The Catholic Community of Gloucester-Rockport discontinued their classroom model of youth faith formation-religious education. The pastor, Father Jim Achadinha, reports, "We are currently focusing our energies on strengthening our sacramental preparation programs; and on reminding our parishioners about these timeless truths: Mass is our class! Jesus is our teacher!" The collaborative has begun "a Mass for Families celebrated on different weekends, each with a different theme." They formally invite all young families to these Masses. To date, Father Jim has personally signed and sent over 500 letters of invitation, followed by an electronic message. He says, "Although this process is time-consuming, it has yielded much fruit in the form of dozens of children and their parents at Sunday Mass!"
Participants in their formation programs are called Young Disciples. "We have used this phrase as part of our effort to 'call' our young ... parishioners to be more involved in the life of the parish. ... not just activities or special events, but actually effective youth faith formation programs that offer our 'young disciples' an opportunity to make new friends, learn about the teachings and traditions of the Church in a hands-on way, and live their faith in a true spirit of prayer, fellowship, and service." Even though they are just beginning to reimagine and rebuild, Father Jim says, "we know that 'calling young disciples' has boosted membership and participation in our youth choir and music ministry. And we are praying that it begins to attract additional youth altar servers or perhaps even greeters." Recently, Father Jim "was delighted and heartened" when a second grader helped him welcome parishioners to Mass.
Regarding parishioner response, "some parishioners voiced some concern over our decision to discontinue the classroom model of youth faith formation....We have much work ahead, but based on my conversations with parents and parishioners in our two parishes, there is growing enthusiasm about what we have accomplished thus far." A unique faith formation program, 'The Vatican Express' was a creative camp held Tuesday through Friday of April vacation for children ages 5-11. After morning Mass, they learned about Pope Francis, St. Peter and the popes, the Holy Eucharist, and "Becoming a Missionary for Jesus."
As for their faith formation hopes and dreams, Father Jim said, "We envision a youth faith formation program that is based, centered, and focused on encouraging attendance at Sunday Mass; inviting ... children (of all ages) and parents, grandparents, and godparents to learn about the teachings and traditions of the Church both on our campuses and at home; and cultivating a 'school of prayer' atmosphere in both of our parishes -- a place where Christian disciples of all ages and generations can join together to live the Gospel, share God's love, and build up the Church."
Karl Jackson, director of Religious Education in the Methuen Collaborative, tells of changing from a traditional religious education model, with textbooks and a teacher in each classroom, to a model rooted in the Mass. The new format has three parts. Part I takes place in the church, preceding Mass. The goal, Karl says, is to "foster active and interior participation in the Mass." The children hear the Gospel that will be proclaimed at Mass and sometimes middle grade children act it out. The choir director goes over the music with the children, drawing on a broad repertoire, from chant to contemporary praise and worship. A great blessing of Part I, is that in addition to preparing the children's minds and hearts for Mass, many adults who are in the church before Mass, parents and parishioners unconnected to the faith formation program, say that they benefit as well.
Part II of the program is Mass itself -- the source and summit of the Church's life. Children sing in the choir and occasionally are invited into the sanctuary at homily time. Following Mass, the children move to the school for Part III - the lesson. The curriculum is built around what Karl calls "The Fab Four," four important principles: God calls, we respond; the Economy of salvation: creation, fall, redemption; Baptismal call to holiness; and Grace is everything -- reliance on God.
Initially, group leaders found that "instruction was hollow because the children didn't know the story -- Scripture -- so they taught the children how to use the Bible and how to understand the Bible... and taught songs about the books of the Bible. Parents were encouraged to stay for the 30 minute class and as time went on, more did."
The new model was implemented at St. Monica and it was quite a change for families, "Change is difficult. We welcomed input -- parents were honest. Parents stuck with it just as much as we did." Next year the new model will begin at St. Lucy Parish. They also intend to increase Part III -- the lesson -- by 15 minutes and recruit more catechists for a lower catechist-child ratio.
Karl realizes that their new model is "a commitment, more than just being convenient. It's okay for it to ... be a sacrifice. We want people to make an informed decision. It matters whether they have a relationship with Jesus Christ."
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.