What No One Considers About Parish Evangelization (Guest post by Marc Cardaronella)

Marc Cardaronella is the catechetical blogger I wish I could be. His writing is always relevant, snappy, and finely crafted. In a word, it’s must-read material for catechists and I’m thankful for his guest post today.

On the Tuesday after the Easter Vigil, our whole RCIA entourage gets together for a kind of after party to celebrate and discuss what happened at the Vigil.

chicken-wingsWe get a lot of food (Buffalo Wild Wings are the main course) and desserts and reflect on the year. I ask the neophytes to tell me their impressions of the process, particularly how they felt about it before they came, then during, and now after.

I was really struck this year by a comment from one young lady who had no Christian background at all before she came to the RCIA.

She said:

“I didn’t really want to come. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through with this. But you said to just come and check it out. No pressure. If I didn’t like, I could quit anytime. So, I came to the first meeting and everyone was so friendly and inviting. There was lots of great food and it was so welcoming, I felt like it was family. Then I started learning and I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to miss a single week. Now I’m so glad I did this. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

I loved hearing this because that is exactly the effect I hope for at that first meeting. The whole RCIA team is primed to be as welcoming as possible in order to make this happen.

I was at a meeting with parish leaders the other night talking about evangelization. Whenever I have conversations like this, it always turns to having the great speakers, fancy venues, and great music. Large group stuff.

That’s good if you can afford it. However, I’d say probably 90% of evangelization is hospitality. At least in the beginning.

Hospitality communicates to others that they have value, that they are welcome. Before you can deliver the saving message of Jesus Christ, you have to establish a connection on a human level. It’s like the human connection becomes, in a sense, a bridge or a conduit on which the divine message can travel.

Hospitality builds relationship and then, from relationship you can build trust. Trust gives you the right to be heard. Once you have that, you can deliver your message and know your audience is listening.

If you don’t do the crucial groundwork of earning the right to be heard, you are just a talking head, no different from any other salesman trying to get them to buy something they don’t want. Earn that trust, and you automatically speak from a place of regard. That’s why hospitality is so critical in evangelization.

There’s many different ways hospitality can play a vital role in parish evangelization. Consider the often beleaguered parish secretary. She’s the first person people have contact with at the parish. She’s the first to answer all the phone calls, the first to greet all the visitors at the parish office, and probably the one to manage all the pastor’s appointments.

Arguably, the parish secretary is the most important person in the parish with regard to evangelization. How often does careful thought go into who is hired for this position? More often than not, she’s just the person who was available…and she’s grumpy.

welcomeAnd what about the parish office itself? Is it inviting? Is it fashionably decorated and furnished with comfortable chairs? Does it say, “We have a comfortable place for you because we value you being here.”

Hospitality is probably 90% of initial evangelization, but it’s not everything. You have to proclaim the gospel too. Once people are open to your message, you have the opportunity to tell them why it’s awesome to be in union with Jesus Christ in and through the Catholic Church.

I think if parishes became more intentional about hospitality, it would pay huge dividends in drawing new members to the Church, and making existing parishioners feel more a part of the parish family.

What are your thoughts about hospitality and evangelization? Do you have a story where it really worked? Or, maybe a story where a lack of hospitality went really wrong? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Marc Cardaronella is a parish catechetical leader in Champaign, Illinois, with a passion for sharing the faith with others. He is also a father, writer, and a blue belt in Gracie Jiu-jitsu. He blogs about catechesis and evangelization at www.MarcCardaronella.com.

Meeting Youth “Where They’re At” (Guest post by Margaret Felice)

Margaret Felice is the feistiest Bostonian religion teacher/opera singer I know. Granted, I haven’t met any others, but I can’t imagine any would top her. Her reflections on faith combine theological reflection with poetic vision and always challenge me to think deeply about my relationship with God. I’m grateful for this guest post she has offered.

BostonMuseumNot long ago I had the pleasure of accompanying fifteen eighth-grade boys to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. As a religion teacher in the middle school division of a Jesuit high school, I spend a lot of my days talking about sports and Pop-Tart flavors, but I also spend my days exploring faith and the world alongside my students.

