Family-Based Faith Formation
Pastoral Ministry in American Culture
PT 509 01
Sr. Katarina Schuth, O.S.F.
Tuesday, May 16, 1995
- Lack of vision
- Lack of trained professional leadership
- Lack of ownership by parents
- Diversity of families
- Parent involvement
- Communicating the vision
- Establishing a Catechetical Director
- Offering alternatives and support
The inspiration for this project on family-based faith formation began with a personal experience of volunteering as a teacher of eighth-grade religious education a year ago. The class, which met for an hour and a half each Wednesday evening of the school year, was to be taught using a textbook that will remain unnamed. The text on morality — in both its learner and teacher editions — employed a condescendingly “cool” approach that mistook a patronizing attitude for relevance. On the first night of class, I discovered how difficult it was to convey the material in a way that seemed appropriate to my audience of twenty-one eighth graders. By observing the acerbic reactions of students to the jargon and the illustrations in the text, I was reminded of my own experience of religious education, an experience that planted in my mind the notion that religion was a trivial subject hopelessly unrelated to my life. I remembered the torturous Wednesday night sessions in which, after I was asked to describe my feelings to a small group of individuals I hardly knew, the class would conclude with some sort of truism about the fact that God is love.
I wanted more for my students, so in subsequent class periods I moved away from the text, tried to develop a good relationship with the students, and planned out some sessions that were more engaging, more interactive and more substantive. I hoped that this would help them make a connection between catechesis and daily life.
Although I felt that I achieved some degree of success, I was frustrated by four further obstacles: a lack of student understanding of the most basic content of Christian faith; a lack of student concern about assimilating the material (unless, of course, they were being graded); a lack of student discipline; and the absence of support from parents. At this point, I began to think that the religious education program was in need of serious rethinking. In my estimation, the program in which I was participating had an impoverished vision of faith formation.
Then I happened to pick up a copy of Pope John Paul II’s recent Letter to Families. In the document, I was introduced to the notion that parents are the primary educators of their children: “Parents are the first and most important educators of their own children, and they also possess a fundamental competence in this area: they are educators because they are parents.”1 Moreover, I learned that the Pope specifically addressed the relation of the family to religious education:
One area in which the family has an irreplaceable role is that of religious education, which enables the family to grow as a “domestic church.” Religious education and the catechesis of children make the family a true subject of evangelization and the apostolate within the Church…. Families, and more specifically parents, are free to choose for their children a particular kind of religious and moral education consonant with their own convictions. Even when they entrust these responsibilities to ecclesiastical institutions or to schools administered by religious personnel, their educational presence ought to continue to be constant and active.2
I was fascinated by the discovery of this rich understanding of the family’s role in the faith development of children. Certainly my own experience as a home-schooled student resonated with the Pope’s words: Most of my formative experiences in faith had taken place in the context of family prayer, discussion and daily interaction. I concluded that a vision of religious education with more family involvement would make the faith formation process more organic, integral and effective.
What, then, is family-based faith formation? In the absence of any formal definition, family-based formation may generally be described as one mode of catechesis that recognizes the primacy of the family unit as a subject and vehicle for the inter-generational transmission of faith.3 This sort of formation presupposes the concept of catechesis which was present in the early Church — that is, catechesis understood as “the totality of the Church’s efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ.”4 Family-based formation, as one means of catechesis, is based on three principles: first, the idea that parents are the primary educators of children;5 second, the understanding that development in faith is a process of mutual inter-generational growth and learning;6 and, third, the awareness that families and parishes are collaborators in the transmission of faith.7
A more particular definition of family-based formation might exclude many developing and existing models, thus failing to be a comprehensive definition. The family-based programs already in place are rather diverse in terms of structure. A brief examination of a particular local family based program may help establish some sense of how a family-based model might operate. In Eagan, Minnesota, the parish of Saint Thomas Becket provides a family formation program which includes: family retreat experiences; bi-annual peer-based and inter-generational formation sessions with catechists; and weekly in-home activities for the entire family. In this lectionary-based model, which utilizes Brown Roa’s Seasons of Faith curriculum, the weekly scripture readings and home activities correspond to the three-year cycle of readings for Sunday Mass. According to the publisher of the curriculum, the teachings in the text are correlated with the lectionary readings in such a way that during each three-year cycle of readings, all of the essentials of Catholic doctrine are covered.8 The curriculum is age-appropriate and includes adult workbooks to provide background material on the lectionary readings. The parish offers sacramental preparation courses that operate in cooperation with — but independently from — the Seasons of Faith program. This is simply one model, mentioned here for the sake of illustrating an incarnation of the family based formation model.9
