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Teaching it forward: religious education reimagined.

What kids experience at their local parish today scarcely resembles the CCD their parents remember. Whether the changes will turn the tide remains to be seen.

Cynthia Giarelli has been teaching eighth-grade religion long enough to control hormones, smartphones, and her own expectations. The dynamics of each class fluctuate, sometimes wildly. But she can count on one constant when Tuesday night class rolls around in Lake Forest, Illinois: Her students will be exhausted after school, sports, and other activities, with homework looming large when their parents pick them up at the Church of St. Mary at 8:15 p.m.

"So I just warm them up a bit and get them chatting," says Giarelli, who before retiring from professional teaching worked in the parish's school. "I ask them questions about bullying or social media. Talking about things that will happen in high school always perks them up; they want to hear about the decisions they'll have to make."

In short order, though, Giarelli must redirect attention from the dramas of the days ahead to faith formation for a lifetime. With eighth graders, she says, "that's not always easy."

Little is easy for catechists in the 21st century. Dire statistics are everywhere. A frequently referenced study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that although nearly 1 in 3 Americans (31 percent) were raised Catholic, today fewer than 1 in 4 (24 percent) describe themselves as Catholic. In 2011 Pew revealed that more than 70 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so before age 24; a 2012 Pew study showed that a third of U.S. adults under 30 report "none" as their religious affiliation.

Christian Smith's 2014 book Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (Oxford) unearths possible reasons for the estrangement. The author suggests that often it's less of a deliberate decision than a drifting from a religion whose tenets were never fully grasped, even after years of Sunday school.

Some sociologists, including Catholic University of America's William D'Antonio, believe the Young Catholic America portrayal is overly pessimistic and based on an "either/or, small tent" view of Catholicism. D'Antonio offers a more positive view of what he calls today's "conscience-oriented" young Catholics. One thing everyone can probably agree on, however, is that the competition for kids' time and attention has only intensified, whether it's math tutoring or Minecraft or traveling to soccer games on Sunday mornings--or even what parents practice and preach.

"The message coming from home when I started teaching in the '80s was, 'This is really important to all of us. This is what we do,' " Giarelli says. "Now with many families the message is, 'This is what you have to do because you're Catholic, and you've got to do it until you're confirmed, and I don't like it either.' Parents just drop kids off and expect them to be educated. And if something comes up, religious education becomes second or third in importance on the list, or worse."

To give faith a fighting chance, parishes are trying new approaches to youth catechesis that scarcely resemble the CCD many parents knew (one reason that the term CCD, or Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, has been replaced with terms such as "faith formation").

Peek in on parishes around the country and you might see eighth graders meditating, sixth graders watching videos from the Busted Halo website sponsored by the Paulist Fathers, or parents arriving with their children--and staying for their own simultaneous faith formation session.

The goal: "To form, inform, and transform," says Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, director of religious education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "We need to help [students] come to know Jesus in their hearts, not just in their heads. One model won't fit all. We have to be open to different ways of experimenting to see what works."

Get moving

Blame screens. Blame sports. But the lecture model rarely captivates kids today, if it ever did. St. Bernard Parish in Appleton, Wisconsin is one that focuses on bringing kids' faith to life through action, both inside and outside the parish.

Students of all ages host the liturgy once a month as part of their religious education. Kids do the readings at Mass; they bring up the gifts; they usher and help with the collection. "Everybody has a part. The little ones have a sign and are jumping up and down: 'Welcome to St. Bernard's!'" says parish faith formation director Maurine Overesch.

Many parish leaders ruminate over how to get students to attend Mass, and there's no perfect answer. "But I tell you, a lot of people come to that once-a-month Mass," Overesch says. "They come, and they bring grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors."

Beyond the parish, first and second graders visited assisted-living facilities this past year. Ninth and 10th graders made chili and took it to a homeless shelter; eighth graders sought donations at Mass for a domestic abuse shelter, then delivered them, sanitized the toy room, and played with the children.

"A lot of students who are kinetic learners--they love our service nights," Overesch says. "We usually have 90 percent attendance." Yet service is just one fundamental aspect of faith.

