St. Benedict Parish children read the Bible during summer religious education class.  Mike Ehrmann photo

St. Benedict Parish children read the Bible during summer religious education class.  Mike Ehrmann photo

By Katie Cerni, Social Media Coordinator
and Mary Stadnyk, Associate Editor

It’s 8:30 a.m., and St. Benedict School is buzzing with activity as students arrive, eagerly making their way to their classrooms. They’re ready to learn, and yes, it’s July.

The students are participating in the Holmdel parish’s Summer Academy, a program that condenses a year’s worth of religious education instruction for public school students into one week’s time. The goal of the program is two-fold: it offers a consistent, challenging and fun alternative to the traditional weekly class paradigm throughout the school year, and it also provides a way to accommodate the needs of contemporary families as they juggle demanding work and household schedules.

St. Benedict Parish and St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, are two of about 25 parishes from around the Diocese that have included summer catechesis or summer intensives, as they are sometimes called, as an option for their families enrolled in traditional religious education programs. These catechetical programs, taught in a week-long or two-week-long formats, are all-inclusive and cover the same curriculum implemented during the school year.

In addition to the summertime intensive classes, children and their parents continue to attend parish catechetical events as part of the process throughout the year.

“Catechesis is the job of the whole community, and parents are trusting us to help teach their children about the faith alongside of them,” said Denise Contino, director of the diocesan Department of Catechesis.

“We do our best to accommodate the family… We see that many families have two working parents, and the summer program is very attractive to them.”

“We value the schedule of a modern family … that is why this program is emerging,” she said.

The Way It Works

Examples on how the summer religious education models might work include the format followed in St. Joseph Parish, which offered its Summer Academy the weeks of July 8-12 and July 15-19 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; each week was attended by about 600 students.  The Summer Academy in St. Benedict Parish followed a similar structure except it was offered during three individual weeks – July 8-12, July 15-19 and July 22-26. In all, there were more than 400 students in grades first through sixth who participated in the academy. The seventh- and eighth-graders attend a separate offering that’s held Sunday evenings.

In St. Joseph Parish, part of the program had students attending daily art classes where they would participate in crafts that revolved around their classroom lessons. The students were also happy to learn songs in their daily music classes that they were able to sing during the July 11 Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

For 2019, teaching students about the Mass was the focus of the Summer Academy in St. Benedict Parish, said Melissa Dayton, the parish’s director of faith formation. Between classroom learning, hands-on activities and joining in the Mass that was celebrated by Bishop O’Connell on July 18, students were given a better understanding about the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and how the “Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith.”

Students, Dayton said, learned more about what it means to attend Mass, how the Mass is a communal celebration and how their participation through singing and physical movements, such as kneeling and genuflecting, can enhance their worship experience.

To broaden their understanding of the Mass even further, the students also participated in a service project, Dayton said, emphasizing that along with receiving the Eucharist, Catholics have the responsibility to “go out and use the gifts that God gave them and put their faith into action.” The service project involved each student contributing $3 and a bar of soap. The soap bars were placed in specially made sacks that were crocheted by students in the older grades, Dayton said, emphasizing that, “Yes, part of the Summer Academy included teaching the kids how to crochet.”

The students in the younger grades were responsible for packaging the bars of soap and making tags for the sacks, which were given to a local organization that assist the homeless. With each student donating $3, Dayton said a total of $1,000 was collected and used to purchase food items that were placed in snack bags that were prepared by the students and then donated to the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society conference.

Blessings All Around

For catechists, parents and students, the summer religious education programs are proving to be successful ways to teach and learn about the faith.

Jennifer Garibaldi, who serves as the music teacher during the summer program in St. Joseph Parish, observed that students seem to love the program.

“This is a good way to have the kids experience what it is like to be around other Catholic people,” she said. “They get to see how we act as Catholics.”

Katherine Debree, a sixth-grader in St. Joseph Parish, was happy to learn about Noah’s Ark and getting “to learn new songs in music class and then sing at the end of the day” when the students gathered in church for a closing prayer service. She added that she also she liked getting to know “all of the kids” in her class.

Debree’s Holmdel counterparts expressed similar sentiments about the Summer Academy. “We learned about Mary, Moses and Jesus,” fifth-grader Kaitlyn Retig said, noting she was surprised to learn that Jesus was baptized by his cousin [John the Baptist] and not by a regular priest.

After Brendan Cullen, also a fifth-grader, talked about how inspired he was to learn more about the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta and all she did to help people during her life, he nodded in the affirmative when asked his thoughts about the Summer Academy.

“I’ll be back next year,” he said.