Church's Smallest Members "Playing" Mass

Wee Believers Toy Line Nourishes Faith, Vocational Awareness

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By Kathleen Naab

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, DEC. 10, 2009 (Zenit.org).- When the prefect of the Vatican's highest court was a little boy in Wisconsin, probably no one imagined all he would have accomplished by now, 61 years later.

And yet, at least Raymond Burke's family shouldn't be entirely surprised. The little Raymond delighted in "playing Mass" -- something which helped him along the journey that led to his priestly ordination at age 27. It was 33 years (almost to the day) after his ordination that he was called to Rome to be the prefect of the Apostolic Signature. By then he'd served as the bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri.

But the seeds of such a great mission really did put down roots in the early 50s, with young Raymond's choice of childhood entertainment.

He recounted: "When I was in first grade, I used to like to play Mass with the participation of my siblings and neighboring children. My parents bought for me a Mass kit for children, which was available at the time. [...] To this day I feel badly that it was lost somewhere along the way. [...] I can tell you that the little Mass kit played its part in fostering my vocation to the priesthood."

And stories like that of Archbishop Burke -- similar to that of many priests who recall "playing Mass" as children -- is at the heart of the mission espoused by a new company called Wee Believers.

What it's all about

When Steve and Joni Abdalla founded the company, they weren't necessarily aiming to slow down the so-called vocations crisis in their native United States. In fact, their primary motivation was finding tools to help them raise faithful children, and perhaps particularly, to parent during Mass. But they were convinced about something: "There is no question that by injecting authentic, positive and relevant examples of living the Catholic faith in toys, books and decorations, children will grow up with a much more grounded sense of what being Catholic is really about," Steve told ZENIT.

Though he and Joni were the parents of only girls -- three daughters -- he recounted their rather fruitless search for toys and educational products that are faith related. (Their fourth child -- a boy this time -- was born last month.)

"Much of what we have found are plastic, low-quality toys which offer no spiritual contribution to our family. Not to mention that toys today are inspired by a world driven by consumerism, secularization and the depersonalization of society," he said.

As the Abdallas were prayerfully considering their next step in life, Steve said they felt led to create a "Catholic toy line that parents could treasure and enjoy with their children."

"Our hope," he explained, "is that families will find these products truly meaningful, in their homes and their classrooms, or as gifts for Godchildren and grandchildren."

Celebrating (play) Mass

The flagship product of Wee Believers was a "Mass Kit," released in early 2009, similar to the one that got Archbishop Burke started on his way. And as the Church is celebrating the Year for Priests, the couple confirms that letters and messages have come from all over, with parents and educators telling of their students' and children's "play Masses."

The 12-piece Mass kit does give children plenty of props: A plush crucifix, two candles (weighted so the plush will stay standing) and a corporal prepares the altar. Then, the child can incense it with the thurible. To prepare the gifts, there is a finger bowl and two cruets -- one red for the wine, one blue for the water. The consecration host is large and decorated with a cross, whereas individual hosts can be distributed to the "congregation." And the accompanying booklet and carrying case make the kit both practical and educational.

"It's a very humbling feeling because the vocation avenue kind of evolved very recently," Joni told her archdiocesan paper earlier this year. "We really just wanted to provide fun Catholic toys that are well made and are attractive, that give children and parents a deeper knowledge and love of the Catholic faith.

"Now we’re getting letters and pictures from people saying that [play] Mass is being held at their home every day."

Children's growth in knowledge and understanding is a happy consequence of their fun: "Parents have sent in stories about how children are recognizing the parts of the Mass in more profound ways," Steve noted. "Teachers share how discussions on Eucharist and the priesthood are enhanced with an age-appropriate teaching tool."

More of a good thing

With the idea of fostering priestly vocations taking off, the second Wee Believers product is following the same lines.

Just released and ready for Christmas, a 13-inch plush priest and nun are "perfect for small hands," Steve said.

Father Juan Pablo and Sister Mary Clara -- who are at the center of the Wee Believers story, set in a town called Mercyville -- have come to life in doll form and are accompanied by the vocations stories of real-life priests and nuns in little booklets.

Steve reflected that the target age for the dolls -- three to eight years old -- is "an age that rarely gets to explore the meaning of a religious calling. [...] The hope is that this chance to 'peek inside' the vocational journeys of a handful of consecrated religious men and women will spark an interest and desire in the hearts of children to consider a call to consecrated life."

Next year, the company is expecting to launch My Quiet Church -- a plush (soft-sculpture) church created to teach children the proper names and placement of the sacramental furnishings inside a Catholic Church. Accessory kits for baptism, matrimony and first Communion are also planned, again complete with the Wee Believers characters.

And the Wee Believers trademark is "Certified Quiet™" -- harkening back to the Abdalla's original challenge of parenting during Mass -- which means that no squeaks or whistles or rattles will disturb the moment of consecration, should parents decide to bring the toys to church.

Not just a toy

Since founding the company in 2006, the Abdallas have been intent on making their products reflect deeper convictions.

Steve explained why they make extra effort to make Wee Believers truly Catholic, even in regard to what is behind the scenes: "We believe this fidelity requires courageous acts to preserve authenticity and orthodoxy in the Traditions of the Catholic faith. Our products may be just small acts, but we hope that one day they will have made a big impact on the preservation of our great faith."

Perhaps one of the acts that took most courage was fidelity to the Church's social doctrine. This element is something the consumer never sees, but the Abdallas acknowledge it is cheaper to produce toys when one isn't concerned about social justice.

Nevertheless, Steve and Joni are committed to competing in the toy market with products made "in factories where workers are afforded a just wage and are provided safe working conditions," Steve said. "[...] We could choose other countries with lower labor costs, thereby making our products more cheaply; but we are not willing to compromise these principles."

"Consumers have to pay more for products in order to ensure that just wages are paid," he explained. "But this is not an economic question, it is a moral one. Paying a worker, who has inherent dignity, less than a living wage is not a moral action."

Protecting justice and braving the economic downturn does make for some sleepless nights, Steve admitted. "This is why we need the actual support of our Catholic brothers and sisters by purchasing our products or by spreading the word [...] about our products and our mission."

Universality and springtime

The toys project another Catholic principle: universality. Father Juan Pablo's Spanish name and Sister Mary Clara's African countenance make the Wee Believers characters reflective of what's happening in the Church, Steve suggested.

"We decided on a Hispanic priest and African sister because, not only are Hispanics and Africans reinvigorating our Church, but we also wanted to be true to the [Church's] universality," he said.

And the real-life stories that accompany Father Juan Pablo and Sister Mary Clara point to another characteristic of the Church: that it is, as Pope John Paul II suggested, in a springtime. The majority of the priests and nuns who gave their testimonies for the booklets belong to congregations founded in the 20th century: four in the '80s and '90s, one just six years ago.

Steve and Joni say that God has been at work in the project from the beginning. Now, they add, "We are so excited to see how the Holy Spirit will [...] bring forth tremendous fruit in the lives of families all around the globe."

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On the Net:

Wee Believers: http://www.weebelievers.com/