Christ’s blood reveals to man that his greatness, and therefore his vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self. Precisely because it is poured out as the gift of life, the blood of Christ is no longer a sign of death, of definitive separation from the brethren, but the instrument of a communion which is richness of life for all. Whoever in the Sacrament of the Eucharist drinks this blood and abides in Jesus is drawn into the dynamism of his love and gift of life, in order to bring to its fullness the original vocation to love which belongs to everyone…. It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the strength to commit themselves to promoting life. It is precisely this blood that is the most powerful source of hope, indeed it is the foundation of the absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious.
Saint Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life
Does one not break one’s entire life with every gesture? But what of it? The thing is not to go away, and wander for days, months, even years – the thing is to return and in the old place to find oneself.
Adam, in The Jeweler’s Shop by Saint Pope John Paul II
In January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing William Saunders for an article about the persecuted Church in the Sudan. Just three months earlier, Pope John Paul II had canonized the first Sudanese saint, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, and so Saunders told me a bit about her in the context of helping me understand the situation of the Church in the Sudan. The Church now remembers her in its liturgical celebrations on February 8th of each year.
Pope Benedict XVI references Saint Bakhita at the beginning of his encyclical, Spe Salvi, as a model of Christian hope:
To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.
Below, I’ve reprinted my article about the Church in the Sudan.
The Church in the Sudan Gives Witness to Christ During Persecution
This article originally appeared in the April 2001 edition of The Catholic Servant.
“In the holy days of Lent the ‘offering’ assumes a deeper meaning, because it is not just giving something from the surplus to relieve one’s conscience, but to truly take upon one’s self the misery present in the world. To look at the suffering face and the conditions of misery of many brothers and sisters forces us to share at least part of our own goods with those in difficulty…. The world expects from Christians a consistent witness of communion and solidarity.”
These words, taken from Pope John Paul II’s message for Lent 2001, invite all the faithful to examine the suffering face of Christ present in today’s world. The image of the suffering Christ manifests itself vividly today in the trials borne by the people of the Sudan. William Saunders, an attorney from Washington, DC, who is the founder and director of Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., spoke about the sufferings of the Sudanese people at a conference on evangelization held this past January at the University of Saint Thomas.
The Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is situated just south of Egypt and has a population of nearly 30 million people. A third of the population lives in the southern part of the country, where about half of the Sudanese people are Christian, and half are animists. Since 1983, when civil war broke out in the Sudan under increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists to impose sharia (Islamic law) on the country, more than 1.9 million people have died from war-related causes: starvation, bombings and other atrocities. This death toll—which is larger than the number of deaths due to the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda combined—averages out to about 14 deaths every hour since the outbreak of the war. Another 4 million people have been displaced from their homes. This is an Islamic holy war, or jihad, carried out presently by the ruling government, the radical fundamentalist group known as the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF, representing only about seven percent of the Sudanese population, overthrew the elected government in 1989 and immediately intensified persecution of all non-Muslims in the Sudan. William Saunders notes that the Christian population—in particular the Catholic Church—has been a special target for persecution, since it is seen as an obstacle to the NIF’s goal to make Islam the sole religion of the country. Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools are a regular target of bombings and other forms of oppression. However, moderate Muslims, who are tolerant of Christians and other religious traditions within the population, are also persecuted by the government.
The jihad—which seeks to eliminate all non-Muslim elements of the population through tactics such as torture, bombing, and the withholding of food and water from non-Muslim populations—operates on the premise that Islam is the rightful religion of the Sudan. However, Christianity was the religion of the land for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam in the seventh century. In fact, as Saunders notes, the Church in the Sudan has apostolic roots. According to the book of Acts, one of the first non-Jewish converts to the faith was an Ethiopian from the court of Candace, who received the gospel from the deacon Philip. Scripture scholars say that Candace is a reference to modern-day Sudan. Christianity was eventually suppressed by the rise of Islam, but made a revival in the nineteenth century through missionary efforts. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, when the Sudan achieved independence from Britain, Christians again began to experience intensified religious persecution.
Since the southern part of Sudan is almost entirely non-Muslim and non-Arab, persecution is currently most intense in this area. Bombing raids are carried out regularly from high altitudes; according to Saunders, the precision of the bombing is not as important to the government as the creation of an atmosphere of terror. Many people have been forced to seek shelter in remote areas, such as the higher elevations of the Nuba Mountains in the south. Interestingly, the Christian population has been growing in the Sudan, flourishing amidst the persecution.
The Sudan also has a long history of support for the slave trade, and the present government has legitimized the practice of slavery; in a holy war, it is not considered a sin to take slaves. In a gesture that rankled the conscience of the present government, the Catholic Church canonized its first Sudanese saint in October of 2000, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, a woman kidnapped and sold as a slave late in the nineteenth century. Saint Bakhita eventually arrived in Italy, was emancipated, and became a member of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. Her writings, which document the torture she endured as a slave over a number of years, are also a beautiful testament to her virtue, willingness to forgive, and the natural goodness that contributed to a holy Christian life when she was later catechized and received into the Catholic Church.
Saunders says that although there are regional efforts to put pressure on the Sudanese government, complicating factors have given the NIF some leverage. A border war between Sudan’s neighbors to the east—Eritrea and Ethiopia—has prevented these countries from uniting their efforts against the oppressive Sudanese regime. Also, the government is now profiting from the Sudan’s newly-discovered oil resources; by selling oil to other countries—most notably, to China—the Sudanese government has obtained a lucrative source of income to fund the jihad.
The greatest sign of hope for the persecuted Church in the Sudan has been the prophetic presence of a courageous, native-born Catholic bishop, Reverend Macram Max Gassis. He is bishop of the diocese of El Obeid, an area of Sudan that is twice the size of Italy. Named a bishop in 1988, he began speaking to international organizations such as the US Congress and the United Nations about the Sudanese atrocities. The NIF declared him a criminal for exposing the government’s human rights abuses, and he now lives in exile in neighboring Kenya. Saunders says that Bishop Gassis regularly carries out clandestine operations into Sudan to bring in supplies of food, water, seeds, and building supplies for wells, schools, churches and hospitals. The bishop also helps educate and house 1,200 orphaned children. In one region he visits, northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, there have been no resident priests for over twenty years. The faith is spread by courageous catechists, many of whom are women trained as part of Bishop Gassis’ efforts to advance the education of women in a country where women are considered to be second-class citizens. Gassis calls the catechists “heroes of love,” who live under the threat of torture and even murder. The bishop makes great efforts to be present to his people, holding clandestine Masses in the thick of sycamore trees for hundreds of Sudanese Catholics at Christmas and Easter. Sudanese Catholics travel many miles to receive with joy their faithful shepherd. During the holy days, the government will often launch bombing raids because they know the Catholic population will be gathered in larger numbers at these times.
William Saunders met Bishop Gassis in 1997, when Gassis was in Washington, DC, speaking about slavery and genocide in the Sudan. At the request of Bishop Gassis, Saunders founded Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., an non-profit 501(c)(3) organization designed to fund and support the work Gassis is doing in his native land. This is volunteer work for Saunders, whose livelihood is his pro-life and human rights work as an attorney.
Saunders has traveled with Bishop Gassis to the Sudan, notably during the Christmas season in 1998, and has moving stories to tell about visiting with orphaned children, viewing damage from government bombings, and participating in clandestine liturgies in the Nuba Mountains. Saunders is not simply a human rights activist; he is also, like Bishop Gassis, a man of deep faith who can penetrate the meaning of the suffering of the Sudanese people. “The persecuted Catholics in the Sudan are offering their sufferings for the whole Church! As Bishop Gassis says, the Church of the Sudan is a donor Church, offering up its sufferings on behalf of all the faithful,” says Saunders. They are expressing their communion with us; how will we express the same to them?
Acutely aware of the gift of the Sudanese people, Saunders notes the great witness they offer to the Church in this country, and notes that the current situation gives us the chance to serve our persecuted brothers and sisters across the globe. “If you say, ‘I am a Catholic’ in the Sudan, you are going to suffer. So if you don’t mean it, you don’t say it! In the materialism of America today, our enemies are more subtle and we don’t realize the compromises we’re making. It’s a great blessing for Christians here to realize what it costs to be Christians in other places; it wakes us up here in the United States so that we can help to alleviate the suffering of others and build up the Church.”
What, practically, can we do to reach out to our Sudanese brothers and sisters? First, Saunders says, we can offer our prayers. Second, we can make financial contributions to Sudan Relief and Rescue (SRR) to assist Bishop Gassis in his work of building hospitals and schools, training catechists and seminarians, caring for orphans, and providing food, water and medical treatment. While there are other relief organizations, SRR reaches territory that no other organization can reach: “The UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan, a kind of a consortium of relief groups, had to negotiate an agreement with the government in order to be able to deliver food. The government won’t let them go into these areas where we are going. They do a lot of good in other parts of the country; I’m just saying that if you want to help in the areas served by Bishop Gassis, just about the only way to do it is through our organization.” Third, we can ask our elected representatives to push for a UN-backed no-fly zone over central and southern Sudan in order to end the bombing raids.
As Pope John Paul II noted last October during the canonization of Saint Bakhita, the plight of the Sudanese people is the responsibility not only of world governments, but of every Christian: “I plead with the international community: do not continue to ignore this immense human tragedy. I invite the whole Church to invoke the intercession of St. Bakhita upon all our persecuted and enslaved brothers and sisters, especially in Africa and in her native Sudan, that they may know reconciliation and peace.” May this Lent be a privileged time for Christians worldwide to express their communion with the persecuted Church of the Sudan.
To contact the Sudan Relief Fund, write to: PO Box 7084, Merriffield, VA 22116-9798 or call toll-free: 1-888-488-0348. You may also visit the organization’s website at: sdnrlf.com. All donations are tax-deductible.
Brother kills brother. Like the first fratricide, every murder is a violation of the “spiritual” kinship uniting mankind in one great family, in which all share the same fundamental good: equal personal dignity. Not infrequently the kinship “of flesh and blood” is also violated; for example when threats to life arise within the relationship between parents and children, such as happens in abortion or when, in the wider context of family or kinship, euthanasia is encouraged or practised.
At the root of every act of violence against one’s neighbour there is a concession to the “thinking” of the evil one, the one who “was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). As the Apostle John reminds us: “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 Jn 3:11-12). Cain’s killing of his brother at the very dawn of history is thus a sad witness of how evil spreads with amazing speed: man’s revolt against God in the earthly paradise is followed by the deadly combat of man against man.
After the crime, God intervenes to avenge the one killed. Before God, who asks him about the fate of Abel, Cain, instead of showing remorse and apologizing, arrogantly eludes the question: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). “I do not know”: Cain tries to cover up his crime with a lie. This was and still is the case, when all kinds of ideologies try to justify and disguise the most atrocious crimes against human beings. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”: Cain does not wish to think about his brother and refuses to accept the responsibility which every person has towards others. We cannot but think of today’s tendency for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters. Symptoms of this trend include the lack of solidarity towards society’s weakest members – such as the elderly, the infirm, immigrants, children – and the indifference frequently found in relations between the world’s peoples even when basic values such as survival, freedom and peace are involved.
Pope Saint John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), paragraph 8
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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. U.S. Catholic Conference, tr. St. Paul: Wanderer Press, 1994.
Catholic News Services. “Test Results Say Religious Education is Doing the Job.” Catholic Bulletin. July 28, 1994.
Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Guide for Catechists. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1993.
Coriden, James A, ed., et al. The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.
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.
John Paul II, Pope. Catechesi Tradendae: Catechesis in Our Time. Boston: Saint Paul Books and Media, 1979.
John Paul II, Pope. Familiaris Consortio: The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World. Boston: Saint Paul Books and Media: 1981.
John Paul II, Pope. Letter to Families. Boston: Saint Paul Books and Media: 1994.
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.