Retreat opportunities good soil for the soul

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
The first week of June many lay people from across the diocese participated in the Pastoral Ministries Workshop at Lake Tiak O’Khata in Louisville. A feature of the workshop is an optional retreat. One morning I was sitting on a porch with a few of the retreatants.
During our reflection and conversation a dove gracefully flew into a nearby tree and remained there until a few minutes before we closed our session with prayer. Thankfully all three of us saw this most welcome visitor. I have been told that I am not the greatest birder in the family and may have mistaken the dove for an egret. I assure you, it was a dove, and its presence was powerful.
The presence of the dove reminded me of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, but it also reminded me that it was in our slowing down that we were able to see the gift that God had blessed us with that morning. Retreats are to the soul what good nutrition is to the body. Without feeding ourselves good food our bodies suffer. The same can be said for our spiritual life. Left unattended they no longer produce good fruit.
One of the things we reflected on during our time together was the need to create touch tones in our lives, regardless of our state of life or vocation, to heighten our awareness of God’s directing presence in our daily living. By touch tones I mean a physical reminder of a spiritual awareness that we have experienced.
I shared with the group what had happened to me about a month ago. I was on my way to Jackson and had a long list of things on my “to do” list. Maintaining a life in Starkville, working out of an office in Jackson and serving the people in a diocese the geographic size of ours had left me feeling like I was not serving God well.
Exasperated, I asked God, “Where are you in all of this?” A few miles pass. The thought came to me, if I were on the receiving end of defibrillators what would be going through my mind? I thought for a minute and was filled with gratitude for my family, the beautiful farm of my youth in Ohio, the amazing people I have met along the journey, the blessings of ministry, the love shared and the beautiful family that has been knit together from all these experiences.
These are the things that matter. The touch tone has become a physical touch on my heart during the times when I feel overwhelmed by life’s demands. That physical touch reminds me of the things that matter. It is a simple gesture but it moves me from anxiety to peace.
What are some of the ways you remind yourself to remain focused on the important stuff? I have a friend who uses music to keep her centered on God. Whenever she begins to feel stressed she listens to her favorite gospel radio station. Quotes from our spiritual heroes can also be used as a touch tone. A well placed quote on the bathroom mirror or a prayer card in our bible can serve as a reminder to keep our eyes fixed on the Beloved.
My favorite St. John of the Cross quote comes to mind, “In the evening of life we will be judged on love alone.” When I find myself short on patience or quick to judge this quote reminds me that love is my only option.
The folks who joined me on retreat all work for the church in a leadership role. But the conversations we shared each morning would be applicable to anyone who is serious about developing a more intimate relationship with God.
All our meaningful relationships depend on our ability to be present, listen, act with sincerity and appreciate the other. Just as our human relationships need this kind of care so too does our relationship with God. Personal retreats give us the opportunity to reconnect with God. To sit quietly and ask for nothing but the time to be present, fully present.
When was the last time you went on a retreat? For some the answer may take us back to confirmation several decades ago or perhaps to a college retreat. For some the answer may be never. Having recently returned from directing this retreat I was left with the profound awareness that retreats are not only helpful in our faith journey but necessary if we are to fully embrace a loving relationship with God.
If you have never taken a retreat or if it has been years since you did, I am not admonishing you in any way. Rather, I hope to encourage you to take the time away and nurture your relationship with God. If you work in ministry, paid or volunteer, participating in a retreat for yourself is the best gift you can give the people you serve. If you are interested in learning more about retreats, feel free to contact me at fran.lavelle@jacksondiocese.org.
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Spring sacraments call us to transformation, action

