By Katherine Long | Editor

The diocese has begun a study of its Office of Faith Formation, aiming to assess the current state of catechesis at the parish level, collect insight on innovative faith formation models used locally and around the country, and deliver outcomes and recommendations to diocesan leadership by early 2018.

The study is an outgrowth of the the diocese’s strategic plan, said diocesan Chancellor and Director of Communications Danielle Cummings, and seeks to align catechesis efforts with the diocesan mission of evangelization.

“As part of our strategic planning process, the [strategic planning] committee evaluated where the diocese is in terms of its faith formation ministry,” she explained. “Upon the retirement of the former Director of Faith Formation, Cathy Cornue [effective August 1], they decided it was the best time to embark on a study that would help us determine what catechesis looks like in our diocese currently; how are our resources being used at both the parish and the diocesan level; and, with the knowledge that family structures and faith practices have changed, what’s the best way that we can connect with both families and individuals on forming their faith?”

The diocesan strategic planning committee is serving as a task force to spearhead the study. The team members, working in collaboration with the staff of the Office of Faith Formation, are Msgr. Timothy Elmer, Msgr. Richard Kopp, Msgr. John Putano, Father Mark Kaminski, Father John Hogan, Father John Canorro, Father John Manno, Father Christopher Celentano, Father Richard Prior, and Father John Kurgan. Cummings is serving as the facilitator of the group and is overseeing the Office of Faith Formation in the interim. Recruitment for the director position is on hold until the completion of the study.

Overall coordination of the study is being led by Eileen Ziobrowski. The diocese is in negotiations with Hezel Associates, a local research and evaluation organization, to implement the survey and conduct focus groups. Ziobrowski, who also led a study of the HOPE Appeal in 2011, worked as a Senior Research Analyst with Hezel Associates until September 19, when she began as the diocesan Associate Director of Formation for Ministry. She will continue to coordinate the study through its completion.

To date, Ziobrowski has met with task force members and faith formation staff to focus the scope and methodology of the study. She anticipates having the study methodology finalized in the next two weeks, she said.

The main component of the study is an online survey that will be distributed to catechetical leaders in parishes. “We’re really looking for their perspective on what is being offered in their parish through the faith formation ministry, what innovative approaches they’re using, and how the diocese might better support them as they incorporate the mission of evangelization,” Ziobrowski said.

A series of focus group interviews with catechetical leaders is planned for the study. Pastors will also be invited to offer their perspectives on faith formation in the diocese.

The study will also comprise research by Office of Faith Formation staff on models of catechesis around the country. “This challenge that we have, in how to meet families where they are in forming their faith, is not unique to Syracuse or the Northeast. This is something that if you go to any diocese, you’re looking at them doing a study, trying a pilot program. You’ll hear the term ‘family catechesis’ quite often,” Cummings said. The classroom model of instruction in the faith is not as effective as it was 30 years ago, she added. “We need to have a better understanding of the process of evangelization, with the goal in mind of having people understand their faith and making them missionary disciples — which are terms that we as Catholics probably didn’t use very often over the past 30 years.”

The diocese’s own pilot program will also be considered during the study. Seven parishes are currently participating in a three-year pilot program that presents a unified process of evangelization aimed at parish renewal. The process is sequential, systematic, and collaborative among the Offices of Faith Formation, Youth Ministry, and Evangelization, and offers a new model for evangelization, catechesis, the Sacrament of Confirmation, and ongoing adult faith formation. While the study won’t specifically address the pilot program, the pilot will be incorporated into the overall vision stemming from the study’s outcomes.

Cummings noted, however, that no one has “a magic formula” for faith formation or catechesis, and that she does not expect a “ta-da” at the end of the study.

“It’s an opportunity to gather input from a number of groups on what they think are some of the challenges that are before us as parishes and within our own families, but then to really talk about and to hear about some great, innovative things we could be doing with families,” she said.

Ziobrowski concurred, framing the study as a needs assessment or contextual study.

“I see it as identifying strategies that the Office of Faith Formation can do to help parishes move in these new directions,” she said. “What are the needs, what are the emerging needs, what can we do to support those needs?”

Ziobrowski anticipates launching the survey by the end of November, and having the full study completed by February 2018. Recommendations for new strategies will come out of the study, but how those recommendations are applied will be up to the committee and the Office of Faith Formation, Ziobrowski noted.

Cummings acknowledged the fear that can come with change, but emphasized the positives that she sees coming from the study.

“This study is not being done in a vacuum. It is part of what this group [the strategic planning committee] is looking at overall for the diocese,” she said. The study is an opportunity to “pause and reflect” on the good work done in the diocese of decades, as well as to look forward, she affirmed.

People may find the idea of a study or assessment daunting, “they think it’s a negative,” she said. “There is nothing farther from the truth. This is a positive.”

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