Author: Sallwasser, Carrie
Date published: February 1, 2012
Journal code: MOMN
One of the interesting aspects of catechesis in the United States is how, in some dioceses and parishes, the emphasis sets squarely on children's catechesis. I say interesting because Jesus taught adults, as did the early church. Over the centuries, and particularly here in the United States as the parochial school system was established and grew, the focus moved to children. Indeed, in some textbook series lessons are planned so that the child can, by involving their parents with at-home or family projects, be a leading agent of adult catechesis. While this can be effective, is it the best we can do in providing adult faith formation?
Catechesis Tradenae states that "the catechesis of adults.. .is the principal form of catechesis, because it is addressed to persons who have the greatest responsibilities and the capacity to live the Christian message to its fully developed form." (CT 43) The "General Directory for Catechesis" and the "National Directory for Catechesis" echo that value of the necessity and primary focus on adult faith formation. It is too essential to the faith life of not only adults but of their children to whom they pass on the faith to be left by chance or sporadically highlighted by select programs.
Making Adult Faith Formation Intentional
Therefore, for adult faith formation to be its most effective, it needs to be intentional. The question then becomes, how can adult faith formation become an intentional focus of a parish and what elements are needed. Intentional, parish-centered adult faith formation is not about how many programs are offered or how the attendance sign-in list grows. Aware that no program or person is perfect, let's review those ingrethents for effective adult formation. These recommendations come not only from my experience and background, but also from other catechetical leaders whose opinions were solicited through DRE Talk, the online forum sponsored by the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors. (For more information or to join- it's free- go to www.npcd.org).
Catechetical leaders in the field agree with the "National Directory of Catechesis" when it states, "The single most critical factor in an effective parish catechetical program is the leadership of a professional, trained parish catechetical leader" (NDC 54B5). An effective catechetical leader will remember how important it is to first model Christ- to be a recognizable disciple in order to invite and welcome others to discipleship. They must be people who know and spend time with Jesus in prayer and worship.
Although it maybe obvious to state, it is essential that those responsible for forming and leading adult faith formation must themselves be active and informed. In order for the adult formation to be authentic, leaders must be educated in the Catholic faith. But some parishes rely on well-meaning volunteers who are not always theologically sound. Leaders without accredited theological background may do more harm than good. Professional leaders are aware of, and know how to implement, documents such as the general and national directories of catéchèses, which set out the tasks of adult catechesis. In addition, effective catechetical leaders are well versed in various methodologies. What works for children or youth groups, if not properly adapted, will not work effectively with adults.
Of equal importance are catechetical leaders who invite, welcome and respect. I know of parishes who had highly educated leaders, but who did not, as Jesus modeled, offer an opportunity to "come and see," but rather offered the church only as a series of dogmas. Not that the teachings of the church are to be ignored, but the church is so much more that that. The hallmark of the early church was not, "oooo. ..look at all those documents and dogmas," but rather, "Look how they love one another." Leaders with listening ears and open hearts set the tone in which relationships with both others and Jesus are fostered.
People of Courage and Vision
Catechetical leaders also need to be people of courage and vision. It's a standing joke between a friend and me that we need days off from the tasks just to vision. The reality is that, like Christ, we need to know where we are going. And, like his disciples, even if we aren't quite sure where we'll end up, we rely in hope on Christ's vision. One of the visions of effective adult faith formation is an intentional parish focus. It is the vision of seeing parish life as immersed in Gospel living. In order to create and follow vision, courage is needed. It takes courage to ask all parish organizations to spend the first part of their meeting time in faith sharing, and not simply reciting an Our Father or Hail Mary. As adults, we have much in our life experiences to draw upon in terms of recognizing the presence of Christ. It takes vision and courage to affirm and assist people in recognizing and sharing those "aha"1 moments. It takes vision and courage to form Catholics as evangelizers.
Truly effective faith formation is not reliant only upon canned programs. Certainly there are exceptional recourses available, and they can be beneficial. But to be truly effective in presenting formal programs or offerings, the needs of adult catechesis must be recognized. Adults, perhaps even more than children, need to be respected for their life experiences. Adults have had a lifetime to build up hurts, questions, revelations and rejections. An effective catechetical leader will recognize and respect those. He or she will incorporate those experiences, both negative and positive, into the faith formation opportunity. An adult who feels respected and whose experiences are of value will be more responsive to what is being offered.
Welcomed and Respected
A good example of that are adults who come to RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) or Catholics who have left the faith and are, however hesitantly, coming home. Knowing that they are welcome and respected goes a long way. I know. I was raised in the Lutheran faith. During the first few years of our marriage (my husband Jim is a cradle Catholic), I felt the call of the Spirit to the church, but the Catholics I met did not welcome me; they only stressed how I needed to convert. The implication was that my faith life was not valid. It wasn't until the pastoral associate from Jim's parish visited and complemented me on being strong and active in my faith that I felt valued for who I was and could consider answering the call of the Spirit to see what the Catholic Church had to offer.
When I joined RClA I again was welcomed and validated. I learned that RCIA wasn't so much about "making me Catholic" as strengthening my relationship with Jesus and if that led to the church, wonderful. If it led me to a deepening of love for my faith tradition, wonderful. Because I felt truly welcome and validated I did join the church. Years later, when I had the opportunity to lead RCIA1 my team and I emphasized the invitation.
Adults also have specific physical needs. Classroom chairs designed for 10-year-olds are not conducive to adult physiques. Adults are balancing home and work life, and so sessions must begin and end on time, be reasonable in length and be offered at times conducive to adults. Offerings must be affordable as well. It is, again, a simple matter of respect.
Effective and intentional adult faith formation always keeps as its focus the goal of catechesis, which is, "To put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ" (GDC 80). (emphasis mine). It strives for the vision of parish immersion in faith formation and not only on programs no matter how good they are). Effective faith formation does not rely solely on children teaching parents. As one DRE pointed out, when we fly we are instructed that in the case of an emergency, we put on our oxygen masks first and then assist children traveling with us. Adult faith formation must be primary, not only to strengthen one's relationship with Jesus, but also to assist in passing on the faith to future generations. Trained and educated parish catechetical leaders play an essential role in this formation. They are most effective when they model Christ in their respectful welcoming and inviting and by being aware of and responsive to adult's spiritual, physical and financial needs.
Carrie Sallwasser is a coordinator of religious education in the Archdiocese OfSt. Louis. She is the Heartland Representative and vice president elect of the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors (NPCD). She holds a master's degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology and is an instructor for the Archdiocese of St Louis's Paul Vl Pontifical institute (saliwasserc@ qasstiorg).