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
The Easter Vigil and the entire Easter season is full of experiences which express the depth and beauty of the Sacraments of Initiation. Many parishes celebrate full initiation of Catholics at the Easter Vigil. Many parishes will celebrate confirmation for their high school students. Most parishes will celebrate First Holy Communion, while others based on the demographics of the parish will not witness these sacraments this year.
What is important for all of us to remember, no matter how small or large or parish or how active we will be sacramentally this Easter season, we are all members of the Body of Christ and as such we all celebrate and benefit from the building up of the church.
I was thinking about First Holy Communion the other day. While seeing the young ones in their suits and dresses is a moment of great pride for parents, grandparents and even doting aunties, it is not just fodder for Facebook, it is for these young people the beginning of their most intimate relationship with Jesus.
If we treat the day like another milestone or photo op (thank you Instagram) and not as the personal, intimate encounter with Jesus that it actually is then we have missed the point entirely. In our increasingly hyper responsive social media driven world we are losing sight of the present moment because we are trying to capture it with our cell phone cameras. Parents, grandparents and other family members are to be living examples of what it looks like to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. If we are not, where do we expect our young people to gain that insight? I am not talking about acting like ‘Piety Patty’ or ‘Holy Harry,’ I am talking about our ordinary ever day response to the invitation to become that which we have received.
A spiritual director once challenged me in asking if I believed that I was becoming that which I receive in the Eucharist. The way I see it, I’ve been receiving the Body of Christ since 1971. In the past 45 years, have my thoughts, actions and words become more Christ like? If not, I need to re-examine the disposition of my heart in my reception of Jesus in the Eucharist. First Holy Communion day is special, but every Eucharist in every liturgy is special.
Perhaps we need to do a better job in explaining the role of the assembly. Proper catechesis of the assembly is perhaps the ultimate prerequisite to understanding our sacramental lives as Christians. Without understanding the importance of the body, its role and its members, than we are not full, active and conscious participants in our faith. If we believe that the gathering of persons is the church, then at the end of Mass the “church” leaves the building.
Yes, the CHURCH leaves the building. By our presence and participation we are enriched, if you will, with the sustenance of both Word and Eucharist, to be the Body of Christ in the world. Gathering the assembly edifies and nourishes the Body of Christ so that we can become that which we received in the Eucharist, namely, Christ for one another. As Christ in the world we take on the work of Jesus.
We are called to discipleship in effectively living out the directives articulated by Jesus in the Gospels. As members of the Body of Christ the coming and going, the gathering and dismissal, taking and receiving are all one continuous movement. Liturgy, however, is not often perceived that way nor do we teach the faithful that Mass is organic in as much as the Body of Christ is organic. We are leaven, we are sowers, we are proclaimers of the Word, we are doers, and all of that activity comes from being essential members of and participants in the Body of Christ.
When you gather to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation this Easter season, especially First Holy Communion, ask yourself what you can do as a member of the assembly to demonstrate what it means to become that which we have received.  St. Augustine challenges us beautifully, “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” God’s blessings this Easter Season!
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Lent invites pruning to inspire spiritual growth

