The Baptismal Catechumenate and Adult Faith Formation (Bosco RoundUp Part 2)


On the second day of the St. John Bosco Conference I attended a workshop by Martha Drennan on the centrality of adult faith formation in the Church’s understanding of catechesis. Martha did a great job unpacking the Church’s teaching on the importance of adult faith formation in the life of a parish — an importance that is not always appreciated by catechetical leaders or pastors!

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Martha’s presentation was a lengthy aside on the baptismal catechumenate and its implications for meeting adults at different stages of their journey of discipleship. Martha used the periods of the RCIA to explore how baptized adult Catholics may nevertheless have different needs and questions depending on how well they have been evangelized and catechized. She also pointed out those places where the Church has an opportunity to reach out to these people.

For instance, we all know Catholics who, for what ever reason, received little catechetical instruction and no longer practice the faith. However, they still appear at weddings and funerals. Here the church has an opportunity to witness to them, proclaim the Gospel, and invite them back into the regular practice of the faith through listening to them and offering healing and reconciliation.

In her presentation Martha also gave a passionate plea that parishes should “give their best” to adult faith formation. This doesn’t necessarily mean the bulk of the catechetical budget; youth programs, by their very nature, will normally require more in the way of a financial investment. But it does mean that adult faith formation should not be given short shrift. For instance, Martha challenged those present to call catechists specifically to the vocation of adult faith formation. Very few parishes consider the particular need for catechists who can speak well before an adult audience. This is too bad since there are many people who, while uncomfortable with working in youth catechesis, would be much more at home in an adult learning environment.

Does your parish give its best to adult faith formation? How can we promote good adult faith formation in the life of the Church?

Free Webinar: Using the Parish Web Site to Power Adult Faith Formation


On April 10 I will be offering a free webinar in conjunction with the Adult Faith Formation committee of the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership:

Everyone knows that they “need” a web site for their parish — but what do you do with it once you have one? How can you best use your parish web site to reach out to adults? And what does this have to do with the “New Evangelization?”

This webinar, presented by Jonathan F. Sullivan, will assist parish catechetical leaders in strengthening their web site and other online platforms as an “engine” for adult faith formation. It will demonstrate the necessity of a modern, user-friendly web site and specific strategies for creating and maintaining a strong adult faith formation presence on a parish web site.

I hope you will join us for this webinar!

What the Revised Roman Missal Proves About Adult Faith Formation

A friend of mine on Google+ made what should be an obvious point, but one which hadn’t  occurred  to me:

The Roman Missal changes was the most recent…  adult educational moment for parishes in the US since the release of the US Catechism over 8 (??) years ago. Parishes do not need to teach adults the faith so many do not make it a priority. I find this frustrating.

This hadn’t occurred to me (most likely  because  I wasn’t working in catechesis when the USCCA was released), but it is true: the changes to the language of the Mass were the first sustained and universal attempt at adult faith formation in this country for some time. While there have been other, smaller efforts here and there (the Year of Paul or Forming Faithful Consciences), nothing has reached the scope and depth of the efforts leading up to last November.

Here’s the thing: the catechesis and formation around the Roman Missal, Third Edition was, as near as I can tell, a success. Parishioners have, by and large, accepted and implemented the changes without much fuss or angst. In the  Midwestern  parishes I’ve traveled to since last November I haven’t seen or heard anyone using the old translation in an intentional act of defiance, and I haven’t seen much ink (physical or electronic) spilled reporting mass discontent about the changes. People seem to have accepted (perhaps grudgingly in some cases) the reasons given for the changes and implemented them in their parishes

So what does this prove?

That when effort and resources are put into adult faith formation — when we make it a priority and act as if it is the most important evangelizing moment — it is successful. The amount of work put into the implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition was remarkable — every publisher had their set of resources, the USCCB put out massive amounts of information in the form of essays, brochures, and videos, and dioceses put together workshops and trainings for a variety of constituencies. We laughingly predicted in our offices that we  would  receive  ten calls the first week of Advent complaining that the priest was changing the words of the Mass. In fact, we got none — my only conclusion is that it was impossible to be even a semi-regular church-goer and not know that the changes were coming.

