Formation for Ministry Program is building up the local church
By Connie Berry
“Parishes are meant to be places where the people have ownership,” said Father Greg LeStrange, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus. More and more often lay people are stepping up to provide service and ministry in their parish community. The diocesan Formation for Ministry Program is designed to help them become effective ministers. According to the program’s current director, Father Joseph Scardella, over 1,500 people have been commissioned since the program began in 1980.
The two-plus year program involves study, workshops and retreats and culminates in commissioning ministers in areas such as parish administration, liturgy, pastoral care, social justice, parish outreach and more.
Father LeStrange has served at St. Joseph’s for more than four years and he has seen three parishioners commissioned for the parish. “I’m finding as the priests’ numbers dwindle, Formation For Ministry is a lot of help,” he said. “There is always work for the priest to do, but parish ministry is evolving.”
Typically, parishioners who go through the program are already involved in some form of ministry at their parish. Formation for Ministry provides them with more knowledge and techniques that benefit them in a ministerial area that is already important to them.
Terry Street became a Catholic 15 years ago this coming April and now she helps others through the RCIA process at her parish, Sacred Heart and St. Mary of Czestochowa in New York Mills.
“I found the program to be very helpful,” Street said. “You learn a lot of differen skills and you meet a lot of people. I learned a lot about Canon Law as it comes up in the RCIA process. There are a lot of people who want to become Catholic when they get married and they might be divorced. There are a lot of people who aren’t in tune to what they have to do to get married as a Catholic.”
Street said Formation for Ministry brings other ideas to the table and also provides an opportunity for socialization within the group going through the program.
Joe and Amy Casper just finished the Formation for Ministry Program together. They are parishioners at St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville. Joe said it was his former pastor, Msgr. Richard Kopp, who told him he might benefit from the program. He was just commissioned in the area of pastoral care.
“We had a great group of individuals and we formed a close bond,” Joe said. “In fact, we were sad when the program was over.”
Joe said he feels like now he has an “educational toolbox” to pull from as he goes through the different ways he can help others in his parish.
“I walked into it not knowing what to expect and I left in a state of awe,” Joe said about the program. “It exceeded my expectations. All the teachers were fantastic. The classes were laid out really well. It challenged me.”
In fact, Joe and his wife felt the impact of the Formation for Ministry Program so profoundly that they are now entering the permanent diaconate program. “I never expected anything like that to happen,” Joe said. “This program changed my life.”
One thing all of the people who begin the program have in common is the desire to learn more about their faith — and to be able to give back to their church.
Cathy Cornue is the director of Faith Formation for the Eastern Region of the diocese and she has been teaching in the Formation for Ministry Program for many years. She is a teacher by vocation and by heart.
“I love to teach and I love sharing faith with others,” Cornue said. “I love watching the expression on their faces as they get an ‘ah ha!’ moment, as they connect with God. I love being an instrument to help people gain a deeper faith. I feel priviledged to teach in the program.”
Cornue teaches Old and New Testament courses and foundation in Scripture, a class required for everyone enrolled in the program. She said sometimes people are surprised by the Scripture courses. “They don’t realize the Bible is a whole library, not just one book,” she said. “And people come in at different levels of awareness.”
She is currently teaching an Old Testament oourse that requires students to spend 15 hours in class, six weeks at a class that is two and a half hours long. The course allows them to broaden their understanding of Scripture and to realize the image of God is a little scary in the Old Testament at times, but that the Scripture was written by more than one person. It was inspired by God, not dictated by him, Cornue said. Most importantly, students learn to apply this knowledge into life in the parish.
Cornue said students can study the exile the Jews experienced in Scripture and see how it relates to the exile people might be living through today.
“They might meet someone who has walked away from the church. They might meet someone when they visit a hospital who hasn’t been to church in 10 years. There are different kinds of exile,” Cornue said.
The parish ministers who complete the program also come away with friendships they can keep for the rest of their lives. The camaraderie they enjoy comes from a deep sharing of their faith and a sense of community.
Father LeStrange said whenever he is away from St. Joseph’s and he comes home to find the lights on and cars in the parking lot, “It’s a good thing.” It means his parish is alive and well. Formation for Ministry is one step that can keep the parking lot full and the lights on. For more information about the program, call the director, Father Scardella at (315) 470-1420.