Please pass down the faith

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Article Marriage and Family

Most parents, if asked, can tell you in two words what they want for their children: "the best." But what does "the best" mean when it comes to religious education? The real goal, after all, is to communicate the Catholic faith to the next generation so that it takes hold and endures. What can parents do to assist the Holy Spirit's transforming work? For today's children must become tomorrow's Catholic adults, assembling themselves to celebrate Mass, perform the works of justice and mercy, and embody Christ in the world.

To the practitioners who have been studying such questions, one thing has become clear: Passing on the Catholic faith requires the combined efforts of parents and parishes. Nothing less will do.

Children of change
The winds of change have blown fiercely not only through Catholic life during the last 35 years since the Second Vatican Council, but also through the American culture and family. Today's parishes, more heterogeneous and complex than in earlier eras, may offer Mass in two or more languages, and many no longer support a Catholic school. Inner-city Catholic schools may enroll more non-Catholic than Catholic pupils. In rural areas, parish closings mean that commuting time to church has significantly increased. Each of these changes has implications for religious education.

Upheaval in American family life-through divorce, blended families, single-parent families, increasing numbers of children raised by grandparents and other guardians, and children shuttling between separated parents-affects the church's ability to pass on the faith.

The religious profile of today's parents has also changed. Born after the Second Vatican Council, parents of grade-school children today received their religious education in the in-between period before the new curriculum had been formed and the liturgical reforms had been implemented.

While many learned important lessons-such as that Jesus loves and forgives them or that they must think for themselves and pay attention to their own consciences-they express confusion about how to integrate what they learned with the church's body of theological, moral, and social teachings.

The problem goes a step further. Because young parents typically are the most willing to teach religious education in parishes, today's teacher pool is hampered by the information and formation deficit of what has been called "the fuzzy Jesus generation."

Many families no longer attend weekly Mass. The result is that the power of the ritual itself-especially the music, gestures, environment, and other elements that reach children too young to understand the words-has not been regularly nourishing the lives of many children and parents.

Cecelia Regan, director of religious education (DRE) at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Old Bridge, New Jersey, oversees 1,200 students enrolled in first through eighth grades. A mother herself, Regan says that her teachers can quickly recognize whether a child comes from a "practicing Catholic" family. "Kids living it out in their homes get the most from the parish religious-ed program," says Regan, who works with 145 volunteers each week to keep class sizes small. Regan put her finger on what is one of the most significant issues in religious education today-the role of the parent.

Parents get top billing
It might seem inopportune for the catechist's load to be set squarely on the shoulders of parents, especially now that parents are busier than ever, weaker in their religious fundamentals, and less supported by the neighborhood and society. But the primacy of parents as educators is virtually impossible to dispute.

Consider the time factor: Most parish religious-education programs run 60 or 75 minutes a week for 26 to 32 weeks a year, a mere 40 hours of instruction a year. The parish can't be the major influence on children. Set that 40 hours a year beside the pervasive influence of television (the average elementary-age child watches some 28 hours each week), and the issue becomes clearer yet.

"No one has more influence on the child than the child's parents," says Judith Dunlap, who chairs the board of the National Catechetical Renewal Network and works as DRE in two Dayton, Ohio parishes, Saint Agnes and Assumption. "Families must assume the responsibility for the faith formation of children." Dunlap encourages parents to pray with their children, talk to them about God, read stories that build faith, and reflect with them. "Parents must be involved in the process, whether at the parish or at home or school. They can no longer just send their children to Catholic schools as a substitute for religious instruction at home. Instead, children have to see their parents believing in God and hear their parents expressing their faith." Extended family, godparents, close friends, and other adults in the parish can and ought to assist parents.

The church helps, too, Dunlap says, by giving parents the words-the language of Catholic literacy-which help them express their own living faith. Parishes can provide practical resources for the home. "The big challenge now is for parishes to give parents what they need, affirm them, help them to network with each other, and convince them that they can do it."

Rule #1: Be flexible
How do parishes empower families? They educate and nurture the faith of adults, including parents and catechists, enabling them to foster the faith of children. Parishes also celebrate the liturgy, a formative experience for all Catholics. Many parishes encourage children to participate actively in singing, praying, kneeling, genuflecting, crossing themselves, and joining in the collection of money or food for the poor as they take in the entire ritual action. Some parishes celebrate the Liturgy of the Word especially for children, using the Lectionary for Children.

