Service as a Way of Life

I have to confess that I gave a little sigh when I saw that this year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week was “Celebrate Service.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I firmly believe that serving others is at the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic Christian.  What I firmly oppose is packaging Christian service in slick marketing schemes designed to promote and benefit an institution instead of really to help the needy.  I am reminded of the times when, as a child, I would offer to help my mother bake cookies just so I could snitch some of the chocolate chip dough.  My offer was not about being of help to my mother, and I am quite sure she knew what I was up to.  Likewise, I believe God knows what we are up to when we parents and educators push our children and students to “do” service hours for the sole purpose of fulfilling a requirement or padding their college applications. 

Serving others shouldn’t be something that we “do”, but something that characterizes our very person, something that comes as naturally as breathing to a well-formed Catholic.  What good, for example, have we taught the president of a high school’s service club if, while running down the hall to make the service club meeting, he or she consistently blows by the janitor without a word of thanks, yells “tough luck” to a friend who failed today’s exam, and calls his or her mom and sighs, “Can’t stop by the grocery store for you after school.  Sorry.  The service club called a meeting, and, anyway, they’re going to order us pizza.” 

Yes, it’s tough to be genuinely thankful or compassionate when the timing is inconvenient, and, yes, we all have to prioritize conflicting demands on our time, energy, and money.  There are, however, some ways that we as parents and educators can either help or hinder our children in the process of integrating service into their faith lives.  A short examination of our own motivations and of our expectations of our children is a good place to start.  Do we help or teach our children or students to help only when it will get noticed or add up to a reward?  Do we help in order to gain prestige or earn esteem?  Are we more concerned with documenting than performing our service?  Do we give help as a way to manipulate the receiver?  Do we know, or even care to know, the names or personal stories of those we are helping? 

As a parent and as a Catholic educator, I have set a controversial, but firm policy in our Catholic home school.  Students may not, under any circumstances, keep account of their Christian service.  I have this policy because I resolutely believe that once we begin to keep track of “hours” of service, we will inevitably lose track of why and whom we are serving.  My students/children regularly do things like tutor one another, pray for the unborn and their mothers, shovel snow for neighbors, cook meals, give their own money to missionaries, e-mail with their grandparents, serve on the altar at Mass, and change our one-year-old’s diaper.  Which of these should I tell them to count as official service activities?  None.  All of these should be done as naturally as breathing and therefore, do not need to be added up, average out, and presented for approval like a grade point average to me or anyone else. 

I love the way service has been reinforced to my teenagers at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, MA.  Instead of service hours, students are required to participate in one of several organized service experiences and then to write a paper on the experience.  Created by Bishop Stang faculty members, Kathleen Ruginis and Jean Revil, the service program is called F.I.A.T. (Faith in Action Together) and is beginning to be used by confirmation programs, youth groups, and schools across the nation.  The genius of the program is that it uses Mary and her “fiat” or “yes” to the challenge and responsibility of being the mother of Jesus as its primary role model of Christian service. 

Now with that I can give a sigh of relief over this year’s theme for Catholic School’s Week.  When we look at how Mary served we are not using service as a way to promote either ourselves or our institutions, but as a way of learning how to respond to God’s call for us an individuals and how to love our neighbors as ourselves be they inside or outside our homes.  One simple question clears up for me how we should be teaching our Catholic children and students to tally up their service:  How many hours would the teenaged Mother of God have recorded for her service to Jesus?  None.  Service was not something Mary would have done, but something that would have characterized her very being.  May it be the same for us and all our Catholic children and students.

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  • Cooky642

    Good point, Heidi. It’s impossible to imagine Jesus “toting up” the services He performed on earth. He did them out of love–love for the recipient and love for God–and went on about His business. What was His business? SERVING!

  • Heidi

    Yes! It’s silly even to imagine Jesus counting service hours!

    The heart of the issue here is remembering that just “doing service” isn’t unique to being Catholic. For example, social workers belive they are helping the needy when they hand out birth control. What is truly Catholic is teaching our children to desire to be of service, instead of to use the needy or social causes for their own self-advancement. It’s really attitude, not behavior, that distinguishes those (students and adults) who are servants for God’s sake from those who are serving because it makes them “feel good,” or helps them fulfill requirements for a confirmation program or get into college, etc. And attitude, it turns out, can’t be measured in numbers of hours spent serving.

    it is also important for parents and educators to remember the spiritual works of mercy when constructing service programs for their children and students. Prayer, Eucharistic Adoration, praying the Rosary… these, too, should be taught and counted as the acts of service that they are.

    if anyone is interested in more information on the Bishop Stang High School’s F.I.A.T. service program go to http://www.bishopstang.com, click on “Parents”, then on “Campus Ministry”, and scroll down to the bottom and click on “F.I.A.T. Service Program.” You can also contact the creators of the program, Jean Revil and Kathy Ruginis through the web site.

