Advice from Master Catechists—March 2013

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by Janet Schaeffler, Kate Ristow, Dan Thomas, Chris Weber

What do you think about an intensive, two-week summer program?

Q: Our DRE and pastor are considering a major change in our schedule for next year. Instead of weekly classes, they want to run a two-week summer program. We’d meet from 9:00 a.m. to noon each day and cover the entire textbook. They say it will make it easier to get volunteers and that the kids won’t have as many conflicts with sports and other activities. What’s you opinion about the effectiveness of “intensive” summer programs like this?

—A. L., fourth-grade catechist

Janet Schaeffler’s Answer

A: There are a number of parishes that have used or are using this process. Many of these parishes offer their families choices and alternatives: e.g., this option as well as a weekly September through May program or this option as well as a monthly family program.

A parish—the staff and committees of parishioners working together—needs to examine the advantages and disadvantages of an approach it is considering, weighing options with the everyday needs of the community and the people they serve. What works in one place might not meet the actual needs of another parish.

In addition to the advantages you have mentioned (easier to recruit catechists and helpers; family schedules can be more easily accommodated), a few other advantages have been mentioned by parishes that have found this model to work well for them. Other advantages might include:

* People seem to learn more, and what is learned is retained and becomes a part of everyday living. For instance, how many people, especially youth, are greatly influenced by a weekend retreat rather than a series of classes spread out over a longer period of time?

* A three-hour block of time for each meeting day enables and empowers catechists (and DREs) to include various methods and techniques of learning and faith growth: presentations; conversations and discussions; artistic expressions; team learning and teaching; and the use of music, drama, and a variety of forms of prayer.

* In most cases, the attitude and responses of the learners are more positive because this format—which does not follow a “school model”—is different from “school.”

* Many parishes find it easier to recruit catechists, helpers, and aides for each grade level during the summer. What a great witness it is to young children and teens to see the many adults walking with them on their faith journeys.

The challenge with this option is to maintain that vital connection between the children and their families and the life of the parish throughout the entire year. Parishes that use this model recognize this challenge and provide for this connection in various ways: frequent newsletters/emails with ideas for family/home activities throughout the year; liturgies planned for families and the involvement of the youth; several one-time learning and worship opportunities, such as an Advent workshop, family Stations of the Cross, etc.; and involvement of families in the parish’s service and outreach ministries.

After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats, and teaching. Her website is

Kate Ristow’s Answer

A: Summer programming is not a new trend. I have several friends who were raised in the ’50s and ’60s in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin who participated in religious education sessions at the only time it was offered in their parishes: summer. Apparently, nuns from “the big cities” came to their parishes to conduct formal religion classes. My friends are good Catholics in every sense of the word; they are regular Mass-goers, active in the parish, and committed to serving others.

While all of my friends have happy memories of their summer sessions “with the nuns,” they are quick to acknowledge that their faith development was not limited to those classes. The Catholic culture (weekly family Mass, praying the Rosary at home in October and May, and family Baptisms and First Communions) and parish life (the annual picnic, ice-cream socials, parish missions, May crownings, and Advent and Lent service opportunities) are just a few of the reasons they continue to embrace the Catholic faith.

I think we must do the same with our kids today. A summer program is great, but if it is the only way your parish reaches out to children and their families, it won’t have much of an impact on the kids. You need to plan special family events and schedule opportunities for the children to gather with their peers all year long.

For example, build grade-level Advent and Lent sessions into your calendar. Your textbooks and catechist guides surely have lessons for these two important Church seasons. Advertise the classes early and often and match up the kids with their summer catechists.

Talk with your pastor about a regularly scheduled family Mass—monthly or quarterly. This does not mean adding an “extra” Mass to the schedule; simply identify a regular Sunday Mass as the family Mass that month. Pull together a committee of moms and dads to help you with planning. Before you know it, this will become a ministry for them. Most parents want liturgies that speak to them and their kids and help them to see how faith can be lived in daily life. And everybody loves a Mass where kids are actively involved!

If you do go ahead with a summer “intensive,” you’ll also need to strategize about how you can offer service experiences to students at every grade level throughout the year. It’s up to us to provide positive opportunities for kids to come together to show love for their neighbor.