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
It’s Lent, people! We all have traditions that surround and mark the season. For many of us, we mark the season with attendance at Stations of the Cross, daily Mass, and joining fellow parishioners for fish fries, going to reconciliation, or giving up our favorite sweet or spirit.  For others, we decide to “take on” a spiritual practice instead of giving something up. There are so many opportunities to make Lent more meaningful. And, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy we really need to take advantage of the season.
Let us not forget that Lent is also a call to a life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  We should aim to be transformed by these observances not just putting our “ordinary time” selves on pause.  I’d like to visit with my 30 or 40 year old self on Ash Wednesday and see if there are parts of a younger Fran that I no longer recognize for the better or worse. To be sure I’d encourage younger Fran NOT to give up coffee as no grace came out of that experience for anyone.
In more recent years, I have tried to enter into the season by developing and recognizing opportunities to “be still and know God.” I have found that these opportunities translate into time for more focused prayer.  And, the more I focus on my relationship with God the more I am able to see opportunities for fasting and giving alms.  When I spend that critical quiet time with God I find myself asking what God is asking of me.  What is His will in the various situations and circumstances of my own life?
Thankfully for me the holy season of Lent is also a favorite time at the orchard as it is the time we prune the muscadine vines. The spiritual implications are not lost on me.  With each plant care is given to determine its overall health and to determine how much to prune from each one to maximize growth in the coming fruit season.
I have found great peace in taking my time cutting away last year’s vines and shaping the plant for this year’s growth.  It is a job that one must remain present to the plant as to not butcher it, but one’s mind can wander a bit perhaps noticing the chill in the air, the sounds of farm life beyond the orchard, wild waterfowl, or a distant train horn.
It is during those moments when I am truly connected not only to my task at hand but also to the awesome world God created.
I am present to those who came before me. Our cat Soul Patch often accompanies me in the orchard. She is not only a great companion but an incredible reminder of being present to the moment. I find myself feeling more alive because I am truly present. That’s a lesson Soul Patch has helped me understand as well. Cat lovers easily understand this.
Sometimes I fill the time with pure silence asking only of God to be by my side. At other times I am working through a problem or difficult situation so I talk to God and ask for inspiration. Other times I may open myself up to creativity for ideas for a retreat talk or ministry opportunity.
In my spiritual pruning during the season of lent I am left with the same inevitable question every year. It is a difficult question to ask and even more difficult to respond to. What parts of my life need to be pruned away in order for me to experience new growth in my relationship with God? Over the years, the answer has changed. It seems at this season of my life I am being called to let go of past hurts. In that act of letting go, I am freed to fill that space with forgiveness. When we prune away the things that keep us from true intimacy with God we become free to love more profoundly, forgive more readily, rebuild and restore trust more resolutely, and open ourselves up to new growth.
You don’t need a muscadine vine to open yourself up to the question. One only needs a quiet place to reflect on where God is calling them. I have found in my relationship with God that the most courageous step is in asking the question.  The answer will come and while it may challenge us in the end we will see the wisdom gained.
With each passing year, no matter where I find myself spiritually, I know the time I spend pruning will yield great results in my spiritual life as much as it will provide great growth for that particular plant. May God bless you during this holy season of lent! May your Lenten pruning yield great spiritual growth.  Happy pruning!
(Fran Lavelle is the director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

What the BeeGees revealed to me about love

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
It’s funny how a tune will pop in your head without warning and hang around for an hour or two before fading away. I was on my way to take the garbage to the road the other morning and suddenly I found myself humming “Love Is” by the Bee Gees. I tried to dismiss it as I sat down for my morning cup of joe and ritual “quiet time” with God. The words, “Love is, higher than a mountain, thicker than water….” kept coming to me. OK, love is tall and viscous. So what? And, as is our usual morning routine, the Holy Spirit made a visit and the “so what” found meaning.
What did the Holy Spirit and the Bee Gees teach me that morning? There is a great quote from Pope Francis making its way around the cyber-sphere that says, “It is not enough to love people, they must feel loved. I couldn’t agree more. Love is the only answer. So then, love is a verb. Love requires action. It is not enough to speak of it, one must “do” love in order to manifest love. How do I “do” love? Is it through great acts? Or is it in small acts of kindness as St. Therese the Little Flower would tell us? Is it putting more resources toward a problem? Or is it in teaching those who lack necessities how to provide for themselves? Or is it simply in being present? I hope that my best moments in ministry are when I am listening to others.
If love is “higher than a mountain,” as the brothers Gibb contend, then we must exercise our hearts daily to be prepared to scale it. The actions of one who loves well reflect first and foremost a love of self. I am not talking about narcissism. I am talking about a self-awareness that reminds us that we were created by God, through his great love for us and in his likeness and image. It is the mirror that reflects the love of God on his beloved, and in return our love back to him. Equipped with my core understanding of my own dignity I am able to share the love of God with others.
Therefore, if I am to manifest love in a way that others “feel loved” I am going to have to be in shape to scale the mountain of love. I am of no use if half way up the “mountain of love’ I must stop. The only way to get better at something is to do it. There, I said it, difficult as it can be I must love well daily and that love must include love for my own self.
If we think of love as “thicker than water,” then we quickly recognize that love is messy. Many of us get stuck in the “mud” of love. I can’t move forward because this or that happened. Or our good friend apathy shows up and tells us the problem is too great for us to make a difference, so we stay stuck. What if we thought of the “thickness” of love as an anchor? What if the viscosity of love is meant to slow us down? What if love was like water? Would it pass over, above and under us at such a rapid speed that we would never feel its warmth? So this slow moving thick love gives me an opportunity to feel love.
I found my Bee Gees greatest hits CD (don’t judge, it gets worse) and played the song. I danced around my living room alone. We are all trying to capture what love is, what it means to us, and how it is manifested. As we grow older we realize it is not merely a feeling. We realize it takes work to love well. But, too, hopefully we learn that it cannot be contained.
Love must be shared in order to be sustained. And, most of all, it must be given away freely without conditions of who gets it, how they perceive it, or what they do with it. About the rest of the chorus, “You are this dreamer’s only dream. Heaven’s angel, devil’s daughter,” well that will have to be looked into at a later date. In the meantime, wherever you are today, please know that you are loved…
(Fran Lavelle is the director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Sending a child to college an exercise in trust

