When did you last get in the water?

When was the last time you got into the water? At some point in our lives many of us stop getting in the pool or the ocean or the river and watch from the side.

When did you last get in the water?

We watch others who are fitter, slimmer or younger enjoying the delight of being immersed in the cool, refreshing and exhilarating waters.


About two years ago, our daughter and her husband decided to put in a backyard pool. They calculated the costs and inconvenience, weighed the benefits for their five children and embarked on what turned out to be an 18-month project.  There were quotes and salespeople, contractors and DIY, but most of all there was great anticipation. Of course, the costs spiralled as unforseen challenges arose and additional options were added.


The family finally has a beautiful pool which became the centre of their home life that first wonderful summer. Hot kids coming home from school were refreshed, busy pre-schoolers were exhausted and pregnant Mum took the load off. It was everything they had hoped for and more.


Not only was it the centrepiece for their family of seven, but neighbours and extended families were invited to partake in the pleasures of this sparkling urban pond. I recall that Christmas was celebrated around the pool that year of extreme holiday temperatures.


As grandparents, my wife and I noticed that the pool became a place of relaxation where adults became kids and the kids responded with joy as their parents and even grandparents joined in the fun.  “Grandma, I didn’t know you could swim!” remarked one surprised child as Grandma gracefully stroked up and down peacefully on a hot afternoon. 


That child, Sienna, seemed to get most use of the pool that first summer – she literally could not get enough of it and would often stay in to practise a dive or perfect her stroke. She particularly enjoyed any one-on-one time she was afforded by her parents or any willing adult who was prepared to help her develop her skills. It wasn’t long before Sienna was a very capable and confident swimmer, eager to show her water skills to all and sundry.


In all the expectation of the building of the pool, the kids never imagined the joy they would experience being gently held, eagerly watched and excitedly played with over the course of that first magical summer. Nor could the parents have anticipated the speed with which the older children would develop confidence and prowess with swimming and diving. 


People and relationships changed in the water that summer and the summers to follow. In the excitement, encouragement and energy of the water, the family was renewed.  So much so that now, in the midst of winter, the family looks longingly at the pool in the hope of another season of fun.


Family faith formation is very similar to learning to swim.  I often say to parents during a sacramental preparation program, “You need to get into the water.”  Good sacramental programs are designed to have parents sharing their faith with their children. For it is not the faith of others which will transform kids as much as the faith of those they love and trust. 


For decades, the Church has maintained that parents are the primary educators in faith and then demanded they show up to weekly preparation sessions where ‘experts’ stand out the front and lecture on the faith. The most eloquent speaker with the most dynamic powerpoint isn’t going to develop the faith of children as much as those who walk with them every day in gentle, loving faith.


Preparing a child for a sacrament can be a precious time in the life of a family, a time when that child becomes the focus, the centre of attention and prayer.  Wise parish teams understand this and take the opportunity to facilitate conversations between parent/guardian and child. They guide parents along the path of questioning and reflection which hopefully sees the child emerge into a renewed stage of faith.


Our second grandchild Sienna recently completed her sacraments of initiation with a beautiful celebration of her First Communion. The day was filled with feelings of relief, pride and delight because her parents were dedicated to seeing her through a program which at times was demanding and unaccommodating. They put Sienna first for that month and especially on her big day.


When our daughter said in frustration one afternoon – “Why can’t we complete this workbook at home online?  or even if they just had one day which we could commit to and get it all done.” –  I thought, surely we can do better for modern families? Many families are experiencing stress at a time which could be as nourishing and rewarding as learning a new swimming stroke.


The Children’s Ministries Team in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is exploring new ways of delivering sacramental programs, ways that meet families where they are and provide them with resources to help their children grow in faith. One city parish provides a list of YouTube clips with current teachings. Recently a program was developed which puts parents in the driving seat as the child navigates through the learning activities. One diocese to the north offers school holiday camps for kids to enjoy as they prepare for the reception of a sacrament.


Modern families are diverse and Pope Francis and the Bishops of the world seem ready to acknowledge this at a Special Synod on Evangelisation of Families to be held in October. Hopefully this will lead to a more inclusive view of families, an invitational approach and flexible modes of delivering the wealth and wisdom the church has to offer.


Our five children and ten grandchildren, combined with years of study and work in the church, has convinced me of three things, in this order:

  • Most families have the wellbeing of children as their top priority in their busy lives.
  • Relationships with God can contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of families.
  • Receiving the sacraments is a great way to experience the love of God.

The challenge ahead is to meet modern families in their special times and offer them the wisdom of an ancient tradition. This wisdom can deepen and enrich their already blessed lives with words and actions to prepare for, connect with and celebrate the holiness of their homes.


John Donnelly is Director of the Life and Faith Office, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. He welcomes responses at john.donnelly@mn.catholic.org.au.


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