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National Parish Religious Education Week 2014

By Jeanne Hunt, a nationally recognized speaker and authority in catechesis and evangelization

ThinkstockAs we celebrate the second annual National Parish Religious Education Week, which takes place from November 2-8 this year, we acknowledge the wonderful, vital work of parish religious educators who bring faith alive in the parishes they serve. Their welcoming presence to every child, every family, is a great blessing to the Church. Week after week, these educators become the eyes, ears, and heart of a loving God. What is most impressive is the way both volunteers and paid catechists use their gifts to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which is no easy task. Their active, living faith stands as witness to those they serve. Our religious educators truly live what they preach, in spite of the challenges they face.

One challenge that educators in parish ministry face is meeting the many religious education needs of the families they serve: the needs of students in Catholic schools; the needs of children in PSR programs; the needs of children, youth, and families who are a part of the parish RCIA process; and the needs of children who are home-schooled and the parents who teach them. Regardless of the programs in which children, youth, and their families are involved, it is important to remember that we worship as and are part of one parish family. It is impressive to watch how this challenge to foster and create unity is being met in parishes across dioceses. Here are some spirit-inspired suggestions that are being used in parishes and parish religious education programs throughout the country:

1. Preparation for and first celebration of the Sacraments of First Eucharist, Penance and Reconciliation, and Confirmation should not separate the children and youth according to the religious education program in which they participate. Sacramental celebrations are parish celebrations. We want to celebrate and support the children and young people as members of the parish family, and not separate or define them according to the religious education program of which they are a part.

2. Parish Family Nights are a wonderful way to include everyone in the parish in faith formation - even the parents! A parish in Raleigh, North Carolina, has four such events per year, focusing on the liturgical season or feast: The Advent Event; Epiphany; Mardi Gras and Lent; and Mary's Garden Party (in May). Each event includes a meal followed by prayer, reflection, and learning activities. This fun gathering helps build a community spirit among participants in all religious education programs offered by the parish.

3. We must think inclusively. When organizing children's choirs, sports teams, and other parish organizations, it is important to actively encourage children and youth from all religious education programs to participate. For example, a parish in Ohio started a Saint's Club. Each month junior high parish members gather with the pastor and youth team to learn about and discuss the lives of the Saints whose feasts will be celebrated in that month. It has been tremendously successful, and includes young people from the parish school, schools in the community, and those who are home-schooled.

4. Creating small faith groups for families can facilitate community building among those from various religious education programs, school settings, and walks of life. A parish in Maryland started small faith groups for families who have children baptized in the same year. Each year the parish invites all of the families who had children baptized to a dinner that features a Catholic parenting speaker. The parents are then invited to form small groups. These groups of four families gather monthly to meet, pray, and more. Their common bonds have grown and supportive friendships have been formed.

5. Prayer plays an especially important role in helping parishioners maintain their awareness of and identity as one Body in Christ. It is important to pray as a community, at Sunday and daily liturgy, for the unity of parishioners, and for the healing of any divisions or hurts known by all to be present in the parish community, in the civic community, and in the world.

These five suggestions are only a sampling of what is possible. Pastoral ministers and catechists must work together and think creatively to assure that parish gatherings, programs, and plans are designed to include everyone. It is a parish identity as one Body in Christ that we can and must foster in all of our planning and through our important ministry as religious educators in this wonderful Church we serve.

Jeanne Hunt is a nationally recognized speaker and authority in catechesis and evangelization. She preaches parish missions, gives retreats, and offers days of refection and workshops. She is a frequent contributor to the Catholic press and the author of many books. Her latest book is Raising a Moral Child, Paulist Press. Jeanne is on the staff of Our Lady of the Visitation Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio.