In her book titled Confessions of a Scary Mommy: An Honest and Irreverent Look at Motherhood—the Good, the Bad and the Scary (Gallery Books, 2012), author Jill Smokler says this about parenthood: “Being a parent is dirty and scary and beautiful and hard and miraculous and exhausting and thankless and joyful and frustrating all at once. It’s everything.”
As a parent myself, I know that parenting responsibilities are all-reaching and overwhelming. Parenting experts stress that if a child is to be healthy, then wholesome food must be served at home and exercise must be a part of family life. If a child is to become academically successful, the home is responsible for fostering a love of learning. Parents are called to lead by example.
This is not new to Catholic educators. We have read the documents stating that parents are the primary religious educators of their children. We know, too, that family life has become even more demanding and hectic since the Second Vatican Council. Yet, our catechetical challenge remains the same. We strive to hold the family up as the domestic church, believing what the recent Synod on New Evangelization states: “Established by the sacrament of matrimony, the Christian family as the domestic church is the locus and first agent in the giving of life and love, the transmission of faith, and the formation of the human person according to the values of the gospel” (The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, Proposition 48).
The presumption is that parents have faith, that parents are aware of what gospel values are, and that parents have the tools necessary to effectively live out that faith within and outside the family setting.
What is the faith we want our parents to possess and pass on? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI defined faith as “above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus” (General audience, Oct. 21, 2009). Yet, a Pew Report shows that 40% of American Catholics do not believe that a personal relationship with God is possible (Part II of the Pew Forum on U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 2008).
This statistic presents significant challenges to catechetical programs. The National Directory for Catechesis reminds us that the goal of catechesis is an intimate, life-long relationship with the person of Jesus Christ (see n. 19B). Yet, if nearly half of Catholic, many of them parents, do not feel the truth of a personal God, how can they say they have faith? How can parents model faith for their children? Without a lived relationship with Jesus Christ, how can catechesis be effective?
The Strategy: Catechesis or Evangelization?
It is often said that young parents today are the second or third generation of poorly catechized Catholics. And so the strategy is to provide parents with all the information they need in order to fulfill their role as primary religious educators of their children. Fortunately, there are countless books, pamphlets, media resources, and the like to build up the Catholic identity of the parents. However, making this information available to parents is not the first step in evangelizing parents.
In fact, while catechesis and evangelization go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. Catechesis is the formal, structured passing on of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Church; evangelization is introducing and re-introducing the person of Jesus. Blessed John Paul II stated that evangelization is not merely the passing on of doctrine, but a personal and profound meeting with the Savior (see Osservatore romano, Jan. 14 1991).
So it is not simply that our students’ parents are in need of further catechesis. They are first in need of conversion, a metanoia, accomplished only through a personal relationship with Christ.
In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gave the Apostles this command: “Make disciples of all nations (evangelize), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit (sacramentalize), teaching them to observe all I have commanded you” (catechize). When we look at the early Church and how it carried out this command, we are struck by how the gospel was spread. The Book of Acts outlines how the early Church spread and lived the gospel message and, by doing so, brought Jesus into relationship with people who had never laid eyes on him.
How then, do we proclaim the gospel, the Good News, to a people 2,000 years after Jesus walked the earth? How do we make that proclamation personal to a people uncertain of God’s invitation?
First Things First: Prayer
Our catechetical vocation calls us to take first things first. First, we must be people of prayer—for prayer is the bedrock of our relationship with Jesus.
Our lives are busy. We are challenged often times by parents, and we struggle with our own personal issues and needs. Yet, there is only one source of life in the midst of all this, and that is prayer.
So we pray for our students’ families; for the children who suffer physical or mental abuse or neglect; for busy and anxious parents who are stressed by too many needs and not enough resources; for families burdened with illness and those who fight the demons of addictions.
We pray for patience and understanding; for humility and compassion; for strength and wisdom; for joy.
We pray especially for love, a love that reflects Christ’s love (especially for those we have trouble liking). Francis Cardinal George of Chicago reminds us: “We will never evangelize what we do not love.”
Acceptance and Welcome
In prayer and with love and joy, we then accept our students’ parents with all of their perfections and imperfections. They are children of God. Our acceptance cannot be contrived (if you can’t accept some parents, get back on your knees until you can). We accept parents of all varieties and all parenting styles: those who are Catholic and those Catholic in name only; those who are Christian and those who are not; those who are searching and those who are not interested in the search. We accept busy parents; special-needs parents; single parents; divorced and re-married parents; employed and unemployed parents; parents of every race, political persuasion, and lifestyle.
