Hope for a Reimagined Future

One of the hardest working groups of people in the Catholic Church today are the men and women who serve as directors or coordinators of religious education. Some of my closest friends serve in these roles, so the conversation I had with a DRE unnerved me. Usually, I am quick to defend, but somewhere deep inside, her story irritated me.

I was at a meeting, listening to complaints, suggestions, and the like. One person expressed concern that the idea of reimagining faith formation was overwhelming because she was, after all, the only one doing anything in her parish. I did not have time to point out the absurdity of that statement, so the conversation continued. At the end of the meeting, the DRE came up to me and said, “You are not going to believe this,” she said, as she relayed a story of a mother bringing her son in for an interview for confirmation. The DRE asked the child to name the seven sacraments. The young man could not. The DRE was flummoxed. The mom demanded the Sacrament. The DRE wondered aloud to me about her predicament. “How can I say that this child is ready when he cannot answer the simplest question?”

I do not think she liked my answer. If a child gets to the ninth grade and cannot name the seven sacraments – especially after nine years of religious education – he or she is the victim of institutional failure. His parents have failed him. His religious education program has failed him. His catechists have failed him. And yes, this holy woman standing before me telling her story has failed him. Every person responsible for his faith formation – including himself – has fallen short.

The reality is this: we have to rethink the way we prepare parents when their infants are baptized so they understand their role as first teachers. Then we need to give them the tools to accomplish this. Moving backward, we have to rethink how we prepare couples for marriage, so they know the responsibility that lies ahead. We have to rethink early childhood education so something actually happens between baptism, first reconciliation and first Communion. We need to accompany families as they raise faith-filled children. We need to rethink comprehensive ministry to, with, and for young people. We need to rethink confirmation preparation and stop thinking of confirmation as graduation. Even when we use the correct language, many parishes still treat confirmation as graduation, evident by the lack of ways young people can be involved and are formed in the years that follow the sacrament. If we want young people to stay involved in the parish, why not provide an environment for them from a very early age so the parish community is an extension of the family, not a sacramental marketplace where we check in once in a while? This will require a profound cultural shift, but if we reimagine the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and marriage, I believe we might have a shot at changing the future of faith formation.

Directors and coordinators of religious education have a really, really tough job. Parents often abdicate young people’s faith formation to these men and women, some of whom are prepared for the challenge while others are not. This happens, in part, because mom and dad do not have the skills to articulate their faith. But it also happens because we have become a society of letting someone else take care of the hard stuff.

My request of parents is this: If you have children, take responsibility for your children’s faith formation. Talk to them. Read with them. Study with them. Ask them about the presence of God in their lives. If you are a catechist or coordinator, or director of religious education, do two things: first, ask yourself if you are prepared for the role you play. If not, enroll in formation for yourself. Second, put the textbook down and have a conversation with your students. Find out what they know and what they believe. See if God is real to them or if they are just going through the motions.

In a recent conversation with a close friend, who serves a large, suburban parish as a director of religious education, she relayed her concern with the way parents transmit the faith:

The main thing that I am noticing with this group [of parents] is the fact that they seem to forget the role that families play in formation, not to mention the role families play in the parish. The children were asked to draw in their book a picture of who was present at their baptism. All but 3 pictures depicted parents, usually their mom holding them, and a priest or deacon. Very few, however, drew pictures that included Godparents, grandparents, or any other family or friends present.

The story is anecdotal, but I believe it is also emblematic of how children see their families in relation to the rest of the community. Younger families are struggling to find their place in the parish. Parents lack the language to articulate the faith at home. We must help parents find the right words to tell the stories of faith, to share their own experience of encounters with the person of Jesus Christ. It takes a village to raise a child but only if the villagers work together.

Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis said, essentially, that the Church is a love story, not an institution. That gives me hope.

Because love never fails.


This originally appeared on Patrick Donovan’s personal blog, Five Minutes on Monday.