On this particular field trip day my advisory group really shone. I swelled up with pride when they explained to the docent some of the episcopal imagery in a portrait of an early American bishop. I knew that would be hard to top, but they made me prouder when we got to modern art. With each painting – some of shapes, some bright swaths of color – they explained not only what they saw, but what they thought it might mean.

There was one dark, apocalyptic scene, deep reds and oranges with black. There was a mound-like shape in the middle of the scene: was it a cave or a mountain? Was it a black hole? The kids sensed the terror of the landscape. One described a big oven, and the words “frightening” and “end of the world” were thrown around.

Then one student announced “I see a loaf of bread.” For a split second, I did too. You see, we were way overdue on lunch. And who’s to say that that painter hadn’t been hungry too?

There is a lot of pressure in religious education to “meet students ‘where they are at'”, whatever that means. I have seen enough well-intentioned catechists rhapsodize ineffectively about the joys of Marian devotion to know that there is some truth to that idea. We have to know our audiences, but I worry that we often slip into “lowest common denominator” catechesis and formation, assuming that students know nothing and have no interpretive skills.

On the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birthday I wrote his famous “Lord God, I have no idea where I am going” prayer on the whiteboard in the classroom. I asked my group of 12-year-olds to read it over and write on a sheet of looseleaf what they thought the author was trying to get across. A few minutes later when we shared what we had written, I heard a series of heartfelt prayers that clearly represented what was going on in the student’s lives as much as what they read into Merton’s reflection. Who would have guessed that a 20th-century Trappist monk would be ‘where they were at’?

There is no way of knowing where students are at. I try to keep up on March Madness and Gatorade flavors in order to join their daily conversations, but most of the time where they are at encompasses much more than the trends that creep into their every day chatter. Where they are at may be their mother’s illness, or parents’ divorce, or tests for a learning disability. Young people have interior lives. Any effort to “meet them where they are at” needs to take that into account.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t “make the Gospel relevant” – another big temptation with youth work. I can’t improve on the Gospel, which has been making itself relevant throughout history, in times much more challenging than ours. What I learned with the Merton prayer, and with the MFA painting, was that if I can expose my students to something inspired, they will see what they need to see.

So I’m done with the isolationist mentality that insists making the Gospel “cool” is the only way to work with youth. To do that is to sell it – and ourselves – short. The good news of Jesus Christ is transformative and sublime, not cool. When we assume the worst of those to whom we minister, of any age, we deny the Gospel’s transformative power. We do this by assuming only our manipulation or dilution of the message will hold anyone’s interest, and we do this by believing that to hold someone’s interest is the same as encouraging their spiritual development.

I don’t advocate dropping the Bible on a teenager’s desk and walking away. Those of us charged with forming young people – parents and teachers alike – can guide them toward a certain passage, ask the right questions, tell a related story or give historical background. We can create a time and space for silence and prayer, we can introduce them to counter-cultural role models who will inspire them (and who will hold their attention).

In the end, it is the young people themselves who will bring it all up-to-date. They are the only ones who know where they are at. They will see what they need to see if we put holiness and beauty in front of them, then get out of the way and allow them to explore it. Sometimes they will see consolation, sometimes they will see their vocation, sometimes they will see a loaf of bread. That’s fine, as long as they learn to keep looking, to see beyond “where they’re at” and be drawn into where they could be.

Margaret Felice is a religion teacher, opera singer, choral conductor and loud-laugher who blogs from Boston at felicemifa.wordpress.com.

The Catechist as Kingdom-Dweller (Guest post by Joe Paprocki)

Joe Paprocki needs no introduction.

The crowds who heard the first proclamation of the Kingdom of God by the Apostles on Pentecost reacted by thinking that the Apostles were drunk – they clearly seemed to be operating in an alternate reality. What else would explain the seemingly reckless behavior of this small band of men eagerly announcing their allegiance to a convicted criminal who was recently executed as a traitor to the Roman Empire? It was the transformation of the hearts of this small group of followers that caught the imagination of the crowds. They looked and sounded perfectly secure and fearless in the face of real and enduring danger. They exuded the one thing we all desire: security.

beer taps - photo by ricciardella | morguefileThe reason the crowds considered the Apostles inebriated was their lack of inhibition. Alcohol, of course, is known for reducing inhibitions. The Apostles, who had been in hiding for several weeks out of fear for their own lives, were now totally uninhibited in proclaiming their allegiance to Jesus Christ. It is this inhibition that is characteristic of folks who “dwell” in the Kingdom of God. As catechists, we are called to be uninhibited proclaimers of the Kingdom, showing total inhibition when it comes to…

