By Beth Donze
The Archdiocese of New Orleans marked Children’s Mission Day with a Saturday program of games, talks, music and Mass focusing on young Catholics’ shared baptismal calling to spread the Gospel, both at home and abroad.
More than 100 third through seventh graders from 10 elementary schools and parish schools of religion took part in the celebration, held Oct. 21 at St. Mary’s Dominican High.
“We are called to be a light to the nations!” said Tanya Cenac, mission educator for the archdiocese, in her welcome to the youngsters. “When you pray, you can be a missionary, because prayers go where feet cannot go. When we pray, we travel there through our prayers.”
Maureen Heil, a mission educator from the Archdiocese of Boston, told the children about her experiences in Uganda with the Missionary Childhood Association (MCA). Heil said her Third World work had taught her to slow down and acknowledge the children of God in her midst.
“We move at lightning speed, but God asks us to take a breath, to slow down, to be with him, to think about him, to think about each other – even people you may never meet,” Heil said.
The MCA helps American children “meet” those friends beyond our borders, Heil added. That world includes more 800 people who die each day because of poor water quality; 65.6 million refugees; and 1 billion people who have never heard the name of Jesus.
“God calls us to stand up for each other, even those who are not our friends,” she said, pointing to how the Good Samaritan helped the Jewish man lying on the road, even though the two groups generally didn’t get along.
“(Most of us) can’t get on a plane and help the 1 billion people who don’t know Jesus,” Heil said, “but we can all be missionaries by being Jesus to them – but we have to find out who they are first.”
Enter the MCA, which is present in some 1,150 dioceses around the world and was founded in 1843 by French Bishop Charles de Forbin-Janson, who was convinced that children were so rich in faith and love, they would make ideal missionaries. One of the MCA’s main missions is to increase solidarity between children through prayer.
“Kids around the world need you, but guess what? You need them! Maybe not for clean water but for prayer,” Heil said, showing a video of Ugandan children praying for their peers in North America.
During the day, the children played games from other countries, among them the Belgian game Chenille-Assis (“Caterpillar Sitting Down”), Tunnel Race and Snake Tag. Outside, they played soccer with a makeshift ball made out of plastic shopping bags – to experience one of the creative ways their peers in less affluent nations make their own athletic gear.
The young attendees also prayed a decade of the World Mission Rosary, whose multi-colored beads remind the faithful to lift up the people of every continent in prayer. All created a World Mission Rosary bracelet to take home and were treated to a dance demonstration by the St. Peter Claver Liturgical Dancers, which concluded with an impromptu dance lesson for a few lucky members of the audience.
After lunch, Father Deo-gratias Ekisa, vice rector of Notre Dame Seminary, spoke to the children about the MCA in his native Uganda. Father Ekisa said that although many people in the West refer to his homeland as “Africa,” his home continent is made up of 54 countries. In Uganda alone, there are 52 tribal groups, each with a different language, he said.
Despite hardships such as poor access to clean water, young Ugandan Catholics are joyful and devout, Father Ekisa said, showing videos of Catholic schoolchildren singing the “MCA of Uganda Anthem” and reciting “10 Commandments of the MCA,” guidelines to Christian living that include seeing everyone as a brother or sister; always saying thank you; thinking of others first; treating people as more important than money; being generous, no matter what; and always looking for solutions.
“Most kids must walk to school every day unless they board,” said Father Ekisa, who took a video of the assembled children to send to Uganda.
Heil showed the students how even their smallest sacrifices are helping the children who need them most. For example, a quarter added to a classroom bank enables the MCA to give a child in Haiti a meal of beans, rice and chicken.
“So, every time you walk by a penny on the ground 25 times you’ve missed a chance to give a meal,” Heil said, adding that a simple lemonade stand mounted by her own religious education students in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recently had raised more than $250 to send to their adopted school in Uganda. When these Ugandan students learned about their American friends’ lemonade stand, they organized an MCA fundraiser of their own by selling their handmade crafts, tea, soap and mango juice.
At the day’s concluding Mass, Archbishop Gregory Aymond challenged his beloved “young church” to “go out and be Jesus” at school, on the playground and to their peers living thousands of miles away.
“The MCA is all about children sharing with children,” the archbishop said, ending his homily with a request: Invite your friends to become missionaries, too!