All this hard work paid off. The implementation has been a success and, from where I stand, should be a model for large-scale formation efforts in the future. My hope is that the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis at the USCCB has done or is planning to do some sort of  postmortem  on their efforts so as to be more intentional the next time this sort of evangelizing moment presents itself. I know that I will remember the lessons learned and put them into practice.

Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / flickrCC

Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics

Theological  Underpinnings

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is the “source of inspiration for all catechesis.” (National Directory for Catechesis  no. 35D) If we take this statement seriously, then a solid understanding of the RCIA should be part of every catechetical leader’s toolbox. So just what are some of the salient characteristics of the RCIA?

From the very beginning of the RCIA text the Church affirms that the RCIA is “a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful” and that is “suited to the spiritual journey of adults.” (RCIA, no. 4,5) At the same time this process “varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place” while bearing “a markedly paschal character.” (RCIA nos. 5,8)

Although facilitated by various ministries and offices, “the initiation of adults is the responsibility of all the baptized. Therefore the community must always be fully prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ.” (RCIA, no. 9)

Practical Applications

So what are the implications for catechesis in general?

First we must keep in mind that, like initiation, catechesis is a process that unfolds over time — in fact, it lasts a lifetime! Catechesis isn’t just something that we do for children or youth. Rather, it should permeate the life of the Church. Catechesis draws us into a deeper relationship with Christ and his Church. It is never merely a question of “learning the book” (although book learning may be involved) because we can never plumb the depths of the mysteries of the faith.

This process of catechesis will also vary from person to person. Each person comes to the Church and to God with their own questions, their own longings, and their own needs. There may be common themes, but we can never assume that every adult in the parish is in need of the same formation in the faith. While this should be self-evident, the fact that many parishes run a one-size-fits-all program for adult faith formation would seem to indicate that we’ve lost site of this fact.

The Church, then, should offer opportunities for faith formation across age groups and for different types of people. But that doesn’t mean the parishes needs to be all things to all people. Rather, the pastor and catechetical leaders should have a clear understanding of the demographics of the parishioners. A parish made up primarily of elderly and retired parishioners will need a very different program of catechesis than one that has a large population of young families or large numbers of new immigrants. Understanding who is “in the pews” should be the first step before making decisions about catechesis.

Since catechesis is “the responsibility of all the baptized,”  the Church should also seek to invite members of the community to assist and lead portions of the catechetical program. This includes DREs, CREs, and youth catechists, or course, but it could also mean asking “average” Catholics to share their faith stories with others or talk about their understanding of certain doctrines and practices. Imagine, for instance, asking a nurse who works with the dying to talk about their understanding of the Paschal Mystery, or the mother of a priest to talk about her understanding of vocation.

Finally, the catechesis offered should always draw the faithful into a deeper understanding of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Paschal Mystery stands at the center of our faith; it informs our prayers, our teachings, our sacraments, our apostolates — everything! No catechesis is complete if it doesn’t touch these foundational elements of our faith.

I hope this has stimulated some thoughts on how the RCIA can inspire catechesis in our parishes. I’ll expound on some of these characteristics in future posts as we examine the four stages of the RCIA, beginning with the pre-catechumenate.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Catechesis and the RCIA: Mystagogy (March 7, 2012)
  2. Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment (February 6, 2012)
  3. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate (January 18, 2012)
  4. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate (January 4, 2012)
  5. Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics (November 22, 2011)
  6. Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction (November 14, 2011)

Catechesis: Not Just for Theology Geeks

Marc Cardaronella has written a great response to my recent post on adult faith formation. Marc gets to the heart of the problem with this passage:

I  think a lot of catechetical programming is geared toward the theology geeks and old regulars. It centers on teaching doctrines or other aspects of the faith. But to draw in a wider audience, it needs to tell  people how to solve real problems.

