Some parishes are trying family faith formation
By Connie Berry
The standard drop-off and pick-up approach for youngsters’ Catholic faith formation experience is taking a back seat to whole family catechesis in some parishes these days.
Ever since Bill Huebsch offered a presentation in the Syracuse Diocese several years ago, catechists have been trying to figure out a way to get parents directly involved in their children’s faith formation at the parish level. Heubsch helped found a movement toward whole community catechesis, which involves parents joining their children in sharing their faith and prayer. One way to begin that process is by inviting families to participate in their child’s sacramental preparation, and ideally continuing the discussion at home long after the songs and craft projects are done. While it is logical that parents are their children’s first teachers, including parents in their faith formation can still be a challenge.
Cathy Cornue is the diocesan director of the Office of Faith Formation and she said families become energized by the enthusiasm of the youngsters and the shared catechesis can lead to a deeper understanding of faith for all members of the family. The busyness that engulfs today’s families makes it even more important to find a way to share the faith.
“One of the challenges facing families today is time. There are so many demands on our time, with many parents working long hours, including, at times, weekends. Children and teens are immersed in sports practices and games, music lessons, dance, tae-kwan-do and a host of other activities,” Cornue said. “The question becomes, ‘How might we involve the whole community in echoing God’s word through the way they live their everyday lives?’”
Family faith formation is not focused on the catechist so much as it is on the family members themselves. The lessons are provided by the catechist but they are carried out by the families. The goal is for parents to become the natural teachers of the faith to their children so that it is shared every day inside and outside of home. Offering family-centered faith formation could lead to the church providing more couples’ support, parenting support and deeper spirituality for the adults.
Beth D’Angelo is a catechetical leader at St. Joseph’s Church in Endicott and she is using the family model at her parish. She was also inspired by a workshop held a couple of summers ago that featured Leisa Anslinger, who wrote Here Comes Everybody! Whole Community Catechesis in the Parish.
“It was a great workshop and I was really inspired,” D’Angelo said. She is currently putting one of Anslinger’s ideas into practice. D’Angelo is following the suggestion that the program begin with second graders in preparation for First Communion and First Reconciliation. Then D’Angelo carried the program over to the third and fourth graders the next year. “We’re taking baby steps,” D’Angelo said.
The families might make Advent wreaths together, go over the Gospel reading together
on an age appropriate level and maybe sing a song or two together. The parish also offers a youth Mass once a month so the youngsters can participate in the Mass. “The youth Mass brings the parents to church,” D’Angelo said. She offers the family faith formation event on a Saturday morning once a year but says it would not be difficult to add another event for the families or to consider a Lenten or Advent project for families. D’Angelo has four children and now that the youngest is 18, she has time to dedicate to her church’s catechetical program.
“I remember what it’s like to try to find all the parts to the banners [for First Communion] at home and have them made on time,” she laughed. “Instead, parents can make the banners in class with their children and it’s nice having that block of time one-on-one set aside. This way the parents don’t have anything to plan — they’re given what they need to make them and the children love having them in class.”
A side benefit, D’Angelo said, is that having the parents come to class means they get to know each other and they may also find themselves relearning some things about their own faith that they have forgotten or neglected over the years.
Kathy Meus is Director of Faith Formation at All Saints Church in Syracuse’s University neighborhood. This is her first year of trying whole community catechesis at the parish. She is offering it once a month for preschoolers through 10th graders and their families. “The invitation is for everyone in the parish to come and a few have come to join us after Mass,” Meus said. It is offered after the 9 a.m. Mass on Sundays and each gathering has a theme. The session begins with an age-appropriate discussion on the “question of the week” with Meus leading the adult group. A person from each group is designated to speak for the group and talk about what came out of their group’s discussion when they all come back together. The session ends with song led by the youth minister.
Because the program is in its infancy, Meus expects to fine tune the program as it grows.
“It is a little more work,” Meus said, “but it is better than the model where the parents drop off the children. This engages everyone. I do like it.”
Some parents prefer the longer session that happens once a month over the classes offered weekly.
“When our religious education program met weekly, it was difficult to balance school work, dinner and the other activities the kids are involved in,” said Karen Nash, a mother from All Saints Parish. “Once a month seems more realistic given our weekly schedule. We often feel as a family we are stretched too thin.”
The Nash children have a few other ideas about the new format. Nash said her seven year old daughter likes that her parents are at class with her; her 10 year old thinks the class is too long; and her 13 year old would rather be with her peers than her family.
New ideas and new methods bring challenges but Karen Nash applauds the idea that her parish recognizes what worked 30 years ago may not work today. “The activities we participate in seem more connected to real life and therefore are more meaningful,” she said.
Katie and Charles Clinton have three children 9, 6 and 4 years old. They enjoy the opportunity to share the day’s lesson with the other parents who attend the monthly sessions at All Saints. “We are able to discuss and share with people going through the same things,” Katie Clinton said.
Katie and her husband said they feel more connected to what their children are learning now.
“Before, when we dropped them off at church school, we were removed from their formal faith formation and were not privy to what they were discussing,” she said. “Now, we are involved in their discussions and can follow up with the lessons as teachable moments arise at home.”
The diversity of All Saints Parish also adds to her family’s experience, Nash said. “We are grateful to All Saints for providing us with such a welcoming, supportive, genuine and thoughtful place for our family to grow in faith.”
Maria Kirk in Binghamton has found a sort of happy medium for the family faith formation idea. Her parish, St. Francis of Assisi, has settled on two major family-friendly events a year, one in the fall and one in the spring. Instead of using part of her budget to host a full meal and a day-long event, Kirk said she schedules a special nationally-known presenter who visits the parish, explains a little about what they will do at the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass, and then gathers with families and parishioners who want to come after that Mass. The event basically lasts an hour and a half, everyone gets a little coffee, juice and a bite to eat and the whole thing takes place between Masses.
“Originally groups met from noon to 5:30 p.m. in the gym,” Kirk explained. “I find that that many children in a gym gets to be chaotic. And everyone has to eat so that takes a significant amount of time.”
So, Kirk changed the four-times-a-year events to two more brief sessions a year and invited everyone to attend, along with the families involved in catechesis. “We had the Spoon Man as a speaker last fall and he was wildly popular. On March 11 we’re going to have Nick Alexander at 9:15 a.m. and everyone is invited,” Kirk said.
Faith formation ministry at St. Ambrose in Endicott means gathering for events three times a year, according to the parish’s director of faith formation, Barbara Kane. The events happen after the 10:15 a.m. Sunday liturgy, Kane explained, with a family activity planned around the theme of the day. They also end the event with a potluck dinner.
“I always find that people enjoy it, especially the children. They enjoy it when their parents come with them,” Kane said. “Parents are often surprised by what they learn.”
No matter the method, the catechists are finding a way to involve families and the rest of the parish in the faith formation process. “What’s important is that we get people thinking about new possibilities,” Cathy Cornue said.
For more information on whole community catechesis, call the Office of Faith Formation at (315) 470-1431.