    > Heidi

  • hsmom

    Great points! My oldest will be Confirmed in the Fall and must keep track of service hours. I am just encouraging her to keep track of the minimum required hours and then keep serving without record. Another problem is with the Honor Society which also requires service hours. Only some services count. Helping a neighbor with a new baby does not count for service hours, but volunteering at the library does.

    Thanks for the article.

  • momof11

    Amen!
    It seems so artificial to me when because they are in Confirmation class and must do service, kids are joining choir or serving at Mass, or ushering to get their allotted number of hours needed, and are never seen again once confirmed. My children are encouraged to do service, because that is what we do and how we live our Faith. So the boys are on the altar serving weekly, even though they are only scheduled about once a month or 6-weeks…they always are needed. My daughters with good singing voices started singing in the choir as soon as allowed and choir rehearsals and special Masses are just a part of life. We can adjust our homeschooling schedule to serve at funeral Masses if needed. The kids and Daddy pray weekly at the abortion clinic (giving Mom some quiet time at home). Service is a way of life…the Catholic way of life is a life of service!

    Mandatory service hours seem to me to make service something that is a punishment and only done when required….that is not Christian Service

  • GaryT

    Heidi,
    You make two points in here.

    First I find it interesting that they picked the word “service” with it’s naturally secular connotations. Why not the word “apostle”? After all we need more apostles for Christ, and they aren’t going to come from secular institutions but the church itself.

    Second, there is a huge difference between “being” an apostle and “doing” service (even an apostolate). Being an apostle means sharing our love for Christ in our words and deeds for others. And that is absolutely something that cannot be simply added up in terms of hours or dollars.

  • Cooky642

    I think momof11 reiterates Heidi’s point well: it IS artificial to count service hours toward a goal. Our goal is heaven, and service should be a way of life.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t disparage it entirely. When I reverted to the Church, the priest at my parish waited about 3 weeks to suggest some things I might do to “help out”. I think, looking back, that he assumed that, since I was there every week for Mass, that I was committed to the parish and he wanted to be sure I stayed that way. So, I became a Lector, then a Eucharistic minister, and spent 16 years co-teaching R.C.I.A. From that early “service”, I’ve been involved in some way ever since. It’s a good way to build a good habit.

  • kmtma

    Don’t forget that St. Therese of Lisieux counted her sacrifices and good works as a child using beads. Having children keep track of service can actually help them become aware of what they do for the Lord on any given day or in any given year. I have witnessed the love with which many acts of service have been done by children counting pieces of straw for the manger and punching holes in good deed crosses to help carry His load. The goal is to help the young take notice of serving the Lord. Taking notice helps us to incorporate His service into our lives. The counting can also help us to develop discipline in looking for and carrying out opportunities to be servants to others.

    Also, don’t be so quick to dismiss service hours/points. I have seen some beautiful examples of learning and spiritual growth come from “required” service hours/points. A resistant teen can begin service feeling “forced”, and finish with an entirely new perspective—one that without being “forced” would never have been found. Some kids simply would not take or may not get the chance with family to serve—thank God our Catholic schools can help them get started. I do mean started. I have not encountered a Catholic school (and I have experience with a few) that has said fulfill this requirement, and that is all the service you will ever have to do.

    I could not agree more that we need to fill our family life and our schools with many opportunities to serve so that it does become part of life for our young people (and us). There are many ways to do this; including service hours/points/counting. One important thing that should accompany any attempt to teach service to our youth is that we serve others for Jesus. We are his hands in the world and on the flip side we care for Jesus when we care for others (Mt 25). I firmly believe that helping children become aware of that along side service hours/counting beads/regular family service projects is what makes the difference. Without the connection to the gospel and to Christ service means nothing—even to the child taking part in one service activity after another with family. Jesus gives it all meaning.

    Did I mention that I am forever grateful to God for the wonderful Catholic schools that I attended and for the one my children attend? I also thank God for the years he gave me teaching in a Catholic school prior to having children. I celebrate and pray for Catholic Schools and Catholic school teachers this week! They do a great service for the Church (often unmentioned)—planting and nurturing the seeds of faith along side parents!

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