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Flexibility for faith formation this year

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This year, religious education in the parishes will be different. Throughout the diocese, directors of religious education and their faith formation teams are ensuring that religious education classes and instruction are offered to all families in a safe and accommodating manner. Each parish has had to evaluate its resources, needs and parishioners’ concerns. Faith formation will look different from parish to parish.

“Even though we have to deal with all of the restrictions and precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we should see this as an opportunity to deliver faith formation in new and creative ways,” said Father William Saunders, diocesan episcopal vicar of faith formation. “I commend the pastors and the DREs for their dedication and initiatives to meet this challenge. The theme for this Catechetical Sunday is ‘I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,’ which reminds us that the faith — despite pandemics, war, persecutions, schisms and other problems — has successfully been handed on from Our Lord to the apostles to us this very day. As we marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, we can reflect how the faith in countries like Poland survived and was handed on, despite Nazi and later Soviet persecution, because of dedicated pastors, catechists and parents.”

Father Saunders also noted that one of the great blessings of this new environment is that parents will have to become more engaged in the faith formation of their children.

Here are a few stories of DREs meeting the new challenge throughout the Diocese of Arlington:

St. John the Evangelist, Warrenton

When schools closed in Fauquier County, Sherin Murphy immediately recognized that one of the greatest challenges would be the lack of internet access for many of her religious education families. Textbooks and activity books were sent to homes, and the need for low-technology options for faith formation became a priority in her program. This year, take-home packages will be picked up at the parish for families without internet access.

In Warrenton, the number of COVID-19 cases is still rising, and concern for safety is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Many families are not yet returning to Mass, and enrollment for faith formation is low.

Considering health concerns and limited space, complicated by parish renovations, Murphy has taken classes outside where there is lots of space to socially distance. Families are responding well to this solution.

“We’re praying for good weather,” Murphy said with optimism. When the roof is finished on the church, classes may move indoors as the weather cools. Clearly plans will change and adapt as the year progresses, but faith formation will continue whatever it may look like this year.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Colonial Beach

Theresa Tolley realized the challenges of reopening when planning her confirmation retreat: “I wanted to be sure to create an intimate faith experience while keeping everyone safe,” she said. Her retreat plans changed to include spreading out on the beach after Mass and confession, parent-helpers to assist with small groups and socially distanced activities.

This year, for faith formation, “We gave parents the choice for onsite or at-home classes using the same resources. Pacing for at-home and in-class sessions will be aligned, allowing families to transition seamlessly from one format to another.” Tolley stressed the importance of supporting parents, who are the primary educators of their children, saying, “It is a blessing to see parents so involved in the faith formation of their children.”

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Winchester

Julia Carty learned in mid-August that her program would have limited access to the school. Although the program implemented Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety precautions, cleaning before and after all faith formation sessions, and parent health screenings, leadership determined keeping the school and faith formation population separated as much as possible was best for the safety of the children. “When the children are here, they are loved as my own,” said Carty. “I want them to be safe.”

Carty developed a plan for at-home faith formation for all grades but would also have in-person classes for those in sacramental years who need engaging lessons or lack the technology support at home.

“We will also continue to provide small, periodic gatherings to ensure our families stay connected to the parish,” said Carty. “We are here to support the growing and nurturing of the faith to all our families.” Small classes are held at the school or on the church grounds. Her faith formation team will offer specialized instruction when parents request it, and monitor the online religious education platform.

Carty, just like so many other DREs, is concerned about keeping families connected with the parish, and providing parents support. She knows the demands placed upon families; she hopes they find strength through the parish and assistance in her programs.

Our Lady of Hope, Potomac Falls

Last year, Jackie Regan implemented an online program called, “My Catholic Faith Delivered,” along with in-parish classes. When programs closed, her families were well prepared. In fact, her parish had a tremendous curriculum completion rate. “We will use this program again, along with either in-person classes onsite, or online through synchronous classes using Zoom,” said Regan.

“When we planned for reopening, we were going to have hybrid classes,” where in-class sessions would be opened to participants online. Regan added, “We had plans, changed the plans and changed them again. Flexibility has been crucial. Our top priority has been to ensure all children are given the faith formation opportunities they deserve.”

When asked if she felt safe reopening, she said, “Yes, we have strictly implemented the guidelines and have communicated the expectations to students, parents, and catechists.” Realizing that things may change again, she has confidence that keeping the lines of communication open will allow her team to best serve parish families.

St. Agnes, Arlington

Marie Macnamara said at St. Agnes, “We’ve offered both online and onsite options, where children will meet in the school. About 80 percent are choosing online.” Both online and onsite classes will change textbook series this year, and classes will start later. With the encouragement of Father Saunders, pastor, she has coordinated with the principal of St. Agnes School to ensure a safe environment.

Macnamara is investing time and resources in catechist training. Teachers of the faith will need to learn about the new textbook series and also how to use online platforms. At the time of writing this article, she was still recruiting volunteers, who can serve as catechists and help with contacting families to offer support and encourage student progress in the online program.

More than anything, she wants to convey to parish families that everything is being done to ensure the safety of the children. She understands that families will make the best decisions for their faith formation, and all are welcome when and how they are ready to return to parish classes.

Find out more

Catechetical Sunday, when catechists are brought forward and commissioned for their ministry before the church community, will be celebrated Sept. 20 with the theme, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”                

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020