Improving Parish Marriage Prep – More Highlights from Notre Dame

Last week I shared some highlights from the general sessions of the 2015 Notre Dame Center for Liturgy summer symposium on “Liturgy and Vocation.”

The afternoon sessions I attended were led by Josh and Stacey Noem and dealt with marriage prep in a parish setting. The Noems did an outstanding job laying out the theological and pastoral contours of an effective, evangelizing marriage prep process:

I’m looking forward to helping the parishes in our diocese deepen their commitment to a welcoming, evangelizing marriage formation process. Big thanks to Stacey and Josh Noem — and the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy — for the great conversation they facilitated at the symposium!

Book Studies for Catechists

I’m a big believer in reading as a vital component of personal and professional development. This is especially true for catechists and catechetical leaders — reading, sharing, and discussing good books is a great way to form ourselves as disciples and disciple-makers.

Recently my office compiled a list of books that would be appropriate for group study by catechists and Catholic school teachers:

(We also correlated the books to our diocesan Catechist Formation Process.)

My hope is that our parishes and schools will organize book studies for their catechists as a path for continued formation.

Have you ever participated in a catechetical book study? Are there any books you would add to our list?

An Easter Reflection for Catechists

As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ in this Easter season, it is a good time to reflect on the meaning of the Paschal Mystery in our lives and for our ministry. The Church proclaims that

In the sacraments of Christian initiation we are freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. We receive the Spirit of filial adoption and are part of the entire people of God in the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection. (Christian Initiation, General Introduction, no. 1)

As catechists this is not only true of us personally, but it is also the basis of how we form those in our charge. All catechesis finds its root, its hope, its end in the Paschal Mystery, because it is through that mystery that God’s promises to his people are completed:

If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11)

In the RCIA, Catholic schools, religious education programs, and adult faith formation sessions, the Paschal Mystery should have pride of place and be a constant touchstone for our teaching and formation. As catechists it is our privilege to lead people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship finds its culmination in Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, because these sacraments unite us in an unchangeable way with the life of Christ.

My prayer for you in this blessed season is that your life and ministry will be increasingly touched by a radical encounter with Christ and his Pascal Mystery. Have a happy and blessed Easter season!

What our Students Should Know: Religion Curriculum Standards in our Diocese

This week my office is rolling out our diocese’s first set of PreK-8th grade religion curriculum standards:

These standards were developed over nearly five years with a committee composed of both parish and Catholic school representatives. We used as our basis standards from the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Orlando, as well as materials from the USCCB.

Of course, a set of standards is only effective if they are implemented — and I am keenly aware that this is no small task! I’m anticipating a five-year implementation period for these standards, beginning with a study and review period for teachers, catechists, and catechetical leaders; an alignment review to document how the standards line up with the catechetical textbooks in use in our diocese; and lots of encouraging, reassuring, and question-answering on the part of our office!

We will also need to review the standards with an eye for how parish formation programs will implement them, given the disparity in contact hours between Catholic schools and parish programs. We will try to make good recommendations for what standards parishes should focus on each year.

Please pray for this process — for our office as we seek to set these standards into motion, and for our catechists as they adopt these standards in their parishes and schools.

Three Things I Learned from Russell Peterson

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My friend and catechetical colleague, Russell Peterson, passed away last Friday night after a sudden and brief illness.

Russell was a man of great faith, warm hospitality, and incisive humor. He was also one of the first diocesan catechetical leaders I met after joining the curia staff at the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. Russell worked to the south in the Diocese of Belleville and was a regular fixture at meetings of the diocesan catechetical directors of the Province of Chicago. His insight and friendship were always appreciated by those of us who worked in other Illinois dioceses.

Over the years that I knew him, Russell mentored me in catechetical leadership and helped introduce me to other leaders in catechesis across the country. He also imparted a number of lessons — both explicitly and implicitly — that have helped to shape my own approach to catechesis:

  1. Focus on Jesus and the rest will follow. If there is one quote that I will always remember from Russell, it is this: “I don’t generally trust anyone who talks about the Church more than they talk about Jesus.” Russell’s point was not to downplay the importance of the Body of Christ — rather, it was that our focus should be on Jesus and helping others to deepen their relationship with him. Russell had little patience for ecclesiastical gossip (in that he was a big fan of Pope Francis’!), a habit I admit to indulging in from time to time. Russell always challenged me to keep my focus on Jesus Christ in my life and in my ministry.
  2. Catechists make room for all of God’s people. Russell had very definite opinions about faith, spirituality, and the state of the Church. Yet I was always amazed at his ability to reach out to all the members of the Church and make sure they were included in his ministry, whether he agreed with them or not. Because he loved people Russell found it easy to move among various “types” of Catholics, which made him a very effective catechetical leader.
  3. Sometimes ministry requires savvy politics. At the 2008 NCCL conference Russell was part of a slate elected as board officers. After the election I made the observation that, at all the evening functions I attended during the conference, at least one member of that slate was also there greeting and talking with people. Russell, with a twinkle in his eye, replied “Funny how that worked out, isn’t it?” Russell was not above cajoling and compromising, recognizing that “the art of the possible” is also a necessary part of collaborative ministry in a fallen world.

I am deeply saddened that I will no longer be able to look for my friend at regional and national catechetical gatherings, and I pray that one day I will get to sit across the table from him and enjoy his presence at the heavenly banquet.