Parishes are also learning to be flexible in addressing the wide-ranging needs of contemporary parents and children. The children of single parents, for example, might need a ride to the parish, or the single parent might need baby-sitting services in order to attend a parent meeting. Parishes have also begun to schedule meetings at various times in the hope that all parents can find some time to attend. Children, too, require greater flexibility. Some travel on "custody" weekends and miss class (and maybe Mass) through no fault of their own. Parishes are learning to creatively address such realities.

Because many children cannot read quickly or well in Cecelia Regan's parish, catechists use the Pflaum Gospel Weeklies, newspapers for each grade level. Regan finds them short and accessible. If a child is absent, the teachers put the weekly into an envelope with a "we missed you" note and the assignment, and send it to the child with a "see you next week" encouragement to come back. She also hears stories every week of families experiencing hardships-from situations of abuse to illness to economic need-all of which make flexibility and exceptions necessary.

"When we held a First Communion meeting recently," Regan explains, "one of the big issues was what to do about parents in nonvalid marriages." At First Communion, the parish invites parents to come forward with their child even if they cannot receive, but it wanted to do more. "We invited them to seek out a priest or deacon if they wanted to validate their marriage before their children receive First Communion. That way they could receive with them."

In addition to flexibility, more parishes now offer instruction and formation sessions for parents and family members of children receiving sacraments or religious education. The hope is that parents will begin to form relationships among themselves, sharing problems, solutions, and concerns in a kind of peer ministry.

Parishes promote home rituals by giving out practical, easy-to-use materials and encouraging parents to work with their children on projects and to recognize "teachable moments" that arise every day. And parishes reach out to parents who do not regularly attend Mass or other parish activities. They seek to involve Catholics whose own sacramental preparations-as well as their children's-is unfinished.

Helen Diskin, director of religious education at St. Philomena's, a large, upper-middle-class parish in Livingston, New Jersey, lists the three strengths of her parish religious-education program as "community building, offering faith formation as well as information, and empowering parents to be the primary educators of their children." Religious education at St. Philomena's is viewed as one part of the whole parish ministry. The program tries to be inclusive and does not differentiate or separate children in the Catholic school system from those in religious education. The catechists work together, pray for one another, and meet four times each year for what Diskin calls "theological, psychological, and spirituality input." During the year the diocese offers basic certification courses for catechists along several tracks: catechesis with children, with adolescents, and for RCIA.

For parents, the parish hosts family days and breakfast days. Because Baptism and First Communion are key moments for families, the parish uses these occasions to reach out to them. St. Philomena's also sponsors a First Reconciliation family workshop to help parents understand Reconciliation. Leaders show parents a film, discuss a brief booklet on Reconciliation, and role-play going to Confession. Afterward, parents are invited to visit the confessional with their children. It also provides a brief (two-to-four weeks) but intense summer program for sacramental preparation. At Christmas, too, the parish works to embrace entire families: Ten different families each year are invited to decorate the church.

Diskin thinks the formational approach as a whole works well because participation and enthusiasm are abundant, people linger at the-end of sessions, it is always easy to find volunteers, and absenteeism has dramatically decreased.

To inform or to form?
The difference between information (teaching the basics of scripture, the sacraments, church history, and the theological and moral tradition) and formation (which includes the prayer, actual beliefs, and practice of one's faith) has never been clearer in religious education. While most educators agree that both information and formation are essential, the formula for balancing the two is widely debated. For example, some educators think the pendulum has swung too far toward formation. They worry that Catholics know too little about their faith and focus on correcting a knowledge shortage in the information age.

This and other emphases are apparent in several of the major approaches to religious education now being used in parishes.

Don't fight the system
A curriculum-based, or systematic approach, refers to a religious-education curriculum organized by grade. The catechisms of earlier eras presented the basics in question-and-answer format, which was learned "rote" by generations of Catholics and gave them a uniform set of information about the faith. Because few catechisms are in use today, most dioceses have approved guidelines on what should be covered for various age groups. The systematic approach is information-oriented; it seeks to present the basics over a prescribed period of years.

