Catherine Mackey, Director of Faith Formation at St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville, gives a virtual lesson on bread to students preparing to receive their First Communion. Each week, Mackey offered students a video class called “Mondays with Mrs. Mackey.” (screengrab via stmarysbville.org)
By Katherine Long | Editor
Lucy Hawthorne, catechetical coordinator for the linked parishes of Holy Trinity in Fulton and St. Stephen’s in Phoenix, offers a heartfelt message to the parents of the parishes’ faith formation students: “I want to empower you. I want you to know that you are ready and you are more than capable. You are a living example of faith in your home. I’m here to give you all the help you need.”
Hawthorne, like many catechetical program leaders in the diocese and beyond, uses a family-centered approach to the parish community’s faith formation program. Such programs actively involve parents and families in a child’s faith formation, both in the class setting and at home, and moves away from a “drop-off class” model.
“Parents are the primary educators in the faith,” the General Directory for Catechesis affirms (#255), and the diocesan Office of Catechesis advocates family-inclusive catechesis efforts. Hawthorne’s own 20 years as a catechist also showed her that “parents have to be a role model and an active part or else what we do is just going to filter away.” If efforts to learn about and live the faith don’t become a part of home life, students “are just in another class they’re going to potentially forget,” she said.
As Hawthorne was approaching her role as coordinator — she officially began her tenure July 1, after retiring from a 36-year career in public elementary education — she and her predecessor intentionally sought out a faith formation program that would engage families and allow parents to be their child’s primary educators in the faith.
Last year the parish community began using Family Formation, a family-based catechetical program developed by the Church of Saint Paul in Ham Lake, Minnesota. The program combines monthly classroom lessons, during which children gather for grade-specific lessons and their parents gather for adult catechesis, and weekly home lessons, which parents teach to their children using provided lessons, activities, and materials.
Classroom lessons were held in person in the fall but have moved virtual; Hawthorne hopes in-person classes will be able to resume in March. The virtual lessons have gone very well, though, she said, with plenty of active participation.
Hawthorne’s goal, both through the structure of the catechetical program and encouragement of everyday acts of faith like offering grace before meals and prayers before bed, is to move students and families toward “a living faith, not a part-time faith.”
Parents are the most important role models when it comes to teaching the faith to their children, says Maura Molnar, Catechetical Leader at St. Mary of the Lake Church in Skaneateles. “If we don’t do anything to engage the parents and give them the opportunity to share this experience with their children, then it’s never going to stick. You can’t do it one hour a week,” she said.
When Molnar began leading the parish faith formation program a dozen years ago, she added parent and family involvement components to the sacramental preparation programs. Then she began offering family catechesis along with drop-off classes. In recent years, Molnar has organized family classes and intergenerational, whole-parish events.
When it comes to faith formation efforts, “it has to be family-centered,” she said.
In March, when pandemic restrictions put a stop to most gatherings, Molnar was concerned about students and families losing a sense of community, she said. She set about providing a better option for families at home.
“I came up with the idea of making the Mass the center,” Molnar explained. Families attend the parish’s 10:15 a.m. Sunday Family Mass in person or via Zoom; afterward, families and/or students can participate in a faith formation class, virtually or in person.
“Father starts the lesson in his homily,” Molnar said, then the week’s lesson is built around and supplemented by Pflaum’s Gospel Weeklies faith formation program materials. Since students from kindergarten to eighth grade may be joining the family class, the grade-level-specific materials allow each student to continue learning at an age-appropriate level at home with their parents, Molnar explained.
Students attending the Mass in person are also able to actively participate by assisting with setting up the altar, distributing hand sanitizer, offering readings, letting people into the Zoom meeting, even acting as “cameramen,” Molnar said.
The Family Mass was originally conceived for faith formation students and their families, but it has become something of an intergenerational parish Mass. “I wanted to offer it to the whole parish,” Molnar said, and “a couple of weeks in, I let the rest of the parish know.” These days, close to 70 groups are streaming the Mass, she said, including families and elder members of the parish. A particularly special moment comes when all exchange virtual waves during the Sign of Peace.
“I would love to be able to keep offering” the virtual Family Mass into the future, Molnar said.
More than 20 years ago, Catherine Mackey’s young daughter set her on a personal and professional journey of faith with a simple question: “Will you please be my teacher?”
At the time, Mackey’s daughter was a second-grader, about to begin preparing to receive the sacraments at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville. Mackey held a bachelor’s degree in education but felt “unprepared” and “unworthy” to teach religious education, she told the Sun last year. Mackey dove in anyway.
“By doing that, I learned all over again,” she said. “As a parent, I didn’t have that experience. I did as a catechist… It was as if I was going through the whole faith formation program again as an adult and I loved every minute of it.”
Mackey went on to earn numerous catechetical certifications and a master’s degree in pastoral theology; she is currently the Director of Faith Formation at St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville and a theology teacher at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse.
Mackey brings her experience as a parent to her parish ministry in faith formation. Every Friday for five years, she emailed a faith formation newsletter to families, filling it with catechetical and evangelization nuggets she hoped would reignite parents’ faith.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, Mackey knew she needed to do something new to reach and serve faith formation students and families. So, in addition to weekly “homeschool” faith formation lessons provided to families, Mackey also hosts monthly virtual family events via Zoom.
The goal of the events, she explained, is not to create something that overburdened families dread, but to offer something fun they could look forward to and still feel a connection to their faith community.
The pre-Thanksgiving event included “a heated game of Kahoot [a web-based quiz game] that was comprised of questions about our faith as well as some specific to the parish,” songs from Director of Music Ryan Schaffer, a video about gratitude from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and a reflection from Mackey. During Advent, families participated in an online scavenger hunt and heard Christmas Scripture readings and seasonal songs.
Mackey also created video lessons for students preparing to receive First Communion — “Mondays with Mrs. Mackey” even has its own theme song, she said.
For all the challenges the pandemic era has brought, Mackey says she feels revitalized and that it has been a great opportunity “to do something different and meet the needs of the families in a different way.”
No matter what form faith formation efforts may take, Mackey assures parents that catechesis is “an area where we can all grow together…. I hope that you learn something from this, I hope that you enjoy this, I hope that you grow from this, and I’m right here if you need me.”