Designing a Great Catechetical Office

Our catechetical office recently learned that we will be moving into a new office suite in a few months. Our existing suite is being converted into new meeting spaces that will be larger and more convenient for people meeting at our pastoral center.

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With this move we have the opportunity to design our new offices (within some constraints, of course) and I’ve been giving some time to thinking about how to arrange and design this space to both maintain and build upon the great collaboration we currently enjoy.

Here are a few of the ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Increased artwork – Currently our walls are pretty bare. We have some small religious artwork and posters from past diocesan events, but nothing that really fills the space or inspires greatness. I was already considering purchasing some new art for the office; now I consider it a “must” for the new space.
  • Green plants – I’m a big believer that having living things around makes any space more welcoming and inviting. In fact, I just bought a fish for my office! With the move to a new space I’m looking at various office-friendly plants to add some green, help purify the air, and add a friendly atmosphere.
  • Comfy meeting space – One of the things I love about our office is the level of collaboration we’ve achieved, especially as an office that covers parish-based religious education, Catholic schools, and youth ministry. Having a large, open space with comfortable chairs encourages good collaboration and communication, both for internal meetings and when sitting down with DREs, pastors, principals, and others.

Those are some of the issues I’m wrestling with in our new space. Do you have any advice on creating a great office space?

Canned Programs and the Person of the Catechist

canned-tomatoes

Recently the members of our department have been looking at and reviewing some of the new Confirmation programs that have been making the rounds. (We’ll be publishing some general thoughts and recommendations in the coming months; I’ll be sure to share them here on my blog.)

One trend I’ve noticed is that all the programs we’ve looked at try to be “turn key” programs – that is, they are designed to be easy to use with little need to prep or input on the part of the facilitator. Through video presentations and guided discussion booklets, there seems to be little for the catechist to do.

On the one hand this may seem a feature. In today’s busy, fast-paced world, having a program that doesn’t require a lot of time and investment can be helpful, especially for a parish that doesn’t have a lot of trained catechists.

On the other hand, the Church’s teaching is clear that no program, video, or book is able to catechize on its own. The General Directory for Catechesis reminds us that

No methodology, no matter how well tested, can dispense with the person of the catechist in every phase of the catechetical process. The charism given to him by the Spirit, a solid spirituality and transparent witness of life, constitutes the soul of every method. Only his own human and Christian qualities guarantee a good use of texts and other work instruments.

In other words, evangelization and catechesis are primarily human endeavors. They require the cultivation of relationships, not the bright glare of an LCD machine; patience and discernment, not a “one-size-fits-all” approach; and above all the demonstration of a lived relationship with Jesus Christ, not fancy graphics and music.

That’s not to discount the usefulness of programs, videos and books. But it is to remind us that the most important factor in a young person’s faith formation is the people around them who will demonstrate the importance of faith and invite the young person to enter more deeply into that faith. The former are important, yes; but the latter are indispensable.

Cardinal Wuerl’s NCEA Keynote: A Way of Seeing the World

file0001072832806Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the NCEA conference in Pittsburgh. I had a great time meeting up with Twitter friends old and new, attending great breakout presentations, and giving my own breakout on Catholic schools.

The highlight of the conference was an outstanding keynote address by Donald Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C. He spoke on the work of the New Evangelization in light of the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Some notes from that keynote:

  • The New Evangelization consists of the Church going out into the world to share the beauty of the Gospel.
  • The New Evangelization is not a program, but a way of seeing the world.
  • We must recognize the challenges of a secular, materialistic, individualistic culture to the faith. Secularism has swept Western culture like a tsunami, sweeping away family, church, faith.
  • We must be committed to and confident in the truth of the Gospel, then share it with others.
  • Engaging in the the corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy is an indispensable part of the New Evangelization.
  • Where do we meet Jesus today? With the only remaining living witness of his life, death, and resurrection: the Church. It is within the witness of the Church that we can be confident in the truth of the Gospel.
  • New evangelists must be bold; connected to the Church; have a sense of urgency; and radiate joy. People must see and hear our joy; this way they may be inspired to follow us to Christ.

My only quibble with what was otherwise an outstanding address is that the cardinal spoke about the importance of both the parish and the school as contexts for passing on the Catholic faith — but failed to mention the family, which seems to me to be the most important context for evangelization and catechesis. This is understandable considering the audience; still, it would have been good to hear the family tied into the parish and the school.

Cardinal Wuerl has been a tireless promoter of the New Evangelization in this country. I highly recommend his book New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today for more of his insights and thoughts.

