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Intergenerational faith formation

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The Pastoral Center auditorium was filled with new and veteran catechetical leaders anxious to listen, learn, ask, and share.

Susan
Abbott

In advance of Catechetical Sunday, Sept. 18, the Office of Lifelong Faith Formation and Parish Support recently held their first gathering of the year for faith formation and religious education leaders. The topic was Intergenerational Faith Formation -- formation and instruction for all ages. The Pastoral Center auditorium was filled with new and veteran catechetical leaders anxious to listen, learn, ask, and share.

The day began with Mass celebrated by Father Matt Williams, director of Faith Formation. Keynote speaker Seth Evanghelo, evangelist and youth minister at St. Andre Bessette Parish in Gilford, N.H., spoke about "A Vision for Intergenerational Faith Formation." He asked, "How do we draw them (children and families) closer to Christ?"

The Church affirms that parents are the primary educators of their children. The parish/collaborative is here to support them as they do this, and to help parents grow in their own faith as well. Relying heavily on seminal catechetical documents of the Church, he presented the challenge, "We need to work on empowering the parents. We're here to help them ... teach them what it looks like to follow Jesus in 1,000 ways."

The team from Apple Valley Collaborative -- St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Acton, and St. Isidore in Stow -- gave the first report. Presenting with Father Walter Woods, pastor, were Diahne Goodwin, director of Pastoral Ministries and Adult Faith Formation and Barbara Dane, director of Faith Formation. Their intergenerational model is called GIFT -- Growing in Faith Together, "an innovative approach to faith formation that equips the parish to become a community of lifelong learning." GIFT meets monthly, Saturdays and Sundays, in both parishes, with a choice of three times. The curriculum is liturgy-based. Prior to each session, households receive an e-newsletter introducing the upcoming topic, sometimes with a short video and reading. Participants at the Pastoral Centre workshop received a 10-page booklet with materials from the April session and responses from an evaluation survey distributed to GIFT participants in the spring. Survey comments from participating families were interesting and encouraging, but Father Woods says honestly, "To switch over to this other model is a big deal. It is challenging." But Father Woods then posed an important question for consideration, "Does pushback mean your idea is wrong?"

The Cranberry Catholic Collaborative's presentation -- Middleborough, Lakeville, and Rochester -- followed. Their pre-K through grade 8 program serves 350 families across three churches. Because of the distance between churches, each monthly session is offered 10 times, September through March.

Before introducing Michelle Sylvia, director of Intergenerational Faith Formation, pastor Father John Sheridan confessed an initial scepticism but said he quickly turned "from doubter to believer... The stars have aligned -- Pope Francis, Cardinal Sean, Disciples in Mission -- we have been given a wonderful opportunity. I am not going to miss it."

Their curriculum is based on the four pillars of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" and supplemental material. A large program, spread across miles has practical issues of space and facilities, but Michelle acknowledged the principle challenge: change is hard. Some parents felt that they've "done CCD" and asked why they had to attend with their children. But the collaborative is seeing positive results. About 250 volunteers serve the program in some way. Parents seem more engaged and more families are participating at Mass. The children look forward to GOF and attendance rates have consistently improved.

Father Charles Higgins, pastor of the Weymouth collaborative, St. Francis Xavier and St. Albert the Great, includes the parish school in their program of about 275 families Each monthly session, September to May, is offered three times. Father Higgins has changed the language: catechists are now called evangelists. Semantics, perhaps, but descriptive of the work. He stressed the importance of knowing Jesus, not just knowing about him.

The response to the intergenerational model in all three collaboratives is definitely more positive than negative. Father Higgins said, "In the beginning, the men weren't there, but as it developed they started to come." One father remarked, "This is the first time I've been able to sit down with my kids. I'm so busy, I work in Boston, it's hard to get time. This program gives me time with my kids." Father Higgins cautioned the audience: "This is a tough sell -- loads of problems and struggles... . One thing that is essential, the pastor must be on the page with you. It's challenging and uncomfortable for him too. Be gentle and be kind."

The final part of the workshop was a lively panel discussion where presenters responded to questions. All in all, it was inspirational, challenging, and thought-provoking day.

Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.

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