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New Book Answers Pope's Call for Parents to Teach Children to Pray

August 27, 2015

During his weekly catechesis on the family on Aug. 26, 2015, Pope Francis reminded parents of their responsibility to teach their children how to pray.

“There are children who have not learned how to make the sign of the cross!” the Holy Father said. “You, mother, father! Teach your children how to pray, how to make the sign of the cross!”

Grace Mazza Urbanski, director of Children’s Ministry for the Apostleship of Prayer in the United States, offers a means to help parents and their children become closer to God through prayer in her new book Pray with Me: Seven Simple Ways to Pray with Your Children.

We recently asked Urbanski about the importance of prayer in families:

Ave Maria Press: What part does prayer play in your family life, especially with your own children?

Grace Mazza Urbanski: Remembering to pray is like turning on the hose spigot; God's grace is the water. I have no idea, on any given day, how I'll need the grace God offers through prayer, but I can be absolutely certain that I'll need the grace. The water analogy is helpful, because I use water in hundreds of ways each day: to take a shower, brush my teeth, do the dishes, run a load of laundry, prepare meals, avoid dehydration, and all the rest. If I suddenly had no access to water, all of these common tasks would be hugely difficult, even impossible. The same is true with God’s grace. Prayer reminds me that everything is God’s gift. Everything. Life itself becomes impossible without God’s saving help

And so I pray—sometimes rapturously in quiet meditation, but most often in short, panicky bursts of “Oh, my God!” Keeping up that conversation with God reminds me that God provides all I need.

My husband and I started praying together when we were dating. Going to Mass and praying before meals came pretty naturally, but more spontaneous, private forms of prayer felt awkward at first. Sharing the intentions that were on our hearts, discussing what God might be asking of us—this kind of prayer took some getting used to.

Once we realized we were going to be a family together, we decided prayer would have to remain a constant. If children were in the plan (and they were!), we would ask God to help us make prayer a totally natural, organic part of the family life. We wanted to help our children avoid the terrible shyness my husband and I felt toward each other when we started praying together. With God’s help, we would throw open the spigot and let God’s grace slosh all around our home.

Consequently, talking about God and to God is habitual. We have standard prayer triggers, like the Morning Offering, prayers before and after meals, and nighttime prayers. We also like to slip into prayer at spontaneous moments, like when we see something beautiful, have a really good time with company, or are wrestling with a difficult homework problem.

One of my favorite recent developments in our family prayer involves our little prayer space in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We have a marvelous image set prominently on a bookshelf in the kitchen. When we are facing particularly snarly problems, one or more of us will stand before the Sacred Heart and share all our wounds with Jesus. This special place has been the source of great comfort and peace.

Q: Why is it important for any parent to teach their children how to pray? What do you tell parents about teaching their children to pray as part of your job as director of Children’s Ministry at the Apostleship of Prayer? What’s the most important thing for parents to remember? Is there an ideal age to start?

A: Children who pray have a constant source of confidence. Children who spend time every day paying attention to their relationship with God will grow up knowing that God ALWAYS has a plan of joy and goodness in store for them. This can’t start too early! Parents can pray with children in the womb. I have found that saying or singing the same prayers at the same time each night prepares a baby for life outside the womb. In physical terms, this means babies pick up on familiar bedtime prayer cues and learn how to fall asleep on their own more effectively.

When I speak to families about prayer, I often relate one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard about the fruits of prayer. I met an older gentleman who was interested in what I do for the Apostleship of Prayer. After a little while, he took me aside and told me the secret of his life: when he was in grade school, 1st or 2nd grade, his teacher looked him straight in the eye and told him, “God is ALWAYS with you.” His teacher was aware of the difficult home life plaguing him, and said again, “God is ALWAYS with you.” As he grew, this boy faced temptations and challenges that sometimes threatened his very life. At most difficult moments, he remembered—and even felt—the presence of God, which led him to make healthy, life-giving choices when no one would have expected that of him.

That's the power of a personal relationship with God. Prayer plants familiarity with God deep, deep within each of us, where it can actually save our lives.

One of my best friends has four young children. Though she works in ministry, she was shocked to realize, upon the birth of her first child, that her son had his very own relationship with God that she did not create. Her son had a living connection to the God of the universe, and her job was to respect that relationship, nurture it, and never forget it. That’s the most important thing parents can keep in mind: our children are not ours. They belong to our beloved heavenly Father, and we are at our best when we help our children delight in belonging to God.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Pray With Me? How will it help both parents and children?

A: When I began working at the Apostleship of Prayer, I was surprised to meet so many parents and teachers who felt sheepish about praying with children. Some felt inadequate or hypocritical. Others preferred to pray alone and saw no obvious connection between their own private prayer life and the prayer lives of their family members.

It only took a few months for me to see a real crisis in confidence among adults who care for children. Most adults vaguely want children to have robust prayer lives, but feel unequipped to help them. I wrote Pray with Me to provide some basic tools for folks who just don't know where to begin. Some families who do pray together, but rigidly, get stuck in a rut. The book has inspiring ideas to help them discover new prayer triggers and fresh ways to spend time with God.   

Praying can feel as natural as breathing. And there are so many ways to pray! I hope adults will enjoy the book (it has some pretty funny stories) and grow in confidence. God is thirsting for us! Prayer turns on the spigot and refreshes us all.

About Grace Mazza Urbanski

Grace Mazza Urbanski teaches high school English at Brookfield Academy in Wisconsin and previously served as national director of children’s ministry with the Apostleship of Prayer (now the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network). She continues to share her insights on prayer with parents, teachers, and children as a regular contributor to Catechist magazine and keynote speaker and workshop designer for events throughout the United States.

Urbanski and her husband, David, received the 2017 Archdiocese of Milwaukee Vatican II Award for their service to families. She also received an alumna of the year award from the Marquette University Denihy Chapter of Alpha Sigma Nu in 2018. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Marquette University, where she was formerly a lecturer in the English department. She is a Phi Beta Kappa and a member of several other honors organizations. Urbanski is also a professional vocalist and voice teacher. She is an active member of her parish, St. Mary’s Visitation, where she has served on the pastoral council and chaired the Catholic Formation Committee.

The Urbanskis live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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