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
It’s late July and before we know it our college students will be heading off to campus. For those of you who have sent a child away to college I am certain you’ll agree there can be a lot of anxiety surrounding the event. As many of you know, I spent 15 years working as the full time Catholic campus minister at Mississippi State and from that experience have gained some insights helpful to parents of college students. Here’s my list of three things every parent should consider:

Trust God
This seems like a no brainer, but for many parents letting go of control of their son or daughter is unbearable. They feel like if they have all the cards they can prevent their child from life’s more difficult situations. I get it. Some parents might be looking back at their own track record in college. Some of us may have not always made the best choices.
Thinking back to our own behavior can be helpful in that we know the temptations and pitfalls awaiting young people in college. Peer pressure is as real as it’s ever been. We need only to look to the Old Testament for the consequences of temptation. We all know what choice Eve made in the garden. We are not all that different. But knowing the reality that temptations and pressures are part of college life means we need to trust God all the more.
We need to allow our young adult children to make mistakes. We need to let them fail, fall down, get their hearts broken and stand back up on their own two feet knowing they survived and have learned from each experience. We need to trust that they will learn and appreciate a greater dependence on God as they struggle with their newly minted role of young adults.

Trust yourself
Yes, trust yourself that you have raised a good person. You have given them opportunities to learn, grow and succeed. You have provided the necessary infrastructure for them to grow in their faith, their studies and hopefully their life skills. You have to trust that the foundation you have put in place is sturdy and durable.
Yes, there will be challenges that your child faces in college that will seem like an assault to the foundation you have provided, but you must trust that the foundation you built is solid. Who remembers the wisdom of this 38 Special song, “Just hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control”? Sure, this song is about a lost love interest, but the wisdom rings true.
Hold on, loosely. By doing so you are there to help them navigate life when they really need your help. The loosely part means you let them handle the non-life threatening stuff. Allow your child to grow trusting you have done your job and done it well.

Trust your child
As a parent you know your child’s gifts and you know their challenges. They need to feel the freedom that this new stage in life offers them. They need to know you are there, but they need to learn to trust their own discernment and decision making. Second Corinthians 5:7 teaches us, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
College is the perfect time to grow in our faith walk. They will not see the road ahead but in walking by faith and not sight deepens our dependence on God. Allowing our children to trust their own judgement gives them confidence to make increasingly more important decisions. So too it will increase their dependence on God and hopefully be strengthened and enriched by their prayer life.
After the last box is unpacked, a semester of learning, growing and experiencing life awaits your college-aged child. Let us take comfort in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD; the LORD will be their trust.”
(Fran Lavelle is Director of the Department of Faith Formation.)

