Parish programs aim to narrow the generation gap

DETROIT - Although so much of today's education takes place in segregated age groups, some parishes are bucking that trend by offering intergenerational faith formation - teaching everyone, of all ages, at the same time.

Currently, more than 650 parishes across the country are using this model, called Generations of Faith. They offer separate religious education for sacramental preparation, but for everything else they provide once-a-month group sessions which engage all members of the parish in hands-on learning about central parts of their faith.

Mary Beth Nygaard said people have told her that the only time their family ever eats together is at the parish's Generations of Faith evenings. "That's just incredible," said the pastoral care director of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Mankato, Minn. "But it's the way society is now and we do anything we can to bring people together."

The intergenerational program draws parishioners of all ages together for an evening including an introduction, a shared meal, age-designated learning breakout sessions and a closing activity. Each meeting is based on a foundational teaching of the church and includes take-home activities.

"It's a very big change from dropping off your kids and going to the grocery store," said Nygaard, who has been involved in the 1,200-member parish for 20 years. The Generations of Faith program was added at the parish 12 years ago.

Nygaard said, "We'd had a lot of conversations with people wanting something different and they wanted parental involvement."

In the years since, she has seen less discipline problems, more family participation and parishioners growing in their faith. The older members of the parish "are among those who like it the best," she said.

Generations sharing experiences in faith is also the basis of a program called Invitation to Live in Love to be offered in the Diocese of Rockford, Ill.

"It's really a teenage catechesis on the sacrament of matrimony," said Don Gramer, who with his wife, Lorrie, are diocesan family life directors. Married couples will meet with teens to explore such topics as marriage as a vocation, masculinity and femininity, the power of affirmation in marriage, portions of Blessed John Paul II's theology of the body.

Gramer said he hopes the intergenerational meetings will help teens look at marriage in positive ways.

In Middletown, Conn., Susan Ferraiolo, is just starting Generations of Faith at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, after seeing its success at neighboring St. Mary Parish. She serves as the director of religious education at both parishes.

With the St. Mary Parish now in its sixth year of the program, she has seen "Mass participation improved and an increase in fellowship. People are more involved and they feel like they know others because of the shared meal," which, she said, is always prepared by her husband, Richard. "He's become very good at cooking for 300, and he has a lot of help."

Ferraiolo said it was difficult at first for some older youths to share and talk in front of others. "Now, they have taken on these amazing leadership roles."

The monthly gatherings are designed with hands-on activities, Ferraiolo said. For the recent social justice topic local and national organizations were invited to set up stations. Families made sandwiches for a soup kitchen, donated supplies for a pro-life women's center and learned about national service organizations.

"It was a way to learn part of what we believe as Catholics and to allow people to start participating more fully in ways that would not be a part of a classroom setting," she said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970