Raising Catholics for life
When Judy and Chris Munchrath’s daughter, Libby, began preparing for Confirmation, they embraced the idea of family model catechesis.
“It’s our responsibility as parents to raise our children in the faith. I feel for the last generation or two, we [Catholics] have been steered away from that,” explained Judy, a St. Michael parishioner and principal of Mount St. Michael Catholic School in Dallas.
Initially, many parents may not feel up to the task, she admitted.
“But this program is scaffolding parents back into that responsibility by giving us a knowledge base and confidence to speak to our children.”
St. Michael in Bedford is one of several parishes in the Diocese of Fort Worth using the family model as part of its religious formation program. It’s an effort encouraged by Marlon De La Torre, diocesan director of evangelization and catechesis.
Using principles borrowed from the Rite of Christian Initiation, he developed a family-centered methodology that makes parents the chief faith educators of their children.
Comments and concerns, voiced by directors of religious education across the diocese, highlighted the need for a new approach.
“The old CCD catechetical model just wasn’t working,” asserted De La Torre, referring to traditional Sunday school.
“Parents were dropping off their kids and going to Starbucks. They weren’t really part of the religious formation of their children.”
Family-centered faith education nurtures a child on a spiritual journey that gradually brings him or her into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s not simply reading a book or completing a handout without understanding how beliefs or doctrines apply to daily life.
“The goal is not to use the textbook primarily. It’s only there as a resource,” De La Torre pointed out. “Parents, guided by the catechist, teach the student.”
Creating a sacred space for children that’s both welcoming and invites spiritual awareness is essential. Soothing music, electric candles, and decorations with colors of the liturgical season produce a peaceful environment that’s conducive to learning about the awe and wonder of Jesus.
“It helps change the mindset about regular parish religious education,” the director suggested.
The reformulated program involves children meeting with a catechist for preparatory instruction on a topic such as creation, then taking home materials and an activity to complete with parents at home.
“The following week, a parent comes into the classroom to work with their son or daughter, with the catechist acting as a guide,” De La Torre said. “Parents become the pedagogue — the primary educator.”
Cognizant of the different family dynamics in society today, anyone in the family — a grandparent, aunt, uncle, godparent — can assume the role of lead teacher.
On the third week, another topic is introduced and parents return to the classroom to reinforce the information as the parish catechist observes.
Key to the program’s success is well-trained catechists who know the basics, can answer questions, and provide detailed information about other Church-related subjects that come up during the discussion.
“It gives catechists the latitude to adapt,” he continued. “If the kids are interested in Mary, they can talk about it.”
Each year youngsters are exposed to 16 Church doctrines ranging from the Trinity and original sin to the sacraments and salvation history.
“Each grade studies the same subject but the lessons are adapted and applied appropriately to the age level,” the diocesan director stressed.
Occasionally, a communal service brings all participants together for worship and fellowship.
De La Torre introduced the idea of family-centered catechesis to DREs in 2014 and several parishes volunteered to serve as pilot programs.
Jean Disher loves introducing the Catholic faith to her pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Penelope.
“I understand their parents are the first teachers, but I like being right there, too,” the seasoned catechist enthused.
Her rural parish is using family model catechesis for the first time this year. Previously, Disher met with children every week for an hour of religious education instruction.
Now she only sees them once a month for class while their parents meet with the pastor and Director of Religious Education Callie Nowlin to discuss weekly lessons that are completed at home.
“The lesson is the same for all age groups but is taught differently according to the grade level,” Disher emphasized. “Not only are the children being taught, but so are the parents.”
Catechists receive ongoing formation as well.
“For most people, after Confirmation, formation slips away. We go to Mass but don’t continue to study and learn,” she observed. “I think the new format is a very positive thing but, most importantly, it puts the job of passing on the faith in the hands of parents.”
St. Michael Parish initiated Families of Faith, family-centered religious education, as an option several years ago. Last fall, Robin Harris, the parish’s DRE, introduced a similar process for families preparing their youngsters for first Communion and Confirmation.
“It’s a partnership between the formation staff, catechists, and the parents,” said Harris, who introduced the new format to families during a welcoming discernment interview.
Parents and their youngsters gather at the parish once a week and begin the meeting with a prayer.
“The children go with their group. At the same time the parents have a session,” she added. “Then everyone comes back together and parents teach the rest of the lesson at home. They have full ownership of preparing their kids for the sacraments.”
The catechist’s job is to reinforce what the parents are teaching.
“The message people get from the outside world is that family is not important,” Harris noted. “We help families develop a deep sense of Catholic identity so they not only know all the doctrines, but also understand how those doctrines apply to their lived experience of faith. That’s worth doing things differently.”
So far, feedback from parents experiencing family-led sacramental preparation is positive. Many told Harris they’re thankful for the opportunity to teach their children and the preparation they received.
“Several said this was the most important thing they will ever do outside of Baptism,” the DRE said. “Their goal is not to raise Catholic children. It’s to raise Catholic adults. We want to raise our children to be Catholics for life.”