First graders, for example, might learn that God loves us, that the world is a good place, that we're all in the family of God; second graders usually focus on Penance and Communion; third graders study the Mass; fourth graders learn the Ten Commandments; fifth graders get an overview of all seven sacraments; sixth graders study the Old Testament; seventh graders the New Testament; and eighth graders concentrate on Confirmation. The systematic approach can be combined with a variety of teaching styles, such as memorization, discussion, and hands-on activities.

Most religious educators today seek the proper balance between memorization and experiential learning. "Some kids aren't good at memorizing," Judith Dunlap points out, "yet parishes must make religious education a positive experience for them. Fortunately, kids learn the love of God by sitting on your lap," she says.

Kathleen O'Connell Chesto, in her book Raising Kids Who Care (Sheed & Ward, 1996), recounts that one night at bedtime, her son asked her to recite the "other Mary prayer." She asked which one. "Mary had a little lamb," the child began reverently. She learned that her 3-year-old had confused everything rote with "prayer." She determined to teach him to pray from the heart, in his own words.

Many years later, however, when her son had grown up, a man with Alzheimer's rushed in front of his car and was killed. In agony, Chesto found herself unable to sleep, unable even to pray, so she began to recite the rote prayers that she learned in her childhood. Rote prayers, she concludes, are for the times in our lives when we find ourselves without our own words. So both kinds of learning are important.

By the book
A more contemporary approach to religious education-for both adults and children-is based on the lectionary and takes its model from the new rites of initiation in which small groups study and discuss the scripture being read each week. Since the Mass itself is so formative, say proponents of lectionary-based education, and the weekly Sunday readings are, in fact, the primary way the church hears and proclaims its faith, why not use it as a basis for teaching children?

Using the lectionary connects the child with the worship of the parish. Adults hear a homily on scripture; why can't children hear an explanation they, too, can understand and apply at their own developmental level? Later, at home, in school, and elsewhere, the learning can continue as families discuss what they have heard. The approach is both formative and informative.

Some note that because of school-year timing, the Advent, Lenten, and Easter readings receive attention each year while classes are in session, but summer scripture readings, for example, are never covered. Critics argue also that the lectionary itself offers too limited a base upon which to build the whole body of Catholic teaching that includes history, doctrine, and social justice. Some parishes try to overcome this problem by combining the two approaches: the curriculum-based and lectionary-based, emphasizing the best of both.

Family matters
The family-based approach to religious education takes seriously the notion that parents and families are the primary educators of children. Family-based parish programs include the whole family in each session and may even be intergenerational.

Behind this approach lies a theological concept, which the pope and U.S. bishops have called "the domestic church," realizing that the family is an extension, perhaps even the most basic unit, of the church itself. The family plays a part in the church's mission to the world in how it settles disputes, how it prays before meals and before bed, how it celebrates the holy days and seasons, and how it acts-do family members visit the sick, tend to neighbors in need? Family-based catechesis is not limited to the time constraints of classroom instruction. And it is holistic, integrated with the rest of life, work, play, and social activities, offering a style that fits with adult life as well.

Because all of these approaches have merit, many dioceses and some parishes have adopted a "menu" approach, offering several of these options for parents.

Judith Dunlap, a strong advocate of the family-based approach, combines two approaches. "The religious-education program should complement what happens at home by systematic catechesis," she says. "Usually dioceses have charts giving such categories. Parishes must also educate parents so they can feel comfortable with their own faith: understanding the seven sacraments, the Incarnation, redemption, the Our Father, the Ten Commandments-key concepts that make us Catholic."

Menus are even more important at the diocesan level, composed of many ethnic and language groups. In the Office of Catechesis in Rockville Centre, New York, Josephite Sister Anne Marie Dean finds that "no one program serves all." Dean says, "Parents do want good things-even holiness-for their children and themselves. And while the textbooks are much improved today, parents still need to see how 'holiness' plays out in their own homes." A variety of approaches helps them.

