Over the last 10 months, many catechesis programs in the diocese built on — or built anew — digital offerings to continue serving students and their families. Above, a First Communion student from Immaculate Conception Church in Greene crowns a statue of Mary. The crowning was part of a virtual crowning video produced by the parish. (screenshot via iccgreen.com)
By Katherine Long | Editor
From tablet computers to YouTube videos, modern technology has long been a key component of catechesis efforts in the diocese. Over the past 10 months, the social distance required to combat the coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced the importance of using technology to effectively reach and teach young “digital natives.” This year, many catechesis programs in the diocese built on — or built anew — digital offerings to continue serving students and their families.
Embracing more technology became a focus in the catechesis program at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Binghamton several years ago, said Maria Kirk, director of faith formation at the parish for more than 10 years.
Kirk purchased 15 tablet computers for the program last year thanks to a diocesan Heritage grant. The Office of Catechesis offers Heritage Technology Grants annually; the grants assist parishes in “financing their technology needs to update the administrative and/or catechetical learning environment for the digital age.” The office has provided $96,000 in grants to diocesan applicants over the last three years, including a recent round of “covid relief” aid totaling $20,000.
Students in Kirk’s program had just started using the tablets when the pandemic halted in-person catechesis. Now that students are back — the parish is offering both socially-distant in-person and virtual instruction — the tablets are being used to enhance faith formation lessons. The tablets include Bible apps, material to supplement their curriculum, and access to research on class topics.
“Kids learn using tablets now,” Kirk said. Additionally, using tech like tablets was a way to further engage older students.
This year, a Heritage grant allowed Kirk to purchase three smart TVs — televisions that can connect to the internet, stream videos, and display photos. Some catechists may be unfamiliar with tablets, Kirk said, but “everyone is comfortable with their smartphones” these days. Catechists can access supplemental materials or apps via their phones and cast their screens to the smart TV. Two televisions are earmarked for use in classrooms and another for use in large-group settings in the parish hall.
The technology helps students “engage in a style of learning they’re more comfortable with” and “it makes learning about their faith fun,” Kirk said.
In response to the pandemic, the parish has pivoted to offer catechesis in person and virtually. Remote learners access weekly lessons through the parish website, where Kirk has also posted an online tutorial video, and parents send in assessments. A weekly Children’s Liturgy of the Word video lesson is also produced and available on the website every week.
Kirk envisions offering some form of online catechesis post-pandemic, but wants to make sure all students are part of the faith community. “Prior to covid, we had planned to have six different family-focused events,” she said. “I’m hoping next year we’ll have more people come face-to-face [for instruction], and I’m also hoping that if you’re [learning via the] online component, these family-focused events would be a way to come together and build community.”
Immaculate Conception Church in Greene also used a Heritage grant to secure tablets for its catechesis program last year; this year, however, the parish is turning to web-based platforms to keep the faith community connected.
In May, the parish created a virtual crowning of Mary, featuring three First Communion students, explained Pastoral Associate Mary Wentlent. In December, the annual Christmas pageant went virtual as well. The script was divided up among children in the parish and parents were asked to send Wentlent cellphone videos of the students reading their lines. With assistance from her daughter, Wentlent stitched segments from 17 youngsters into a digital pageant, available on the parish YouTube channel — “another new thing we created this year!” Wentlent said. The parish also began streaming Mass on its channel in October.
This year, Wentlent explained, Immaculate Conception’s catechesis students can come to an in-person lesson once a month or work on the week’s lesson at home; all students complete at-home lessons over the next three weeks. Each week, the lesson is explored through a different activity — writing a letter to a family penpal during week two, participating in a service project during week three, and watching a movie and discussing it with their family during week four. Parents can send in photos and updates on their students’ work via the Remind app.
The parish’s Confirmation students have been meeting virtually every week since September, Wentlent said, which “has been really good. [The students] enjoy it.”
The convenience of some online activities has been a small silver lining of the pandemic era, Wentlent said. Another is that she feels students are being encouraged to get “outside of our church more. Them having to be a penpal, them having to reach outside their home, and [ask] ‘How can I help people around me more?’”
The Office of Catechesis itself has also focused on advocating for and supporting the use of technology in catechetical programs.
The office is continually coaching catechists and leaders on available technology through workshops, expert presenters, and one-to-one training, explained diocesan Director of Catechesis Andrea Slaven.
And last weekend, the office even opened its first “Winter Wonder Virtual Catechetical Conference.” More than 100 catechists, catechetical leaders, youth ministers, Catholic school teachers, and parents registered for the conference, which runs January 16-23. The conference website welcomes attendees into a virtual conference hall with multiple daily presentations; a virtual exhibit hall, chapel, and chat area are also available.
Rhonda Gruenewald, a national vocation ministry speaker and author, offered the conference keynote Jan. 16. Gruenewald “emphasized the role that catechists play as children begin to recognize their gifts and begin to understand their own unique call to holiness” and “referred to the religion classroom as ‘incubators for future saints,’” Slaven said.
Workshops will continue through Jan. 23, featuring national and international presenters and a closing address from Bishop Douglas J. Lucia. Registration is still open and all workshops will be recorded for on-demand viewing through March 1. To register, visit faithformationevents.weebly.com.
“In this time as we are unable to gather, the virtual conference has provided a new way to network and learn together,” Slaven said.