By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
CCD. Religious ed. Faith formation. The terminology used to speak about instruction in the faith has evolved over the years, and so has the theory of that instruction. In the past, religious instruction was designed for children and teenagers, and for most, formal teaching on the faith stopped with confirmation. But today, faith formation is understood to be for all Catholics, young and old alike.
“Faith formation is lifelong and ongoing,” said Cathy Cornue, Syracuse Diocesan Director of Faith Formation. “It’s about bringing people to a deeper relationship with Jesus and a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith. And it’s about evangelization, reaching out to those who come to our parishes and those who might be waiting to be invited and welcomed. Evangelization is the mission of the Church and the purpose of catechesis within this mission is to enable every believer to live as true disciples.”
To that end, catechetical leaders this year will focus on three key areas to ensure that all members of their faith communities have the opportunity to further their understanding of and relationship with the Church: implementing whole community catechesis, encouraging catechist certification, and improving ministry to students with special needs.
Whole Community Catechesis
This vision of faith formation sees the process as unending, a continuing journey to know Jesus and the Church better. It also stresses the importance of interaction between all members of the faith community—kids, parents, young, old—as a means of growing in faith.
Parents are the primary focus in this model, as they are a child’s first and most constant catechist. Many catechetical leaders have been ramping up efforts to increase parent involvement over the past few years, and those efforts will continue this year. For Pam Peters, Director of Faith Formation (DFF) of Our Lady of Sorrows (OLS) in Vestal, this means bringing students and their parents together three times per semester for meetings, activities and prayer services. Parents of students preparing to receive a sacrament will also be invited for meetings on their child’s progress. OLS has also formed a religious education board that brings catechetical leaders, parents and other parish leaders together to further develop and coordinate the formation curriculum.
“[The board] allows the parents to work behind the scenes on their child’s education,” said Peters. “It’s another way for them to be involved and to help them understand the faith formation program. They can be ambassadors to other parents, and I’m seeing increasing parental participation in the parish.”
Other parishes are instituting Sunday afternoon retreats with students and their parents; others are creating opportunities for adult education through workshops on liturgy and upcoming modifications to the Roman Missal.
“We are trying to find new ways to teach children and all families in the parish, including grandparents and those who don’t have children,” said Cornue. “Our goal is to bring everyone to a deeper understanding and appreciation of our faith.”
Catechists are a precious and often rare resource, and helping them to grow as teachers and members of the faith community is essential. For many years now, catechist certification programs have been available but not required in order to teach. While certification will remain optional for the forseeable future, Cornue is striving to have all catechists certified within the next three years. Currently, about 28% of catechists in the Diocese have completed certification. She also stresses that the courses aren’t just for teachers.
“The courses are wonderful,” Cornue said. “They are for anyone who wants to teach—or anyone who wants to deepen their faith.”
The Diocese offers two levels of certification. The first level, which Cornue would like to see all catechists complete, is divided into three courses: The Catechist: Call, Mission, and Formation; The Word: Foundation of Catechesis; and Discipleship: Living the Faith. Each course consists of several components, or classes, that cover topics related to that course. Thirty hours of study are required for certification. The second level is an advanced certification, structured similarly to level one and requiring 30 additional hours. Each level provides an in-depth exploration of topics integral to faith formation.
Cornue and the catechetical leaders realize that their catechists are already stretched for time, and that 30 hours of anything is a huge commitment. To make the certification process more accessible, the courses are now being offered online, in addition to in-person. And again this year, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Foundation, the courses are available to catechists at no cost to them or their parishes.
At St. John’s Parish in Liverpool, more than 80% of the 57 catechists are already certified, and all of the remaining catechists are in the process of becoming certified. Elizabeth Fallon, DFF of St. John’s, credits the online program as a big contributor to the high certification rate. She herself is certified to teach the courses as well, allowing her to offer in-person courses based on the needs of the catechists in her parish.
“There is a core group of volunteers who teach [at St. John’s],” Fallon said. “But I‘m starting to see younger people express interest in being catechists. All the catechists are very enthusiastic, she said, about working with children and learning more about the faith themselves through the certification program.
Those interested in becoming catechists or enrolling in the certification courses should contact their parish’s catechetical leader or visit faithformation.syrdio.org/courses for more details.
Those with an interest in continuing their faith formation should also attend this year’s “Building Bridges” conference. “Bridges” will succeed the long-running “Journey of Faith” conference, which originated as a venue for certifying catechists and youth ministers, and is designed to reach a wider audience and cover a broader range of topics. The faith formation office is collaborating with ministries from around the diocese to provide more workshops and trainings than ever before, and at more affordable prices. Six hundred teachers from the diocese’s Catholic schools will attend, and all members of the diocese are invited to attend. For more information on “Building Bridges,” visit faithformation.syrdio.org.
Ministry to students with special needs
Making sure that all children, particularly those with special needs, are able to participate in faith formation in the way that suits them best is paramount for catechists in the diocese, as is making sure they themselves have the appropriate resources and training to help them understand children’s needs. Last year, the diocese’s faith formation office surveyed catechetical leaders, asking about students with special needs in their parishes. The survey revealed an increase in students with disclosed special needs, specifically children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. The survey also showed that catechists wanted to learn more about serving their students with special needs better.
Connie Armstrong, Northern Region Director of Faith Formation and Director of Special Education for Catechetics, is working to put more resources in place, both for catechists and their students. She is developing a resource library of books and other materials that address teaching students with special needs. She is also working with catechetical leaders to identify special needs experts in each region who can be go-to resources for catechists. The catechist certification program is also being revised to include new material on teaching students with special needs.
Last year the diocese rolled out individualized faith formation plans for students with disclosed special needs, similar to the individualized education plans (or IEPs) those students may have in school. This initiative will continue this year. Parents and catechetical leaders will meet one-on-one to discuss a child’s needs and identify adaptations that can be put in place to make sure the child has a successful faith formation experience. Adaptations will be different for every child and could include anything from having time for physical activity to having a parent accompany him or her to class.
But Armstrong stresses the importance of communication in making sure students with special needs are able to have the necessary adaptations. Though the fear of “labeling” or discrimination is understood, it is impossible for a catechist to serve a student properly if he or she doesn’t know about that student’s special needs.
“Our teachers will do everything in their power to best serve a child,” said Peters of the catechists at OLS. “But we need the parents to talk to us.”
Cornue is excited about the spirit of community and collaboration driving the faith formation program this year, and hopes all members of the diocese will take advantage of the faith formation opportunities available to them. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child,” she said, paraphrasing St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. “We must all take opportunities to deepen our understanding of our faith, and to work to better share our faith with others.”