Anyone from a large family knows that the only way parents “survive” having so many kids is by pressing the older siblings into service to care for the younger ones! As the seventh of nine children, I recall my older sister Ramona taking care of us younger ones on many occasions when Mom and Dad were tending to other responsibilities and running errands. We need to employ this same approach in faith formation as part of the process of preparing young people for a life of adult faith.
This concept is not new, but I don’t think we employ it as much as we could and should. The notion struck me when I attended Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception at St. Andrew Parish in Chicago earlier this month. The entire school attended the Mass, and the children were quite reverent and participated beautifully. I happened to be sitting across from a class that must have been around fourth or fifth grade. I noticed that in the midst of them was a student who was at least three feet taller than the rest! As I looked around further, I noticed more examples of this: older students “embedded” with the younger students. (See below.)
I saw the older students opening the hymnals and worship aids for the young children, showing them where to look for prayers, songs, and responses, and singing the hymns and responses with the younger students. It became obvious to me that the school was employing a “buddy system” or “big brother/sister” approach to engage the younger children in full, conscious, and active participation in the Mass. Rather than having the eighth graders sit together as a group, where they may face the temptation of distracting one another during Mass, they were pressed into service to assist the teachers in forming the younger children in faith. They were not just babysitters; they clearly had received some training to do what they were doing. Like true apprentices, they were obviously being treated like extensions of the faculty; what an honor that must be!
When I taught religion in a high school years ago, we had a program of “Religion Assistants”—seniors who went through training and formation and were then assigned to be in a religion class with younger students every day. They were more than teachers’ aides. They had a role to play in every session and often taught segments of the class and led discussions. We treated them like ancillary faculty members and they responded. I’m amazed at how I run into many of these former religion assistants today and learn that they have gone into teaching, pastoral ministry, social work, or some kind of service occupation. Many are leaders in their parishes, and some have even become deacons and priests.
Let’s get our older students in religious education classes and in Catholic schools taking on/sharing more adult responsibilities as part of our efforts to initiate them into a life of adult faith.