters of discipleship.

Divine Renovation Apprentice p.107

I will be meeting Fr. Simon on Sunday the 11th August.

The other book is divine renovation itself. I’ve read it before, it is different reading it a second time, knowing that I’ll be meeting the people and also hoping to be able to shape questions that will add to the knowledge in it.

Making disciples, is the lens through which we should evaluate all activity of our church.

Divine Renovation, p.22

I will be visiting the Divine Renovation office on Friday 9th August.

Sacramental Preparation @Nativity

I spoke with the two co-ordinators of the Sacramental preparation programmes, Maggie, Director of Children’s Ministry, looking after Baptism, reconciliation and Communion and Daniel, Director of Student Ministries, who looks after Confirmation and beyond.

Chatting with Maggie.

Baptism: Parents presenting a child for Baptism, for the first time, take part in a preparation programme. The Godparents are expected to attend also. The purpose of the programme is to bring people into a conversation on why they want their child baptised. They will be registered with the parish and will receive an invitation to take part in Access Point:

Access Point

Access Point is a casual and conversational environment where you can get to know Church of the Nativity, our programs, services, mission and message. You get a behind the scenes look at what we do and how we do it, and you get to meet our staff.  If you would like to join our Church, we’ll help you do that too. We meet one Sunday each month in a comfortable setting on the Church campus. Whether you’re new to Nativity, or have been attending for years – Access Point is for you.

First reconciliation and Communion. There isn’t a school feeding into this parish. The programme for the children, aged 6 to 9, is a two year programme called Quest. This is based on the small groups concept. It takes place every Sunday from September to Easter during each of the Masses except the Sunday evening Mass. It is compulsory. There are up to 4 small groups, 10 to 12 children in each, at each of the Mass times. It is an ‘in-house’ developed programme. In year two there are 4 evening meetings with parents and children, again compulsory. The first two focus on reconciliation, the others on Eucharist and Mass.

Confirmation is for 15 year olds and so does focus on the youth and not so much on the parents. It is an evolving programme, this is Daniels third year as director and he is bringing some change to it. Having said that, it currently involves a retreat day to open up the programme and then meeting as part of small groups each Sunday outside of Mass times.

Some general comments:

  • The sense of integration is obvious. Each programme is built around working in small groups. A message is delivered over a number of weeks. It is not the same message as is taking place in ‘Big Church’ as the message for Communion preparation can repeat, to some extent, year on year, while the weekend message is building on past messages.
  • The message and activity for the Communion preparation is co-ordinated with Time Travellers so as to be different. This means that families who have a child in the communion programme, who want to attend Mass together also, can do so and the child who was on the communion programme say at 9am Mass can go to Time Travellers during the 10:30am Mass and hear a different message. It is this kind of deep integration that makes the overall experience really impressive.
  • They trust in the ‘product’ they have on offer. The parents coming to church with a child for a sacrament, encounter the weekend experience and all that is around it.
  • I asked about numbers continuing beyond the sacraments, or drop off afterwards. It’s not something they specifically measure, but they know there is a continuity that is well above the norm, and I can vouch for that through what I have seen.

Monday is meeting day

Monday meetings work around the staff lunch.

At midday, I sat in on the review of the past weekend. Various staff members took part along with Fr. White. The first part was to score various elements of the weekend using a green, yellow, red status. Based on that, the remainder of the meeting looked at yellow or red items and then moved on to items dealing with planning for August and beyond.

After lunch, the meeting I attended focused on the message series. It dealt with:

  • the message session delivered at the weekend,
  • the final session next weekend in the current series
  • the first session of the next series
  • the advertising / trailer being developed for the message series following that again.

In all of this, and I’m not going into detail of the meetings, the key was, review what took place, plan the next weekend in detail taking in learnings etc. and look at the longer term items.

Staff lunch started, with everyone, about 20 people, gathering around for a conversation. People were invited to share a positive experience from the previous week. We then shared in a tasty buffet lunch followed by a briefing by Fr. White on upcoming events.

There were various other meetings among groups taking place over the afternoon.

The overall impression I had was one of an approach of do everything well, review it constantly, build in improvements and start again.