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Michelle Wilhite, volunteer catechist and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna, shares a special moment with first-grader Ansley Brosh as she and classmates (from left) Alaina Miller and Alex Suarez construct doves from paper plates Sept. 21 during the parish’s religious education program. Photo by Mike May/Staff.

Parish religious education programs take several forms

Each week, often on Wednesday evenings, nearly 14,000 children in grades K-8 pour into parish social halls, school rooms, even gymnasiums across the archdiocese, to learn the Catholic faith and deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ.

It’s called parish religious education, and it takes a number of forms as pastors, directors and volunteer teachers work to meet the needs of busy families, increase parental involvement and provide a stimulating and meaningful faith experience, said Elizabeth Tomaso, coordinator of catechesis and lifelong formation in the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.

Various paths to the same goal include a family formation program, classes held on Sundays or in the summer, and efforts to increase student engagement, in addition to traditional Wednesday evening classes, she said.

 

PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT

One program incorporating parents as the primary teachers of the faith is called Family Formation. It’s being used by several parishes in the archdiocese. (See accompanying article on PAGE 7.)

Developed by a parish in Minnesota, it involves parents actively catechizing their children, Tomaso said. Classes are generally held once a month at the parish, where children and their parents are instructed on that month’s topic. Parents use take-home material to work with their children the remainder of the month, she said.

For Chuck and Jenny Kucera, parents of four and members of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Verdigre, Family Formation has been a good refresher.

"I really enjoy it," Jenny said, "and my husband and I are learning, too. I think it’s good for the children to see their parents wanting to learn and know their faith as well."

Parental involvement in any parish religious education program also is an important aspect of preparing students to receive the sacraments of reconciliation, first Communion and confirmation, said Jackie Schuler, religious education coordinator at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna.

Within the format of weekly Tuesday or Wednesday evening religious education classes, second-graders at the parish prepare for reconciliation during the fall and first Communion in the spring, she said. And parents are asked to join the children at a parent/child retreat during the fall and spring.

"They also have materials that go along with the curriculum that they go through with their children at home," Schuler said.

Practicing the sacramental rituals takes place during classes, the parent-child retreats and at home with parents, she said.

Parents also serve as teachers and help with retreats for confirmation preparation, said Sarah Finneran, the parish’s religious education coordinator for seventh- and eighth-grade religious education.

 

STUDENT ENGAGEMENT

Another priority for religious education programs is increasing young people’s engagement with the subject.

Catechists from around the archdiocese will receive training Oct. 15 on how to more actively engage their students when nationally-known catechist and author Joe Paprocki speaks at a workshop in Omaha, Tomaso said.

"Students have been behind desks all day, but we want them to be active and involved, so one method he presents is to use the actions they experience at Mass as a familiar template," she said.

Activities could include students blessing themselves with holy water when entering the classroom, arranging a prayer table with flowers, candles and the Scriptures, writing out special intentions and placing them in an intention box, reading the week’s Scripture readings from age-appropriate Bibles instead of instruction manuals, and learning spontaneous prayer, she said.

"We’re not just teaching a class, we’re presenting a lifestyle and an encounter with Christ," Tomaso said.

 

ALTERNATIVE SCHEDULES

Some parishes aim to meet the needs of busy families by offering alternatives to the traditional weekly evening classes.

At St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, flexibility is the goal, said Lori Long, director of religious education.

In addition to its program during the school year, the parish offers an alternative – a two-week intensive summer program.

"Many families love it because the school year gets very busy with school and activities, and this gives them an alternative," she said. "And the consistency of having classes every day helps the children retain a lot more of the information."

And to ensure continual connection with their faith, families are encouraged to attend family faith building activities throughout the year.

To be eligible for the summer program, parents attend four adult faith formation activities during the year, Long said.

"We want parents to continue learning more about their faith so they can share that with their children when they’re not here throughout the school year," she said.

Another parish offering an alternative schedule is Sacred Heart in Omaha.

For the convenience of parishioners who live all around the Omaha area, the parish offers its religious education program on Sunday mornings, when families already are coming for Mass, said Sue Vavak, director of religious education.

"Most of our kids don’t live close, and an evening class would be difficult for them, so Sunday is our best day," she said. Classes run from 9:25 to 10:20 a.m., allowing families to attend the 10:30 a.m. Mass together.

"We try to be as family-centered as possible and involve the parents and the children," she said. Classes begin with an opening prayer for all grades, in which most parents also participate.

"From time to time, we also try to involve parents in other activities, especially during sacramental preparation," Vavak said.

 

EXTEND THE EXPERIENCE

At St. Mary Parish in West Point, faith formation doesn’t stop with religious education classes, said Lisa Hunke, parish youth minister and Region 3 assistant coordinator of rural faith formation and catechesis for the archdiocese.

In addition to traditional Wednesday classes, sixth- through eighth-grade students are invited to extend their faith experience through a program called "Edge."

The program involves children from both religious education and the parish school for once-a-month, Sunday evening gatherings, including prayer, music, group activities, Scripture readings and Eucharistic adoration, she said.

Several other parishes in the archdiocese also use the Edge program, developed by Life Teen International, for their religious education program for higher grades, or as a supplement to religious education.

"My goal is to have something that brings together both our public school and Catholic school students." Hunke said. "I really want it to be a parish ministry where all the kids feel invited and welcomed, and something that unites them in those kinds of activities."

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