As you continue this discussion with your DRE and pastor, work together to broaden everyone’s vision. Promote the big picture—with the summer session being one piece in your overall plan for the formation of parish children.   

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

Is too much emphasis on the academics of faith a bad thing?

Q: This is my first year as a Confirmation catechist. My students will be with me for the two-year preparation process. One of the requirements is successfully passing six tests—three each year—based on the content we are covering in class. If a child fails a test, parents are required to review the material with their child to prepare the child for retesting. I’m told that very few kids fail because they know the consequences, but I worry about so much emphasis on the “academics” of faith. What do the Master Catechists have to say?

—R. M., San Jose, CA

Dan Thomas’s Answer

A: Sacraments—and especially the Sacrament of Confirmation—are one of my favorite subjects. The key to understanding the Sacraments is our belief that Sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1131). In the Sacraments, we celebrate that God loves us always and everywhere no matter who we are or what we do. Infant Baptism demonstrates this perfectly because this child has done nothing to earn God’s grace except to be alive. The Sacrament of Confirmation celebrates God’s gift of God’s Spirit to our Church and to each of us.

As we help people prepare to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation, we need to keep this basic truth in mind, as well as a second important truth: God gives the Sacrament and its grace. Thus, we are not in charge of who celebrates it. No one knows what goes on inside that person or even when the grace of the Sacrament will come to fruition. So we “let go and let God.”

All of the above should strongly influence this preparation process. We need to give information/content so that those who will experience the Sacrament have a basic understanding of the rite and the divine life that is being “dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.” We need to give them opportunities to do service, one of the essentials of our Catholic faith. Retreat opportunities also are important so that they can see the Spirit alive in others. The Confirmation retreat at the parish I served last was given by the juniors and seniors who witnessed about their experience of God in their lives to sophomores preparing for Confirmation.

It is also important to involve parents and families in the preparation process, which is one of the values of the way your parish does the testing. It is important to get parents to share their experiences of the faith with their children in various ways.

We also need to have the entire parish connected to the process. The parish needs to be praying for the candidates; having parishioners witness to them is valuable as well. Those in various parish ministries can invite candidates to be part of that experience.

Ideally, preparing to celebrate Confirmation is an intergenerational pursuit that brings the parish, its families, and the candidates together around our understanding of how God’s Spirit is working in our parish community and in our individual lives. Obviously, it is much more than content—and what content there is must come from and move into the real lives of those celebrating this Sacrament.

Dan Thomas served in catechetical leadership for over 30 years and remains involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two adult sons.

Chris Weber’s Answer

A: The Code of Canon Law states that “to receive Confirmation lawfully a person who has the use of reason must be suitably instructed, properly disposed and able to renew the baptismal promises” (n. 889, §2). The challenge for parishes is to sort out exactly what is meant by “suitably instructed” and “properly disposed.”

Your parish is interpreting “suitably instructed” in very strenuous terms. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps your concern is whether this emphasis leaves the young people “properly disposed” to receive the Sacrament. To that end, I would be curious to hear about the other parts of the program.

In my view, “properly disposed” means that young people have knowledge about the faith and receive the Word of God in their hearts and stand eager to accept the grace of the Sacrament. Are they ready for a deeper walk with Jesus Christ?

Every Sacrament requires the “yes” of faith, where we freely invite God’s unconditional love to change us. For Confirmation, the assent of faith is a “yes” to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Faith knowledge is ultimately about relationship: “The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (General Directory for Catechesis, n. 80).

What does your parish do to help young people discern this “yes” of faith? Are members of the parish giving personal testimony to their faith? Does your Confirmation retreat include the witness of young people whose lives have been changed by the Spirit? Are you all praying together and for one another? Are you helping young people make a personal decision to renew the baptismal promises made by their parents and godparents? Is your team handing this entire process over to the Holy Spirit?

Extensive instruction in the faith is laudable as long that instruction isn’t all that we bring to the table. Knowledge takes us only so far, and then we must prayerfully call upon the Power that works in the heart. In all of this, we do our best—and then allow the Spirit to do the rest!

Chris Weber has worked in the field of catechesis for over 20 years as a catechist, a parish catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is the author of Jesus-Style Recruiting: A Fresh Look at Recruiting and Forming Parish Volunteers, published by Visual Dynamics Publishing. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.

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