Placing Jesus in children’s hearts

Benedictine nun’s book helps prepare children for first Communion

Roxanne King

Charged with helping to prepare a 7-year-old girl for her first Communion, Benedictine Sister Immaculata Bertolli’s first lesson was less than successful.

“At one point she said, ‘I’m bored,’” Sister Immaculata, 33, recalled, laughing. The nun, who serves as head cook at the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colo., added: “I don’t like failure. I thought, ‘How am I going to get through to her?’ I really wanted to share the beauty of the sacrament.”

Realizing the child was a hands-on learner, the nun put together a book with 18 reflections, lessons and hands-on activities to keep her engaged in the learning process. The girl loved the book so much, she shared it with others. Rave reviews and requests from Sister Immaculata’s abbess, a priest chaplain, homeschoolers and a local Catholic school convinced her to publish the work, “Jesus in My Heart: Preparing for First Holy Communion.”

The 46-page hardback book ($20), which was written and illustrated by Sister Immaculata, aims to prepare a child for their first Communion by fostering a loving friendship with Jesus. It includes lessons gleaned from the nun’s monastic formation, from her experience praying the Divine Office, and from her work in the abbey kitchen.

“Jesus in my Heart” was written and illustrated by Sister Immaculata Bertolli as a way to teach children about first communion. (Photo provided)

“Mother Maria Michael (Newe) was a huge influence on what I put in the book,” Sister Immaculata said, referring to her abbess. “The first lesson is called, ‘Listening with Your Heart.’ It’s about going into your heart to pray. Mother Maria taught me how to do that in my 20s.

“The other great influence has to do with the liturgy, the Divine Office. As Benedictines, liturgy is our life. … There’s a short lesson called, ‘My Child, Give Me Your Heart.’ That title is from one of the antiphons we use on the feast of the Sacred Heart. … A child needs to understand Jesus loves us so much he wants our heart.”

Every lesson is paired with an activity a child can do with a parent using common household items. The activity for the lesson “My Child, Give Me Your Heart,” is making a pizza wherein the stretchiness of the dough serves as a model for making one’s heart bigger.

“The book involves a lot of participation from a parent; I did that intentionally,” Sister Immaculata said. “As our Holy Father says and as we hear throughout the Church, the first church is the home, that’s where children first learn the faith. I find that so essential—for a child to have the experience of the communion of the Eucharist in the home.

“I understand if families may not be able to do all of the activities,” the nun said, “but to do what you can shows your child you value the faith and they will learn from you as much as from the book itself.”

A labor of love, the book is beautifully illustrated with colorful pastel drawings ranging from pastoral scenes—including the dome-topped Abbey of St. Walburga surrounded by rolling hills—to stained-glass windows, Jesus and Eucharistic scenes.

A ballet dancer with a degree in kinesiology when she entered the abbey 11 years ago, Sister Immaculata is a self-taught artist.

“I have an artistic bent and really needed an outlet when I stopped ballet,” she said. “It was fun to do (the drawings).”

When finished by a child, the book will include their prayers, drawings, photographs and their answers to the lessons’ questions.

“I wanted it to be a keepsake for the child,” explained Sister Immaculata.

Her desire is that the book helps children to know the deep love Jesus has for them and impels a longing to return that love and start a relationship with him.

“There’s a lot about what Communion is, but also who it is,” the nun said. “If they understand that, they will treasure the sacrament a lot more and, hopefully, be faithful to it and receive it the rest of their life.

“They’re hearts are so soft when they’re young—so open and ready to receive the good news,” she added. “It’s the perfect time to plant that seed in them. If they really fall in love with Jesus they won’t fall out of love so easily. That’s the goal.”

Roxanne King: 720-771-3394; editor_king@icloud.com; www.twitter.com/RoxanneIKing

Title: “Jesus in My Heart”

Cost: $20

Purchase: online at www.walburga.org; call 970-472-0612; email abbey@walburga.org. Discounts available by emailing srimmaculataosb@gmail.com.

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.