Dear Catechists: Please Stop Talking About Emmaus

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_EmausOne of my favorite hashtags on Twitter is #UnpopularOpinion. People use this hashtag to tag their contrarian opinions about subjects both topical and mundane.

In that spirit, I would like to formally state that I think the “Road to Emmaus” story is overused in the field of catechesis.

That’s not to say that there aren’t important themes in the story or that it isn’t an important touchstone in understanding the relationship between Jesus Christ and his disciples. Rather, I think that given the current crisis of discipleship in the Church and the lack of a clear Christian worldview in our culture, it is not the most appropriate biblical story to draw on to understand the work of evangelization and catechesis.

People seem to forget that the disciples on the road to Emmaus are… well… disciples. They already had a strong, developed relationship with Jesus before the crucifixion. Their only problem was in misunderstanding the nature of the Resurrection. If, as studies show, so few in our parishes can truly be described as disciples, then the relevancy of this particular story to the current catechetical culture seems tenuous.

That, of course, begs the question: What story should we be talking about?

For your consideration, I offer this episode from the Acts of the Apostles:

And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can’dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearer is dumb,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken up from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Here we have a story that more clearly represents our present evangelizing and catechetical challenge: leading a person with limited exposure to the person and story of Jesus Christ into a relationship with him and his Church.

The eunuch had no lived relationship with Jesus. There isn’t even any indication that he knew his name! St. Phillip, beginning with the eunuch’s rudimentary knowledge of the prophet Isaiah, unfolds the Christian message, leading him to Jesus and entrance into his Body through baptism.

This is the same journey many people must make today. For some, as the eunuch, this may involve a journey that takes them through the RCIA and the Sacraments of Initiation. For others it may mean reconciliation and a return to the Church of their youth. Either way, we should not assume that a living, active relationship with Jesus Christ exists; it must be cultivated and encouraged. That is our challenge today and why this story should be close to the hearts of evangelists and catechists.

What other biblical stories do you think shed light on the work of the New Evangelization?

#NCEA14 in 22 Twitter Pictures

Who Will Reap the Seeds You Sow?

harvest

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Matthew 9:35-38

In catechesis we often say that we sow seeds that may not bear fruit for many years — long after the young people in our programs have passed from the parish or school. And this is true. We don’t know what value a kind word or lesson may have or what fruit it may bear in the future.

But too often I think we fail to recognize that, even if we don’t reap those seeds, someone will. At some point someone will have to help guide those young people into a deep, mature, intentional faith in Jesus Christ. But are we training people to reap that harvest?

I don’t see a lot of evidence that we are. I see a lot of catechetical training emphasizing the sowing of seeds, but not so many giving practical skills and resources for walking with people — once they’ve heard the kerygma proclaimed — into a fully lived Christian faith.

The business world has long known this. Handing off work is one of the major points of inefficiency in production and services. When I worked in Catholic healthcare there was a major effort to make sure that patients were only transported for a procedure in another department when that department was ready. If you transport the patient and no one is there to receive them, it results in frustration for everyone.

If the workers are few — so few that there are not enough to gather what has been sown — is it any surprise that the fruit turns bad, rotting in the fields? Perhaps we need to think of two types of catechists necessary for the flourishing of the Christian community: the sowers and the harvesters. Perhaps we need to be intentional about how we put each type to work in our programs. And maybe we need to give each some specialized training so that, once called, they can perform their ministry appropriately.

How can we ensure that the workers will be there when it is time for the harvest? How are you planning for and supporting the workers?

7 Ways to Get More Out of a Catechetical Conference

meeting

As I mentioned on Twitter the other day my conference season is just around the corner. This year I’m attending both the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL) conventions. After five years I think I’m finally getting the hang of attending a conference and getting the most out of it; here are a few tips if you’ll be attending these or one of the other fine conferences coming up!