I’m not saying that catechesis isn’t important (except if it’s boring). I’m saying that often it’s not perceived as important by the average person in the parish. That’s because it’s  not filling a need…

People are busy. If they don’t see a real value in your class, they won’t go. It doesn’t matter if it’s free. The currency they’re spending is time. They only have so much of it, and if you’re not giving them enough value, they’re not going to spend their time on you.

Here’s one example of what we’re talking about:

Imagine you’re looking over a list of upcoming catechetical offerings and trying to decide which to attend. Which course title sounds more appealing?

  • Ending World Hunger, Poverty, and War with the Power of Faith
  • Catholic Social Doctrine

Two courses that could have the exact same content — yet the first will be better attended because it promises to address real world problems that people encounter every day. The second one? The average person in the pew doesn’t even know what “Social Doctrine” is, let alone how it will help them.

People write what they know, and unfortunately many catechetical programs are written by theology geeks (I want that on my business card!) rather than people who are really interested in how the faith can work concretely in people’s lives to address their needs and questions.

If we expect people to give up something to attend our catechetical programs — and Marc is absolutely correct that, in today’s hectic world, time is a precious currency — than we need to demonstrate how our programs will benefit them. This isn’t something we can demonstrate during their time in our programs. It has to be part of the way we market catechesis and our programs.

If we want people to come, we have to demonstrate that it will be worth their while.

Image by Druid Labs/FlickrCC

Adult Faith Formation: Moving Them Along or Meeting Them Where They Are?

One of the great things about having to drive around a diocese covering 28 counties is the amount of time for reflection and conversation it affords. As my associate director and I have been meeting with every pastor in the diocese, it’s given us a lot of time to talk and discuss the various challenges we face.

A recurring theme in our conversations is adult faith formation — specifically, the lack of participation by adults in any ongoing faith formation. We have implemented programs, of course, but they rarely hold up over time. For instance, for the past three years our diocese has been participating in Renew International’s  Why Catholic? program. After a strong start the number of individuals engaged in a small faith group has dropped off, so that our rough numbers indicate that we’ve lost half of the initial participants.

While discussing this point again last week on the way back from a parish, I wondered aloud whether the programs we promote are actually appropriate to the audience. Let me explain:

Catechetical leaders bemoan — and experts agree — that many adults are stuck in an adolescent mode of faith. This means not only that their religious education ended at around the 8th grade (although that is certainly true for many) but that, from a developmental standpoint, they have never progressed beyond James Fowler‘s “Synthetic-Conventional” stage of faith. Some may have made it to the “Individual-Reflective” stage, but a distinct minority ever progress to the “Conjunctive” or “Universalizing” stages.

My uneducated guess would be that most DREs, diocesan catechetical leaders, and catechetical writers have made it to at least the “Individual-Reflective” stage, if not the “Conjunctive” stage; these positions usually require an advanced degree, the pursuit of which leads people to think about their faith in new and deeper ways.

Yet, as I’ve read through and participated in various adult faith formation programs, many seem to assume that this is where the participants are as well, or least that the program will move them there. But should moving people along the developmental continuum be the goal of individual catechetical and formation programs? Or, acknowledging the reality that most are still at the “Synthetic-Conventional” level, should most programs seek to meet people there?

This was certainly a complaint we heard about Why Catholic? — people assumed that it would be more educational and less formational, more content and less faith sharing. Which is not to say that Why Catholic? is a bad program.  But if most adults aren’t prepared for more advanced levels of formation — if most are still stuck in that “school” mindset — should we meet them there and trust that, over time, they will come to the higher levels of faith?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but it is something I’ll be keeping an eye on as we complete Why Catholic? next year and further explore adult faith formation in our diocese.