Catechetical leaders share challenges and joys of their work
By Jennika Baines
SUN associate editor
With a flurry of new backpacks, permission slips and soccer uniforms, the back-to-school season has arrived. But amidst all the new beginnings, a continuing effort to incorporate faith formation in the lives of students and parishioners throughout the diocese remains constant.
Catechetical leaders, once known as DREs, are an integral part of that effort.
On Sept. 1, the Religious Education Office, which coordinates the efforts of catechetical leaders throughout the diocese, was renamed the Office of Faith Formation.
The director of that office, Sister Katie Eiffe, CSJ, explained the reason for the change in a letter sent out to catechetical leaders and pastors. “That may seem like simple semantics, but it is so much more. Faith formation … formation in discipleship, is the goal of all of our efforts. That, of course, is not new. But now, the name of our office reflects that vision which is so dear to our hearts,” she wrote.
Here, The Catholic SUN features some of the catechetical leaders who have devoted themselves to faith formation in the Syracuse Diocese.
Rochelle Wolkowicz, catechetical leader of Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s Parishes in New York Mills, had trained as a dental hygenist. But she said she finds orchestrating the religious education programs at two parishes much less hectic.
“I’m doing more than I’ve ever done before, but it’s not stressful,” she said. “It’s almost like a hobby, something you love to do and can’t get enough of.”
The best moment of her career, she said, was when she found a way to successfully merge the catechists in the two parishes. During an understandably tense situation, Wolkowicz started a Women’s Spirituality Group. The group provided a way to weave the parishes together so that catechists could move beyond polite small talk and into a more meaningful engagement with each other.
The proof of this new engagement came when two of the catechists’ husbands died within a month. Wolkowicz said the group swung into action, providing support, and food, for the grieving women. “We were just a family,” she said. “We were there.”
Now, Wolkowicz said she is looking forward to beginning a new program of whole-community catechesis that attempts to encourage the same close bonds between members of the parish. The “Growing Faith Project” will be a monthly pot-luck dinner she hopes to begin in October.
In 2000, Heidi Buda, catechetical leader of Holy Trinity Parish in Fulton, took a group of students to the World Youth Day in Rome. Despite the long flight and having to sleep on the floor once she got there, she said it was one of the best moments of her career.
“When you see so many young people together, and they all share the same faith and they have the same problems, you see it in their eyes. They just get it,” Buda said. “It makes it all worthwhile.”
But there are, of course, still many challenges in her work.
“Challenges you always have,” she said, “especially now when we’re combining churches. People are losing things. You lose something you loved, and now you have to learn something new. And this trickles down to the children. They have to learn that this is still a home, still a church. Even when they lose their special building, their special pew, this is still a community.”
She encourages families to include time for prayer in their busy schedules, no matter what form that prayer takes. She said her work has taught her “just to say thank you, it’s fine.”
If there isn’t time in the day to eat together or pray as a family, she said, try praying as the children are put to bed. “Ask them, ‘Did you have a good day? Yes? Well, let’s thank God.’”
Kathy Mohorter, the catechetical leader at St. Agatha’s Parish in Canastota, has been working in the parish for over 30 years.
“Every year there’s something new that makes you say, ‘Gee, I’m glad I’m doing this.’ You know that something is going to happen during the course of the year that’s going to make it all worthwhile.”
One enduring challenge, however, is the need to encourage families to attend Mass each week. “That is a challenge because you’re constantly working against sports and dance and karate and all of those other things going on in their lives,” Mohorter said.
Ultimately, she said, the decision to make Mass and prayer a part of everyday life is up to the parents. “We can give them the tools, we can give them ways to come to church … but knowing the joy of Mass, the joy of sharing a meal with Jesus, that has to come from the people themselves.”
She said her work impacts on her own faith formation. “It’s a lifelong process of learning about our faith,” Mohorter said, “and I’m still in that.”
To say that Maria Kirk has devoted her life to catechetical ministry is no exaggeration. She was confirmed in the third grade and became involved in religious education in the seventh grade.
Kirk grew up in the Portland Diocese, which is comprised of the entire state of Maine. Because of this, she said, the bishop only passed through her area every seven years, “and the nuns took everyone who had made their first communion and had them confirmed.”
She said religious education has changed her life, and she felt called to focus her energies on catechetical ministry. And it will take a lot of energy.
“Well, this is a very interesting year,” Kirk laughed.
Starting this fall, she will oversee catechetical leaders in the pastoral care area of the four parishes of Eastern Broome County: St. Joseph’s in Sanitaria Springs, St. Joseph’s in Deposit, Our Lady of Lourdes in Windsor and St. Mary’s in Kirkwood.
The parishes are working together to implement a pastoral plan so, for instance, they will eventually share the same curricula for Confirmation, First Sacraments and religious education in each parish.
Kirk said she hopes to have a catechetical program for all four parishes that provides continuity, yet still remains sensitive to the individuality of each parish.
“My goal this year is just to get it all started,” she said.
Paul Loman was inspired to become catechetical leader of St. Daniel’s Parish in Syracuse after attending the Steubenville Youth Conference. “I felt humbled to see all those young people and how they were able to explain and understand who God was,” Loman said.
He said he is continually reminded of how faith is an ongoing journey and how each of us, no matter what age, has something to contribute.
Loman said one challenge he faces is to encourage parents to instill in children the need for the Church. “We only have [the children] for one hour a week; they have them for 167,” he said. “They’re the primary teachers of the faith.”
He said he hopes to encourage parents to talk about faith while at home with the children, especially in relaxed situations. “If parents talk to them in a casual, everyday manner, it’ll start to sink in with the kids that this should be a part of their lives,” he said.