The vision for family-based faith formation, which is rooted in contemporary Church documents, derives primarily from the Second Vatican Council’s discussion of the family as “domestic church.”10 A brief examination of these documents and, in particular, the Church’s teaching on marriage, illuminate the essential role which the family has in the transmission of faith. John Paul II has addressed the topic in several documents. In addition to his Letter to Families, which was an adaptation of Familiaris Consortio, he has written an encyclical on catechesis which stresses the important catechetical role of the family: “Family catechesis… precedes, accompanies and enriches all other forms of catechesis.”11 He describes an organic vision of family catechesis that recognizes the importance not only of a methodical catechesis, but of a sort of “inculturation” of catechesis in family life.12 Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes parents as the “first heralds” of the gospel for their children.13
The sacrament of marriage is the source of the catechetical role of parents. As Pius XI wrote in his encyclical Casti Connubi, the sacrament of marriage, by virtue of its indissoluble bond, provides in the best way possible for the education of children because “the care and mutual help of each [parent] are always at hand.”14 According to Church teaching, the education of children is inseparably tied to the procreative activity of marriage.15 In other words, the educational role of parents is an extension of the generativity that results from the communion of persons.
Sacred Scripture also suggests the importance of family in faith formation. For example, the Holy Family provides a model of parental initiative in the religious upbringing of the young. In the gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph take the initiative to present Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem.16 In this passage, the Holy Family is, in a very concrete way, collaborating with the wider community in serving the spiritual welfare of the child Jesus. As another example, one may recognize in the parable of the Prodigal Son a story about the family as a privileged place for learning about God’s love through the witness of parental love.17
An interest in family-based faith formation has been expressed recently by the Church on international, national and diocesan levels. Internationally, one can turn to the writings of John Paul II. The Pope has noted that family catechesis, an essential part of all catechesis, has a special role in places where religious faith is undermined by unfavorable cultural climates: “In places where anti-religious legislation endeavors even to prevent education in the faith, and in places where widespread unbelief or invasive secularism makes real religious growth practically impossible, ‘the church of the home’ remains the one place where children and young people can receive an authentic catechesis.”18 The Pope seems to be suggesting that family-based formation has a special significance in the contemporary cultural context.
On the national level, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has pledged to be an advocate for resources that will help parents in the moral and religious formation of their children.19 Moreover, the bishops encourage many activities that the family-based model uses as tools for faith formation, including family meals, rituals, education programs, and communal worship in the home.20 As far as the implementation of family-based models is concerned, however, there is relatively little being done at the national level. At a recent national conference on catechesis, only about ten percent of the participants were working on a family-based approach to faith formation.21 Particularly noteworthy is a 1992 study of Catholic religious education carried out by the Educational Testing Service in cooperation with the United States Catholic Conference Department of Education. An article by Catholic News Services billed the study as an indicator of the success of existing religious education programs,yet quoted a USCC representative who said that many of the 450,000 volunteers involved in these programs experienced a lack of adequate resources and institutional support. While Catholic schools and parishes were cited as partners in religious education, no mention was made of the role of the family in religious education.22
Within the Archdiocese, the interest in family faith development has been expressed primarily through the establishment of a number of “family-centered” programs. Although a list of “family-centered” programs has been compiled, the exact number and nature of these programs in the Archdiocese is unknown at present. However, a survey is currently being conducted by the Office of Catechesis to determine exactly what sort of family-based programs are being offered.23
In order to get a sense of the state of family-based faith formation in the Archdiocese, I interviewed five parishes with family-based models, as well as Sister Josetta Marie Spencer, coordinator of catechesis, resources and services for the Archdiocesan Office of Catechesis.24 My examination of the Archdiocese revealed three challenges in regard to existing family-based programs — namely, the need to articulate the vision of family-based formation, the need to create a sense of parental ownership of the faith formation process, and the need to respond to diverse family situations.