Confirmation begins next phase of journey

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
Bishop Joseph Kopacz has begun his annual trek to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation with young people and their families around the diocese. If you are the parent, Godparent, grandparent, auntie, uncle or close friend of one of these confirmandi, you might want to clip this article and place it in their Confirmation card along with whatever encouraging words you may wish to share. Here goes…
Dear Young People: Confirmation is not Catholic graduation. You are not, by far, finished developing, learning and growing as a Catholic Christian. You, dear one, are just beginning your journey of faith as an adult in the church. As the years pass and you grow and mature in your life, so too will your faith.
Up until confirmation you had a team of adults to help you grow in your faith including: your parents (as first catechists), your priest and other religious, your parish family and your Catholic family. Your team members did their level best to help teach you about the faith, inspire you to follow the example of Jesus, and enkindle in you a love for God. In confirmation you complete the sacraments of initiation that were first begun with your Baptism.
Let’s talk about that word “initiation” for a minute. If you plan on joining a fraternity of sorority at college you become a full member after you have gone through a period on initiation. Civic and religious organizations have initiations too. It is a way of setting aside time to learn about the very organization you intend to join.
Who was the founder? What are the requirements to remain a member in good standing? What is the purpose of the organization? Are there dues? What purpose does the organization serve? Is it philanthropic? Educational? Social? Once you have learned about the history, structure and function of the organization during initiation one can make an assessment as to whether or not the organization fits your needs.
Confirmation is in many ways the same except our period of initiation lasts from the time you are Baptized until the time you are Confirmed. All that time in between is your Catholic initiation. During your Catholic initiation you learn about our founder, Jesus Christ; learn about what it means to be a fully functioning member of the Church; and, discover the rich gift of the Sacramental life of the Church.
Along the way you experience other rites of initiation such as First Eucharist and penance. These are sacramental building blocks that help you develop as a person of faith and as a practicing Catholic.
By your consent in being confirmed, you are completing what your parents began for you in baptism. You are telling the church that you are ready to fully participate in the life of the church as an adult. Congratulations, you are now in the position to own your faith. You are primarily responsible for your continued spiritual development. Fear not, you will not have to undertake this responsibility alone. In your journey of faith there will be many people who walk with you, challenge you and encourage you to keep focused on God’s will and his ways.
And remember, just as it took years for you to complete the initiation phase of your spiritual development it will take many years to grow into your faith as an adult. Keep in mind that God will meet along the way and love you right where you are. May you always walk with confidence of his great love for you.
(Fran Lavelle is Director of the Department of Faith Formation.)

CSA appeal plants seeds in young Catholics by funding faith formation

By Fran Lavelle
Every once in a while we are reminded of the importance of looking back to see where God has been present in our daily lives. In ministry it is not only a good thing to look back but a necessary one. Responding to the bishop’s Catholic Service Appeal gave me such an opportunity to look back.  In my years in parish ministry I was blessed to serve the young people of this diocese through youth and campus ministry.

Mary Kate Domino, left, a student at the University of Mississippi speaks at the 2014 College campus ministry retreat. (Mississippi Catholic file photo)

Mary Kate Domino, left, a student at the University of Mississippi speaks at the 2014 College campus ministry retreat. (Mississippi Catholic file photo)

