Family formation now the focus for PRE students

Belinda Ortner, director of religious education, and pastor Father Alejandro Puello discuss their plans Sept. 4 for adding bilingual COVID-19 hygiene signs in their parish hall at St. Anne Church in North Little Rock before the faith formation program begins.
Belinda Ortner, director of religious education, and pastor Father Alejandro Puello discuss their plans Sept. 4 for adding bilingual COVID-19 hygiene signs in their parish hall at St. Anne Church in North Little Rock before the faith formation program begins.

As Masses, Catholic schools and ministries adapted to a new way of existing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, religious education programs waited. 

“For so long we’ve been operating out of the idea that this will come to an end. It seems to me most parishes weren’t doing their normal planning. They were kind of waiting and hoping it would clear up,” said Father Erik Pohlmeier, diocesan director of the faith formation office and pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock.  

In August, Father Pohlmeier said parishes began asking for diocesan guidance on how to conduct religious education, as most begin after Labor Day. What resulted, after meetings Aug. 13 and 14 with the Presbyteral Council and Pastoral Council, was the bishop’s desire to encourage parishes to decide individually what works best for their programs, while also following the same restrictions as attending Mass — wearing a mask, social distancing and limiting groups of people. It’s also important to look at what local schools are doing and the safety ramifications of children from multiple schools or various classes coming together for in-person religious education. 

“If we were going to come to parishes, are we working against what our local schools are doing?” he said, adding other considerations were volunteer catechists coming into schools, the effect on students meeting again with masks and volunteers making sure those safety protocols are followed. 

Parishes are choosing virtual and a hybrid of in-person and online instructions, with some opting only for sacramental preparation. Overall, the focus is family. 

“We want to avoid parishes approaching this as a holding pattern until we get back to normal,” Father Pohlmeier said. “Instead, one of the benefits of this is we’ve long needed to engage more directly with our parents. My hope is that one of the things we can really develop during this time is that parishes are more focused on supporting the parents in their role of passing on the faith.” 

In a letter sent to parishes, Father Pohlmeier suggested programs through Our Sunday Visitor, Loyola Press and Sophia Institute that not only had bilingual, digital materials, but advanced instruction including guidance for catechists and parents.

“Pray with their children and talk to their children about faith. That family prayer and faith conversations, a parish catechesis program can’t do,” he said. “… My goal for the whole program would be that. That the parents are really working to pray with and talk about faith more than the worksheets and religion as a subject.” 

Greg Donaldson, director of faith formation at Christ the King Church, said starting Sept. 13, first through eighth graders will use the virtual Our Sunday Visitor program. One topic will be covered over several weeks. For example, the first three weeks it will cover Revelation and families will be invited to stay after the 12:30 p.m. Mass on the fourth week for prayer and reflection. Those sessions will be recorded or livestreamed for families who do not attend in person. 

“Beforehand, the parents are given materials to walk kids through the process. They sit down at the kitchen table and they’re able to talk about it as a family,” Donaldson said. “They only have to worry about one topic being covered every week. It’s a focus on whole-family catechesis.” 

Catechists can go into the program and record videos, create a space for prayer requests and customize it for their students. 

“I think we need this more than ever because of what’s going on. Just because this has happened, life hasn’t stopped,” Donaldson said. “The Church still has the same mission Jesus gave us to go forward and spread the Gospel.”

At St. Anne Church in North Little Rock, pastor Father Alejandro Puello explained the overhaul of religious education amid COVID as, “The world is burning down around you and there’s no real way to save the barn, you kind of have to let the barn burn. Well, that’s great, we can try something new.”

This year, they consulted St. Theresa Church in Little Rock on how to switch to family formation, eliminating the term “religious education”. Sitting spaced apart in the parish hall, 12 families will meet once a month for two-hour sessions for the next nine months. A total of 24 families will participate. Father Puello will teach, keeping the content on a first-grade level. 

“It doesn’t work,” he said of traditional religious education. “This is why we see a family show up when their kid is ‘Communion age.’ They’ll show up for however long we need them to be there, the parent drops off the kids, then they get to First Communion and we never see them again. The goal of religious education is to actually nurture the faith of that child. If anything, we've taught them that church is kind of like school; once you graduate from church, you don’t come back.” 

He will teach Catholicism 101 basics, emphasizing that too often, parishes assume the parents have that basic knowledge. 

“A lot of people are culturally Catholic, especially Latinos, which is tremendously deadly for the faith in the long term,” he said, adding that 50 percent of his parish is Latino and PRE is typically 99 percent Latino. “(Sacraments are) rites of passage and lose significance.” 

He’ll also discuss what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, praying Lectio Divina with Scripture and having adults share testimonies about their faith to the children. 

Father Puello said alternative virtual options for families will be available. He emphasized religious education needs to transform to family formation. 

“We are no longer in the business of being simply a sacrament-churning machine without judging how important what we’re doing is,” he said. 

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Aprille Hanson Spivey has contributed to Arkansas Catholic as a freelancer and associate editor since 2010. She leads the Beacon of Hope grief ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

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