"Kids need to know how and why the church thinks this or that, so when other people at college ask them, 'Why do you believe in this?' they don't look like a deer in headlights. I don't want that to happen to them, because it happened to me," says Overesch, who fell away from the church during college.

Now, Overesch integrates fireside chats into the 10th- and 11th-grade confirmation class she teaches. She hands two students the YOUCAT book--the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church--and asks them to leaf through it for an intriguing issue and to share the church's position on it the next week.

"There's this wonderful fireplace we go down to, and we sit on couches, and they give the question and answer from YOUCAT. Then they ask how many people think the church is right-on with this, and how many students are on the other end. We talk it out, and they're authentic at that age, especially if they trust. We say there's nothing that can't be talked about in here as it relates to God."

Those spirited discussions weren't part of her childhood religious education, Overesch says. That could be one reason other Catholics of her generation also "got lost along the way," she says.

Which way to go?

As studies like those from Pew tally the losses, debate has raged over how to close the gaps in Catholic faith formation: a back-to-basics curriculum or an approach more closely connected with liturgy?

Parishes across the country are increasingly answering: "Both."

Hannah Hochkeppel, a 26-year-old pastoral assistant for elementary education and sacramental preparation at Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, Washington, says adults often underestimate young people's abilities to contemplate and understand liturgy.

Her catechists have led preschoolers and kindergartners in the Nicene Creed and even a rosary. Hochkeppel views this practice as building a skill, the way snapping Legos together builds fine-motor skills. "It's important to develop the motor skills of faith, too," she says. "If a child never prays, he's not going to know how to when he really needs to."

Young children in her parish are taught to track the liturgical seasons by color. "When we talk about a purple season, we're talking quietly because it's a time for preparation," Hochkeppel says. "The white season is very exciting, because Jesus rose from the dead."

One day before Lent in the preschool classroom, the priest came in and sat on the floor with the kids. He asked what they learned, and they all recited the Hail Mary for him. He said he would be wearing purple next week. Hochkeppel leaned over to prompt the kids, "Why is he going to be wearing purple?"

Looking insulted and annoyed that she had interjected, they retorted, "Because we're preparing," with an "Obviously!" edge in their voices. "It was like, 'OK, you go sing your song and we are going to have this deeper theological discussion with Father,"' Hochkeppel says, laughing.

One fourth-grade teacher this year dedicated a class to talking about the saints, intending it as a onetime theme. But the kids hungered for more. "So they put together a list, and at the beginning of each class they either acted out or read a story about a different saint," Hochkeppel says. "I said, 'See you next week' one day, and they said, 'Yeah, we get to learn about St. Maximilian Kolbe!' "

She confessed she didn't know who he was. No worries, the kids said. They'd fill her in.

Kids' curiosity buoys catechists such as Lisa Jones, who teaches faith formation at St. Angela Merici in Missouri City, Texas. She enjoys fielding her third graders' questions, such as whether the Ten Commandments prohibit hunting. But Jones wonders about a deeper question.

"The concern I have is usually about whether or not their parents are reinforcing at home what we are teaching," says Jones, who writes a faith-focused blog, Of Sound Mind and Spirit (www., with her sister. "I've had kids tell me they don't have a Bible at home. Or that they don't come to Mass, ever."

One playful way she tries to deepen the engagement of families is through homework. "I ask the kids to share what they've learned with their parent or another loved one, and see if they can stump their parent. Maybe with a new prayer recitation or reciting the Ten Commandments or what does Triduum mean. Eight-year-olds love to try and be smarter than their parents."

Jones rewards them with a dip into the treasure box if they come to class with a favorite Bible verse, Bible story, or saint, and share a bit with the class: "I try to encourage them to think about what we've learned while they are at home."

Crisis of confidence

Parents are a child's first catechists, a message echoed in Vatican calls to reinvigorate faith formation. But many parents today admit they need a refresher course on Catholicism. Some attribute that to a change in religious education after the Second Vatican Council, when the church moved away from teaching the doctrine-heavy Baltimore Catechism. Jones counts herself as a product of the so-called "warm-and-fuzzy" aftermath.

