BY CARDINAL TIMOTHY M. DOLAN
My last column covered the opening of the year for our Catholic schools, which was healthy, safe, and encouraging, to no one’s surprise, since we did likewise a year ago. Back then it was a big surprise, since we were the only ones to open up successfully!
When we consider the Church’s energy in education, though, while we highlight our Catholic schools—“the envy of the world,” as the Holy Father remarked—we also promote our vast religious education and youth ministry initiatives. See, sadly, only 25% of our Catholic children are enrolled in our schools. (We’re proud to welcome many non-Catholics as well). So, we have a duty, in allegiance to the final marching order of Jesus, “Go, teach all the nations!”, to provide quality, consistent formation in the faith to our treasured children and youth not in a parochial school.
(By the way, since the majority of our Catholic kids are in the government schools, we heartily support them, not only because our children and teachers are there aplenty, but because their success is an essential component of the common good. The canard that we are in opposition to the public schools is just that: false and malicious.)
This archdiocese has a good reputation for what we call “religious education,” as tens of thousands of our children loyally attend weekly classes in the faith at their parish, from mid-September through early June, taught by generous catechists, many of whom have labored at it joyfully for decades. As you might imagine, these sessions are especially significant as our kids prepare for the sacraments of Penance, first Holy Communion, and Confirmation.
As committed as we remain to these religious education classes, we realize they need continual renewal and reform—as do our schools, by the way.
Here are some areas on which we are laboring:
One, while only one-fourth of our children are in Catholic schools, and perhaps half of the others in our weekly classes, a good chunk are in neither! Thus, a good number of baptized Catholic children receive no formal religious formation! That should bother us!
Two, our devoted catechists realize they need training as well. Thus we strive to see that all our teachers—in either daily or weekly religious formation—are credentialed. We wouldn’t let a teacher instruct our children in math if he or she were unlettered. The same is true for religion. This is especially necessary for those brave souls who direct and coordinate our religious education and youth ministry programs.
Three, we realize that, as they promised when their babies were christened, our parents are the primary teachers of the faith. Mother Church has always seen the family as the first and best teachers of the faith. Our best initiatives of religious formation always depend upon and involve the parents.
Four, the most effective experience of learning religion is Sunday Mass. If the family is not consistent in Sunday worship, woe are the efforts of our catechists and teachers!
Five, as much as we rightly depend upon our daily and weekly religion classes, these are not the only versions of training in the faith. Many of our parishes are experimenting in novel, creative, innovative ways to hand on our beliefs. Alleluia! It all helps! I think gratefully of the highly acclaimed Camp Veritas sessions each summer, or Vacation Bible Schools sponsored by some of our parishes. If our kids go to summer soccer camps, couldn’t we also enroll them in these excellent programs? We think of retreats, pilgrimages, service programs that provide our students with the tools of a sustaining spiritual life. Keep dreaming.
Six, one thing we learned from the Covid lockdown was the genius of technology. Our best catechists tell us they can provide lessons virtually, that the youth welcome such initiatives, and show high interest. Not that technology should replace in-person learning, but it can enhance it.
Finally, our formation in the faith can never stop, and certainly goes beyond the Sacrament of Confirmation. Participating in a parish youth ministry should be a norm.
Our own archdiocesan Department of Youth and Faith Formation is spending a year of assessment and dreaming about promising ways to enhance and improve our already functioning programs. Lend us your ears!