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Faith-Based Fun in the Summer Sun

Now that school’s long out and the days are long and warm (maybe a mite too warm), children find themselves with a surplus of hours for the whiling away (maybe a few too many
Now that school’s long out and the days are long and warm (maybe a mite too warm), children find themselves with a surplus of hours for the whiling away (maybe a few too many hours).

It’s a time when many a Catholic parent will be heard to utter a familiar summer refrain: Thank God for Vacation Bible School.

That’s the right response, as Catholic VBS programs offer lots to be thankful for. Not only does a good summer-learning program keep kids constructively occupied during what might otherwise be idle time, but it can also inspire devotion to the saints and sacraments, instruct in proper Christian conduct, even foster a future vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

VBS programs do all this in an atmosphere of fun and friendship, incorporating proven teaching techniques that make learning fun and participation irresistible — from sing-alongs to skits to games.

What’s more, one of the best benefits is also one of the most obvious: Kids like being with other kids.

“If you’re going to be the body of Christ, you need to be together and know each other,” says Beth Adams, head of VBS at St. Mary Catholic Church in Muncie, Ind., where students come together from two groups that don’t regularly associate with one another — the parish’s school and its religious-education classes. “VBS is a vehicle to mix the kids together and form a community,” adds Adams.

Adams, who uses Liguori Publications’ Kingdom of the Son: A Prayer Safari as the curriculum for St. Mary’s pre-K to eighth graders, points to VBS as a strengthening supplement for youngsters being formed in the Catholic faith.

“There’s a richness to our faith that we sometimes miss, and this is a nice vehicle to give that,” she says. This year, for example, “the children will hear about believing in the power of prayer and they’ll see how saints like St. Catherine were able to change the hearts of nonbelievers with their prayers.”

This VBS is the Catholic version of a popular program from Gospel Light, a non-denominational evangelical publisher. Liguori’s editorial director, Hans Christoffersen, says Liguori adds pieces that integrate Catholic elements into the Gospel Light materials. “We added the sacramental experience,” he adds, “especially focusing on the Eucharist.”

Noting that the Liguori program has an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Christoffersen points to its simplicity. This is important, he says, because not all adults who help teach at VBS are well-formed catechists.

Catchy Catechesis

The popular Totus Tuus program, which began in the diocese of Wichita and has spread into many dioceses in the Midwest, takes a different tack: It trains catechists for a week. All of them are college-age students and seminarians; they go out in teams of two men and two women for the summer.

“The kids naturally look up to vibrant, faith-filled, young-adult Catholics,” says Chris Stefanik, director of Totus Tuus for the Diocese of Lacrosse, Wis. “It’s also a great experience for the team we train to be missionaries for the summer. They have a pretty intense prayer life — the liturgy of the hours, Rosary, daily Mass. They really have the full ministry experience of sitting at the feet of Jesus and sharing what they receive from him with others.”

St. Joachim’s in Pittsville, Wis., is this year running the program for the fourth time — and not just because the kids have a lot of fun. Father Jude Ndugbu calls it a “very effective program for bringing them closer to God.”

“I see the children’s participation in the Mass has become very active and they share a lot of respect for the Eucharist,” adds the priest. “There has been a lot of improvement in the children’s participation in the liturgy.”

All 4 God

Another exciting VBS program also focusing on the Eucharist is K4J Summertime Blast. It’s put together by K4J — Kids for Jesus — a Regnum Christi program. (Regnum Christi is a movement of apostolate linked to the Legionaries of Christ.)

Kathleen Conklin, K4J’s national director, says that, in conjunction with learning about Jesus in the Eucharist — and receiving him, and bringing him to others — the kids are also learning the virtue of initiative as they come up with new ideas for bringing Jesus into the world. For example, part of the kids’ mission this year is to collect money for Catholic World Mission.

Terri Baum at Highlands School in Irving, Texas, describes how one little boy lit up when he realized why he was saving the money and what he was providing.

“It’s a very exciting thing to see a child’s face when they see a new teaching about Christ and realize how they can help another person have the same kind of friendship with Christ,” she says.

Barb Avery at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Sterling Heights, Mich., agrees.

“It gives them a chance to develop their own relationship with Christ and do something on their own for him,” she says.

Baum sees the youngest benefiting through characters like Mr. Tabernacle. “I’ve noticed the younger kids really seem to recognize the tabernacle now and the importance of it,” she says. “We have a chapel and tabernacle in the school and they go to visit.”

K4J is so solid and chock-full of benefits that it received an imprimatur from Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford, Conn.

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the good that this children’s program can do,” he says. “It is Scriptural; it strives to be solidly doctrinal; it emphasizes the Catechism of the Catholic Church; it encourages the Church’s missionary apostolate; it recognizes the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints; it is respectful of the ministerial priesthood; it encourages the Church’s social justice doctrines; it evidences reverence for the Mass and Eucharistic adoration.”

Adults can benefit from VBS, too.

“The children can lead the parents in the way they get enthused,” notes Beth Adams. “Maybe they don’t come to church too often, but they send their kids, and it’s a lead-in.” Last year, one mother decided to return to church after seeing how much her child enjoyed Vacation Bible School.

Father Andrew Beerman, dean of formation at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minn., was an early Totus Tuus volunteer. He points out that, nationally, more than 20 priests have been volunteers, and he credits Totus Tuus in playing a role in their vocation. Nearly as many young women volunteers entered religious life, he adds.

Baum relates how the K4J director in her parish wrote parents explaining Christ in the Eucharist and inviting them to come to reconciliation during VBS.

“I thought that said a lot about having the sacrament available to the parents on a Wednesday morning,” Baum says. They kept the priest busy in the confessional for more than an hour and a half.

Barb Avery indelibly remembers last year’s K4J focus on baptism and the Holy Spirit.

“Someone invited one family that was not baptized,” she says. “They came, had a great time and learned a great deal. After going through the camp, they were all baptized. The family realized they wanted to have a relationship with Christ and all wanted to be Catholic.”

There’s no limit to what a good VBS can accomplish.

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