Finally, parishes around the country are finding that, whatever their preferred approach, religious education is enhanced by celebrating the Liturgy of the Word with children. Cecelia Regan says that in her parish, children beg their parents to take them to Mass, they find the children's liturgy "so much fun." Many parishes follow this Sunday scenario: Before the first reading, the children are invited to file out for their own Liturgy of the Word. Together they hear a reading and the gospel from the Children's Lectionary. Then catechists ask the children to express what they have heard and to think about it at their own level. Next, the children return to the assembly to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

This practice provides a critical experiential piece, helping to balance the information and formation components of religious education, especially for parishes whose main approach is systematic.

In important ways the trends in religious education today are inclusive. While educators may debate the methods and emphases, most agree that parents and parishes must work together if they are to pass on to the next generation a living Catholic faith. They also concede that the best religious formation is balanced. It is not, as Dunlap says, "just intellectual or head knowledge, spouting off the beliefs involved in faith, but experiential as well." Parents and catechists want children to experience a sense of belonging to the parish, and if religious education is positive, children will want to come. As Dunlap puts it, "Children should learn the basics and also be challenged. They need to know that God loves them, yes, but that's not enough."

By Karen Sue Smith, editor of Church magazine, published by the National Pastoral Life Center.

 

Serving up spirituality for hungry families
St. Joseph's Parish in Portage, Pennsylvania offers two options in religious education to its families but if you think either of them will let you off the hook as a parent, you're mistaken.

More than eight years ago, the parish began a program where parents take on the responsibility of teaching their children the material in catechism books provided by the parish. At a monthly family class, a volunteer teacher checks the children's work, while parents listen to a guest speaker.

DRE Mary Heinrich says that after four years of this program, "I became aware that there were families who wanted more than just, 'Give me a book.' They wanted a deeper spirituality. They were hungry."

In response, St. Joseph's brought in the Family-Centered Intergenerational Religious Education program (FIRE), designed by Kathleen O'Connell-Chesto. "FIRE groups usually meet in someone's home, and there are usually five to seven households-with a sprinkling of singles, couples without children, and young adults-in a group," says O'Connell-Chesto. "The sessions primarily consist of lessons that are either games, skits, or experiments-basically fun things to do."

FIRE works on a four-year cycle covering basics like sacraments, the Creed, salvation history in the Old Testament, and how God is revealed in the prophets, Jesus, and the church.

"To me, FIRE is more about family bonding," says former participant Naomi Stager. "Everyone is together, we do the take-homes together, and it just works out really nice."-Sarah Randag

Me? Teach my own kid?
Many parents raise their eyebrows when they are askedor requiredby their parishes to take a major role in their children's religious education.

"The first year, I watched parents come to the parent classes angry, with their arms crossed across their chests and their body language saying, 'We are not happy to be here,'" says Mary Heinrich, director of religious education of St. Joseph Parish in Portage, Pennsylvania. "But I think with the old system, parents were just easing their consciences by saying, 'Well, I have my child there every single week, and if they don't turn out well, it's because they didn't teach them right.' Family-based programs put things in the right order. It's the parents' job to make God real to our childrenand it's the church's job to make God real to the parents."

"More family education has to be out there," says Theresita Perez of Chicago's Our Lady of Mercy Parish, "but some of our parents work 10 to 12 hours a day. It's hard to ask them to come to a meeting. What can I say? That their children can't make their First Communion? But that doesn't stop me from asking."

Sometimes even parents with the best intentions find that plans don't work as smoothly as they would like. Ann Tarczon tells how she and her husband have wrestled with their sons' resistance to learning about their faith. "It's a real struggle to get them to sit down and talk about God," says Tarczon. "When they were younger, it was easier because you could get a religious book and that was their bedtime story. Now they think religious ed is dumb, and they've been in school all day and don't want to have to go and do it."

Nonetheless, Tarczon thinks the school setting for CCD gives her sons a faith community of other children and another adult voice on faith issues. "It's easier for them to hear it from someone else," she says. "They also can see that they are part of a groupthat they aren't the only kids who get sent here every Tuesday afternoon for an hour."

Not even this, though, makes getting them to Mass any easier. "We have six Catholic families on our block, and we're one of the two who goes to church every week as opposed to when it's convenient," says Tarczon. "It's really hard to be one of the ones who says, 'We have to go to church every week' when you've got these other families who don't think it's important."-Sarah Randag