  • putting our own needs aside in order to tend to the needs of others.
  • having a lightness of being; not flippant, but possessing the ability to brighten up a room.
  • carrying an unwavering sense of serenity, even in the midst of turmoil; being unflappable.
  • winking at the foibles and shortcomings of others instead of putting them in their place.
  • finding the energy to repay even the grumpiest of people with graciousness and civility.
  • always having the best interests of others in mind, even when we fail.
  • staying on message even under duress.
  • remaining even-keeled and reasonable in the face of conflict.
  • practicing mindfulness.

The Kingdom of God that we proclaim as catechists is a reality that is in our midst, albeit unseen. Unseen, that is, until Kingdom-dwellers exhibit uninhibited wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, reverence, and awe – the Gifts that flow abundantly from the Spirit! May we and those we teach become inebriated!

Joe Paprocki, D.Min., is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press in Chicago. He has over 25 years of experience in pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Joe is the author of numerous books on pastoral ministry and catechesis, including the best-selling The Catechist’s Toolbox and A Well-Built Faith. Joe recently received his doctor of ministry degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. Joe serves as an 8th grade catechist and blogs about the experience at Catechist’s Journey. He and his wife, Joanne, and their two grown children live in Evergreen Park, IL.

Catechesis: Beyond Information (Guest post by William O’Leary)

William O’Leary always has an interesting take on evangelization and catechiesis. I’m consistently impressed by the work he does in his parish and this guest post on transformative catechesis shows why he’s one of the next generation of catechetical leaders to keep on eye on!


A long long time ago in a land far far away (or maybe not so far away) the average catechist thought that if they could just get their students to “learn the material”(i.e. the content) they would be ready to go live their faith in the world. Yes, like I said, that was a long time ago. Today catechesis must be understood to be about helping form and transform people into mature disciples of the Lord Jesus. Each student comes to a catechetical program not as a number or as one who needs to be taught the information. It is absolutely true that they need to know what we believe, for how can one love that which she/he does not know. On the other hand, our goal in catechesis (meaning to echo, to hand on) is to draw us into greater intimacy with God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Cf. Catechesi Tradendae #5).

Many catechists find it challenging to “get through the necessary material” in the time they have in a given session (not to mention the whole year). This is a valid concern. The material, however, is at the service of drawing each person into a deeper encounter with God. Fostering a catechesis that leads students to growth, renewal and further conversion is essential if the faith is going to flourish in an individual’s life.

Below are 3 ways to help foster transformational catechetical sessions:

  1. Know your students. Not just their names, but also get to know them – their likes and hobbies. Having a rapport with your students is a significant way to open the door to your catechesis being transformational.
  2. Use your gifts to make class engaging. Your gift may be humor or getting your students to engage in skits, or storytelling to convey the material. Using your gifts to lead your students closer to Christ is essential to your success. Don’t try to be like this or that person if that is not you – be yourself and use the talents you have to share the faith.
  3. Prepare for the time you spend with your students. Taking time not only to look at the chapter you are going to be covering but also to plan on how you will share the material in an engaging manner. Also, during your preparation it’s important to pray for the Holy Spirit to be present and to speak to the hearts of your students.

Today, there is a great need to help those we catechize become more deeply transformed by Christ and the Good News of Salvation. Together, let us strive to be the instruments Christ desires us to be!

William O’Leary (CatechesisInTheThirdMillennium.wordpress.com) is the Director of Religious Formation at the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, Kansas. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville where he received degrees in theology with a specialization in catechetics.

The Call to Be Catechists and Evangelizers (Guest post by Jared Dees)

If I had to pick one word to describe Jared Dees it would be indefatigable. Besides working for Ave Maria Press, writing for multiple blogs, completing a master’s degree this past year, traveling to various conferences around the country, and taking care of his growing domestic church, he’s also written a new book called 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator. The profusion of his writing is matched only by its quality and I’m happy to host his guest post today.

