Three parishes take fresh approach to adult faith formation

| Bridget Ryder | February 21, 2017 | 1 Comment

Father Nate Meyers, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Buffalo, presents his CREED program (Catholic Religious Education Engaging Discipleship) Feb. 2 using a curriculum he wrote. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Brad Parent, 27, doesn’t usually talk  during Mass, but one Sunday he spent much of the liturgy whispering to a friend. It wasn’t a conversation. The friend was searching for that something the world cannot give, and his search had led him to St. Mark in St. Paul with his Catholic friend. Parent, an active parishioner and well-catechized Catholic, wanted to make sure his friend understood what was going on. But after Parent had passed on all the knowledge he had, he realized there was still so much he didn’t know.

That real-life scenario could take place in any parish on any given Sunday. To meet the needs of adults in all stages of faith, three parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are experimenting with new ways of delivering adult catechesis.

Laura Schumacher of St. Francis Xavier engages in discussion with other attendees. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

‘The Mass Explained’

All Massgoers need a reason to attend, said Brother David Hottinger, a member of the Pro Ecclesia Sancta community that serves St. Mark and a seminarian at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. Understanding the meaning and reason behind the hourlong chain of rites and prayers helps people have a better “why” to motivate their commitment to weekly Mass attendance. This can either reinforce an already formed habit or help people make Sunday Mass a regular part of their life.

“Our experience is that people want to know why we do this,” Brother David said. “The Mass gives you a sense of the meaning, but there is a mystery there. They can see there is something going on here that is more than meets the eye.”

Parent’s experience with his friend dovetailed with Brother David’s observation. It also inspired him in his work on the planning committee of St. Mark’s young adult ministry, and he proposed that the parish offer a teaching Mass.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows for timely explanations during Mass, and a teaching Mass — a valid Mass with interjections of catechetical commentary — exploits the full potential of the instruction. Only the eucharistic prayer may not be interrupted. At St. Mark, a teaching Mass has been part of the preparation for children making their first Communion, but “The Mass Explained,” as the event was titled, was the first time the parish offered it to adults.

Parent and the planning committee prepared by taking a survey about what young adults wanted to know about the Mass. Brother David then wrote commentary based on the wide variety of survey responses. People are curious about the Mass, he noted, since many of the rites were formulated long ago. While not ignoring interesting details, he kept the focus on the overarching mystery.

A lay minister and Father Alvaro Perez, a Pro Ecclesia Sancta priest who presided at the Mass, read the commentary at appropriate times.

“Before Mass we had the prompter say what the Mass is — the spiritual sacrifice of Christ, the redemption applied to our own lives — and how important that is, and how we have to take advantage of that for ourselves and others,” Brother David said. “The goal was to help people enter more deeply and to know the mystery contained.”

The teaching also emphasized the importance of the offertory as a moment to bring all of one’s intentions and concerns onto the altar, not only a time for song. The event also took participants into aspects of the Mass they don’t usually get to see. Father Perez invited everyone into the sacristy while he vested, prayed aloud the prayers associated with each vestment, and explained their symbolism and history.

Held Dec. 15, the mid-week event attracted about 30 people, despite cold weather and Christmas preparations. It was geared toward young adults, but a few older adults and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults candidates also participated. A 30-minute Q-and-A period in the church followed the Mass. Afterward, the group gathered for refreshments in the parish hall, where the questions continued.

“Father [Perez] was surrounded by people and being peppered with questions. I got the impression we really only scratched the surface of what people wanted to know,” Brother David said.

Besides hitting an area of deep interest, Brother David attributes the evening’s success to the interactive, participatory format.

“Comparing it to a standard event like a talk with a social, it had something people were familiar with and could be active in. It wasn’t being talked to for 40 minutes,” he said.

Father Nate Meyers talks to those attending the CREED program. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In-depth formation

On the rural edge of the archdiocese, Father Nate Meyers is meeting another need and challenge: in-depth faith formation in a practical location. Many of his parishioners at St. Francis Xavier in Buffalo were interested in the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institutes’ two-year program, but the nearest cohort location was a 45-minute drive.

“I thought we should offer something further west to meet that need,” he said.

So Father Meyers created his own program. He calls it CREED: Catholic Religious Education Engaging Discipleship. It incorporates many of the same principles as the Catechetical Institute, but not wanting to compete with the CI, Father Meyers’ program has its own characteristics. Since the CI is based on the four sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Father Meyers based CREED on another set of four: the four theologies.

Over the course of two years — with each year divided into semesters of 10 classes — he plans to cover the basics of the Church’s scriptural theology, historical theology, dogmatic theology and moral theology. He wrote the curriculum himself, consulting with other priests and friends on what to cover and adding creative names for the lessons.

Topics are both fundamental and general interest. The section on Scripture, for instance, includes a lecture on the Deuterocanonical books and why the Catholic and Protestant Bibles differ slightly. Other topics include Charlemagne and the formation of Europe into Christendom, the domestic Church and the family, just war theory and eschatology, or the theology of the end times and afterlife.

