Kids With a Mission; Music to the Rescue

Message of a Pontifical Society Takes to the Streets

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, JAN. 13, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Last Sunday I could barely walk down my street without being caught in a sea of little people, all decked out in white and all following our parish priest.

What amazed me was the monstrance he held high above his head -- and the reverence each child showed for the Blessed Sacrament contained in it.

Despite the bustle of Roman life that went on around them, they seemed resolute in making their "Giornata della Prima Communione" or First Communion Day, truly holy.

Only days earlier, some of these children had been in St. Peter's Square, participating in Epiphany celebrations.

There, they heard the words of John Paul II when he implored the world to remember the "little victims" of the tsunami disaster and other crises.

At the core of his message was the Pontifical Society of Missionary Childhood, which marks the feast of Epiphany as its own, according to the group's general secretary, Verbite Father Patrick Byrne.

"The Epiphany is really our celebration," he told me. "It's a mission celebration when we have the three Wise Men who were not Jewish, coming to see this newborn Child. So it's symbolic of God revealing his Child to the whole world ... and of course, the Child Jesus is always our model for this organization of the Holy Childhood."

The group's motto is "Children Helping Children" and that is what the society aims to promote.

Father Byrne explained: "Every child, whether he lives in the United States or West Africa, is part of the overall drive to make Christ known to everyone. That was the desire of Charles de Forbin-Janson, the French bishop who founded the organization in 1843."

With a mission that works on collecting funds for the world's children and setting up diocesan programs of prayer or catechesis, the society will face an intricate challenge in the wake of the tsunami disaster, the priest said.

"We'll keep in touch closely with the situation, and when the dust settles it'll be up to us to help start rebuilding schools and orphanages that we had been setting up there already but have now been washed away and destroyed."

The priest emphasized how he is "getting in touch with our network of national directors in every country at the moment to ask kids to pray."

This appeal recalls the Pope's message to children on the 160th anniversary of this pontifical society, in 2003. "Every small missionary should be committed to reciting a Hail Mary every day for his or her distant peers," John Paul II wrote.

One group taking up such appeals by the Pope and the Pontifical Society of Missionary Childhood is the World Apostolate of Fatima. It is encouraging all parishes and dioceses to organize events like the one I witnessed here in Rome with their children.

One board member of the U.S. branch of the group, Connie Schneider, told me how the organization is internationally arranging chances for children to pray the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament.

"As you know, Jesus said 'Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them,' so we want to invite the worlds children to gather before him," she said.

Schneider (connieschneider@earthlink.net) is part of the team co-coordinating prayer excursions for children in both their Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and beyond. They are about to release a communiqué presenting the proposal of shepherding children to a local chapel for a holy hour.

"Anyone can do this," she explained, "all they need is to plan a one-hour program and, during this year, begin to bring the children before Jesus at various intervals to introduce the concept to them.

"The ultimate aim is to prepare them for a world day of prayer for children which we have scheduled for October 7 this year; the same day the Pontifical Society of Missionary Childhood has set aside for their day of prayer."

Schneider says that we need to help children understand that the Holy Father has entrusted a mission to them.

"We purchased a 43-inch monstrance from Poland and it was quite a sight to see 3,200 children in a cathedral staring in awe and devotion," she said. "I wish you could have been there to see their little faces as they gathered before the monstrance and said 'Wow!' in unison."

Visual aids assist children when accompanied by direct catechesis, said Schneider. Her group has begun to make a video of the children's responses to such occasions, along with launching a prayer-writing competition to encourage them to petition Jesus "for the needs of the world."

She told me how the "internationally acclaimed Catholic singer and politician, Dana Scallon, has agreed to put the winning words to song so the children will be able to sing it when praying."

Local representatives of the Pontifical Society of Missionary Childhood can be contacted for more guidance.

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Sounds of Solidarity

Over Christmas, the Diocese of Rome puts on a concert series to raise money for its needs. This year the Vatican added extra flavor.

The concerts, entitled "Grande Musica in Chiesa" (Great Music in Church), ranged from gospel choirs to classical orchestras, in assorted churches.

From Dec. 18 with the sounds of Mozart, Handel and Bach echoing off the walls of the Duomo Santa Maria Assunta, to the closing performance of Jan. 6 in the Holy Mary of the Angels basilica, each evening was unique.

Every concert I attended throughout the series was for a full house (or church, in this case).

The artistic director of the series was Monsignor Marco Frisina, director of the liturgy office of the vicariate of Rome, and guest speakers such as Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

On the eve of the Epiphany an extra concert was inserted, for solidarity with the victims of the tsunami disaster.

The recital, which featured the Nova Amadeus Chamber Orchestra and the Sacred Liberiana Choir, was performed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. In attendance were cardinals, bishops and members of the diplomatic corps as well as pilgrims and tourists.

In addition to raising funds, the evening was aimed at allowing the participants a time of prayer and reflection for those touched by the tragedy.

"Our hope," said Monsignor Valentino Miserachs Grau, the conductor and composer of many songs in the program, "is that through the universal language of beautiful music, there will be some comfort, solace and peace as we pray in our own way for those who have died."

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Heart of Charity

A lot of mail has arrived in Rome, challenging some of my colleagues in the Holy See about what they are doing for the tsunami victims.

Having learned firsthand of the Vatican's high level of charitable activity for the victims, I took the opportunity to answer a few of these letters with the following: On receiving news of the disaster on Dec. 27, John Paul II's charity fund, "Cor Unum" (One Heart), responded immediately by allocating $6 million for aid, and then initiated another direct appeal for more money.

When walking into any Vatican-owned building this week, I have been greeted by a red-and-beige metal box with the words "Emergenze Asia -- Cor Unum" printed on the front.

This box is emptied on a daily basis and the contents of it go into a relief fund for the countries affected by the killer waves. And this is just one of many charitable follow-ups the Vatican has pursued in the wake of the crisis.

The director of Vatican Radio's outreach program and religious missionary, Sister Janet Fearns, told me the exact amount of Church aid in this circumstance will never likely be tallied, due to a basic sense of humility.

"Nobody will ever hear the full story of the Church's input to those affected by the tragedy, simply because that's not the way the Church operates," she explained.

"Most of the details I know have come to me via accidental sources," said Sister Fearns. "For instance, in my average, internal Vatican conversations today, I stumbled upon the fact that someone anonymously put 800 euros in one of our Vatican boxes.

"However, it's really important to note that though religious communities and Church representatives around the world are giving money, they are also continuously offering the gift of their own people and resources."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.