One of my favorite things about Jonathan’s blog is his discussions about the relationship with catechesis and evangelization. I think he would agree that during this Year of Faith we have seen so much progress in the realization that you can’t have one without the other. We can’t do catechesis without evangelization. We can’t be catechists without being evangelizers.

phonecallThe question is, how does this affect the way we think about the call of religious educators to teach the faith? For many of us, the new reframing of our role as not only catechists but evangelizers, requires some thought about the way we think of ourselves as teachers and the way we form catechists and catechetical leaders.

The Call to Be Catechists

We have many, many good willing volunteers in our parish religious education programs in the United States and around the world. They are dedicated individuals sacrificing their evenings for class sessions as well as the time it takes to prepare each lesson. These men and women, whether they realize it or not, have been called to the classroom. God is the one reaching out to them inspiring them to be teachers and leaders.

The details of that call seem pretty simple, right? You get your textbook and a classroom assignment. You show up each week and teach a lesson. The kids learn about their faith and move on to the next grade after you’ve finished. Hopefully you’re able to make a lasting impact on them before they go.

The Call to Be Evangelists & Witnesses

Yet in today’s Church, we need something a little more from catechists. We need witnesses.

We’re in the midst of what popes are calling the “new evangelization,” which means we must not only go out to the world where Christ is unknown but evangelize people in areas of the world where Christ is already known. In particular, we must evangelize those who’ve already been catechized!

Let’s turn to the words of Blessed John Paul II:

“But in catechetical practice . . . the initial evangelization has often not taken place. A certain mnumber of children baptized in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit . . .

This means that “catechesis” must often concern itself not only with nourishing and teaching the faith, but also with arousing it unceasingly with the help of grace, with opening the heart, with converting, and with preparing total adherence to Jesus Christ on the part of those who are still on the threshold of faith.” (Catechesi Tradendae, 19)

What does this mean for the call of catechists and religion teachers? Pope Paul VI said it best:

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41)

In this age of the new evangelization, we must become witnesses more than teachers. We must train and inspire our catechists to be witnesses to the faith not just teachers of a textbook.

How does this shift in vocation play out among catechists? Consider the following:

  • Religious educators must live the faith daily by personally connecting with Christ through prayer, spiritual reading, and the virtuous life.
  • Religious educators must think of themselves as disciples first before thinking of themselves as teachers.
  • Religious educators must be willing to share their personal faith story.
  • Religious educators must be willing to share the Gospel story in compelling ways.
  • Religious educators must be open to constant conversion, following the prompting of Holy Spirit in each moment of their lives.

Most of all, as religious educators (catechists, religion teachers, catechetical leaders), we must remember that our vocation is always to love Christ and with the help of his grace, share that love with his children.

We’re never alone. We never succeed through our own efforts. We always have the help of Holy Spirit who leads us and speaks on our behalf.

Let’s go make disciples of Christ rather than students of us!

Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher, a popular website dedicated to sharing practical resources and teaching strategies for religious educators. He is the author of the new book, 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator, which guides religion teachers and catechists through thirty-one exercises and meditations to help them live out their calling to catechize and evangelize God’s children.

3 Reasons Your Teens Are Not Engaged in Your Faith Formation Program (Guest post by John Rinaldo)

John Rinaldo is one of those people that I would probably never have met if it weren’t for the internet. In fact, I often have to remind myself that we’ve never met face-to-face! But his writing on ministry and leadership have helped me to reflect on my own work as a diocesan director and made me more effective in the work of catechesis.

Imagine this.

You are in front of a large group of teenagers facilitating a session on the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. This group of teenagers are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

You are well prepared for this topic. You have a fun opening community builder that is connected to the theme, you created a dynamic, ritual prayer experience, and you are armed with multiple strategies to engage the youth including the use of a cool video clip, small group reflection questions, and a bit of teaching from you.

You are proud of the session you have created. You delve into the topic with great enthusiasm and gusto! You pour all your energy into the session.

Then, it happens.

boredYou look out at the faces staring back at you. All they do is stare. They are not engaged. They are not excited. They look like lumps on a log.

At the end of the session, you are exhausted! You planned well and you thought that for sure the teenagers would get into the topic.

Yet, for all your planning and energy, you feel like you failed. You begin to wonder if you’re any good at this. Then you start to think that you should quit.

I don’t have enough hands and fingers to count how many times I’ve felt this way! The reality is that, for all the energy you put into any session, there are times that you don’t connect with your intended audience.

