"Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). It is precisely this directive, from Christ at His ascension, that the third component of the newly-implemented "Forming Disciples" diocesan Lifelong Faith Formation curriculum seeks to illuminate.
How should faith formation leaders assist people in recognizing that the service they do is a response to the call of baptism and the mark of a disciple? That component is theological reflection. Theological reflection involves cultivating simple ways for those who have been, or will be, involved in service to reflect on that experience in light of their baptism and the Gospel.
Often, families enjoy a service activity but there is a big disconnect with their faith, said Jean Hymes, director of faith formation at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Athol Springs. From clothing drives, to outreach to refugees, to hosting dinners and making blankets, Hymes is seeking effective ways to use these experiences to engage people more fully in realizing their call to discipleship.
"We want to help people connect the dots between doing a good deed, and service as a response to the gospel," Hymes explained.
According to Mary Beth Coates, diocesan director of Lifelong Faith Formation, there is "no doubt" that parishes and schools have always involved young people and families in service, where they log thousands of hours of service with agencies that give back to their community. However, the diocesan faith formation curriculum is calling program planners to be much more intentional about engaging each person more deeply in their journey of faith by asking questions such as, "where is God in this moment?" By uniting good works and faith, planners hope to deepen authentic encounters with Christ.
"Forming Disciples" offers a framework in which pastors and coordinators of faith formation can more easily attend to the many dimensions of catechesis. The diocesan curriculum for faith formation asks all parishes to integrate worthwhile experiences of Christian service across all age groups. As part of the experience, however, the programs must engage participants in theological reflection. This enhancement will deepen one's faith and draw him or her to learn more.
Marybeth Simoneit, of St. John de LaSalle Parish in Niagara Falls, began a new program in September in which families gather together to learn monthly, as well as periodically engage in service activities. When listening to families talk about their experiences and Christ's presence, she reflected, "I try to generate discussions about the works of mercy, how Jesus and the Gospel relate, or the seven principles of social justice ... Simple is best. The conversations are what get to me."
"Christ is present in the people served," Coates added. "Our parish programming must be able to cultivate this awareness, and 'Forming Disciples' should be seen as a tool to accomplish this. We want to bring together the head, the heart and the hands."
At Our Lady of Charity Parish in South Buffalo, the parish's social action committee has sponsored service workshops, including one in December in which participants helped make packets for shut-in and homebound individuals.
"We do this twice a year, and the families actually commit to taking one or two of the packets to deliver if they are able to make a personal connection," said Father Bryan Zielenieski, parish administrator. "The theological reflection component happens at our Monday night program ... and begins with families praying together."
The parish planning of service is intentionally focused upon content areas outlined in the dioccesan curriculum. "The conversation that takes place between adults and kids is always inspirational," Father Zielenieski added.
Jennifer Golinski, director of Parishwide Evangelization and Catechesis at St. John Vianney Parish in Orchard Park, said her parish also includes service components that involve theological reflection and discussions about faith.
"Families are each asked to do service as a family. I've simply asked them to discuss where they see Jesus in this project, and how they were Jesus in this project," Golinski explained.
The practice of aligning faith formation with Christian service serves as a way to live the Catholic faith each and every day. Parishes across the diocese are in the process of introducing a broad range of program plans, designed to engage children and adults more deeply in their faith journey.
For more information about this process, contact your parish's faith formation director or the department of Lifelong Faith Formation at LLFF@buffalodiocese.org.