On any given Tuesday during the school year, students at St. Francis Xavier School in Winooski can be found preparing for Mass — not only as worshippers but also as altar servers, readers, gift bearers and choir members. “School Mass is our community at its best, growing with each other in our relationships with Christ,” said Eileen Barendse, assistant principal and director of early education.

“This liturgy is also the daily Mass for our entire parish. Many parishioners, including parents and relatives, particuarly enjoy coming to this Mass to see our kids in action,” said Robin McCormick, school communication director.

Younger students, she said, are accompanied by their “church buddies” – students in upper grades who help direct them and model appropriate behavior. “This not only helps teach the younger students, it also helps the older students learn the importance of being good role models and helping others.”

Having viewed youth participation in the Mass through the lens of parent, teacher and administrator, Barendse believes “there is much to celebrate,” noting things like “the fourth grader whose voice shakes as she reads at her first school Mass, the proud smiles of the students in the choir as they pass their seated classmates to receive Communion and return to the choir loft to lead the congregation in song.”

“There is holiness in the laughter of the teachers as a kindergartener bravely answers one of [pastor] Monsignor [Richard Lavalley’s] homily questions in a way only a kindergartner can, and the few extra parents in the pews who have rearranged work schedules to watch their children serve on the altar.” The student choir also sings at special parish Masses during the year and performs a Living Stations of the Cross for both the school and parish communities, McCormick explained. Beginning in fourth grade, “the training our students receive … encourages them to participate actively in the weekend Masses both at St. Francis and at their home parishes,” said McCormick, noting that St. Francis Xavier School draws students from some 20 different cities and towns in northwest Vermont. Such generous participation in parish life does not end in grammar school, explained Msgr. Lavalley.

“Many altar servers continue with this ministry through high school,” he said, noting also the example of the many young people who may share their gifts and talents with the diverse parish community as aides in the religious education classroom, catechists for RCIA, marriage preparation team members and a presence at parish retreats, among other opportunities. As a fifth grade teacher in the school, Stacey Brandes believes “participating and being involved helps [youth] draw more meaning out of Mass and realize they have something to offer as part of a community with a common faith who come together at Mass to give thanks and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.”

For Lyn Wood, a parent to both a graduate and current student, a remarkable element of youth participation is to “see generations together forming family … building a community of faith. The awesome wonder of God is clearly seen in the beautiful, faithful innocence of children. … The traditions that are shared and enhanced … with practical tasks like vesting, the time waiting to process in together, the incidental candle going out and having to have it re-light, the ‘dinger’ ringing the bells … these yield relationships. Being a part of the behind the scenes, gives a real sense of belonging to the children.”

“It is very important for priests and anyone in parish leadership to feel comfortable with young people and to go where they are, to understand and accept them for who they are,” Msgr. Lavalley said, adding, “If they know you care, it affects their faith because you don’t just represent yourself, you represent Christ.”

—Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.