Notes: Forming Disciples in the Digital Age

Last Thursday I had the joy of gathering with over 100 faith formation leaders and diocesan staff in the Diocese of Joliet. My presentation focused on the characteristics of the emerging digital culture and the promise and challenges it holds for the work of the Church in the 21st century.

The participants asked great questions and shared their own stories and ideas for how the Church can be both hyperlinked and human!

Slides

Notes

On “Average” Catechesis

The latest episode of 99% Invisible (an incredible podcast about design and architecture) focuses on the notion of designing for the “average” person, focusing on how the U.S. military’s philosophy of crafting uniforms and equipment has evolved over the decades:

In his research measuring thousands of airmen on a set of ten critical physical dimensions, [Gilbert S.] Daniels realized that none of the pilots he measured was average on all ten dimensions. Not a single one. When he looked at just three dimensions, less than five percent were average. Daniels realized that by designing something for an average pilot, it was literally designed to fit nobody.

The result was an increased risk of injuries and fatal accidents, especially for Air Force pilots who literally didn’t fit in cockpits designed for the “average” pilot.

Today, we take for granted that equipment should fit a wide range of body sizes rather than being standardized around the “average person.” From this understanding has come the science of ergonomics: the study of how to match people’s physical capacity to the needs of the job.

Unfortunately our evangelization and catechesis is, in a lot of ways, still stuck in “average” thinking. Many parish programs are designed to attract as wide an audience as possible — that is, to be “one size fits all.” A good example is taking the RCIA and inviting any interested Catholic adult to participate. What should be a highly specialized process for those still seeking faith in Christ must now be adapted to fit the needs of a wide range of the baptized, resulting in a program designed for no one in particular.

What would a parish catechetical program designed outside the average look like? I believe it would

  • Center on more focused topical and needs-based formation, rather than “big box” overviews of the faith
  • Include input from persons with disabilities, ethnic and racial groups, and the poor
  • Seek to match people’s spiritual capacity with a range of formational option

There is no “average” spirituality or faith. The saints testify to the glorious diversity of individual responses to Christ invitation to “take up your Cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) The faithful in our parishes should be formed for that same diversity of holiness, even as we are united in the one Body of Christ.

Apprenticeship Activities Outside the Parish

Last week I wrote about viewing Christian apprenticeship as something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish. So what would non-parish based Christian apprenticeship look like? Broadly speaking there are few set characteristics. It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time. It may be sponsored by a religious community, or it may be a work of the lay apostolate.

What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith. By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

The following list is by no means exhaustive, but does reflect some of the activities I have seen build Christian fellowship and discipleship. in such a way as to be true apprenticeship:

  1. Rosary Potlucks: I first encountered these gatherings in a homeschooling community our family participated in some years back. The idea was simple: once a month families would gather at a home on a Sunday evening for a shared meal, fellowship, and the praying of the Rosary. The participants varied from month to month, with people coming and going as their schedules permitted, but the practice of hospitality and common prayer was impressive.
  2. Pilgrimages: It’s a shame that so many Catholics assume a pilgrimage has to involve a trip to Europe or the Holy Land (making them prohibitively expensive or difficult for many). There are a variety of opportunities for local pilgrimages to shrines, historical religious landmarks, and beautiful basilicas that are just a day trip away. Especially during the Year of Mercy, a special trip to the diocesan Holy Door with a group of friends or fellow parishioners would be a great way to grow together in faith.
  3. Small Faith Communities: Admittedly, as an introvert, I tend to have a hard time in small faith sharing groups (as I’m sure the Why Catholic? group I led a while back can attest!). But having a committed group of people coming together as part of a book club, parish-based program, or sharing based on the Sunday readings is an excellent example of Christian apprenticeship in action. By sharing their own joys and struggles as a disciples, the members support each other and build up the Body of Christ.
  4. Service Groups and Activities: The Works of Mercy and other apostolic activities are a vital part of Christian apprenticeship (cf Rite of Christian Initiation no. 75). Catholic Worker houses, crisis pregnancy centers, volunteer organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and local food pantries can serve as places both where the faithful come together to practice solidarity with and service to the poor and neglected, but also where they can be inspired by the faith and example of those they serve. My own encounters with Shalom House in Kansas City when I was young impressed on me just how vibrant these types of communities can be.

What types of apprenticeship activities outside the parish have you experienced?

Christian Apprenticeship Beyond the Parish

At the recent Notre Dame Center for Liturgy symposium on “Liturgy and the New Evangelization”, Dr. James Pauley of Franciscan University of Steubenville gave a talk on the importance of apprenticeship in the Christian life for evangelization in the 21st century. Dr. Pauley took as his starting point this passage from Vatican II’s Decree on Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes):

The catechumenate is not a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts, but a training period in the whole Christian life, and an apprenticeship duty drawn out, during which disciples are joined to Christ their Teacher. (no. 14)

Using that image of apprenticeship — and his own experience learning from a friend how to write an icon — he went on to expound on how apprenticeship and accompaniment (to use a favored phrase of Pope Francis) can be applied to a variety of catechetical settings.