Father Meyers wants to imbue his students with the understanding that the Church has been speaking the same message about humanity’s problems for 2,000 years.

“There is a need for people to understand the depth and consistency of Catholic teaching,” he said. “Catholic teaching can seem like one voice among many. The more that people can understand that this isn’t just one voice among many, the more people will turn to their faith to let it guide them.”

Father Meyers also wanted to structure the program so that it would serve a wide audience, Catholic or not. CREED runs on a drop-in basis. There is no registration. The classes build on each other, yet Father Meyers structures them so that someone dropping in would not be lost.

Like the CI, the classes combine socializing, learning and praying. The evening starts with an icebreaker, followed by a 30-45 minute lecture. Afterward, there is a break and socializing. The evening ends with prayer, often in a format connected to the lecture, such as eucharistic adoration or lectio divina. The goal of prayer time is to help attendees internalize the lecture, “so they can take it and have it shape their own life of discipleship,” Father Meyers explained.

Classes first began September 2016, and the second semester started the first week of February. Though all the initial students were from St. Francis Xavier, Father Meyers also invited Catholics from other parishes in the deanery and found the other pastors were enthusiastic about the idea. He is still perfecting the program, but it’s something he hopes can be used in other parishes.

From left, Shannon Grossman talks with Tammy Sorensen and her daughter, Samantha, during small-group discussion. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Quick catechesis

If people arrive at the St. Austin campus of St. Bridget in north Minneapolis a little early for Mass some Saturday evening, they might have the impression they’re late. There is a good chance that Father Paul Jarvis — senior associate pastor of St. Bridget, which merged with St. Austin in 2012 — would already be up front preaching. It’s his “mini-teaching,” an initiative to inject easily accessible and far-reaching adult catechesis into the parish. He started it in December, giving a 20-minute presentation before each Mass during Advent. The short class has been well received.

“It’s helpful. People really seem to enjoy it,” said Carol Wolney, a parishioner since 1977. “It started with just a few of us, but now there’s a lot.”

Father Jarvis started the short talks in response to the needs parishioners expressed in a survey. They wanted more education and formation in the faith, but had difficulty making time for it. They requested something that coincided with their Sunday Mass routine. Father Jarvis noted that even well-attended faith formation events only draw a fraction of parishioners.

“Today it’s really difficult for people to find time for faith formation. We’re so overscheduled. Our best chances are the people who make the effort to come to Mass,” he said. “I think people are thirsting for knowledge, and you start with the people who are already coming, and then they bring others.”

Having a short teaching can also be part of the process of evangelization or “re-evangelization” of Catholics who are distant from the Church. For someone coming to Mass for the first time — or for the first time in a long time — the talk can help them understand what they are seeing, instead of feeling estranged by an unfamiliar ritual.

Regular attendees also learn something new each week that draws them more deeply into worship. Father Jarvis’ quick class reminded regular Massgoers Mary Dass and Alice Wortman of things they had forgotten from their childhood catechism, and it also provided fresh insights.

“They are informative and it makes Mass more meaningful. It makes you more aware, brings it more to life,” Dass said.

Father Jarvis sees the class as a teaser to entice someone to clear their schedule for the two-hour, mid-week faith formation night. He also believes this method may be particularly effective for reaching consumer-savvy, time-managing millennials.

“Millennials want to know if an expenditure is going to be worth their time. No judgment on that,” he said, adding that early Christians adapted their evangelizing tactics to the reality of their era.

With the mini-teaching, millennials and everyone else can immediately witness the lesson in action in the Mass. Father Jarvis has thus far taught about the Mass itself. In his experience, adults have a deep desire to understand the meaning and theology of the Mass and its rituals. At the same time, the way the Church worships communicates what it believes, he said.

“Pointing out a symbol in the church or in the Church’s ancient prayer helps hook the concept in the parishioner’s brain. After all, it was why the symbols were often created, especially during eras in which most people were illiterate,” he said. “They work just as well for 21st century-moderns to understand, make connections and remember. And, later on, teach to younger and newer members.”

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  • Jim Debilzan

    Wow this article hit the nail on the head! I have been trying to put together a program for my parish to reengage our current parishioners and bring back those who have left the Catholic church. Unfortunately we have been watching a steady decline in practicing Catholics and it’s high time that we start a path to reverse this trend. We need to start getting back to teaching the what and why’s of the Catholic faith as there are too many who don’t understand them and are falling away. A excellent resource for this is the book written by Matthew Kelly The Four Signs of A Dynamic Catholic. Along with the book check out The Dynamic Catholic Institute which he created that is making huge strides on providing solutions to reversing the falling away trend. As Catholics let’s keep praying for more great idea’s and ways to bring the idle Catholics back. Hat’s off to these priests and thank you for going the extra mile!