Since Bishop Richard J. Malone approved the diocese's newest faith formation curriculum, "Forming Disciples," for gradual implementation over the next few years, parishes have been making changes in religious education programs in terms of how parish communities learn together.
To incorporate the second of four elements of the framework of "Forming Disciples," parishes are planning ways to keep programming formerly intended to be for children only "in the loop" by connecting to larger parish faith communities and, in some cases, the larger communities as well.
"The curriculum is coming from a perspective that faith formation and religious education programs shouldn't be seen as a separate and distinct department and separated from the rest of parish life," said Mary Beth Coates, diocesan director of Lifelong Faith Formation. "The more that planners can connect with parish life, the better, so that there is a holistic approach to an overall parish plan for learning and forming disciples within all of parish life."
Maureen Poulin, associate director of Lifelong Faith Formation for the diocese, said that in the past, children typically went to religious education classes and learned "stuff," but did not have real-life experience associated with the material.
"When we're talking about making parish connections, we're using what exists in parish life to make that relevant, so they see those things as having meaning," Poulin commented. "If families are involved in that learning and growing process, they, too, see that connection."
For example, since the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity falls in January, parishes might acknowledge this in Sunday liturgy, or have discussion groups learn together about other faith traditions. Additionally, national holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, could be used to address issues of racism and how Catholics can fight social injustice in the world. Ecumenism and Catholic social teaching are among the robust content contained in the curriculum, and community connections to these themes would further reinforce what children and families are learning together.
When the theme of the Sunday readings aligns with other content areas, learning sessions or online resources are reinforced in the liturgy. People are then more likely to put two and two together to see the message and understand, Coates said. Being active in parish life may also include getting involved in committees, youth groups or outreach programs, additional ways to connect and grow as disciples.
St. Mary Parish in Arcade spent the summer planning to implement a new approach to faith formation for their parish community. The team of catechists and parish staff met weekly to develop a twice-monthly family/intergenerational faith formation format that covers the 14 learning standards of the curriculum, and correlates with events within the parish and larger community.
Each session is on a Sunday afternoon and includes hospitality, prayer, focused learning by age level and a gathered closing activity, often facilitated by pastor Father Joseph Gallo. Father Gallo stated that he "could not be more pleased with the participation of families and the work of his team."
During the month of January, the two sessions will focus on ecumenism, in anticipation of the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; and Catholic principles/relationships, specifically the Catholic teaching on the life and dignity of the human person on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
At St. John Vianney Parish in Orchard Park, parish leadership has taken steps toward encouraging families to actively participate. Jennifer Golinski, evangelization and catechesis director at the parish, has been incorporating faith formation with weekly worship.
"I believe that some of our families aren't really against going to Mass, they have just fallen out of the habit or were never going to begin with," she said. The parish works its monthly family sessions into either 8 a.m., 10 a.m. or noon timeslots. After Mass ends, they participate in formation activities that also promote a sense of belonging.
"When you know the people, hopefully you want to be part of and active in the community," Golinski explained. "I'm hopeful that once they know people and have the opportunity to encounter Jesus during the Mass, they will feel more at home and come more often."
For more information about "Forming Disciples," contact the diocesan Lifelong Faith Formation office at 716-847-5501. Stay tuned for future Western New York Catholic articles about ways parishes are implementing "Forming Disciples."