With parents now disseminating the faith more than ever as children learn virtually during COVID, catechetical leaders from across New Jersey offered advice and self-care tips for families.    Ken Falls photo
With parents now disseminating the faith more than ever as children learn virtually during COVID, catechetical leaders from across New Jersey offered advice and self-care tips for families. Ken Falls photo
Adjusting to the physical constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a nine-month reality for parishes and their ministries, including the faith teaching that religious education programs have continued to provide in creative virtual ways.

Moreover, parents and families have assumed more of a catechetical role in their children’s faith development. Yet that, as catechetical leaders point out, is as it should be.

Desiring to share and bolster catechists’ tenacity and resources, the Archdiocese of Newark collaborated with the dioceses of Trenton, Camden, Metuchen and Paterson on a Virtual Faith Formation Conference in early November. The conference offered live and recorded keynotes and workshops in both English and Spanish, and attendees continue to have access to conference materials for 90 days.

“This is an encouraging step toward collaboration for future opportunities for the faithful in New Jersey,” said Denise Contino, director of the diocesan Department of Catechesis. “A catechist is more effective in passing on the faith when provided with opportunities for formation for their own growth in the faith.”

Catechetical departments across all five (arch)dioceses were tasked with creating a program and offering opportunities for catechist formation, Contino explained. Many expounded on the New Directory for Catechesis, which “challenges us to rethink faith formation through the lens of accompaniment and human experience,” she said.

“By working together on this initiative, we as a larger community were able to offer catechists resources and opportunities from national and local speakers,” she noted. “In addition, catechists were able to experience the sense of a larger community through the live events.”

Joni Marcinek, catechist in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, attended the conference with an aim to improve her own dedication and for a love of learning.

“I cannot give something which I do not have. Teaching the faith means I must also grow in my own faith,” she said. “If my students see my heart is on fire for God, that I believe is contagious! Sharing what God has given to me brings me joy.”

Practical Tips

Not only were catechists encouraged throughout the various talks, they were also presented with tools for engaging and educating parents in the catechetical process – particularly important, as parents are now disseminating the faith more than ever with children’s virtual learning requiring their oversight.

Keynote speaker Dr. Joseph D. White, child and family psychologist and director of Catechetical Resources for Our Sunday Visitor Publishing and Curriculum, focused on how family is “the missing piece in catechesis.”

“God reveals himself to us as a family – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a communion of persons. We are created to be in communion with one another,” he said. “Catechesis in the parish can give structure and support to catechesis in the home … [but] what parents provide is more organic … parents play an indispensable role; the family is the first place where we are called to live the faith we receive.”

The Family Catechesis sessions offered “practical tips for parish leaders, catechists and families to think creatively and outside the box in presenting faith formation programs, opportunities in the parish and in everyday life,” Contino said.

Speaking particularly about young families, Ryan Johnson – a Client Solutions Advocate who heads support efforts and serves national accounts for Catholic Faith Technologies – noted that the surrounding society is unsupportive and often downright discouraging to couples with young children.

“Accompaniment [by the Church] is what these families need,” he explained. “To be the Domestic Church, raising kids and passing on the faith, is so much easier said than done … couples wonder, ‘How do I know I’m doing what’s required, the things that matter?’”

The key, Johnson explained, is meeting young families where they are, offering four specific suggestions for support.

“Provide opportunities to break bread together, where young families can get to know one another. Pray for them and with them. Provide them with support and resources. And go where young families are – even online,” he said.

Mark Russoniello, pastoral associate in St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, offered a workshop on Social Justice and Social Media: Re-engaging Catholic Youth. Providing startling statistics about the drop-off of youth enthusiasm and presence in the Church, and the replacement of faith with the influence of technology, he noted the challenge before catechists: “How do we communicate to teenagers our orientation toward the eternal in an environment that demands immediacy?”

“How do we emphasize the transcendence and mystery of God to young people who … insist their reality has to be seen, touched and proven?” he asked. “Talking to teens and preaching doctrine without meaningful context no longer appeals, given the rapid change in how teens learn and experience life.”

Russionello presented several suggestions for making the faith relatable to a younger generation. “Lived experiences of the faith that make meaningful impacts on society is what is needed for our teens today,” he explained, “because they reconnect Church teaching to real life experiences … they demonstrate that what the Church teaches parallels the urgency our teens feel for change, and it’s a way to enroll them in a partnership with the church for bringing that change about.”

Catholic social teaching, Russionello emphasized, “is a way to draw teens out of their virtual world to an environment of encounter, with real people and real needs,” and making available tangible opportunities to volunteer in service of social, economic and environmental justice is key to their finding the Catholic Church relevant to them.

You Are Not Alone

Jessica Donohue, director of religious education in Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, gave some advice on “Finding Joy and Encouragement as a Catechist During the Pandemic.”

“We are handing on the faith in a very different way this year,” she said. “As catechists, the most important thing to have in our toolbox is a good, healthy spirituality … being in a unique circumstance this year can make caring for our spirituality difficult – we may tend to put it on the back burner.”

Donohue explained the difference between joy and happiness, emphasizing how joy is something accessible at any time.

“Happiness is related to ‘happen,’ meaning circumstance or luck … a product of our circumstances. Joy is rooted in ‘gaudere,’ to rejoice – the fruit of faith, hope and love,” she said. “The Catechism says we find joy when we live in the divine life of the Trinity.”

COVID-19, Marcinek noted, has forced everyone to slow the tempo of their lives. “We can use our time together to eat dinner together, pray together … this is a time to cultivate our love for one another, recognizing this is the time to seize the opportunity is a great way to build the Domestic Church.”

Some of her conference takeaways included recognizing true lifelines of support during the pandemic, and that what the world needs is compassion, healing and prayer.

“Faith, family and friends allow one to realize they are not alone; we are all connected through Christ,” Marcinek said. “Instead of jumping to judgment, teaching children to jump to compassion brings about healing and sets a good example ... of Christ-like love, and fosters habits that can remain with children throughout their lives.”