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Program proves it’s never too early to learn about the faith


PALM BEACH GARDENS | Even with children younger than a year old, there is no time like the present to begin teaching them the Catholic faith. A program to catechize young children has been adopted at four parishes in the Diocese of Palm Beach.

The Catholic Tots ministry has begun at St. Bernadette in Port St. Lucie, Holy Redeemer in Palm City, St. Jude in Tequesta and the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach Gardens. A unique aspect of Catholic Tots is that it is multigenerational with no “teachers” taking the lead, but involves parents and sometimes grandparents passing along the faith.

Beth Zanotelli, family life coordinator for the diocesan Office of Marriage, Family Life, Faith Formation and Youth Ministry, said she discovered the Early Catholic Family Life curriculum, developed by Joanne and Alan Foley, which is the foundation for the Catholic Tots ministry. It runs for eight sessions and is for infants to 5-year-olds.

“Each session has various stations complete with directions on how to use the materials to bring the lesson to life for the children,” she said. “It will say, ‘Talk to your child about this picture of Jesus.’ Show them a picture of Jesus and talk to them about who Jesus is. Or for one of the sessions, they actually bring baby dolls and they baptize their baby dolls. But the thing is, it’s parent-driven.”

Since the children are young, the messages conveyed are basic and easy to understand. The first session explores creation, with the overarching theme that God created everything, said Zanotelli, who helps introduce Catholic Tots in parishes. Each session also includes time for the adults to discuss a topic, such as ways to bring their children to the faith, by asking questions like “Who instilled the faith in you?”

The second session in the program involves a field trip to the church, she said. The little ones are invited to come to the baptismal font, altar and tabernacle to see how special they are.

“I took the parents and children on a tour of St. Jude in Tequesta,” Zanotelli said. “We looked at the stained-glass windows that tell the story of salvation history in pictures. We were able to speak about Jesus’ life and what he did for us. This ministry is wonderful because it encourages young families to share the faith with their own children as opposed to dropping them off and having someone else teach them. There is also the opportunity for the parents to connect and support each other in the faith.”

“We talk about how to pray. They make a prayer book. It’s very simple prayers, and we talk about the fact that a prayer can be as simple as parents making the sign of the cross on their child’s forehead and saying, ‘May the Lord bless you this day,’” she said.

Kelly Whitten, faith formation director at St. Bernadette, said they typically have six families participate in Catholic Tots, with up to seven adults and about eight children. She said one of the advantages of offering Catholic Tots is that families are able to build relationships with one another as well as with their children in a fun, faith-based setting.

“The parents love that we offer a ministry for an often-forgotten demographic,” Whitten said. “We have many ministries throughout the diocese for those newly married, preparing to baptize their children and for school-age children. However, we seem to miss those families and children in the years between baptism and formal faith formation in kindergarten. These are the best years to introduce children to the beauty of our faith and to build a village of friends who are going through the same challenges you are.”

When couples marry in the Catholic Church, they agree to raise their children in the faith. Many factors may complicate that task, Zanotelli said. Catholic Tots offers a way to begin that process with the support of other adults trying to do the same thing.

“Catholic Tots is a wonderful ministry that allows us as a church to help, especially new parents, raise their children in the Catholic faith,” Whitten said. But with busy families, scheduling the sessions at times when more families will be able to attend can be a challenge.

Zanotelli is available to help more parishes adopt the Catholic Tots ministry. Only five families are needed to begin, she said. Whitten added that parents interested in starting the ministry need to pray about it before approaching their pastor or faith formation leader.

“If the Lord is calling you to begin this ministry, I say jump in! I have seen firsthand the relationships that can be grown through this ministry, not only with parents but with children,” she said.

For more information on Catholic Tots, contact Zanotelli at 561-775-9553 or