It is appropriate that at this time of year I address a need to offer alternative programs of preparation for the sacraments for those unable to attend the ordinary programs of sacramental preparation offered in many parishes. The migrant farm worker is not the only one who needs this consideration, but their particular way of life illustrates the challenges some people face in receiving the sacraments of the Church. What I present may affect and challenge “the way things are done” in many parish programs of preparation, particularly for the sacraments of initiation. I only ask that the reader have compassion for those unable to realize the grace of sacraments in some of our structured religious education programs.
Awareness of the needs of the migrant worker
In the summer of 1999, I spent four weeks in migrant farm worker camps in The Dalles, Ore. After saying Mass in a migrant camp I asked workers, “If I return next year, what could I do for you?” One woman stated clearly, “Father, we do not need you to be our social worker. We need you to be our priest. Many of our children have not received their First Communion. Could you prepare our children for the sacraments? We follow the work in the fields. Much of the year our work prevents us from establishing regular contact with a Catholic parish. When we ask that our child receive the sacraments we are told, ‘Classes begin in September and end in May.’ Some parish programs are for two years. As migrant workers such a program does not work.”
Another man said, “Father, parishes here have rules that form barriers that deny migrants the grace of the sacraments.” Rules about registering children for the sacraments, requirements of documents and rigid rules on attendance at classes place significant hardships on the poor. While many of our people are poorly informed in the faith, we need to be very aware of the obstacles that prevent them from participating in the life of the Church.
It is easy for the migrant worker to be invisible in our churches. The labor of the fields does not take Sunday off. As workers follow one crop to another, they become disassociated with the Catholic Church. When they do attend Mass they feel shame at their irregular attendance at Sunday Mass. Many feel separated from the Church, but campesinos have faith deeply rooted in culture and tradition.
VER – Analysis of an opportunity for evangelization
I spoke with the pastor and the bishop. We decided that the cherry harvest offered a unique opportunity to develop a program of sacramental preparation for children of campesinos. The cherry harvest brings a large group of workers into a rather confined valley. The Dalles has a well organized network of community resources to aid workers in Headstart, migrant education and health programs. Worker housing is provided at many of the orchards. In The Dalles it is easy to make people aware of the outreach of the Church. Owners welcomed the celebration of Masses in their orchards. While workers enter and leave the area over a period of nearly 8 weeks, there is a period of nearly four weeks that the bulk of the workers are present. In the cherry harvest, the workers stop their work in the early afternoon. Late afternoon and early evening there is an opportunity to bring people together for a program of instruction. At that time of year, the days are long, so the afternoon and early evening is available for gathering people for instruction.
JUZGAR – setting priorities for the mission
Campesino ministry begins from the right of every Catholic “to receive from the sacred pastors … the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.” (Canon 213) The Church seeks to provide the sacraments to those who ask for them at proper times (Canon 843), but preparation for the campesino needs to fit into the time available for the worker. In The Dalles we needed a week to ten days to get word out about our programs and register children for the classes. We could offer the classes for a period of two weeks. Then people would begin to leave the area for other harvests. Bishop Robert Vasa approved our program saying, “You only have the time that God gives you.” Our migrant mission team needed to develop our program according to the availability of the workers and their children.
ACTUAR – putting a plan into action
In June 2000 I went to The Dalles with Brother Steve Nyl (a Redemptorist seminarian) and three lay missionaries. We
spent ten days visiting camps and registering children and young adults for classes. Each evening we celebrated Mass in one of the camps. The mornings were occupied with lesson planning and the formation of our mission team. We designed a catechetical program for ten days of class, two hours per day for two weeks. We set the day for Reconciliation and a date for First Eucharist. Forty three young people received their First Eucharist that year.
In the third year of the Campesino Sacramental Program in The Dalles, at the bishop’s suggestion we began to prepare youth for Confirmation. In eleven years nearly 900 received their First Eucharist, 450 were confirmed. There were also nearly 150 infant and adult baptisms.
To offer an appropriate program of sacramental preparation in the short time of the cherry harvest, we had to design a program for a very limited time. We set up a program with ten classes. We discovered a great advantage as the participants easily remembered what they studied the day before, so catechists could build on the student's learning from previous classes. Also it was possible to build enthusiasm for the sacraments because of the intensity of the programs. We had classes for 10 days, two hours per day. For the Confirmation class we also had an afternoon retreat from 4 to 8 p.m. on one of the two Saturdays of the program.
Advantages and challenges of an intense catechetical program
The intense program offering the sacraments in a two week program builds enthusiasm for the student in what is about to take place. The families who enroll children in the program share that enthusiasm for the faith with others in the camps. Word of the parish welcoming the workers into the parish spreads a good feeling about the outreach of the church to the locals who see the enthusiasm of the workers.
Getting proofs of baptism is difficult and requires openness to seeking appropriate alternative proofs to the baptism of a person. That will be a topic for a future article. Significant challenges in reading skills made selection of catechetical texts difficult. For many years our catechists prepared their own materials. Last summer we found that the “Missionary Catechism: Catechism in Community,” a bilingual catechism written by Fr. Bill Ameche, S.J., and published by Buena Prensa, was very useful. It was also economical.
Anyone interested in more information about intense alternative programs for sacramental preparation may write to me at: email@example.com