"We didn't learn any catechesis or doctrine, but just that God loves us. Not a bad thing to know that God loves you, but there wasn't a connection to the faith. I didn't know what adoration was or a dozen other things about the faith," she says. "I had lots of questions, especially after we moved to Tulsa when I was a teen, and I was around Evangelicals and Bible Christians who told me I was going to hell for being a Catholic."

Some adults nobly volunteer as teachers of the faith, without knowing how much they don't know, Jones says. "And it saddens me that they are teaching. But on the other hand, teaching is a great way to learn about the faith."

Julianne Stanz, director of new evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, noticed a crisis of confidence when she moved from Ireland to serve as a youth minister in the United States.

"My middle school students would say, 'I can't talk to my mother or father about some of the things we talk about in class.' [Parents] either didn't have the knowledge or they were afraid, especially in matters of morality," Stanz says. "I read that a lot of Catholic parents have an eighth-grade understanding of their faith, and if it is true, you have high school students who are exposed to a lot of things on the Internet coming home and trying to talk to their parents, and there's that disconnect."

With those parents in mind, Stanz, with Joe Paprocki, national faith formation consultant at Loyola Press, wrote The Catechist's Backpack: Spiritual Essentials for the Journey (Loyola). Save for "catechist," the authors avoided "churchy" terms, Stanz says.

"My husband is the average Wisconsinite; he hunts and fishes," Stanz says. "He'll say, 'Break that down for me, church lady.' He'll always try to get me to give it to him straight. I can put this book into my husband's hands."

She and Paprocki wove in personal anecdotes, including one about Stanz's young son who resisted going to Mass one morning. She asked him why.

"I thought, he's 3, he has to sit still, but what he said brought me to my knees. He said, 'I don't want to go to church, Mommy, because nobody looks happy there.' There's something that Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan says: 'Happiness attracts.' " Faith formation programs should be joyous, she says. Instead, parents often instill dread in their children with a "drag, drive, and drop" routine: Roust child from bed, whisk child to car, eject child at parish steps before speeding away to Starbucks.

To refresh the mind-set, intergenerational faith formation programs have sprouted up across the country. At St. Jude Parish in New Lenox, Illinois, kids and parents come for faith formation class just once a month, together. Parents, children, and teachers convene in the gym for a 15-minute overview of the day's topic. Catechists and children then adjourn to cover one chapter over the next hour, while parents stay for guidance on teaching the other two chapters of that unit at home. Kids turn in their completed unit review at the following month's session.

St. Jude catechist Doris Fleckenstein praises the effects. She no longer has to reteach first-grade lessons to her second graders, freeing time for more dynamic lesson plans.

"Second graders like to move, they like to see, they like to feel," says Fleckenstein, who has taught religious education for a decade. "We act out the Last Supper as a play. We march around the school mimicking Moses leading his people through the desert."

Katie Neu, St. Jude's coordinator of family faith formation for just under a year, has noticed that kids mirror their parents' attitudes, and vice versa. During a year teaching fourth grade at another parish, she says, parents were invited to join the class to say a rosary. The kids beamed at having their parents join them; the parents reciprocated. That experience is part of what attracted Neu to St. Jude's family-oriented program.

"When the parents start to care more and feel empowered in their faith, that attitude trickles down to their children," Neu says. "When the parent makes faith a priority, the children do, too. They want to answer questions and participate. When the parents don't, the child usually also does not participate in class."

Screen time

What happens in class begins to work itself into the home. Suzette Sornborger, director of youth faith formation at St. Monica Catholic Community in Santa Monica, California, makes a point of asking her kids to think about faith in the context of their daily lives.

"When they go to the movies, I always challenge them to tell me where God was in the movie. Simple practices help them to see the world with new eyes, maybe eyes of compassion and mercy, eyes of love and hope."

Her kids tease her about her habit, but her daughter wasn't embarrassed to post about it on Facebook: So tonight at the dinner table, my mom, having a master's in theology, asked us, "Where do you find God in this?" and she placed a clear mug [on] the table.. ..After thinking for a moment, I replied, "It's solid." Immediately, [my brother] Aaron tried to take my idea adding, "like our relationship with God."...My mom chimes in saying, "See the handle? We can't always handle things on our own, but God handles our lives." Then my dad spoke up, saying, "God carries us like the cup carries the liquid"... Classic Sornborger dinner conversation.