There’s a reason for that. Here are 3 reasons your audience is not ready to be engaged in your faith formation program:

  1. Their parents do not engage them in faith conversations or prayer at home. Most parents rarely have a conversation around faith at home or initiate a family prayer. For many, faith is something that happens in church and church alone. Since parents are the primary influencers, the parish needs to give them tools that will help parents. Until faith is a regular part of family life, it will often be difficult to engage your audience.
  2. They are not interested in learning about the faith. This is a readiness issue. Sherry Weddell, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, suggests that learning about faith comes after two things happen in people’s lives: 1) they have developed trusting and open relationship with other members, and 2) they have had some sort of conversion where they have experienced God in their life in a real and genuine way. These two things lead people to engage in conversations and topics of faith. Growing an Engaged Church suggests, “Belonging leads to believing.” If that is the case, which I believe it is, you and I need to spend some serious time building community. The other statement I believe to be true is, “Faith seeks understanding.” A conversion experience leads to faith. Faith leads to the desire to learn more and understand.
  3. They’re tired. It’s not a surprise to you that children and teenagers are heavily scheduled, especially on a weekday. They’ve had a really long day with school, tests, sports, and they just scarfed down dinner 2 seconds before they arrived. Finding a way to bring people out of their hectic day into a more peaceful place of prayer and focus is essential if you are to successfully engage them.

Question: What changes can you make that might help people become more engaged in the faith formation sessions you develop?

John Rinaldo (RealMinistry.org) is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, chairperson of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, and one of the hosts of the Best Youth Ministry Podcast Ever… Maybe.

Guest Post: Catechist Formation: We Owe it To Them!

Joe Paprocki is the catechist’s best friend. In addition to serving as a National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press and authoring some great books, including The Catechist’s Toolbox and Practice Makes Catholic, the “grand poobah” of catechetical blogging is celebrating five years at the keyboard this month. It’s a pleasure to be part of the celebration by hosting this guest post!

5 years may not seem like a long time, but in blog years, I guess that’s ancient! Back in 2006, when I was asked to begin a blog (to accompany the release of my book The Catechist’s Toolbox), my first reaction was, “What’s a blog?” I had heard of blogs but was not at the time following any. Now, 5 years later, I have written over 1200 posts! I guess I learned what a blog is after all.

If I’ve learned anything over the past 5 years of writing Catechist’s Journey, it is that catechists are incredibly dedicated and creative but are in need of support. Over the years, I have received countless emails from catechists who find themselves struggling as they attempt to transmit the Good News to a new generation. Just recently, I received the following email from a catechist looking for help:

I am a new Catechist as of this year. I teach an 8th grade class and my biggest problem is getting the kids to pay attention and show some interest in the subject matter. About half of the 8th grade book is about Church history. My problem with just following the book is that reading bores the kids. They don’t pay attention, they talk, they pull out their phones and text when I am not looking, etc. I need help!

I make a habit of replying personally to every email such as this that I receive, offering whatever suggestions and insights I can to help them turn the corner. One might ask, “Where are their catechetical leaders and why aren’t they helping their catechists?” The fact is, many of our catechetical leaders are struggling as well. In too many parishes, pastors seeking to cut costs have let their professional catechetical leaders go in favor of volunteers or program secretaries who know how to order text books and make class lists but have little or no training in forming catechists which is a critical responsibility of the DRE. I have spent almost as much time responding to emails from novice catechetical leaders as I have novice catechists.

Suffice to say, the catechetical ministry needs all the support it can get. If my blog, Catechist’s Journey, and the various Webinars I have offered over these past 5 years have in some small way contributed to the care, nurturing, and support of catechists and catechetical ministers, I am indeed grateful. Let’s pray that the Church continues to find ways to support all those in the catechetical ministry. We owe it to them!

Joe Paprocki, D.Min., is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press in Chicago. He has over 25 years of experience in pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Joe is the author of numerous books on pastoral ministry and catechesis, including the best-selling The Catechist’s Toolbox and A Well-Built Faith. Joe recently received his doctor of ministry degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. Joe serves as an 8th grade catechist and blogs about the experience at Catechist’s Journey. He and his wife, Joanne, and their two grown children live in Evergreen Park, IL.