A Healthy Portion

Sept. 11-17, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 31
A Healthy Portion
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
Like food for the soul, a strong religious education program nourishes children in their faith, providing them with a solid foundation to grow in Christ. Through religious instruction, catechists continue the mission of Jesus so that children may become living, conscious and active Christians.

According to Sister Kathleen Eiffe, CSJ, diocesan director of religious education, the ministry of catechesis, teaching, is essential to the church. “In Matthew’s Gospel, when the risen Lord appeared to His apostles, He asked that they ‘Go and make disciples.’ Pope John Paul II has written that the aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ,” said Sister Kathleen. “Catechetical ministry, in all its forms, must be about inviting people into relationship with Jesus and from that relationship, participating in continuing Jesus’ mission on earth.”

Deacon Thomas Harley, director of religious education (DRE) at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Endicott, said that the purpose of religious instruction is two-fold. “The main part of religious instruction is faith formation –– to teach kids their faith,” said Deacon Harley. “But we also want to give kids roots and attach them to the parish.”

DREs and catechists agree that religious education is a tremendous but rewarding commitment. There are many elements that go into a successful program: it takes the entire parish community –– clergy, parents as well as teachers –– to nurture children in the Christian faith. Father Edward Zandy, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, plays a major role in the religious education program. This pastoral support is key, said Deacon Harley. “We are fortunate at Our Lady of Good Counsel to have a pastor who is so committed and involved with our youth. He knows the kids by face and name,” Deacon Harley said. “When kids see the interest he has, they become excited about their faith.”

The scope of today’s religious instruction goes beyond offering children the fundamental sacraments of First Holy Communion, reconciliation and confirmation. DREs and teachers combine elements of faith with parish and community service to help children understand what it means to be a disciple and gain a better understanding of what Jesus’ ministry is about. “Religious education is a way for kids to learn about their faith, but it is equally important to help children carry on Jesus’ mission,” said Andrea Slaven, DRE at St. Helena’s Church in Sherrill. She explained the importance of service projects. “We can teach all we want in class, but it is through reaching out to others that kids will experience God. It has to be in their heads and hearts,” Slaven said. Recent service projects at St. Helena’s Church include sewing blankets and delivering them to shut-ins and the “Rake and Run” tradition where students rake the yards of the elderly and flee when they are finished.

Community outreach projects serve many purposes. Foremost, they instill the value of the Catholic social teachings which emphasize ideas such as respect for each person and service to the poor and vulnerable. But service projects also give students a feeling of self-worth and accomplishment. “The kids like helping others. They feel like they have made a contribution to society,” remarked Pat Barnett, religious education associate and commissioned lay minister at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Mexico. The parish works with the public high school so that students receive credit for service projects they perform in religious education classes.

Community service facilitates bonding between students and relationships blossom. They develop a trust inside the classroom and are comfortable sharing their faith. It is important that children feel free expressing their faith because in some instances religious education classes are the first contact children have with the church, explained Heidi Buda, religious education associate and commissioned lay minister at St. Anne’s Church in Parish. As in most programs, a majority of the students enrolled in St. Anne’s religious education program attend a public school. Religious education classes might be the only venue students have to openly discuss faith with their peers. “We have some children from families who do not attend Mass regularly and we are their only means of religious instruction,” Buda said. “During class, they see they are not alone in their beliefs.”

DREs make substantial efforts to reach out to the children and their families in an effort to encourage them to join religious instruction. Debbie Whipple, DRE at St. Matthew’s Church in East Syracuse, extends a personal invitation to each child and his or her parents inviting them to attend class. “I don’t want to just say to parents ‘We expect your child to be at class,’” said Whipple. “Rather, I send them an invitation, asking them to come, telling them that their child’s presence is important to us.” There is a growing need for religious education instructors to meet parents –– who are shuffling children to school and activities –– somewhere in the middle. Several parishes have gone to great lengths to find dates and times that will accommodate families’ hectic schedules. It is all about meeting the needs of today’s busy families, Whipple said. “Religious education is an important part of a child’s faith and we try to offer options to parents. We do not want to turn away a child because of scheduling conflicts,” she added.

Religious education programs work to bring children into the faith and ensure that their relationship with Christ and the church continues to grow when classes are over. But what happens in between? How do new teachers find the resources necessary to build a strong spiritual foundation? The consensus among catechists is that it is important for them to be creative and have fresh ideas that challenge today’s Catholic youth “Kids move at an amazing pace. They live in a world that has always included the Internet, high-speed modems, cable-TV and wireless phones,” said Kathy Sledziona, who has served as director of faith formation for the past 13 years, most recently at St. Patrick’s Church in Oneida. “We have to make it easier for them to meet the God who knows and loves them. For us to do this, we need to be able to communicate with them, meet them where they’re at and be willing to challenge them with new ideas, not offer them tired responses from a decade or two ago.”

Sledziona recommends finding new, exciting ways to pray with children. She urges catechists to choose new places to pray, consider a different type of prayer, or select a story or a song as a prayer to help students broaden their understanding of what prayer is about. Father Richard Prior, parochial vicar at St. Matthew’s Church in East Syracuse, works with the religious education program to find exciting ways to reach the youth. A concert in November at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School is just one of the events he has invited the youth at St. Matthew’s Church to attend. “We want kids to get excited about their faith,” said Father Prior. Catechists today are offered plenty of fun and fresh resources to help connect youth with their faith. The diocese presents a variety of ways in which DREs and catechists can update their skills and have opportunities for ongoing faith formation as well as discover innovative ways to bring faith alive to children.

At the beginning of each year the “Journey of Faith” program is offered by the Religious Education Office. This year’s program will be held Sept. 26 and 27 and will offer valuable workshops for catechists and those who are interested in exploring their faith. Whipple recommends fellow DREs and teachers visit the Harrison Center where she finds a “wealth of information” to guide catechists. The center offers a sampling of religious education programs from different publishers in addition to other resources teachers can use in the classrooms, such as videotapes and music.

For many teachers discovering new resources allows them to reach the children in the many and varied ways that they learn. “You have to find different ideas to reach kids,” said Slaven. “Each child has his or her own learning style and personality. I try to reach each child at some point.” Solid faith instruction is a continuing process. It is the hope of catechists that when classes are said and done young adults will remain active in their faith. Parishes invite young adults to commit themselves to engage in ministry after classes, be it becoming a lay minister or teaching a religious education class. It is important for youths to know their parishes care about them, said Deacon Harley. He invites the students who have gone off to college for a “welcome home dinner” during their winter break. Slaven sends out letters and care packages to students away at college. According to Deacon Harley, as youth begin to grow in their faith, the church goes from being “their parent’s church” to becoming “their own church.” This, he believes, is the mission of religious instruction. “It is a wonderful process to watch children grow into the church,” Deacon Harley said. “You can form them as Catholics, but they must also be taught to make faith their own.”

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