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

17 Insights from FDLC (in Tweet Form)

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Last week I attended the 2014 National Meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC). I’m not a liturgist (and don’t even play one on TV) but I was invited by our diocesan director for worship and the catechumenate to participate in a consultation process with the US Bishop’s Committee on Divine Worship regarding edits to the National Statues on the RCIA.

(With a new translation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults on the horizon, this is an opportune time to reevaluate the national statues in light of our pastoral experience since implementing the RCIA in America.)

In addition to the consultation process we heard from a variety of voices, most notably from the staff of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship; a report on a recent survey by CARA about the RCIA in parishes; pastoral and theological reflections by Fr. Ron Lewinski and Fr. Paul Turner; and Parish Day presentations by Jim Schellman and D. Todd Williamson. Here are some of my takeaways that I tweeted from the meeting.

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

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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.