Thursday, June 30, 2016

The History of Vacation Bible School

I have fond memories of Vacation Bible School, of days filled with singing songs, playing games, making crafts, eating silly food, and learning more about my faith. Once I became an adult and began working at the parish where those childhood memories were formed, I couldn’t imagine not making Vacation Bible School a part of our ministry to children. For a great many families, Summer = Vacation Bible School.

I think that’s great, but it also got me wondering: What is the origin of Vacation Bible School? Where did it come from and how did it get started? We are currently deep in "VBS Season", so these are questions worth exploring. After doing some research, I discovered that not only does VBS long predate the 1980’s (when I was a kid), it actually has some roots in Kentucky!

VBS in the Beginning

Vacation Bible School owes its origin to the Sunday schools, tent revivals, and bible institutes of early American Protestantism. All of these eventually required some gathering of children to receive instruction over a prolonged period of time, and VBS organically developed from that.

In the early 19th century, the phenomenon of tent revival meetings emerged. A large tent would be erected, and a traveling preacher would come and give rousing sermons over a span of many days. This strategy for reviving churches and bringing people to Jesus quickly spread throughout the country. Since these gatherings were primarily for adults, it was the practice in some places for the children to receive special instruction before the big event in the evening.

In 1874, inventor Lewis Miller and Methodist Episcopal bishop John H. Vincent founded the Chautauqua Institution, a teaching camp for Sunday School teachers. Soon after, programs for children and families were established, and this model was copied in “Chautauquas” all over the country. The flame died out after World War II, but the original Institution on Chautauqua Lake in New York exists to this day.

In 1898, Mrs. Walker Aylette Hawes established her “Everyday Bible School” to minister to the immigrant children who spent their summer days running the streets of New York City’s East Side. She rented a beer parlor that was not used during the day, and for six weeks she gathered the neighborhood children together for worship music, Bible stories, Scripture memorization, games, crafts, drawing, cooking, etc.

By 1910, the Baptist and Presbyterian Churches had really taken up the banner of Vacation Bible School, formalizing the process and method of instruction and publishing their own VBS textbooks. Two of the earliest and largest publishers of VBS materials – LifeWay and Standad Publishing (now Christian Standard Media) – grew out of these early efforts.

The Kentucky Connection

As a Kentuckian, I was excited to find some slight connections to the birth of VBS in my home state. For example, if we consider tent revivals as providing an impetus for a type of week-long instruction for children during the Summer months, it's worth noting that many historians trace the origin of tent revivals to Kentucky and the Appalachian territories. One of the earliest, if not the first, took place in July of 1800 when Rev. James McCready held a camp meeting at Gasper River Church, near Bowling Green, KY.

Also, remember Mrs. Hawes? Her “Everyday Bible School” provided a form of instruction similar to VBS as we know it today. Well, she was a sister-in-law of John A. Broadus, a founder and later president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. There's no doubt that her Baptist missionary and evangelistic zeal is what prompted the effort to found a bible school for children.

Pretty neat, huh?

VBS Today

Most Protestant and Catholic churches have VBS programs, or they combine their efforts with the churches that do. These programs are usually scheduled at different dates throughout June and July. In fact, if you plan it right, your child won’t have a week of Summer unoccupied! VBS is typically either in the morning, to give the kids a great way to start each day, or in the evening so that the parents who work during the day can also attend. It's best suited for children entering grades K-5, but age ranges can vary. Many churches also provide daycare during VBS so that children who are too young for VBS can still come and participate in activities at their level.

The typical program is made up of several stations that the children will cycle through during the event. These can include: Faith Station, Music Station, Fun & Games Station, Arts and Crafts Station, and Snack Station. There is also typically an Opening Assembly, when skits are performed and the themes of the day are introduced, and a Closing Assembly where the themes of the day are reviewed and any parting gifts are distributed. As "Whole Community Catechesis" has caught on, some churches provide separate educational experiences for parents and adults while the kids are engaged in VBS, or they structure their VBS program in such a way that the parents and the children are participating together. As you can see, there are a lot of ways to structure it, according to the needs of your church or parish.

It’s easy to see why this has become so popular. Vacation Bible School is reasonably priced (free at some churches), it’s a lot of fun for the kids, and it even provides a little break for the parents -- unless you decide to rope them in too! It has been going strong in this country for over 110 years, and shows no signs of slowing down.

For more about the history of Vacation Bible School and what is available today, see the following links:

Pax Christi,

Friday, June 24, 2016

Short Q&A on St. John the Baptist

What is “the Nativity of St. John the Baptist”?

Well, it’s today’s feast day, for one thing! More specifically, the word “nativity” means “the event of being born.” So, today we are celebrating the circumstances of John’s birth, and his coming into the world. John is a miracle baby. He was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth even though they were both “advanced in years” or too old to conceive a child (Lk 1:7).

Even if John had not been miraculously conceived we would still have cause to rejoice. Why? Because “he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli'jah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (Lk 1:16-17).

How can Catholics say that Mary is God’s greatest creation if Jesus himself said, “Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11)?

First off, here is the passage in question, along with the verses that immediately precede it:
Mt 11:9-11 Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.' 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The context reveals that John is the greatest of the prophets, not the greatest person who ever lived. All of the prophets of the Old Testament told of the coming Messiah and the Kingdom He would inaugurate. But, only John had the privilege of being the immediate precursor of the Messiah, of “preparing the way” for the Lord. Only John was able to see with his own eyes the one who was to come. It is in this sense that John is the greatest.

Note also the last part of vs. 11: “… yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This means that even the least of the New Covenant saints (those who come after Christ and live according to His grace) outshine the most illustrious saints of the Old Covenant, who lived under the Law and without the sacraments.