We then welcome them as family and share with them the Story of our faith in Jesus. In her book titled Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), author and educator Sherry Weddell says that Catholics are too reluctant to use the name Jesus. We are most comfortable talking about Church, but we seem to shy away from “the Name.” Evangelii nuntiandi states that “there is not true evangelization if the name, the life, the promise, the kingdom, and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed” (n. 22).
We also share our own stories of faith and how faith has changed our lives. I write a brief weekly email to parents. The times when I share a personal challenge or issue in light of my own personal faith and relationship with Jesus are the times when I get the most responses from parents. It is through the sharing of such stories of faith that Jesus becomes personal—not a distant ideal.
With love, joy, acceptance, and welcome, we then serve. More than dogmas and doctrines, Jesus is found in service. In his account of the Last Supper, the Evangelist John tells of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then instructing them to do likewise. Yet, if you closely read the Gospel, you can see what John (purposely I believe) left out. After John says that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he says that Jesus returns to his seat. His feet are still dirty, for none has returned the favor—the service. I believe the Evangelist wanted the reader to understand that Jesus’ feet are washed when we wash the feet of others.
As we look for ways to serve the parents of our students, we also, in turn, invite them to serve in our program, parish, and larger community.
The early Church recognized the primacy of service. In the Acts of the Apostles we find many accounts of how service was performed. Lives of prayer, love, shared stories, and service led them to share all in common and to focus on the common good and the mission of evangelization.
We evangelize parents with our own witness of visible, lived faith. In a world that has been so focused on scandal and secularization, our Catholic witness often has not been noticed. In the last few months, the advent of Francis, Bishop of Rome, has changed how the Church is viewed. Following the exhortation of his namesake, Francis of Assisi—to “preach the gospel at all times, using words if necessary”—the new pontiff’s modeling of simplicity, compassion, acceptance, and welcome serves as the model of evangelization.
Such witness opens the doors for our students’ parents to see what a relationship with Jesus looks like and to discover a desire to deepen their own faith. Even those who have fallen away from the Church have expressed to me that Francis’ example, and those like him, enable them to be open to listening to what the Church has to say.
Those of us in catechetical ministry must also understand that it is not all up to us. We have responded to the baptismal call of the Spirit to serve in this vocation—and our service consists of cooperating with the Spirit.
Even more importantly, we are called to trust in the Spirit and to remember who ultimately is in charge. Not every child’s parent will be willing to pursue a relationship with Jesus. Even when Jesus sent out the Twelve, he told them that there would be those who would reject the message (see Mark 6:10-11; Luke 10:10-11). In fact, many of Jesus’ own followers fell away when the teachings grew too difficult (see John 6:60, 66). We know from his very Passion that his teachings challenged many—but we trust in the power and grace of the Spirit.
We are a Resurrection people—and so we are people of hope. We remain hopeful because, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated, “Through the surpassing power of Christ’s grace, entrusted to frail human ministers, the Church is constantly reborn and each of us is given the hope of a new beginning. Let us trust in the Spirit’s power to inspire conversion, to heal every wound, to overcome every division, and to inspire new life and freedom” (April 17, 2008; Papal Mass in Washington Nationals Park).
12 Ways to Evangelize Your Students’ Parents
1. Pray for your students’ parents and let your students’ parents know that you pray for them.
2. Ask your students’ parents to pray for you, their child and your entire class, current events, those in the parish who are ill, etc.
3. Send Catholic factoids home with your students. (I include a one-paragraph “Did You Know?” column in my monthly family newsletter.)
4. Invite your students’ parents to Mass, and encourage them to attend your class for special prayer services, church tours, and explanations about the Mass that you have planned.
5. Engage your students’ parents to reflect upon and share their faith journeys at sacramental meetings.
6. Keep abreast of current events, and send home material that helps your students’ parents connect faith and life.
7. Respect the busy schedules of your students’ parents by being organized.
8. Communicate effectively with your students’ parents.
9. Be responsive to the financial needs of your students’ parents.
10. Ask your students’ parents to form service/mission teams to organize service projects.
11. Ask your students’ parents to volunteer by being catechists, aides, board members, parking lot captains, etc.
12. Inform your students’ parents of the ministry opportunities in your parish, and encourage them to get involved.
Carrie Sallwasser is a Coordinator of Religious Education for Queen of All Saints Parish in St. Louis, MO. She has been in parish ministry for 17 years.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, January 2013.
Photo by Ann Danilina on Unsplash