.- Saturday morning first Communion instruction at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in East Palo Alto, Calif. is too big by far to fit into one room. It takes up the sanctuary, the parish hall, a room off the entrance, the choir loft and a picnic area outdoors. The class, where youngsters complete their two-year catechism preparation to receive first Eucharist either this year or next, is filled to capacity with 500 students but would be larger if the parish had room.“There’s more out there, people keep coming all through the year,” pastor Father Larry Goode said. “‘When do we register for catechism?’ We’re halfway through the program and they’re still asking the question. People still have it ingrained in them that children should make their first Communion.”
St. Francis of Assisi is a growing parish with a primarily Latino congregation – the 9:30 a.m. Sunday Mass is standing-room only, and the 1:30 Mass isn’t far behind. These are the families who make up the backbone of the Silicon Valley service economy. The congregation consists largely of Mexican immigrants who are highly focused on work, and first Eucharist is a milestone for families nurturing their faith in their adopted country.
“One of my sermons is, jobs can’t take the place of religion,” Father Goode said. “Just think that the center of life was religion down there and all of a sudden it’s work. There’s no comparison. You need religion in order to navigate all the stuff that’s out there.”
Dominating the scene on Saturday, April 24, was Sister Ghisella Ruiz as she administered a catechism lesson on male parental responsibility to parents and godparents filling the front pews. Sister Ruiz is a member of the Misioneras de la Madre de Dios (Missionaries of the Mother of God), an order of women religious whose charism is Bible teaching with an emphasis on Mary. Three members of the order, which is based in Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan, have been working in the St. Francis of Assisi community to offer Bible instruction, a ministry more typically associated with Protestant churches.
In a room off the front entrance, catechism teacher Nicolasa Chacon showed third graders the proper way to place their hands when receiving the host. She also initiated them into the mysteries of the sacred blood.
“It’s not actually blood,” student Corinna Martinez volunteered. “Some kids say that it looks like blood, but it isn’t. My mom had it and she said it tastes like grape juice.”
In the choir loft, David Richter, a Stanford mechanical engineering student who is one of several Stanford students teaching catechism at the parish, worked with seventh graders to prepare them for their first time confessing to a priest. Some of them had the misconception that they would be expected to amplify their sins in order to confess properly.
“They’re definitely not looking forward to it,” Richter said. “The point is to repair your relationship with God, not to get in trouble for something you’ve done.”
Stanford students have been teaching catechism for first Communion candidates at the parish for your years. They were organized by Gaizka Ormazabal, a friend of Father Goode’s, an Opus Dei member and now a doctoral student in business. Father Goode believes these devout young scholars have what it takes to turn around youngsters whose education in public schools “is not leaning favorably toward religion.”
“That’s kind of our pastoral plan – to take the kids who are sort of a challenge and give them to the Stanford students,” he said.
Printed with permission from Catholic San Francisco.