  1. Pack light… Don’t try to take everything and the kitchen sink, especially if you’re flying. Take the bare necessities. This will both lighten your load and make it easier to spend several days on your feet. I was able to attend my first NCCL conference — five days — with just a back pack. (The secret: rolling your clothes.)
  2. …and leave room for goodies. The downside of that first NCCL conference was that I didn’t have any room for the free books, materials, and assorted goodies I got from various publishers and vendors. Fortunately my associate director drove to the conference, so I was able to give them to her to take back to Illinois. If not for her I might have had to explain to my wife why I left some shirts and pants behind.
  3. Make the most of your time between sessions. Don’t get me wrong: I love attending breakout sessions, whether to hear a new speaker or find out how other dioceses are approaching particular challenges. But the real value of a conference is the connections made with other people. Don’t be afraid to approach a speaker or other attendee and engage with them; they are great resources that can be tapped after the conference is over! (Three years ago I even created an “audio postcard” by recording interviews with attendees at NCCL!)
  4. Volunteer. Conferences are always in need of people to help with registrations, plan liturgies, escort speakers, hang signage, or just act as gofers. Volunteering is a great way to network and meet other dedicated catechists.
  5. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Did you go to a breakout speaker only to discover that the topic was vastly different from what you expected? Feel free to walk out and go to a different session. After all, your time is valuable and there is no sense in attending a session that you find uninteresting or unhelpful. Personally I operate on a five minute rule: if a breakout speaker or session hasn’t grabbed my attention within five minutes, I’ll generally try to find another to attend.
  6. Stop by the exhibitors. If the conference you’re attending has an exhibitor’s hall, make sure to walk through it at least once. Lots of publishers have demos of new programs, special rates for attendees, and other “perks” that make it worth while. Perusing their booths also helps the conference: organizers rely on exhibitors purchasing booth space to cover some of the costs of the conference, but exhibitors won’t return if attendees don’t stop by.
  7. Participate in the back channel. Twitter is one of the greatest conference attendance tools I know of. Through the use of hashtags it’s easy to find other attendees and have a conversation about what you’re seeing and hearing — even if they are sitting on the other side of a 1000-person ballroom!Even if you can’t attend a conference, following hashtags can give you a virtual convention experience. (The hashtags to follow for NCEA and NCCL are #NCEA14 and #NCCL2014, respectively.)

What advice do you have for people attending a conference this year?

New Resource: Sacred Scripture and the Christian Life (A Short Study)

A few weeks ago, while our local Lumen Veritas youth group was gathering, I offered a faith study opportunity for any parents willing to hang around and listen to me drone on for a hour or so.

With the end of the Year of Faith close at hand we thought it would be good to take a look at the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church through the lens of Vatican Council II. To that end I created a “short study” guide with excerpts from Sacrosanctum concilium and Dei Verbum, as well as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and Verbum Domini, and some reflection questions to facilitate the conversation:

I’ve released the study guide under a Creative Commons license, so feel free to print it out, make copies, and adapt it for your own use. Just make sure to credit the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois for its original creation.

Our plan is for me to do similar events for the parents once a month or so; if I create more resources like the one above I’ll be sure to share them here.

A Journey Concluded

pathThis past Saturday our diocesan Department for Catechetical Services completed a one-year pilot project. Entitled “Journey of Discipleship,” we partnered with Ss. James and Patrick parish in Decatur, Illinois, and offered monthly adult formation sessions on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The project began in the summer of 2012 when, in the course of a discussion at one of our department meetings, one of my colleagues wondered aloud what it would be like if the members of our various offices took over a parish for one year, bringing to bear our knowledge, skills, and expertise in a concerted way across our various responsibilities.

That eventually lead us to the determination to partner with a parish for one year and help them to better understand how to grow in holiness and as disciples. Following a “Come and See” event last December, each month we offered a five-hour session on a different aspect of holiness:

  • The Four Pillars of the Christian Life
  • Regular Appointments with God
  • Full, Conscious and Active Participation in the Liturgy
  • Active Participation in Ongoing Faith Formation
  • A Missionary Mindset
  • A Simple and Sacrificial Lifestyle
  • Building Common Ground
  • Chaste Living
  • Commitment to Life, Charity and Justice
  • Following the Precepts of the Church
  • Discerning the Movement of the Holy Spirit

It has been a wonderful, Spirit-inspired journey with the people of Ss. James and Patrick. It is rare for diocesan staff to have the opportunity to forge such relationships with a parish and we are already looking for ways in which to replicate the success of this program with other parishes in our diocese.

The handouts, slides, and select videos of the sessions are available online at journeyofdiscipleship.tumblr.com.

Thoughts on the Day: Feast of St. Charles Borromeo

cborromeoToday the Church celebrates the heroic sanctity of St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (d. 1584). St. Borromeo is one of the patron saints of catechists, owing in large part to his role in the writing of the Roman Catechism during the Council of Trent. This was the first universal catechism of the Church and held a place of preeminence within catechesis that only ended with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.

It may be tempting to characterize the time of the Counter-Reformation by an austere and humorless defense against Protestantism (and St. Borromeo was certainly known for those qualities!) but even in the Roman Catechism we see a focus on the encounter with Jesus Christ as the ultimate end of evangelization and catechesis:

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. (Roman Catechism, no. 10)

As we remember St. Charles Borromeo we ask for his intercession as catechists and for the strength, wisdom, patience, and love to bring those in our care to a full and lasting encounter with our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.