I was 29 when I was told I could no longer be the parish’s youth minister for budget reasons. The pastor wanted to keep me on board, but I would have to be their new director of religious education for 1,400 students. I would have left, but my wife was pregnant, so I took the job. It is not a glamorous field. But the people who do it for a living work really hard.
Here are a couple of things I have learned in my 16 years of working in youth formation that I believe can transform a religious education program.
Most of the effort we put in should not be directed toward kids but toward the adults: parents first and catechists second. They need to be evangelized. And there is a difference between evangelization and catechesis. The two support each other, but they are not the same thing. In catechesis, you encounter church teaching, but through evangelization, God meets you, you meet God, a relationship develops, you commit yourself and then you learn more about each other. It is not that parents and catechists are lazy about their faith; they just need formation, too.
We begin by communicating the Gospel. The Gospel speaks to their anxieties and their work. Systematic catechesis is important. It is essential. But it is not an end in itself. The value of systematic catechesis is experienced in the context of a lived, experienced faith. It should not feel like trivia.
Make religious education about evangelizing parents within the rhythm of a kid-based program. The Exodus, the Transfiguration and the Last Supper were shared experiences. They forged an identity and an indelible memory that stood when everything else fell apart. Regular family dinners or movie nights do that. So can religious education.
Serve families in their everyday needs and don’t just throw teaching at them. St. Paul was a tent-maker by trade. He started as being an excellent, trained Pharisee, but after his conversion, he realized it took more than throwing teaching at people to move their hearts. He first worked with people in their everyday lives and then shared the Gospel with them. Parents have needs, and people need the truth. People are more likely to be open to hearing the truth if they know you occasionally feed them and give them free babysitting.
What do I want them to know? What is the real goal? That God cares about their lives, that they can rely on God, that the sacraments work, and that this is Christ’s church. The programs I direct exist to make that real for them.
Criticism of what we do is in no short supply, but if you think that it can be done better, then do it better. If you think your grand ideas are being dismissed from the pastor or director of R.E., then humble yourself and become a “lowly” catechist. Make it your business to serve people in their messy lives.
Your classroom-based program is your parish’s single greatest opportunity to walk with young families as they struggle to integrate the sacramental life of the church into the rough-hewn contours of their lives. Some commentators lament the “carrot on a stick” mentality regarding sacraments. I don’t. Graduations, Sweet 16’s, first birthdays, Father’s Day—all of them can seem like empty greeting-card milestones rife with compulsory recognition and suspect motivations. But they don’t have to be, and most people don’t treat them that way. So what if someone comes into sacramental preparation like it is a token milestone? It is our job to make it meaningful. The church does not change the date of Christmas to throw those with different motivations off the scent. Routines can be sanctified.
Lastly, it might seem fair to criticize dioceses and parishes for not getting the memo. A lot of criticisms begin with “The church really needs to…” or “The church needs to stop…”
That is silly talk. The Catholic Church might seem like some huge powerful structure with parish priests at the ready, eagerly waiting to receive the latest dictates from Rome. But the reality is this: Parish staffs are made up of way too few people who are trying their best with their limited resources. The same position might be salaried in one parish, part-time in another and volunteer in another. The average parish has to play the role of a support-group hub, food pantry, nursery school, community center, sewing circle, caseworker and a million other things that you would not think happens at a church but does.
The Catholic Church might seem like some huge powerful structure with parish priests at the ready, eagerly waiting to receive the latest dictates from Rome. But the reality is this: Parish staffs are made up of way too few people who are trying their best with their limited resources.
Diocesan offices are comprised of people with thankless jobs and who are often criticized without ever being met. They keep safe environment standards consistent; offer guidance to impossibly diverse parish situations; assist in the legal and administrative quagmires of running large, loosely networked, semi-autonomous community centers; and mobilize large charitable initiatives. They do more than anyone can expect.
But they exist to serve the parishes. The parishes exist to serve the people. They can only serve the people with often impossibly few resources if people step up and make the sacrifice of their time, their gifts, their presence and especially their commitment to serve the Gospel.