Formation in the Faith at Every Age

As our Jewish neighbors remind us, in so many ways, September brings a “New Year,” especially obvious as summer fades and autumn takes over, and even more dramatic as our youth return to school.
In our parishes, promising programs of religious education click in. The last words of Jesus here on earth were “Go teach!” and His Church has never stopped obeying that sacred mandate.
In my last column, I wrote of our magnificent Catholic schools— elementary, secondary, college and universities—and today I want to salute our vast array of religious education initiatives.
Let’s start where formation in the faith has to begin: with our children. Lord knows we spend tons of time, energy, and money on our kids’ schooling, plus training in everything from soccer to basketball, swimming to dancing, bands to Boy/Girl Scouts—all great, by the way.
But, to quote The Teacher, “What does it profit one if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”
Attention to the formation of the soul is the mission of our expansive religious education for our elementary school children.
Sister Joan Curtin, C.N.D., our veteran catechetical leader of the archdiocese, tells me that 350 such programs exist in our parishes (we call them “CCD,” or “religious education”), offering 50 hours of catechesis every year, taught by 9,700 devoted catechists, who themselves have taken advanced training in the faith, and who generously sacrifice their time and talent in loyally passing on the faith, planted in Baptism, nurtured by families at home, and deepened by these programs. More than 99,000 of our children benefit from these classes! To assure their quality, content, professionalism, and attractiveness must be a major priority of every parish. Experience has taught us that these crucial religion classes work best when a parish has a full-time religious education professional as a director, and when our generous teachers are themselves credentialed.
Our vast faith-formation initiatives do not end there. More and more of our parishes are investing in youth ministers for outreach to our teenagers, and I’ve just asked one of our priests, Father Joseph Espaillat, to pastor this ministry on an archdiocesan level.
We can’t forget our college students, especially when recent research concluded that one of the most reliable indicators of a lively faith as an adult is whether or not one had a positive experience of the Church while in college. That’s why we are so proud of our college campus ministry programs, bringing the Mass, sacraments, apostolic opportunities, and formation in the faith to our students on campus. In fact, just last week I had the opportunity of blessing the radiant new Cardinal Edward Egan Catholic Center at NYU, where 18,000 Catholic students study!
How about our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA)? These very weeks, close to 2,000 adults are preparing for full union with Jesus and His Church at the Easter Vigil. They benefit from solid instruction and testimony from our catechists. Their sponsors—already Catholic—or other friends and family members who participate in the RCIA to encourage the catechumens and candidates, report that they often find the lessons as enlightening as do the non-Catholics! Great!
Yet formation in the faith never stops, even as adults. Our pastors tell us that our adults admit they need much more comprehension of the faith, and that the Sunday homily is not enough. I’ve asked Father Brian McWeeney to quarterback adult faith formation in the archdiocese, and he has some promising offerings for the upcoming Year of Faith (October 11, 2012 – November 24, 2013).
I’m so happy when I hear people I meet tell me of the opportunities for ongoing faith development in their parishes. It might be a Bible study group; maybe just gathering to view the renowned Catholicism series of Father Robert Barron; others tell me of the Christ Renews His Parish program, or even study groups on the Catechism of the Catholic Church; I heard of one of our parishes offering a treatment of contemporary moral issues; then, of course, we have our acclaimed Institute for Religious Studies (IRS) sponsored by the archdiocese.
And we enthusiastically welcome many promising new religious education initiatives! I include our FOCUS missionaries, committed Catholic college alumni who serve as Catholic evangelists on our campuses; GenLife young adults, who live and pray in community, and devote a year or more of their lives to catechizing our high school youth on the sacredness of life and the beauty of chaste love; and Camp Veritas, an uplifting summer camp grounded in fun and faith. It’s so clear that more and more of our lay faithful are taking seriously the duty of their Baptism and Confirmation to teach the faith.
We call the Church Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”), and thank God that she sure is here in the archdiocese.