As that example suggests, technology can be a strong ally that integrates faith into the rhythms of kids' daily lives. Beth Curtin teaches middle school religion at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Indianapolis. Her tool kit frequently includes the Internet, from YOUCAT to the social media accounts of Cardinal Dolan and Pope Francis--her students one day watched a Google Hangout the pope hosted with special-needs children. Curtin also shows them videos that posts about Lent, Mary, and other Catholic themes.

"They're modern, so kids really relate to them," she says. "Because social media sometimes is such a negative influence, it's great to show the kids a positive thing."

Digital connection can't replace real connection, though. "The kids need to know that I care about them, or they wouldn't care about what I had to give to them," Curtin says. "I always greet each student, look into their eyes, and say, 'Good morning, how are you?' Getting to know them and their learning styles helps me to engage them."

Because kids are the target of countless messages every day from ads and social media, Curtin thinks many of her students find refuge in the teachings of the church. "Every age group I've ever taught had a thirst for their faith," Curtin says. "I don't think the freshmen and sophomores looked forward to catechism, but once we started they were always engaged. They got there."

The quest for quiet

It's counterintuitive in an era of constant stimulation, but many catechists are finding that contemplation and silence are what kids crave most, especially as they enter the middle school years. Some catechists have their students write reflections in a journal rather than asking them to speak in class, especially junior high students who fear being judged for what they say.

Another contemplative tool gathering steam is guided reflection. It entails leading children in meditation, in which they envision talking with Jesus, sometimes in a scripture scene, says Paprocki, coauthor of The Catechist's Backpack, who also oversees the blog Catechist's Journey.

Younger kids are eager to recount their conversations with Jesus, which might revolve around their dog or their soccer game, says Paprocki, who has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in two parishes. Older kids may not want to share theirs, but they'll write about them in their journals.

"It's another way children are encountering Christ rather than hearing a lesson," Paprocki says. "The more catechists do this, the more the kids ask for it. I hear this over and over again."

The flip side of quiet contemplation is social connection, orienting kids to their membership in a faith community beyond themselves and their families. Service projects satisfy a yearning to contribute. Parish social gatherings fulfill a need to belong. Together they connect a parish in a way that keeps kids and their families coming back for more.

Over the past decade, Spanish-speaking immigrants flocked to Our Lady of Angels in Woodbridge, Virginia, leading to not only bilingual religious education but also lively festivals linked to Our Lady of Guadalupe and other cultural traditions. Those events attract so many people that a police officer has to direct traffic, says Ashley Fox, parish director of religious education.

On a smaller scale, weekly soccer matches have sprung up before religious education classes. The games help kids vent energy beforehand and quickly became as inviolable as Mass attendance. "All the students get dropped off early so they can play," Fox says. "It's about creativity and community. If you have those two things, you can get them here."

Social events where kids of all ages mingle aren't just fun, they allow the older ones to serve as powerful role models. During Lent at St. Madeleine Sophie Parish in Bellevue, Washington, about 200 parishioners and kids attended a family night where parishioners brought pots of soup and salads, and kids brought their Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl collections, totaling more than $725.

"We showed one of the Catholic Relief Services videos--the one on Lebanon and the families who left Syria," says Jo David, pastoral assistant for whole community catechesis and welcoming at St. Madeleine Sophie.

The sixth graders performed and narrated a shadow-drama of the stations of the cross, dressed in black behind a sheet with a bright light on it. Girls, including one named Grace, portrayed Jesus in some scenes.

"They came out at the end, and the little kids asked questions: 'The cross you carry, was that heavy?' And then this question I loved," David recalls. "One of the children asked Grace, 'How can girls play Jesus?' Grace said, 'Well, we all have Jesus in us. We all can play Jesus.' "

There's a bonus to bonding over faith with friends and family. "When parents are part of the faith discussions with their child, they become 'askable' parents," David says. "There isn't anything those kids can't talk to their parents about, because they've talked about all the big questions."

