If you grew up in Buffalo one of the annual season events was the appearance of the first robin. There always seemed to be a few of them blissfully ignorant of the National Weather Service who would appear while there was still considerable snow on the ground; the earliest date I can recall is February 25. I have no idea how they would survive till St. Patrick’s Day given that robins live primarily on earth worms. But every year they arrived, harbingers of better and warmer days to come.
In more recent years I have also learned to recognize the first sign of fall: the parish bulletin announcement asking for volunteers to cover religious education classes. I saw my first one yesterday! I rather wish it had not been my own parish’s bulletin. Late July is an early appearance if history is any teacher. Usually it is well into August—in extreme cases, Labor Day—that parishes post these notices, the later the date the greater the panic. I have observed this for years, long enough to know that unlike robins such late recruiting calls are a harbinger of trouble for Catholic faith formation.
Every time I Google various church bulletins in late summer or check out the announcements in parishes where I teach catechist preparation, of all things, I shudder at this last minute recruitment and of all the structural problems such practices expose. In 1972 the United States Bishops issued a pastoral document on faith formation, To Teach as Jesus Did, the first American episcopal treatment of religious formation after Vatican II and after the cresting of Catholic school enrollment. From an organizational standpoint, while the document continues to esteem Catholic schools as the flagship model of youth formation, To Teach does recognize that many Catholic youth for a variety of reasons cannot avail themselves of parochial schools and would depend upon parish based programs separate from Catholic schools, CCD as it was known back then. The bishops were nothing short of utopian in their calls for new centers of learning for youth and adults alike, comparable in professionalism with the standards of accredited Catholic schools.
From where we stand today, I think it is safe to say very few can honestly argue that religious education programs as a rule compete in professionalism and intensity of Catholic life with certified Catholic schools. If you are currently a religious education volunteer, this is certainly not your fault unless you give no thought to your preparedness for what you do. The faults sit higher up the food chain, beginning with the USCCB, which as of this writing has never determined a national curriculum or a standard of certification for catechists and those in faith formation capacities. Rather, the Conference at its website serves as a link to what are apparently successful individual diocese or national committee ventures. While standardized testing scores of religious mastery are garnered by schools and religious education programs, notably the ACRE testing from the NCEA, prying such data from various entities is difficult unless the institution uses its test results to market Catholicity as some Catholic schools do.
Another critical problem is local pastoral leadership. It is very hard for a pastor to talk frankly about his parish’s need for more intensive commitment and standards in its faith formation programs without criticizing his present team, though the team is not really the problem. A pastor can, however, make a good case that the Catholicity, professionalism and intensity of all faith formation programs will be ratcheted up for the good of all, and to give the parish full knowledge of the temporary bumps in the routine, as in sabbaticals of some sort for present and future ministers. The world will not end if some parish programming is curtailed for a year to insure a better faith formation environment in years to come.
As I write this, of course, I am fully cognizant that pastors themselves often have limited understanding of the theological discipline of faith formation and religious education, and limit their expectations to class attendance, sacramental milestones, and select passages from the Catechism on sexuality. I recognize, too, that seasoned and professional leadership at the parish and diocesan level is hard to come by, in part because of salary, in part because of decades of less than inspiring religious education experiences. Parish religious education and faith formation then, it seems to me, is a premier opportunity for lay competence and leadership to come forward to demand and prepare for first-rate ministry at the local level, particularly as we already pay lip service to the identity of parents as “first teachers of the faith.”
Thus, there is reason for concern when every year we are handing teachers’ manuals to green volunteers a week or two before class with a pat on the back, “Go get ‘em, Champ.” If faith formation means anything, it deserves the premier place in short term and long term parish planning. One model I might propose would look something like this. Parishes would plan each year’s faith formations between one and two years in advance. The 2015 season, so to speak, should have been on administration radar back in 2013. After a thorough parish education of the plan, the first process is identifying and recruiting candidates for formative ministry. Beyond the usual vetting for basic Faith, sacramental participation, and criminal history, a candidate would also need to give evidence of normal mental stability, an openness to learn, imagination, ease with communal operations, and an understanding of Catholic life one might call “mainstream.”
The second step—modeled by seminarians, among others—is time to prepare. This preparatory year (and I think one year is a minimum) would focus on the development and overview of the future minister, introduction to an adult agenda of instruction and reading in critical areas such as Scripture and Liturgy. A primary goal of this year is the establishment of what I call a “formative identity” in which candidates develop a spirituality and a pastoral sense of handing on the Church Tradition. Faith formation would become a candidate’s primary Church ministry; when one is not in the field, so to speak, one is preparing for future forays. The days when catechists held two, three, or four other ministries in the parish should be curtailed. Needless to say, many diocesan catechetical formation programs would be more than happy to dovetail or even oversee an individual parish’s efforts toward professional enrichment.