Lack of Vision
One major obstacle to family-based programs is a lack of comprehensive vision of faith formation as a holistic, inter-generational, all-encompassing process of faith development. A narrow and uniform model of faith formation — that is, a model which is based almost entirely on an academic approach to faith development — still prevails in many places. This model is seen as tried and true, which makes people hesitant to look at alternatives. The standard model of religious education (i.e. the “CCD” model) is perceived by some to be adequate and universally applicable.25 This leads to a sort of inertia that disinclines people to look seriously at family-based models.
Lack of Trained Professional Leadership
In local parishes that do incorporate a family perspective on faith formation, a lack of catechetical leadership often prevents the parish from implementing the vision in a coherent, integral way. In all of the parishes interviewed for this project, the head of the family-based program is either a volunteer or an individual responsible for a number of different areas of parish life. Professional, paid catechetical leaders are often viewed as non-essential members of parish staffs when a family-based program is established; Directors of Religious Education are sometimes laid off in such situations.26 This is a serious problem, for although volunteers often give generously of their time and skills, they seldom can provide the time, effort and qualifications needed to establish a comprehensive vision for faith formation and to offer adequate catechetical training to catechists and parents. The Church on the local level seems unaware of the important role of professional catechists in the parish, a role which is explicit in the Guide for Catechists which was released by the Vatican in 1994.27
Lack of Ownership by Parents
Another obstacle to family-based programs is a lack of a sense of ownership on the part of parents. Some parents are reluctant to devote the time and energy needed to a family-based program, in part because they may not see the benefits of the family-based model. Moreover, trying a new model of religious education involves the risks of change — risks that many may not be willing to take. The classroom model is more familiar and feels “safer” to parents. Many want to stay with the type of education that is based primarily on an academic curriculum.28
Oftentimes, parents are hesitant to embrace the family-based model because they are concerned that the quality of the religious education will suffer in this model. In my interviews, those promoting family-based faith formation consistently observed that parents worry about their own competence as educators and fear that an inter-generational, holistic approach will not provide a comprehensive presentation of foundational Catholic doctrines and beliefs. Parents often feel that they do not have enough knowledge or skills to pass on the faith to their children.29 Perhaps in these situations the parish has not sufficiently communicated and demonstrated that it truly collaborates with the parents in the formation of children; without this understanding, the task of family-based formation can become very intimidating for parents, especially for those who do not have the training to carry out effective catechesis on their own. Without the support of the parish, parents can end up feeling just as isolated as the volunteers mentioned in the article about the 1992 study on Catholic religious education (see above). The tension that exists between highlighting parents as primary educators of the young and maintaining a vital parish role in catechesis30 deserves some attention within the diocese.
Diversity of Families
One additional obstacle to the implementation of the family-based model is the reality of a wide diversity of family situations within the Archdiocese. One cannot assume that every household will fit into a traditional mold: There are blended families with stepchildren; single parent families; interfaith marriages; dysfunctional families; and families in which one or more parent does not participate in parish life. No one model of faith formation will address all of the needs of this diverse population.31 When a parish offers only a single family-based model of religious education, problems may arise. In households which experience the trauma of domestic violence, the home may not be a feasible place for faith formation. Single parents may not have the adult support they need in the home. Differences in religious belief may create tension within an interfaith household trying to adopt the family-based model of formation. Parents who are not churchgoing may not take the initiative needed for the family-based model to work; moreover, when no connection exists with the larger community of faith, the collaboration between family and parish, which the Church holds up as an ideal,32 does not take place.
In ordered to foster the development of family-based programs, the Archdiocesan Office of Catechesis is providing resources and information about the theology of “domestic church,” the importance of parent involvement in religious education, and the need for catechetical leadership in the parish. On the local level, some parishes are providing orientation sessions to introduce interested parents to the family-based approach to faith formation. The Church of Saint Paul requires new members of the parish to attend two informational sessions about life in the parish as part of the registration process; at that time, they are introduced to the family-based formation program.33 At Saint Thomas Becket, orientation sessions are held on a regular basis during the year for interested parents.
