Parents’ role is key to teaching the faith
Parents are the first teachers of their children – especially when it comes to the Catholic faith.
This teaching, as consistently articulated by St. John Paul II, is the guidepost for a parish religious education program pioneered in the Archdiocese of Omaha at Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, and taking root in at least a dozen other parishes in the archdiocese.
Developed by St. Paul Parish in Ham Lake, Minn., the program is called "Family Formation," and it focuses on getting parents actively involved in catechizing their children, said Elizabeth Tomaso, coordinator of catechesis and lifelong formation for the archdiocese.
"We’re seeing families who commit to it thrive and develop a deeper spirituality," Tomaso said. "It also is bringing them closer together as families."
Other parishes using some form of Family Formation this year include: St. Bonaventure in Columbus, St. Joseph in Constance, St. Ludger in Creighton, St. Boniface in Elgin, St. John the Baptist in Fordyce, St. Boniface in Menominee, St. Mary of the Seven Dolors in Osmond, St. Joan of Arc and St. Philip Neri, both in Omaha, St. Gerald in Ralston and St. Wenceslaus in Verdigre.
"St. John Paul II really challenged parents to recognize that they are the first teachers of their children, and to honor their duty to catechize and form their families so they can fulfill that role given to them at the baptism of their child," Tomaso said.
Family Formation offers a departure from the traditional model of weekly religious education classes for children.
Instead, classes generally meet only once a month, and both the parents, and the children in age-appropriate groups, are catechized on that month’s topic, Tomaso said.
Parents are taught how to present the material and asked to assign a time once a week to work as a family the rest of the month, she said.
One parish having success with the program is St. Gerald Parish in Ralston.
"We’ve seen a lot of fruit from this program," said Mary Feda, family formation coordinator for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. "Parents are re-learning their faith with their children.
"We have families returning to regular Mass attendance, becoming more involved in the Mass, parents who are now reading Scripture with their children, and families feeling more a part of the parish."
Tracy Stamps, mother of twin sixth-grade boys and a member of St. Gerald, where Family Formation is in its fourth year, said she appreciates the program’s flexibility.
"We can do this whenever we’re all together," she said. "It’s really nice to spend that time with them without other distractions."
Parental involvement takes a different form at St. Ludger Parish in Creighton.
The parish has completed one three-year cycle of Family Formation, and is now adapting the program to its own needs, said Father Jeffrey Lorig, pastor of St. Ludger and St. Ignatius Parish in Brunswick.
Instead of once-a-month sessions, the parish’s program involves six consecutive weeks, in both the spring and fall, when children attend classes at the parish school, and parents meet in small groups in homes.
"We’re trying to meet parents where they are and give them an opportunity for some reflection on their own faith and for some discussion," Father Lorig said.
The parent sessions use a program called "Discovery," provided by Catholic Christian Outreach, he said.
"We’re helping adults to have an experience of meaningful community and inviting them into an encounter with Jesus Christ," Father Lorig said.
Parents are encouraged during the six-week sessions and beyond to spend time sharing their faith and working with their children at home, with the option of using the Family Formation materials the parish provides, he said.
Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk is in its sixth year using the Family Formation program. At first, parents had difficulty because they didn’t feel equipped or adequate to teach the faith, said Marilyn Kathol, director of youth formation at the parish.
"But they are now more confident and more involved," she said. "We even have a whole team of parents who do the formation sessions for the adults. And this has been the first year that we’ve had both husbands and wives step up and say they want to teach a class."
And the program is yielding other positive results.
"They’re beginning to realize the importance of families talking about faith in their homes. Teaching it isn’t just out of a book," Kathol said, "it’s the way you live."