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.
On My Mind