Enter apathy

Even so, midway through middle school, the veneer of apathy thickens. So catechist Julie Cantrell, who teaches fifth and eighth graders at St. Jude in New Lenox, Illinois, called the bluff of an incoming confirmation prep class last year. She asked the students, "Have you ever not wanted to do something so bad that your parents let you out of it?" They said yes.

She asked if they had tried that with confirmation. They said no. "So maybe you really do want to be here," she told them. "That really turned them on their heads," Cantrell says. "I think they realized they do have a choice."

Another goal of Cantrell's is to clear up any misconceptions that confirmation marks the end of the journey. "It's really the beginning," she says.

At confirmation, catechists often wonder whether they've provided enough fuel for that journey. To Ken Ogorek, director of catechesis for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a child is off to a great start if he or she knows what the church teaches, knows why the church teaches it, and sees the benefits of a Catholic life.

That last part doesn't preclude critiques of the church. "But we have to encourage kids to be honest, critical thinkers and to acknowledge a great potential upside to living the teachings of the church. What would your neighborhood, school, or world look like if everyone did that?" says Ogorek, also a Catholic leadership consultant and author of The Gospel Truth (E.T. Nedder).

Those are the cognitive pieces. Interpersonally, Ogorek says, kids are well on their way if they "embrace God as a personal being with whom they can have a real relationship that includes two-way communication... both talking to God and listening to God."

"Every day he's reaching out to them, speaking to them; we just have to help our young people understand the ways he does that so they can hear him," Ogorek says. That's about as far as any human can take them. "We have to rely on God to do the rest."

Meanwhile, Cynthia Giarelli, the catechist in Lake Forest, felt the Holy Spirit at work this spring with her eighth graders.

In February she tried out a new confirmation resource with her Tuesday class. Called Decision Point, from Matthew Kelly of the Dynamic Catholic Institute, it starts with short videos, followed by discussion and journaling. ( offers the program free to any parish in North America.) The videos portray Jesus as a rebel, and spark discussions about branding and being the best version of yourself, Giarelli says. The approach compares the mystery of faith to other concepts that can't be proven scientifically, such as love, guilt, or courage.

She used the program for two weeks and then asked the kids for feedback. "They all said it's the best thing we ever had. The videos are timely and relevant to their lives. You can tell, looking at their faces, whether they're watching, and they know how to fake it afterwards if they aren't. They're really journaling. They go right to it."

And they linger past dismissal to continue conversations. "That's really exciting," Giarelli says, "because before, they were usually standing waiting to get out."

RELATED ARTICLE: The bumpy road to a family-based program.

There were some doubting Thomases when St. Jude Parish in New Lenox, Illinois transformed its faith formation program over the past seven years.

Kids and parents come for classes just once a month-together--and home-school for the other lessons. Students turn in their completed unit review at the monthly gathering.

As part of the evolution, St. Jude introduced "Explore Four" and asked its faith formation families to participate in four other parish activities during the year, whether a service project, a prayer group, or any of the more than 70 options on the roster. They also asked families to share some reflections on how the experience nurtured their faith.

Some saw that as onerous. For various reasons, about 100 out of 1,100 families left the faith formation program initially.

"People kept asking, 'What's mandatory?'" says Denise Utter, parish director of faith formation. "We said this is not a mandated program; you're here because you want your children to be raised in the faith. We hope you will go to all of the Explore Fours and turn in the reviews, and if there are any issues, please call us."

About 50 of the families who left the program returned. "After seven years, they're not cussing at me," says St. Jude pastor Father Don Lewandowski, chuckling.

The parish also gained some families who liked the model, he says. Trusting families to complete the homework is a leap of faith, Lewandowski says. But one catechist who initially quit over the changes not only returned but also reports that her second graders are better prepared to receive the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation than in the old model.

"That told me some parents are doing their job at home," Lewandowski says. "And that made me feel really happy."

Some of the discussions in the monthly meetings and the reflections parents turn in for Explore Four outings tell Utter the parish community is growing stronger.

"In the beginning it was a tough shift for some people," she says. "But the majority of our people are so positive now."

--Wendy Donahue

Wendy Donahue is a lifestyle reporter at the Chicago Tribune.
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Author:Donahue, Wendy
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Date:Jun 1, 2015
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