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Parishes work to adapt faith formation as programs resume

By Jacqueline Tetrault Pilot Staff
Posted: 9/25/2020

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Many parishes around the archdiocese are planning to incorporate a mix of virtual and in-person instruction into their faith-formation programs this fall. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

BRAINTREE -- With the arrival of fall and the scheduled resumption of faith-formation programs, parishes are working hard to adapt their instruction methods to conform to state and archdiocesan requirements.

Adult-faith formation, youth ministry, and young-adult ministries are not currently allowed to take place in parish facilities. However, parishes are permitted to hold in-person instruction for faith formation for kindergarten through Confirmation, provided that the parish submits a safety plan to the archdiocese for approval at least two weeks before gatherings begin.

Parish safety plans must include taking the temperatures of students and staff, as well as keeping strict attendance records. Face coverings are required for anyone over age five, and only well-ventilated spaces may be used for in-person gatherings.

The archdiocese has also issued guidelines made in consultation with archdiocesan staff and clergy working in faith formation, child advocacy, healthcare, and risk management. As part of those guidelines, the archdiocese recommends that parishes develop flexible plans that can be adapted to future changes, such as an increase in coronavirus cases.

If a city or town is in the red category for being at an elevated risk for coronavirus infection on a given day, in-person instruction will not be allowed to take place that day.

Parents may prepare their children for the sacraments at home, and parishes "have an obligation to assist" parents in faith formation and sacrament preparation.

The Weymouth Catholic Collaborative is planning to hold faith formation in person with a remote option. To decrease the number of students present at one time, different grades will alternate meetings each week. Half of the students had their first class on Sept. 20, and the other half is to begin Sept. 27.

Zach Morris, the youth minister and director of faith formation in the Weymouth collaborative, said their large buildings have been "very helpful" because they allow students to spread out for in-person instruction. They have access to two gyms as well as two main churches.

"I think a lot of the parishes that aren't able to offer formation this fall, they just don't have the space to make it safe, which is really sad, really unfortunate. We've been super blessed, both with the space but also with the super supportive community that really backs us up and wants to be able to be with one another, if not physically but spiritually and in a faith community," Morris said Sept. 11.

At St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Norwood, only grades one, two, nine, and 10 will be offered in person, meeting once or twice a month. Leah Ramsdell, the parish's director of religious education and youth ministry, said this is because these grades are focused on preparing for sacraments.

The class sizes will be no more than 10 students for lower grades and no more than 15 for the older grades. Since the classrooms are in the parish school, they already have desks arranged six feet apart as well as windows and HEPA air filters. Families whose children attend the classes need to sign a form, promising not to send their children if they have symptoms of the coronavirus or have come into contact with someone who has it.

For grades unable to meet in person, each family will receive a folder with a schedule for what material to cover and a variety of resources they can use. These might include a family prayer journal, encouraging a different type of prayer each month, or a Saint of the Month packet with grade-specific activities.

"I consider myself a super well organized, thorough, and attentive to detail type person but nowhere in my ministerial training was there ever a class on how to handle a pandemic and still keep people and families connected to their faith. And, of course, there's a certain sadness in knowing things won't be the same and worrying about who we might be losing or not reaching as a result," Ramsdell said.

She said that many "staples" of the faith-formation program have been cancelled due to restrictions on gatherings. The Epiphany celebration, which she described as "incredibly well attended" last year, will not be able to take place. Service-hour requirements for grades six through 10 have been altered because many organizations are not taking volunteers and some activities that students might assist in, such as sports, are not taking place.

Ramsdell said she is "most upset" about not being able to maintain "the personal connection I've established with so many of our students and families."

"This is my fifth year in this position and the first class of students I did First Communion with are entering seventh grade. It's really hard to know that I'll be missing out on a year with these kids," Ramsdell said.

St. Michael Parish in Hudson is planning to use a combination of remote and in-person instruction for faith formation. Grades one through seven will learn remotely each week, while grades eight through 10 will meet in person for different types of events.

Paula O'Brien, the parish's director of faith formation, had Confirmation candidates help organize and package learning materials that were then mailed to families. She said all families enrolled have been supplied with materials for six weeks.

"They're actually very excited to get started, so that increases our excitement for them, as well," she said.

St. Michael Parish has several buildings as well as a large parking lot, which allow easy social distancing for large groups.

"We're blessed with the facilities that we have, and the willingness of our parents and students to walk this line together," O'Brien said.

She expressed hope that this experience will benefit both families and parishes by equipping parents to be catechists.

"I think it's a great opportunity for parents to create this Catholic culture at home, even more so than what they may have been doing. And I really believe that it's going to build their confidence, especially in their Catholic faith and evangelization, which will organically increase our catechists for future years," O'Brien said.

She said that if challenges arise, she hopes they can "overcome them quickly," and that they will be able to do this by being proactive and practicing good communication.

"As long as we can keep ahead, and try to anticipate people's needs ministerially, I think we'll be fine," O'Brien said.