Green Bay, Wis. — Juanita Fiscal and her husband, Julio Zuniga, enrolled in the "Discipulos de Cristo" (Disciples of Christ) lay formation program, sponsored by the diocese of Green Bay, three years ago. As members of St. Willebrord Parish, they wanted to learn more about their faith.
"We were lacking so much knowledge about our Catholic faith, especially about the Mass," Fiscal told The Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay diocese. "We are here almost every Sunday, and not knowing exactly what was happening or the meaning of certain things. That was embarrassing."
As they prepared for graduation from the program in early May, along with 16 other Latino Catholics from around the diocese, Fiscal said the program not only taught them about the Mass, it inspired them to start a youth program with other parents at St. Willebrord. The "Amigos de Jesus" (Friends of Jesus) group helps children learn about the Mass and participate in liturgical roles.
As part of the Discipulos de Cristo program, young participants are asked to return to their parishes and find a way to put their faith into practice.
"We noticed that we needed some type of program that would bring those kids who made their first Communion" back to church by getting them involved in Sunday liturgies, Fiscal said.
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"Another person said, 'What if we also teach those kids the sequence of the Mass, like everything that happens during the Mass?' " she noted. While the Mass is covered in religious education classes, the adults wanted to explore the liturgy in more depth, Fiscal said.
"We decided to do both things: to teach them how to serve during Mass and then to teach them about the celebration of Mass."
Amigos de Jesus started in October. Eight adults (including five in the Discipulos program) and 38 students, from 4 to 13 years old, meet at the church for two hours every other Saturday. Fiscal said the group uses books about the Mass, written in Spanish and provided by the parish, as well as ones she has purchased. Instructors also use materials, revised for children, from the adult program.
After studying, the children practice their ministry roles, which include altar serving, lectoring, ushering, singing in the choir and presenting the eucharistic gifts.
Norbertine Fr. Andrew Cribben, pastor of St. Willebrord Parish, said he is delighted to have the parents take an active role in preparing their children for Mass and getting them involved in the liturgy.
"Juanita and her collaborators from Discipulos de Cristo ... wanted to use their growing knowledge of the sacraments, theology and their spirituality for the good of others," he said. "They had heard my desire, as pastor, that the children might be more attentive and participative at the Eucharist. The group prepares the children first to know and appreciate the Eucharist, and then to know and fulfill the ministries of reader, usher, greeter, singer and member of the assembly."
Their first service at Mass took place in December. "Then Father Andy told us to participate in the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe," Fiscal said. The Amigos de Jesus now participate at the Spanish Mass the fourth Sunday of each month.
The group has plans for other events. They have been invited to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc, Wis., and St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Newton, Wis., to demonstrate their liturgical roles and encourage young people from those parishes to get involved.
Fiscal sees the group doing community outreach, such as visiting nursing home residents and, during the holidays, visiting children at local hospitals and presenting them with gifts.
Fiscal said handing down the faith to her five children -- ages 5 months to 10 years -- is one gift that she and her husband now know they can provide because of the two programs.
"We are not rich people. We don't have money, so what are we going to leave to our kids? What are they going to inherit? We decided that faith, teaching them, especially about the Mass," will be the legacy they leave their children.
When she and Julio started in the Discipulos program, she said, their children were not part of the experience. "So doing this as a family [with Amigos de Jesus] and the rest of the Discipulos members" makes the experience of church a family affair.
It is also a way to get other parents who do not come to church back to attending Mass. "We are hearing comments from some of the parents of kids, 'Now I have to come to Mass because my child is participating in this,'" she said.
"We want [youth] to feel this program is dynamic, fun and social, a program where they are not only learning everything about the Eucharist, but also where they are reaching out to those in need from our community."
[Sam Lucero is the news and information manager at The Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay diocese.]