In order to get parents involved in a family-based style of formation, some parishes organize parish-based family events as a springboard for family activity. At Risen Savior and Thomas Becket, special parish-wide programs take place during Lent and Advent in which the whole family participates. During these events, a mixture of peer-based and inter-generational activities take place. At Our Lady of Guadalupe, these programs happen on a monthly basis. At the Church of Saint Paul and at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the formation program involves one session a month at the parish to supplement the three sessions in the home. Similarly, at the Church of Saint Paul, monthly parish-based sessions involve both parents and children. Moreover, catechesis for parents is offered at the parish regularly in order to give parents the tools and encouragement they need to teach their children.34 These are a few examples of parishes that, through collaboration with the family, support the parents in their role as primary educators.
Offering options in faith formation is essential;35 not only does this help to give parents a sense of ownership in the faith formation process, but it also respects the diverse needs of families. Guardian Angels in Lake Elmo offers three different programs: a home-based program; a program that involves neighborhood peer groups meeting in homes with parents as facilitators; and a program that involves two parish and two home sessions each month.36 This variety of offerings helps the parish to cater to a wide variety of family schedules and needs. Diverse family structures have unique formational needs; the parish of Saint Thomas Becket has recognized this and thus facilitates the development of “clusters.” Small clusters of parents who want to be involved in the faith formation of their children but who, for whatever reason, do not have the resources or support needed to carry on the formation in their homes, gather together with their children to take part in the family-based program.37 As an example, a particular “cluster” might consist of single parents and their children. The programs mentioned above are helping a wide variety of individuals to engage in the family-based approach to faith formation in ways that respect their diverse situations and needs.
The following initiatives may be helpful in developing constructive family-based faith formation programs in a particular parish: first, communicating the vision of family-based catechesis; second, hiring a catechetical director to analyze the parish and develop appropriate programs; third, offering alternatives and support.
COMMUNICATING THE VISION
The first stage in developing family-based formation is to share the rich vision of the family as a privileged place for faith formation. This could be done by bringing in speakers from parishes that already offer a family-based program. In particular, parents who have been engaged in the family-based model should be invited to speak at the parish about their experiences with the family centered approach. The parents I listened to in preparing this project were very enthusiastic about taking an integral role in the faith formation of their children; they appreciate the opportunity to spend time with their children, to pray and learn about the faith alongside their children, to make connections between the faith of the Church and personal experience, to grow closer together as families, and to experience in a richer way the life and worship of the parish community. Letting parents share their enthusiasm about family-based formation is perhaps the best way to generate interest in the family-centered approach.
The witness of those already engaged in family-based formation should be coupled with a lecture or presentation on the “domestic church” vision as articulated in the writings of the Second Vatican Council and in a variety of subsequent Church documents. This theoretical groundwork will help parents realize that the family-based approach is not just a nice new idea, but actually is rooted in the Christian tradition and represents an important source and means of evangelization.
In addition, the pastor should capitalize on opportunities to share the “domestic church” vision with parents who come to the parish to prepare for the sacraments of baptism and marriage. At these key moments in the life of a family, the obligations of parents to children in terms of faith formation should be highlighted as an integral part of the commitment made in these sacraments. When preparing to have their child baptized, parents should be informed that they are committing themselves to raising their children in the practice of the faith; when a couple comes for marriage preparation, they should be catechized about the commitment they are making of openness to the gift of new life and the consequent responsibilities of the procreative good — responsibilities that include the education of children.
ESTABLISHING A CATECHETICAL DIRECTOR
After articulating the family-centered vision, the parish should establish the position of a professional catechetical director to develop a consistent catechetical thrust in all of the parish programs and to start to train parishioners who wish to help in developing family-based activities. If the parish already has a director of religious education, perhaps the job description could be modified as necessary in order to reflect the new holistic approach to parish catechesis.
The financial resources for establishing this paid position would hopefully be developed by parishioners who have been inspired by the family-based vision communicated by the leadership of the parish; ideally, the family-based vision would help create resources and, in turn, the resources would fortify the vision.
The first task of the catechetical director should be to analyze the parish structures, the demographics of the parish, and the needs of parishioners. After completing this analysis, the director would then articulate a way of inculturating the family-based vision in a way appropriate to the parish. As the family-based approach is fostered, the catechetical director should begin to find ways to improve the family dimension of existing programs instead of eliminating programs altogether; the main objective of the director should not be to develop new programs, but to highlight and foster the family perspective within the parish community as it exists.38 Plans and proposals for changes would need to be communicated clearly and publicly in order to generate a genuine partnership between the leadership and the parish as a whole.