We are able to provide campus ministry programs in our diocese because of the support of the Catholic Service Appeal (CSA). Be assured the contributions you make, make a difference today as well as pay dividends well into the future. I am blessed to know former students who are serving the Church as priests, sisters, music ministers, youth ministers, catechists, and other parish leaders.
In campus ministry our ability to be present to students during their college years helps underscore  the importance of their Catholic faith. Undoubtedly we would not be able to provide that kind of formation if not for the grants campus ministry programs around the diocese receive from the Catholic Service Appeal.
The Catholic Service Appeal is like a bed of fertile soil without which we would not be able to grow the faith in communities both large and small throughout the diocese. We often don’t think about the soil our food comes from but we readily enjoy its fruits and vegetables. So too the contributions to the Catholic Service Appeal  are like that fertile soil, we see the benefits but may not make the connection between money given and the people served by the funding.
As I reflected further on the benefits to our parishes from the CSA it occurred to me that at every intersection of our faith formation we have access to programs funded by this appeal. Every aspect of our lives as Catholics in some way has benefited from the bishop’s appeal.
When we give to the Catholic Service Appeal we are ensuring that those who are called can be formed and educated to serve in their role be it as a priest or a lay person like  catechetical leaders, RCIA directors, marriage preparation leaders and other lay pastoral ministers who serve our diocese.
We often see the challenges of being a mission diocese and the large geographic area we cover as too much to overcome.  But we are blessed in abundance with generous folks who give of their time, talent and treasure.  Mississippi is ranked second in the nation for charitable givers by philanthrophy.com.
This comes as no surprise to me as I have witnessed time and again the generosity of the people in this diocese. I encourage you to pray about how you can best express our legacy of generosity. I have seen the good fruit your generosity bears in the lives of many former college students. What a gift it is to see it come full circle and witness their generosity as they give back.
I am grateful for your support of the Catholic Service Appeal and on behalf of the many lives touched by your generosity. Thank you.
(Fran Lavelle is Co-director of the Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation.)

Training an opportunity to inspire, invest

Kneading faith
By Fran Lavelle
My home in Starkville is out in the country.  On my way home by way of a narrow gravel road, I pass by the Volunteer Fire Department.   It occurred to me the other night that I have volunteers in my local rural community that are trained and prepared to come to my assistance if I ever experienced a fire on my property.  These folks are trained to save lives. I am grateful that there are people in my community who take on that responsibility and take with it the seriousness of being prepared.  Sometimes, however, folks in ministry are hesitant to ask “too” much of the people in the pews.  The concern is that as volunteers we fear that by placing too many requirements on them, they will quit. I think the opposite is true.
Proper training gives us a certain level of competency. The more competent one is, the more willing they are to take continue to take on responsibility.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with and extensive increasing list of things to do and decreasing budget and/or energy to do them. Sometimes we just need to spend the money, time and energy to gain insight, perspective and rest that we most need to do our ministry with competency and care. So it was for the more than 50 people from the Diocese of Jackson who recently made the journey to Kenner, La., for the 33rd Annual Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference.  This year’s theme, “Christ Centered People: Called, Gifted and Sent,” drew more than 900 people from the Gulf Coast region and beyond.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was seeing contemporaries from around the diocese. Our delegation from the Jackson diocese included priests, sisters and lay people.  I am still very new to this job and this was the first time for me to attend this conference.  I take no credit for the success of the weekend, but I must say I was so proud of each and every member of our diocese who attended.  The weekend was educational, reflective and challenging.
One of the best keynote speeches was given by Father Steven Bell, CSP.  Father Bell was formerly on the staff at Busted Halo and now serves as the pastoral associate at St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbus, Ohio. We had a chance to chat before his remarks as I had been asked to introduce him.  Father Bell challenged us to step out of our role as “church people” and look at our ministry with new eyes. What if I were coming to this event/activity for the first time?  What would my experience of hospitality be? How would I fit in?  Hospitality should resonate in every aspect of what we do in ministry.
It does not matter if one is the pastor, DRE, youth minister, catechist, book keeper or janitor hospitality should be the hallmark of all that we do. This is a challenge that I keep before me in my ministry and in working with college leadership underscored often. It does not hurt, however, to be reminded of it again.
While it is a regional conference, speakers came from all over the US.  Hearing the perspective of someone who comes from a different place can be beneficial and enlightening.  In those moments we realize how much a like we are and that no place is free of challenges. For example, a workshop speaker made a statement that I have not heard before but resonated with me immensely.  He said that we’ve got to stop treating youth like a problem and start treating them as vital and integral members of our parishes. Zowie! They are NOT, he reminded us, the future of our Church. They are in every way, the Church of today.
His challenge made me think about the ways our Office can better serve the people in our parishes chosen to minister to our youth. Just like my volunteer firefighters down the lane, I want our catechist and DREs/CREs to feel like they have the education, training and tools to do their very best.  And, like my volunteer firefighters, there is something life-saving about the mission.  If your parish is not already taking catechetical training seriously, maybe this will serve as food for thought.  I encourage you to make the investment.
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Start new Christmas traditions

