By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor
In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the most effective means for catechizing children is if their parents are involved in the process. But it’s often challenging for parents to truly appreciate what that means and what the Church is asking them to do.
The ways in which the Church can assist parents in their role as the primary educators of the faith was a focus of a diocesan formation day for parish catechetical leaders, catechists and Catholic school educators hosted by the diocesan Department of Catechesis March 11 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.
“Today’s conference is important because we are talking about issues relating to the family and how the family is truly the key catechists of children,” said Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic education and chaplain in Princeton University.
Photo Gallery: Catechetical conference in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral
Video: Bishop O'Connell's homily for the Catechetical Conference Mass
The conference, Father Zeis said, is designed to provide educators with “skills to help them better minister to families – how they can take this message back to their parishes and convey it not only to the parents, but to grandparents and all other supporters of family. We are looking at how we can help the family to become the truly integrated place where the students learn and grow in his or her faith.”
From Generation to Generation
The formation day, which drew nearly 200 participants from around the four-county Diocese, began with a Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., followed by a two-part presentation featuring keynote speaker Dr. Lauri Przybysz, executive director of the Christian Family Movement-USA.
In his homily, Bishop O’Connell focused on the day’s theme of family and catechesis by making an analogy between the First Reading from the Book of Deuteronomy and the ministry of catechesis. The Reading spoke of how God had initially commanded his people to be obedient by observing his statutes, commandments and decrees.
“They had to be repeated, taught, explained; they had to be handed on,” Bishop O’Connell said.
Similarly, catechesis “is the act of handing on the Word of God intended to inform the faith community … about the teachings of God and the prophets; of Christ and his Church. Catechesis involves the lifelong effort of forming people into witness of the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Bishop O’Connell, quoting from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on Catechesis.
Reiterating the importance of the Church in handing on the faith, the Bishop focused on the audience to whom the catechists minister and how they are composed mostly of young people “who are eager to learn” about the faith, but are “not willing to admit it.”
“If our Catholic faith is not connected to real life as something essential; if faith is presented merely as an ‘add-on,’ one among many other things of equal or competing value; if the young do not see faith lived by us who have been entrusted with their care and instruction as a source of meaning and purpose in life, the relevance of truth given us by Christ in the Gospel and taught by the Church will continue to drift away,” he said.
The Bishop admonished how the societal and cultural environment of today “is simply anti-Catholic and anti-Christian” then urged the congregation to reflect on the influences to which young people are exposed, such as the words in the latest rap music, what they view on the internet or communicate in text messages.
“You are the good news,” he said told the catechetical leaders. “Your dedication and commitment and readiness to teach the faith of Christ in its fullness as proposed by the Church can create an energy – an evangelistic energy – that will confront these challenges with strength and steadiness.
“But you cannot back down,” the Bishop said. “You cannot give in to discouragements. … The catechist teaches out of conviction not out of convenience. … Lead by example with truth at your side,” the Bishop said. “Be a witness to Christ and inspire the young do the same. That’s the goal of evangelization. That is the purpose of catechesis.”
Family Life Teachings and Statistics
The majority of Dr. Przybysz’s discussions were based on the RCL Benziger Family Life series, which, according to Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Mary Agnes Ryan, director of the Department of Catechesis, was mandated by Bishop O’Connell three years ago for use in all Catholic elementary schools and parish religious education programs. The series has a curriculum that focuses on character and chastity formation and relationship skills, including how to behave appropriately, the importance of telling the truth and making smart decisions.
Sister Mary Agnes said the Family Life series centers on how “we need to work on helping our young people appreciate themselves and the human dignity they have as a creation of God, that they can respect others, especially those who are different and to appreciate that there are seeds of love in every family even if families look very different from each other,” she said, as she identified various family structures including, two parents, single parents, divorced, cohabitating parents, blended families and children being raised by their grandparents.
Dr. Przybysz, in her first talk, likewise presented a general overview of how a program like Family Life can address issues in helping families convey the faith to their children. Citing various family structures – married, single parents, interfaith families, seniors, disabled, those of different cultures and those children who are being raised by grandparents – Dr. Przybysz reminded the audience of knowing about the “family situations of the children in your classrooms.”
There is a lot of diversity in family structures, she said, and for many children, the “no normal” structure is the “new normal.” She further emphasized her point by citing statistics that included the drop in percentage of two-parent families from 55 percent in 1965 to 22 percent in 2014; the decline in the number of marriages from 352,458 in 1965 to 154,450 in 2014, and societal changes impacting families such as poverty, technology and media influences, few children per family, cultural diversity, pornography, economic pressures and sexual confusion and exploitation.
“We believe the family is holy not because it is perfect, but because God’s grace is at work in it. Every family has its challenges regardless of its structure,” she said.
While Family Life supports and encourages Christian marriage, Dr. Przybysz admitted there is “room for improvement” in how the Church invites people to marriage. There are engaged couples who find attending marriage preparation classes unnecessary or burdensome; those who would prefer to have destination weddings, and those who would rather live together instead of marrying. Since 1960, the number of couples living outside of marriage has climbed 1,200 percent, she said. She also noted that more than one-half of Catholics are married to non-Catholics and because the number of marriages has declined so, too, has the number of children who are baptized in the Catholic Church.
In her second talk, Dr. Przybysz focused on how teachers and catechists can address issues confronting families.
The catechists’ missions are to teach the Gospel message of God’s love and mercy, to know and support Church teachings as they cooperate with the students’ families in children’s faith formation, and promote chaste living and Christian values, Dr. Przybysz said. She reiterated that the series also includes positive safety messages for healthy relationships, which are called for in the U.S. Bishops’ 2001 Charter for Protection of Children.
“The Charter clearly recommends that these messages be integrated into the faith themes of the religion curriculum, not just a one-time safety lecture, but offered over a significant period of time, reinforced in both classroom and at home,” she said.
“As we work together with parents, catechists need to speak about areas of self-respect, self-control and how does a Christian behave,” she said.
In The Trenches
Eileen Ernst, a catechist for more than two years in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, said she was enlightened by several points made by Dr. Przybysz, namely that there are students who are being raised by their grandparents. She was surprised to hear the lenient approach Dr. Przybysz took with parents who do not attend Mass, which often results in their children not attending.
“I understand that we should have compassion on those with problems, but on the other hand, we should urge parents to attend Mass regularly to set a good example and [practice] a good habit for their children,” Ernst said.
Resurrection Sister Ann Norton said the Benziger Family Life program was introduced in the religious education program of St. Veronica Parish, Howell, just this year and so far has been well-received by her catechists and the parents.
When it comes to marriage, safety/prevention abuse, the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the human person, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, divorce, abortion on demand and euthanasia, the “program gives students an opportunity to hear the voice of the Church on the issues and to learn what God has to say about who they are in his eyes,” said Sister Ann, the director of religious education in St. Veronica Parish since August 2015.
Acknowledging that some catechists and teachers become uncomfortable with mentioning certain aspects of marriage, Michele Williams, principal of St. Joseph School, Toms River, said the Family Life program “gives them the tools they need to integrate faith into family life and to do so in a pastoral way.”