OFFERING ALTERNATIVES AND SUPPORT
The final phase of the development of family-based formation in the parish would involve sustaining the vision. This should be done in two ways. First, the leadership of the parish should make sure that alternative means of religious education remain available so that parents are free to choose the form of faith formation they consider most appropriate for their families. A failure to offer alternatives would be a violation of the family-centered vision, for the vision is not encompassed by any one program, but instead is characterized by a respect for the choices parents make in regard to the religious and moral education of their children. Second, parents who want to choose the family-based model should be encouraged and supported in their choice through the establishment of a “mentor” system. Basically, the “mentor” system would connect parents already involved in the family-based model with parents who are just becoming involved in this method of faith formation. A mentor family would pay attention to resources the new family might need in order to carry out its role as a “domestic church” and would then communicate the needed resources to the parish leadership. This partnership between families would help facilitate “like-to-like ministry” within the Church and would be an ideal way of supporting the diverse needs of the families within the community.
The family-based model of faith formation is one approach to catechesis that seems well-suited to the parish of today; the model helps establish a continuity between catechesis and daily life, as well as between parish and family. Moreover, the model holds up the dignity of the family as an irreplaceable source and means of evangelization. This relatively new approach to faith formation deserves serious consideration in the years ahead. Along with other models of catechesis, family-based faith formation will most likely play an important role in the spiritual development of individuals, families and parish communities in the years to come.
1 Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, (Boston: Saint Paul Books and Media: 1994), 16.
2 Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, par. 16.
3 Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio: The Role of the Christian Family in the Modem World, (Boston: Saint Paul Books and Media: 1981), par. 16.
4 Catechism of the Catholic Church, U.S. Catholic Conference, tr. (St Paul: Wanderer Press, 1994) par. 4.
6 Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, pars. 45, 68; Familiaris Consortio, par. 52; National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families, (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1993) 9.
10 Austin Flannery, ed., “Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company. 1992) par. 11.
11 Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, par. 68.
12 Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, par. 68.
13 Catechism, par. 2225.
14 Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubi: On Christian Marriage, (New York: Barry Vail Corporation, 1931) 9.
15 Austin Flannery, ed., “Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modem World,” Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 1992) par. 48; Catechism, par. 2205.
16 Luke 2:22-24
18 Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, par. 68.
19 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Follow the Way, 25.
20 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Follow the Way, 22.
27 Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Guide for Catechists (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1993) par. 14.
30 Pope John Paul II, Catechesis Tradendae, par. 67.
32 Pope John Paul II, Catechesis Tradendae, 67.
Batten, Judith, Pastoral Associate, Saint Thomas Becket; Peggie Schummer (parent); Mary Vatterott (parent). Orientation session. March 23, 1995.
Busch, Judy , Church of Saint Paul, Ham Lake. Phone conversation. May 11, 1995.
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Deziel, Paul, Youth Minister, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Phone interview. April, 1995.
Dozier, Gordon, Director of Youth Ministry, Church of Saint Paul, Ham Lake. Phone interview. April 23, 1995.
Flannery, Austin, ed. Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents. Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 1992.
Humphrey, Robert L. “Parish Catechesis: An Expanding Vision.” Momentum. February/March 1993. 31-35.
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Markey, Barbara, Director of Family Life, Archdiocese of Omaha. Class presentation. April 3, 1995.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Families at the Center: A Handbook for Parish Ministry with a Family Perspective. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1990.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1993.
Pius XI, Pope. Casti Connubi: On Christian Marriage. New York: Barry Vail Corporation, 1931.
Skierecki, Barbara, Coordinator for Preschool through Eighth Grade and Family Program, Risen Savior, Burnsville. Phone interview. April 18, 1995.
Smith-Myott, Katie, Guardian Angels, Lake Elmo. Phone interview. April 20, 1995.
Spencer, Sister Josetta Marie, Coordinator of Catechesis, Resources and Services for the Archdiocesan Office of Catechesis. Interview. April 28, 1995.
Strathman Lapa, Jeanita F., and Eleanor Suther, eds. Seasons of Faith: Home Resource Book. Dubuque, IA: Brown Roa Publishing Media, 1991.
Swanson, Trudy, Coordinator for Family Formation Program, Church of Saint Paul, Ham Lake. Interview. April 23, 1995.