Kneading faith
By Fran Lavelle
It’s Christmastide Y’all!
Most of us in ministry have at one time or another been known to say that the family is first and primary catechists for our children. The church is charged with the secondary responsibility of catechesis through Catholic schools and parish-based religious education programs. The two work in tandem to form and educate our young people in the faith. If your family has not taken up the responsibility for being the primary catechist for your children, the Christmas season is an excellent opportunity to do so.
Some families, especially ones with strong ethnic ties, do an excellent job of keeping traditions alive. Other families, who might be far removed from an ethnic identity, have created their own traditions surrounding religious holidays.  My Lavelle and O’Leary family left Ireland in the late 1700s to mid-1800s.
We have lost many Irish traditions over the years, but my parents did offer activities that became family traditions. For example, when I was a child we would have a birthday party for Jesus on Christmas Day. The celebration included newspaper hats that my brother Tom made, a kazoo or two, a horde of Lavelle’s singing “Happy Birthday to Jesus” (loud and off key), and the much anticipated birthday cake.
It’s funny how Baby Jesus and Dad both liked Italian cream cake. After the party, one of the siblings would place baby Jesus in the crib under the tree. In a small way my parents were making the connection back to the place our day had begun, unwrapping gifts under the Christmas tree. And indeed, what a gift the Infant Jesus is!
As we look at and plan for family catechesis, it’s important to know first and foremost what the Christmas season includes. On the liturgical calendar Christmas extends from the first Vespers of Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. This time includes many important Christian Holy Days. Some of these are celebrated on fixed dates on the calendar, others are always on Sundays, and therefore have moveable dates.
Dec. 26 – The feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr; Dec. 27 – the feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist; Dec. 28 – the feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs; Sunday after Dec. 25 – the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; Jan. 1 – the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God; Jan. 6 or the Sunday after Jan. 1 – the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord; Sunday after Jan. 6 – the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
A great activity is the reinforcement of the season through re-reading the nativity story to your children.  Place the Wise Men in a far off corner of your home and day by day have the children move them closer to the nativity set until they arrive at the crèche on the Epiphany. “We Three Kings,” can be sung each day as the caravan moves closer to finding Jesus in the manger.   Another idea is celebrating the Octave of Christmas with older children. You could compile a personalized family list of eight things your family wants to pray for.
Children may want to re-write the nativity story from the perspective of one of the persons present. For example, the story coming from a shepherd or one of the wise men would be very different than the perspective of Joseph or Mary. One online resource I find helpful is a website called Strong Catholic Family Faith, www.catholicfamilyfaith.org. The Church Year tab will lead you to the link for Christmas.
Keep in mind that whatever activities we do with our children as a family become touch tones as they grow older. They are the very things that our children will pass on to the next generation. Reflecting back, the Lavelle family birthday party for Jesus may have been simple but many (and I mean many) years later I remember that in this simple gesture, Jesus was central to our Christmas celebration as a family.
Christmas calls us contemplate John 1:1-1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  May the Word Incarnate dwell deeply within you during the Christmas Season.  May you find your hearts longing to hold on to the promises it holds.
(Fran Lavelle is the head of the Office of Faith Formation)