Sr. Maria Therese of the Congregation of the Sisters of Merciful Jesus leads a Confirmation retreat for children from Stettler, Bashaw and Castor.
Thanks to a pilot program that seeks to harmonize sacramental preparation across the Edmonton Archdiocese, some parishes and schools are doing a lot more talking and visiting.
Pastors, school principals and sacramental coordinators in at least 10 parishes have been meeting for the past nine months to discuss sacramental preparation of children.
Their aims are to ensure no child falls through the cracks when it comes to sacramental preparation and to bring families to a deeper understanding of the faith.
Kathleen Nguyen, sacramental education coordinator for the archdiocese, said many parents and teachers are confused as to who should prepare children for the sacraments. As a result, many children miss out.
"Parents don't know that the preparation takes place in the parish. They think the schools do it and because of a lack of communication they don't discover that until their child comes home one day and says, 'All my friends received their First Eucharist. When am I going to receive my First Eucharist?'"
Sacramental preparation is a shared responsibility, she said. Parishes, schools and parents need to collaborate fully and communicate regularly.
About two years ago Nguyen was hired to lead a pilot project called Sacramental Education Initiative aimed at developing permanent guidelines for sacramental preparation in the archdiocese. Ten parishes and schools districts took part in the first year of the pilot, which ends this month.
Nguyen's contract was to run out this month too, but it has been extended for two years. She plans to run the pilot project again next year and add 15 more pilot groups.
"It's been very positive," Nguyen said of the first year. "Each of the groups took ownership of this pilot and was able to meet together and talk about what their needs are in their particular community and then meet those needs."
She said the program led to "a lot more communication" among parishes, schools and families.
The first leg of the pilot had four goals, including having regular meetings between the decision-makers of parishes and the schools, scheduling more priests' visits to the schools and producing guidelines for sacramental preparation.
The meetings between the parish and its associated schools were "a great way for them to build relationships and trust and to problem solve together," she said.
At the beginning of the pilot, Nguyen provided participating groups with draft guidelines.
Pilot groups have been working with these guidelines and giving feedback. The guidelines will be updated at the end of June and new ones developed for the next school year. They will be "set in stone" following the second pilot year.
Father Jozef Wroblewski, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Red Deer, has four of the seven schools in the parish participating. Over the past few months he has developed solid relationships with the staff and students at the schools.
"I visit the schools on a regular basis and we talk to the children about Baptism and about what it means to be baptized." Wroblewski explained. The most children remember about Baptism is that a priest threw water at them, "not that they are part of the Body of Christ."
"The sacraments of initiation of our Church are Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. That's how you become initiated in the Church and all the children should be made aware."
Wroblewski said parents have a duty to have their children baptized and receive the other sacraments. "Enrolling the child in a Catholic school is not going to ensure they receive the sacraments."
A parish, he said, has the responsibility to make sure that the schools in its area are aware when any sacramental preparation is taking place. Sacred Heart advises its schools in August.
What the schools can do to help prevent children from falling through the cracks is to provide the parish with more information, the priest said.
"When you register your children, there is a question about the sacraments they have received and the ones they haven't. So that information is available or can be made available."
One reason children don't receive the sacraments is that parents miss the deadline for sacramental preparation, Wroblewski noted.
"When that happens, the pastoral approach should be, 'Listen, your child missed the first two sessions; you'll have to make it up' as opposed to say, 'Sorry, your child missed the first two sessions, you will have to wait until next year.'"
Wroblewski's pilot group must also worry about Catholic children who attend public schools. "We have to find a method of not only reaching these children, but also, once we reach them, how to catechize them so they are ready for the sacraments."
For every 100 children who are baptized at Sacred Heart, about 75 receive First Communion and Reconciliation, and about 55 receive Confirmation.
"If we see a change where out of 100 that were baptized, 80 per cent receive First Communion and Reconciliation, and 65 per cent receive Confirmation, we are doing a good job."
Maria Valencia, sacramental preparation coordinator at Sacred Heart, said the pilot program allows her to use different strategies and be creative. Some time ago Valencia held a special retreat for parents and then began inviting parents to accompany their children to sacramental preparation.
Father Joselito Cantal, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Edson, works with two schools. The parish does the sacramental preparation and the schools inform students and parents about it.
"We invite parents and grandparents to support their children and to work with them at the same time," Cantal said. "We believe sacramental preparation is also the parents' responsibility."
Circun Gendre, sacramental coordinator for Christ-King Parish in Stettler, said her group, which includes Bashaw and Castor, is trying to develop a way that ensures "not one child is missing Confirmation because we are not able to get the information out there."
Her geographically extensive parish, which is led by Father Donatus Thekwoaba, has parents who homeschool or whose children attend public schools.
The parish, Gendre said, may seek the help of the public schools to reach children not in the Catholic system. Or it may place ads in the local newspaper.
"We are trying to make it as welcoming and as easy as possible for people to receive their sacraments," Gendre said.
Christ-King has begun holding an information evening in June, well ahead of Confirmation preparation, just to inform parents and get children excited about the sacrament.
Father Maurice Okolie, pastor of Holy Family Parish in St. Albert, visits the schools in his parish weekly to talk to staff and students about the sacraments.
"I like this new approach to sacramental preparation because it brings together the parish, the home and the schools," he said.
Pallotine Father Francis Mariappa, pastor of Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Fort Saskatchewan, says he is excited about the collaboration and friendships that have resulted from the pilot project.
Priests visit the schools regularly but because few parents come to church, it is the role of the schools to inform parents of the sacramental preparation at the parish, Mariappa said.
"I like this pilot project. I encourage other parishes to get involved and have the same experience."