Placing Jesus in children’s hearts

Benedictine nun’s book helps prepare children for first Communion

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: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.