One of the most beautiful moments of the life of our parish, Santa Giulia, in Turin, is the 10:30 Sunday Mass for children. After the Gospel, we start off immediately with questions. In order to know what these kids have in their hearts, questions, our questions, are fundamental. If they do not know how to respond, if we are not able to speak with them, if they don’t understand what we are trying to get across, it is only because we do not know how to pose the right questions.
To explain certain concepts of faith to children, it is necessary to start from experiences that they live. Like the time I wanted to make them understand the meaning of confession in lieu of the parable of the Prodigal Son. I asked them what was the worst thing they’d ever done. Luca had broken the famous family vase with a soccer-ball; Alessandro had colored all over the new couch; Fabiano had written on the walls of his home; Matteo, shamefully, recounted of the time he had cut a sorry figure in front of his whole class. Spring-boarding from these examples, it was much easier to explain what it means that Jesus forgives us in confession. Even the adults there seemed to have understood better, as the line at the confessional of Fr. Stefano suddenly began to grow.
Or, another time, we were talking about hell and heaven. Some shared that they imagined heaven as a place where you ride your bike with your friends, where you are happy to do your homework; hell, on the other hand, as a place of beatings, where there is nothing but scolding, where everyone is sad. When I asked if they lived a bit of hell here on earth, a few of the brighter one said that they experience a present foretaste of hell when they are not loved, when someone leaves them out of a game, and they are all alone. Many catechism lessons would not have been sufficient to explain to them that heaven and hell are realities that begin already in this life.
One particular answer stood out to me: Martina, an eight-year old girl who frequents our catechism, lively and irreverent child, to the question of how she imagined hell: “I imagine it as a giant school!” Leaving aside her negative judgment on the Italian school system, Martina’s answer helped me understand how our catechism must be: a game, an adventure lived together with the characters of the Sacred Scripture; not just something to listen to or to watch, but an event in which one can participate, a place of questions and answers. For this reason, we decided to set up our catechism around the theater. The older catechists have the main roles, and the kids help by reciting the secondary parts (angels, disciples, or shepherds). All of them, especially the youngest, are amazed at what they see, because the theater has an enormous capacity to make them feel like they are a part of what is happening. In this way, when I recounted the story of the Annunciation, while the narrating voice said that the angels, together with Gabriel, held their breath in expectation for the response of Mary, the kids, wide-eyed, were hanging on the word that Mary might pronounce. A ten second silence increased the expectation and pathos of the moment, up until Mary pronounced her “yes”. The response of the kids was phenomenal, and un-programmed: Gabriele (not the archangel but a seven year old, the quintessence of wonder) shouted, “Whoo-hoo!” Another, with arms in the arm, yelled out, “Hurray!” All of the kids were elated, so much so that we adults all burst out laughing. In that moment, I understood what it means to “become like the little children.”
Our work with the youngsters of Santa Giulia has just begun. Without a doubt, there are many things to improve, such as our grasp of doctrine. In class, during a brush-up of the Ten Commandments, Fr. Attanasio asked one boy to recite the first commandment. Smug and confident, with the air of one who knows the answer, he responded: “The waters of Nile became blood!” Admittedly, there is still a bit of confusion between the ten plagues of Egypt and the Ten Commandments, but at least he nailed the historical period!
Paolo Pietroluongo is parochial vicar of the parish of Santa Giulia, in Turin. He is pictured with a little parishioner of Santa Giulia.