When most parents think back on their last religious-education class, they’re looking back a couple of decades. But for dozens of parents at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and St. Leo parishes in Rochester, New Hampshire, their most recent religious-education class was just a week or two ago.
Under the leadership of Sister Mary Rose Reddy, 70 families are participating in a pilot program for A Family of Faith, a new project from Sophia Institute Press.
“I was hired specifically to transition the parish from child-centered catechesis to family faith formation,” explained Sister Mary Rose, the director of family faith formation, to the Register.
“The goal is to bring the parents into a deeper relationship with the Lord, so they in turn will be able to do that for their children,” said Sister Mary Rose.
Structure and Flexibility
Sophia Institute Press President Charlie McKinney has experienced the power of family faith formation.
The Sophia Institute Press project is based on a program that was developed at and run in his own parish for 20 years.
Parents of four, McKinney and his wife have gone through the program for about five years.
McKinney told the Register that the program helped him share the faith with his children in a structured way.
With the help of a grant to get the half-million-dollar project rolling, McKinney purchased the rights from the program creator, hired designers, writers and editors, and began development of A Family of Faith, a four-year family-formation program.
Nine pilot parishes have gone through year one of the program, which is now available to the public; year two will be available in May 2017, with years three and four released next year.
Each year, the program focuses on one pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (year one, for instance, focuses on the Creed) through nine lessons, one for each month September through May.
The suggested framework includes one monthly parent meeting, where parents are catechized on the month’s lesson so they can feel confident in teaching their children; one monthly “community meeting,” where participating families gather together for prayer and activities; and two lessons that parents teach their children at home. (Parents can purchase books for their family and take advantage of the curriculum even if their parish has not adopted the program.)
It’s a radical departure from the weekly child-based religious-education classes that have been prevalent for decades.
But at St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in Brewster, New York, the response has been very enthusiastic, according to Suzanne Walsh, the parish’s family-formation coordinator.
“Last year we had 57 families who participated in the initial family faith-formation program. [This year] it’s grown by 300%,” she reported.
“We’ve attracted people not participating in their faith, people who had drifted off to other denominations. To me, it’s an affirmation that we’re doing the right thing.”
Fabric of Family Life
A Family of Faith does require a time and energy commitment of parents, but the payoffs make the investment well worth it.
“It seems to me like the families are more involved. I think they have a greater sense of ownership, of being members of the parish, than previously,” said Sister Mary Rose.
That greater sense of community was a benefit McKinney experienced firsthand.
“It’s nice being able to be around other families with similar-aged children, to share conversations with and really engage with them about the faith,” he said. “We get a lot out of that. We get a lot out of the family activities, the parents’ guide, and the kids love the children’s activities. It was just clear that this is working better than a CCD approach to religious education.”
On a practical level, the program makes up for increased parental involvement with increased flexibility. Lessons can take place whenever it works best for the family schedule, as part of the fabric of family life. St. Lawrence O’Toole offers handouts with specific suggestions to help in this regard, said Walsh. For instance, a bedtime story could be about a saint.
The parents’ guide gives parents the knowledge they might be concerned that they lack, including essays on the month’s topic. The children’s activity book, on the other hand, includes a spectrum of activities to appeal to children from kindergarten through eighth grade. So while a first grader might be thrilled with a coloring page, a sixth grader has the option of skipping that activity and doing one that’s more age-appropriate.
The goal is to empower parents to bring faith into the heart of their home — and to ensure that their children will keep it there.
Said Sister Mary Rose, “When we address the need in the parents’ hearts to know the Lord and receive the joy of the Gospel, then the children will learn the faith.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.
Parishes and Catholic schools interested in adopting the program can schedule a live demo.