I had a unique public high school experience where students received ‘released time’ every Wednesday to attend faith formation. I realize that the word ‘released’ sounds like a prison image! Most people don’t know what I am talking about because they can’t believe that a public high school actually had a set time for students to go to their respective churches for an hour.
I have to tell you that I don’t remember much about the content of the program, but I do remember the people. In fact, what I do remember is the four-block walks to and from the church. Hundreds of students walked out of the high schools doors, but then we headed off in different directions to our respective churches. Fellow students and my ‘Catholic identity’ were symbolized as we parted ways. In the Emmaus story in the Gospel, the resurrected Jesus does not show up at the destination, rather he appears on the road as they are walking there. He walks side-by-side with us telling stories about the new life that he brings to the world.
I realize how important content is in the faith formation of youth in grade and high school. We want our youth to grow in their faith, and to understand what makes them Catholic. At the same time, the presence of people is key to this formation. The catechist not only imparts knowledge, but their presence each week connects the child to the class of ten to fifteen kids.
At my parish, I stand in the entryway to greet kids that are coming and going. From time to time, I lead sessions for the Confirmation youth. I also often drop in to visit our high school youth group. When I ask some of the youth what they like best about the year, it is almost always “the people.” When I interview Confirmation youth, I find out the same thing. It’s always the journey that leaves the biggest impression.
When I talk to kids, their parents, or in my homilies I often stress morals, ethics, values, and beliefs. I always use them in the same order. All four of these are dependent on people: family, friends, teachers, and church. All four are relationship-oriented. I really think that program content makes an effective impact only after the first three are experienced in family and faith formation. Morals, ethics, and values are relationship driven. With that foundation, our Catholic core beliefs can support the lifestyle that has already begun in the youth.
Often times I like to assess how well our parish is doing with faith formation. It’s always best not to judge our idea of faith formation success too strictly. I am satisfied when kids respond that they liked coming or enjoyed their group. That means they have had a good experience of church. As they get older, I hope they look back and can see that the positive experience has impacted them as they continue to grow in their faith.
The family and the church support each other in this effort to form youth and help them learn to love the faith. We have differing ways to accomplish it, but in the end, all of faith formation through family and church are built on relationships. Parents can’t get by with only giving children the family rules and expectations without living them out themselves; nor can the parish teach the faith without the parish living it out through relationships. Kids can see through that instantly. Faith formation is most effective when families and parish faith formation programs work as a team remembering that relationships are the foundation that always precedes acceptance of content and belief.
(Fr. Vince Rosonke, Pastor, St. Boniface Parish, Waukee)