Eternal rest grant unto Russell, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

I Don’t Want the Best

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Last year our diocesan department hosted a year-long discipleship program at a parish. At the introductory session the parish offered the use of a new LCD television mounted in the gathering space where we were presenting. It was obvious that the parish was very proud of the TV and wanted to make good use of it.

After that first session, our working group vowed never to use it again.

What we quickly discovered during that first session was that the LCD was inadequate to our needs — not because of the picture quality or a technological problem, but because we had grossly underestimated the number of people who would show up! The TV was too small for people in the back to see, mounted in such a way that only those sitting directly in front of it could get a clear view of the screen, and could not be moved to accommodate the entire group. In subsequent gatherings we brought our own portable projector.

My purpose here is not to put down the parish for purchasing the LCD television — for most of their needs it is no doubt perfect! But it is to point out that the “latest-and-greatest” isn’t necessarily the best choice for our ministries. Gains in one area (for instance, a sharper image on an LCD screen) sometimes mask drawbacks in other areas (screen size and usable viewing angles) that can limit the actual use. In our case, an older LCD projector turned out to offer us greater flexibility, which allowed us to respond in a more nimble way to actually meet our changing needs for this program. (Imagine if the number of attendees had exceeded the size of the room where the LCD TV was mounted — we would have had no way to display our presentation!)

This is true not just for technology, but also for catechetical programs.

It’s easy to be distracted by the new shiny and buy into a program, technology, or idea without considering how it fits into our established use patterns or weighing the pros and cons in real-life ministry settings. As catechetical leaders who are called to steward the resources we have been entrusted with, it behooves us to do our due diligence before investing time and money into something. For me, this includes asking my colleagues for their input since they bring experience and perspectives very different from mine. They often see things that I am blinded to — this is one reason having a good braintrust is so valuable!

Again, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t explore new possibilities or dismiss new programs and ideas. But it is to say that we are called to exercise the discretion called for by Christ: “Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:52)

Have you ever been suckered in by the new shiny? How can we exercise good discernment in bringing out the new and the old in our ministries?

Forming Intentional Disciples in the Parish

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A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to record a video session for the USCCB’s Diocesan Educational and Catechetical Leadership Institute. The video, “Forming Intentional Disciples in the Parish,” is now available.

The session includes a few handouts to download; you can access the slides and discussion questions as a PDF file. The other handouts are available in the video session.

Thank you to Michael Steier and the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis for the invitation to record this video session. It was a lot of fun to produce!

United In Your Praise: Non-Catholic Teachers and Catholic Schools

Last weekend at our Diocesan Adult Enrichment Conference I gave a breakout session on our diocese’s expectations of Christians from other traditions who teach in our Catholic schools. This is a question we often get from principals and teachers; I was very pleased to have the opportunity to address the issue and thankful for the warm reception of what could be a controversial subject.

This short video offers an overview of what I told those who attended the breakout session:

Analyzing Post-Conciliar Catechesis: A Blindspot?

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A few weeks ago I read a defense of catechesis in the 1970s by Cathleen Kaveny on Commonweal’s blog. Ms. Kaveny was confirmed in 1978 (coincidentally, the year I was born) and gives a heartfelt apologia against those (including Fr. Robert Barron) who criticize post-conciliar religious education:

For many years, I was sympathetic to that analysis. But I am increasingly uneasy with the wholesale dismissal of the catechetical programs of my youth. First, the stock caricature of the period is unfair. The programs had far more content then they are given credit for. Second, the criticism only reinforces polarization within the church. Scapegoating 1970s religious-education programs fosters the illusion that the church’s problems can be fixed by going backward, by inoculating children with something like the simple question-and-answer method and content of the Baltimore Catechism. But the root problem facing the church, then and now, is not catechesis.

Her analysis continues with an appeal that I am sympathetic to:

My generation was not lost because of religious miseducation. It was lost because of the changes in the culture. No CCD program, no matter how rich and nuanced, could overcome the challenges created by the simultaneous breakdown and reconfiguration of the institutional Catholic world and the American social world.

This is a piece that is often missing when examining religious education in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The Church was completely unprepared for the radical and rapid shifts in society — an irony given Vatican II’s roots in an aggiornamento that envisioned dialogue with the surrounding culture. Those who would criticize the catechists of the period would do well to keep that historical and cultural situation in mind.

Yet for all her pleas Ms. Kaveny’s analysis rings incomplete due to a glaring omission: nowhere does she address evangelization. Indeed, the word is conspicuously absent from her post. She, like many of her generation, seems to take for granted that the young people in parish formation programs and Catholic schools were familiar with the person of Jesus Christ — not just in stories or catechetical texts, but through a deep and abiding relationship with him.

But, as Sherry Weddell reminds us in Forming Intentional Disciples, this is not something we can take for granted. Part of those sweeping cultural changes alluded to by Ms. Kaveny is a wholesale forgetting of the story of Christianity: the reality of sin, the need for God’s saving help, and the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

If Christians are to ensure that there is a next generation of believers, they will need to find ways to tell the stories of the faith, as well as their own individual stories of conversion. That is, they will need to focus on the work of evangelization in witness and proclamation, for without evangelization catechesis cannot be fruitful, regardless of the cultural context in which we find ourselves.

Image from The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969)

Evangelizing and Catechizing the ‘Net’ Generation

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Today I’m offering my talk “Evangelizing and Catechizing the ‘Net’ Generation” at the Indiana Conference for Catechetical Leadership. Below are my slides, notes, and resources for the session. Thanks to everyone who attended!

Slides

Notes

Web Resources

Books

Videos

Tools