The mystery hidden for ages and generations has been revealed to his saints (cf. Col 1:26). As long as we decrease so that Christ may increase (cf. Jn 3:30) we can be sure of a seat beside John in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Pax Christi,

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Happy Father's Day, Priests!

On this day when we thank God for our earthly fathers and grandfathers, let us not forget to also thank Him for our priests! They are our spiritual fathers, participating in the supreme Fatherhood of God. Let's also pray for our priests, that God will give them the grace and strength to be faithful to their calling to be great shepherds for His people.

As I'm sure you know, some Protestants have great disdain for our priests. They think we shouldn't have a ministerial priesthood, we shouldn't call priests "father," and these priests certainly shouldn't be celibate! In honor of our priests on Father's Day, I offer the following resources in response to those claims.

"And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding" (Jer 3:15).

Praise be to God!

Pax Christi,
- - - - - - - - - -
Ministerial Priesthood
Priest As Spiritual Father
I also have several blog posts on holy orders and the priesthood:

Father's Day Q&A

Since today is Father’s Day, I have provided the following collection of Q&A’s on fathers and fatherhood. Do you have a question about Catholicism? If so, send me an email and I will try my best to answer it.

Why do we call God our “father”?

We call God “father” first of all because He was revealed to us as such. When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He told them to begin by saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven …”. The Catechism gives us other reasons: “By calling God ‘Father’, the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children” (no. 239).

But, this does not mean that God is a man. The same paragraph in the Catechism goes on to clarify: “We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.”

Are there any patron saints for fathers?

For the fathers themselves, there are only two: St. Joachim, the father of Mary; and St. Joseph, Mary’s most chaste spouse and Jesus’ foster-father. For those who have lost a father, there are 33 different patron saints. Some of the more popular among these are St. Angelica Merici, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Maria Goretti, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux.

How come we don’t know more about St. Joseph?

That is a very good question, and all we can really do to provide an answer is speculate. There is a tradition which says that Joseph was an elderly widower when he took Mary to be his wife. If this is true, then he likely died when Jesus was very young and so not much would be known about him by the followers of Jesus.

The last we see of St. Joseph in Scripture is at the temple, where he and Mary finally find Jesus, who had become separated from their traveling party. After this, there is a 12-year silence about the life of Christ. Joseph resides within this silence. Perhaps this is fitting. After all, the little information we have about Jesus’ earthly father causes his Heavenly
Father to come into greater view. Scripture tells us a great many things about that Father!

Pax Christi,

St. Joseph for Father's Day

Since today is Father’s Day, it seemed fitting to provide for you a quick biographical sketch of St. Joseph, one of the greatest fathers who ever lived.

The most reliable sources of information on the life of Joseph come from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There we read that Joseph was a descendant of David (cf. Lk 2:4), from the tribe of Judah. He was probably born in Bethlehem, since he had to go there for the census (cf. Lk 2:1-5). At some point he moved to Nazareth in Galilee, where he was betrothed to Mary. He was a “carpenter” by trade (cf. Mt 13:55); the Greek word describes a craftsman skilled in all kinds of woodwork and masonry. Jesus was later referred to as a carpenter as well (cf. Mk 6:3), which means that Joseph must have passed on his trade to his son.

While Joseph and Mary were betrothed, Mary was found to be with child (cf. Mt 1:18). At first Joseph decided to quietly break off the engagement, so as not to subject Mary to ridicule. But, then he had a dream of an angel who told him that the child was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and not to fear to take Mary as his wife (cf. Mt 1:20-21). He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him (cf. Mt 1:24).

Later, because of the census, Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem and it was there where Jesus was born. After the visit of the Magi, Joseph was warned in a dream that Herod sought to kill the child. He fled with his family to Egypt and remained there until Herod’s death (cf. Mt 2:13-15). After this, Joseph settled his family back in Nazareth (cf. Mt 2:23).

Many years later, when Jesus was twelve, Joseph and Mary “looked for Him anxiously” when they lost Jesus on the trip home from Jerusalem, where they were celebrating the Passover. Eventually they found him in the Jerusalem Temple (cf. Lk 2:41-50). When they returned to Nazareth, Jesus was obedient to both his parents, and “increased in wisdom and in stature” under their care (cf. Lk 2:51-52).

What can we learn about Joseph’s character based on all of this? Well, Matthew describes him as a “just man” (Mt 1:19). From his immediate obedience to his many dreams (four in all; cf. Mt 1:20-21; 2:13, 19-20, 22), we can see that Joseph was a man of great faith who possessed a heart open to the slightest promptings of the Lord. In the gospels, Joseph thinks and acts but never speaks. We can take from this that Joseph leads more by example than by words. Also, to guide and protect his family through their various travels must have taken great strength and courage. In anxious moments, Joseph never faltered. Finally, from our belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, we can deduce that Joseph was a chaste man and a master over his sexual impulses.

On this Father’s Day, let us pray that more fathers will heed the example of St. Joseph. He is everything that every man and father could ever hope to be.

Pax Christi,

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pray for Us!

It is undoubtedly fitting that after celebrating the Sacred Heart of Jesus we should, the very next day, celebrate the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Her heart is indeed most pure, and it burns for the conversion of souls to her Son.

For more on the Immaculate Heart of Mary, see the articles below.

O heart most pure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, obtain for me from Jesus a pure and humble heart!

Pax Christi,

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The Immaculate Heart of Mary

As for my own meager attempt, see Defending the Immaculate Heart.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have Mercy on Us!

Today is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Reserve some time on this day for Eucharistic Adoration and for praying the novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I also recommend the following for spiritual reading, as you contemplate the Heart that is enflamed with love for sinners.

"Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame"
(So 8:6).

"For our God is a consuming fire"
(Heb 12:29).

Pax Christi,
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