I would not want to underemphasize the importance of pedagogy in the candidate’s learning agenda. This involves such matters as developmental psychology, lesson planning, group management, and coordination and communication with parents. In my own diocese, we have an extraordinary community of retired principals and retired veteran Catholic school teachers who to my knowledge have never been drafted into the catechetical training process. A number of these principals hold doctorates or other advanced degrees. It is time to start thinking that parish faith formation is worthy of such high-power expertise
A ministry that demands excellence will attract excellent people. A parish that plans for its ministry in a farsighted professional way will rarely find itself caught short. Faith formation will give forth the air of a God-driven excellence, not the odor of desperation.
Our Irish caravan pushed on to the very edge of Europe, Valentia Island, where we will be staying in Knightstown for awhile. Our accommodations are right down the street from the Catholic Church, so we attended the 6:15 PM Mass on Saturday night at Immaculate Conception Church, built in 1914. At least 100 folks gathered for Mass, possibly more, in a structure that has seen good days and is still quite serviceable. The entire wall behind the altar is a stained glass series of depictions of the mystery of Mary, resulting in a liturgical curiosity of a giant crucifix handing on a side wall of the sanctuary.
The liturgy was, in a word, highly eccentric, and by this I definitely do not mean "Irish." I had been warned that Masses in Ireland are brief. I set my Fit Bit timer and determined a span tonight of 0:37. In fairness we added some minutes when the celebrant ran out of communion hosts and went off to find the tabernacle key for the folks still in line. There was no music. Participants received what looked like a bulletin at the door as they entered, but in actually this was the actual Mass text for following, a standardized syndicated product from Shanway Press. The lector read both readings from the bulletin.
The homily was extremely brief, read from a sheet of paper. But it was other features of the Mass that caught my attention. Next to the chalice on the altar was a giant bell, which the celebrant rang himself at the appropriate times. The Doxology and Our Father were prayed in Gaelic. The English Mass text itself varied from that of the U.S. There was no Kiss of Peace. After the celebrant received communion, he leisurely cleaned the chalice and covered it with the veil and burse as in days of old and transported it to the side. Then he distributed communion--naturally under one form only, until he ran out and had to scout up the tabernacle key.
When Mass was over, my astute wife pointed out to me that the Easter or Paschal candle had never been lit. The wick was as pristine as the day the box was opened. Do they have a catechumenate here, I wondered? Do they celebrate the Triduum? Do they have any events that mark a common life of faith outside of the half hour of fractured and impersonal breaking of the bread?
If things are as I suspect they are, then in some way this community is living as its sixth century counterparts, tended sporadically by priests and bishops but otherwise left to fend for themselves. In last night's congregation there were a fair number of families, some coming to Mass at considerable difficulty (bringing elderly parents or members with disabilities), and one has to respect the faith and the effort. While not at all diminishing the sacramental reality of the local Mass, one wonders if a local community carries on its faith identity because of or in spite of its weekly celebration of the Eucharist.
The historical setting of Ireland does come into play here as we reflect upon this question. Some years ago a chancery administrator in the U.S. admitted to me that he was seriously questioning the much quoted Vatican II dictum that the liturgy is the source and summit of all Catholic life. We had been talking about catechetics/religious education and the reality of a substratum, if you will, of belief, imagination, stories and actions that convey the Catholic Christian experience at a very personal and yet deeply shared level.
The Irish experience of Church teaches a great deal. Often described as the land of saints and scholars, its archaeological history alone points to centuries of a primitive and gritty religious experience where worship took place in cleverly constructed caves. We can probably surmise that early liturgies were quite brief and to the point, that conditions made the weekly guarantee of a priest or bishop unpredictable, and that motivation was complicated. A large amount of Dark Age literature from Ireland (known as Irish penitentiaries) would suggest that fear of hell and the Sacrament of Penance played as significant a role as Eucharist in Irish Catholic life. It is Ireland, after all, that gave the Church the practice of individual and repeatable sacramental Penance.
A half-century after Vatican II the Sunday Eucharist is still celebrated in many places with only the haziest links to the power of preaching and the efficacious impact of sign and symbol (a hearty communion bread hasn't been discussed in decades, and many churches do not proffer the cup for reasons of convenience as much as anything.)
So what are the core subconscious experiences of faith that shape my experience of and vision for the Church? I have been asking myself that question for years, but I have a feeling that tasting the life of another culture may give me some clues.
Oh yes, in my socializing on the island today I learned that the celebrant of last night's Mass is being reassigned, and that for the first time in Christian history Sunday Mass will no longer be offered on Valentia Island. I guess we will find out about the mysteries of personal Faith sustenance sooner than later.
On My Mind