While Dr. Pauley’s talked centered on apprenticeship in a parish context, I was left with a nagging question:

Are we putting too much emphasis on the parish as the locus of Christian living?

As I see it there are two good reasons for thinking of Christian apprenticeship as more than something that happens in the parish.

First, if accompaniment is an intrinsic element of evangelization and catechesis, we have to recognize that the burden cannot be born solely — or even primarily — by pastors and lay pastoral ministers. There are only so many hours in a day, and unless a parish consists of only a few hundred individuals (admittedly a reality in many rural communities) then pastors and their staffs cannot accompany every parishioner while at the same time preparing liturgies, directing formation programs, practicing with choirs, and engaging in other duties of their particular ministries.

Secondly, the Christian community is larger than the parish. At the most subsidiary level, the family is the smallest unit of Christian community. Indeed, in recent years we have come to recognize more and more how the family is a “domestic church,” mirroring and containing elements of the Church universal. Beyond the family, the Christian community includes the many apostolates, parachurch organizations, Catholic universities and college ministries, and informal fellowship gatherings of the faithful.

How might our conception of apprenticeship change if we took all these myriad forms of the Church into account? What tools and mindsets would parish leaders need to cultivate see see apprenticeship flourish in our communities? And what steps could ordinary believers take to make Christian apprenticeship a part of our daily lives?

In the next couple weeks I’ll expand on these questions in additional blog posts; please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Joyce Donahue and Liturgical Catechesis

Yesterday I hosted a wonderful conversation with Joyce Donahue. This past summer Joyce wrote an 8-part blog series on “Forming Children and Youth for the Mass”; in our conversation we talked about liturgical catechesis, and how to help young Catholics embrace the liturgy, helping families participate more fully in the liturgy, and more:

In our conversation we referenced the following resources:

I’m hoping to host more conversations like this in the future; let me know if you have a topic or guest you’d like to see featured!

Hangout with the Liturgical Catechist

Next Tuesday, at 12 noon (Central Time) I will be streaming a live conversation with Joyce Donahue (Diocese of Joliet) about her recent 8-part blog series on forming children and youth for the liturgy:

You can watch live on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-iH_wR0-L4, or by visiting this page.

We will discuss her blog series, liturgical catechesis in general, and how to make your catechetical session more liturgical. We’ll also take your questions during the conversation — we hope you’ll join us live!

After Obergefell v. Hodges: Now What?

This morning the Supreme Court ruled, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the state must recognize marriages between persons of the same sex.

When someone told me the news they were surprised at my rather blasé response and questioned why I wasn’t angry or bitter.

The truth is that anyone surprised by this ruling is completely out of touch with the prevailing cultural and intellectual currents in American society. The triumph of the personal will over any other competing interests has been a fait accompli for some time. It is the basis for the rampant materialism and shallow spirituality manifested in everything from the collapse of the real estate market to the popularity of Oprah Winfrey.

Indeed, I find it impossible to be mad at the justices who ruled in favor of redefining marriage in the same way I can’t be mad at a fish for refusing to leap from the sea and take flight. They did not possess the means of arriving at a correct decision and it would be unjust to expect their ruling to conform to the natural law and God’s revelation when their underlying assumptions and premises are rooted in neither.

If I’m going to be angry with anyone it is with a Church that for too long allowed the ambient culture to shoulder the burden of forming its members. We were all too happy to outsource the work of building up culture and people when the culture agreed with us. Now that the culture has turned against us we are reaping the rewards of that transaction.

What we have discovered it that, for too long, the Church allowed its evangelization muscles to go unexercised, seemingly content that, even if the culture wasn’t forming disciples of Jesus Christ, it at least passed on a cultural Christianity that kept butts in our pews.

Now, for those of us involved in catechesis and evangelization, our task is to shake off the dust and begin to exercise those muscles again — to take up the call to “make disciples of all nations” without relying on the culture surrounding us. This will be a long, arduous process — think of it as physical therapy for the Church. It may require something approaching Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. But we will need to start with baby steps and small, seemingly insignificant victories that won’t make a dent in the culture but will help us make the slow, incremental progress needed to return to true health. Our losses against the culture will grow worse before they get better. I don’t expect to see the tide turn in my lifetime.

One sign of hope, however, are the wonderful men and women helping the Church to begin exercising these muscles — people like Fr. Robert BarronSherry Weddell, Tom Quinlan, Elizabeth Scalia, and Greg Willits (to say nothing of the statements of recent popes). The work has already begun — and thank God for the prophetic call of those who saw the need to begin working our evangelization muscles before now!

But the road ahead is long and narrow. Through prayer, kerygmatic formation, and a careful reading of the signs around us we can rebuild what we have lost. The gift we make to future generations will be in our commitment to pass on to them the tools of evangelization that we ourselves did not inherit.

O God, who in the power of the Holy Spirit
have sent your Word to announce good news to the poor,
grant that, with eyes fixed upon him,
we may ever live in sincere charity,
made heralds and witnesses of his Gospel in all the world.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

(from the Mass for the New Evangelization)

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

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.