The Parents’ Meeting and the Early Thresholds

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a First Communion parents’ meeting. One of the toughest gigs you can have as a catechist is the “parents’ meeting”.

Every sacramental programme begins with one. It is always a busy time of year, often September. The meeting adds one more evening to the unending list of engagements parents have to shoe-horn in. The likelihood is the meeting will be in a cold-ish church hall. The organisation and hospitality might be a little ropey if there is not a full-time catechist. The dates for the year will be finalised and parents will discover all kinds of clashes with their family commitments. The requirements will be laid down – a retreat, an expectation of weekly Mass, a certain number of classes, parents’ sessions – and before they know it, additional burdens are loaded on top of an already heaving schedule.

Often you hear comments like, “Well, they make time for sports or music – they should have the same commitment to sacramental prep!”

But here’s why I think it’s pointless making these kinds of arguments…

The Catherine of Siena Institute estimates that just 3-5% of the average Catholic parish are intentional disciples – that is, people who, encountering Jesus, have decided to “drop their nets” and follow him. They estimate that the majority of Catholic parishioners would be at thresholds of pre-trust, trust and curiosity. This would certainly include the parents of children in sacramental programmes.

What do we know about people at these thresholds? If someone is pre-trust, they are either hostile to faith or thoroughly apathetic. And yes, we all know that among those who approach their parish for sacraments, there are plenty of people who are pre-trust. If a bridge of trust is in place, a person has a more positive association with God, the Church or a Christian. And yet, this is not yet personal faith. Indeed, we know that around one-third of Catholics are not even aware that a personal relationship with Christ is possible. For a number of others, they may be at various stages of curiosity. They are beginning to wonder if there is something more, whether God might be real, might in fact love them, might want a relationship with them.

These stories are behind all the faces who look back at us during a parents’ meeting. And it is good to remember, as Sherry Weddell often says, “everyone is in spiritual motion.”

Think about the typical elements that a standard parents’ meeting involves:

  • catechesis on the sacrament involved (whether Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation…)
  • a breakdown of practical requirements to receive the sacrament.

Neither is fruitful with those in the early thresholds. Catechesis – however evangelising – is most fruitful for those in the later thresholds, when the beginnings of personal faith are evident. Until this stage, any teaching we offer is answering questions people are not asking. They have likely come to receive a sacrament for a whole host of other – cultural, social – reasons. And adding requirements to a relationship that does not even exist yet is likely to push people back through the thresholds, rather than enticing them deeper into a relationship.

It is like putting conditions on a relationship before there’s even a spark of attraction between two people.

All of this suggests that an entirely different parish model is needed (what’s that you say?! You haven’t read Divine Renovation?!).

But if you are still stuck in the old model, there are ways we can approach these meetings more fruitfully. Here are some ideas from the event I led recently:

  • Go overboard on hospitality. Hospitality, friendship, community… these are all ways to touch the hearts of those in the early thresholds. Few people can resist love-bombing. Ensure there is time of fellowship, a glass of wine, homemade treats. Food is what makes Alpha so successful with those in the early thresholds.
  • Connect with your audience. Spend time praying and reflecting on how your audience sees God, the Church and the programme they’re embarking on. Stand in their shoes and empathise with their outlook. When we advertised the recent parents’ event, we included questions that we thought would resonate with those we were trying to reach: “Is Mass boring for your kids and stressful for you?” As a speaker, the more you use humour, showing you connect with their experience, the better. Stories and humour go a long way with those in the early thresholds.
  • Share the kerygma! It’s obvious, but if you don’t exploit the chance to proclaim the Good News of Jesus – you are missing a significant opportunity. Prepare well, pray to the Holy Spirit, and then proclaim with passion and from your heart what God has done for us, and the relationship into which God wishes to draw them.

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