'... Do existing programs lead more families to attend Mass? Is there a growing desire to receive Eucharist each week?' These are important questions.
So important is faith formation in the life of each Catholic and the whole Church, that it could be the topic of Disciples in Mission columns for months. Phase I, II, and III Collaboratives reflect the broad range of approaches to parish faith formation. Some models may seem drastic, others look familiar but with slight tweaks. We close this series -- for now -- with a snapshot of two Phase I collaboratives: Belmont and Billerica.
The New Roads Catholic Community of Belmont offers "Kids' Church." This program has two parts. Tiny Disciples (ages two to five) sing, play, and pray in a separate place while parents and other family members participate at Mass. Children's Liturgy of the Word, (ages five and up), brings children to another space to hear the readings, the message (homily), and age appropriate prayers. Middle schoolers participate in Spark, a new program. New Roads says, "We believe that middle school students are capable of a genuine personal relationship with Christ and that it's up to us as a community to nurture them as his disciples."
Why change things? The Billerica Collaborative explains: "Many parishes throughout the United States are evaluating the effectiveness of their faith formation programs. Do existing programs help children and families build a firm foundation of Catholic teaching? Do existing programs lead more families to attend Mass? Is there a growing desire to receive Eucharist each week?" These are important questions.
Billerica just completed the first year of their newly designed program. The program strives to provide "an environment in which our children can fall in love with Jesus Christ and become His disciples! ...and all parents and guardians can become disciples of Jesus Christ, with a growing desire to attend Mass and joyfully participate in the Sacramental Life of our parishes." Billerica combines the best of both worlds: formation and education. They have one curriculum and use one religion series across their three parishes. Students may register for and attend any session in any classroom in Billerica. Grades are grouped together: grades 1 and 2; 3, 4, and 5; and 6, 7, and 8. To forward their goal of engaging parents in the faith formation of their children, parents/guardians are required to attend with children in grades 1-5. Classes meet every two weeks and are offered multiple times on Sunday and during the week. Families may switch days/times when needed and accommodations are made for parents/guardians with children in multiple elementary grade groupings.
Belmont, Billerica, and many parishes in collaboratives and not yet in collaboratives, offer workshops and retreats for parents and children preparing for Reconciliation and Eucharist.
Father Matt Williams, director of Faith Formation, in the Office of Lifelong Faith Formation and Parish Support, said "On the one hand, with the traditional model, we had a mechanism to keep families 'circling' around the church, but if I'm honest, many of them were not part of the worshipping community on a regular basis. With these emerging models, parents/families are asked to make a conscious decision, 'Do I want this for my child and am I willing to make the commitment myself?' The key here, is that, as we address the drop off/consumer approach to faith formation, we are inviting families to make the practice of the faith a priority."
Appropriately, the last words, come from Pope St. John Paul II's magnificent exhortation, "Catechesi Tradendae" ("On Catechesis in Our Time"): "From the theological point of view every baptized person, precisely the reason of being baptized, has the right to receive from the Church instruction and education enabling him or her to enter on a truly Christian life." (CT II.14) Note: EVERY baptized person has the right to receive instruction and education. This cannot be ignored, but how it happens ... well, St. John Paul says: "Finally, catechesis needs to be continually renewed by a certain broadening of its concept, by the revision of its methods, by the search for suitable language, and by the utilization of new means of transmitting the message" (CT II.17).
Again, one size does not fit all, but pay attention to two words heard over and over: disciple and Mass. We pray to the Holy Spirit that every parish will find the right way, the best way, to bring children and adults to a deeper relationship with the Lord and hand on the richness of the Catholic faith.
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.