Older Catholics recall being excused from their public-school classes to attend religious courses known as CCD, where they were taught to memorize the Baltimore Catechism to learn about their faith.
Today faith formation or school of religious education classes, as they are now known, take a holistic approach to supporting children in their journey of faith rather than requiring mere rote memorization of Catholic truths.
“Pope Pius VI said the Church exists to evangelize, and Pope John Paul II in the late ’80s talked about the ‘new evangelization’ and the need for a new proposal of the Christian faith, even to the baptized,” explains Katie Dawson, director of Diocese of Orange Parish Faith Formation.
“So, when we speak of evangelization, we’re not only thinking of far-off missions, but recognizing that the individuals who first need to be evangelized are our own selves and our family members, friends, and neighbors who need to hear the truth of Jesus in a new and winning way.”
To implement this evangelistic approach to religious education, the Diocese of Orange recently established the Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation, headed by Father Al Baca, as part of Bishop Kevin Vann’s new Strategic Plan.
Why has religious education changed?
Historically, CCD classes first were established so that families living their Catholic faith at home could bring their children to help them learn the language of our faith and understand what they were living together, Dawson notes.
“The challenge we see today – and it’s been going on for a very long time – is that parents frequently feel ill-equipped to foster their children’s faith,” she adds. “They feel they don’t have enough formation themselves and are not sophisticated theologians. But every family formulates their faith as they live it.”
Thus, Dawson points out, even if parents don’t know all the answers, they are helping their children by turning to God as the center and foundation of their lives. “If you are keeping God off to the side as a once-a-week activity or an extracurricular activity, then that’s how your children will view their faith.”
What’s new about faith formation today?
CCD class meant picking up a book and walking into a classroom. Today there are more layers to the experience of children who attend faith formation courses.
In this moment in the life of the Church in our area we are concerned about children just being dropped off to get their religious information, and we’re more and more focused in supporting families in their role as the first formators of their children’s faith,” she says. “We have more family faith formation events and we ask families to do homework with their children, usually engaging in an activity that centers on the faith.”
Many factors contribute to the development of the Church’s new faith formation efforts, Dawson says. “We no longer live in enclaves where everyone believes and does the same things. Instead, we live in a pluralistic environment and one that challenges our beliefs.”
Rather than living with the assumption that everyone believes similarly, cultural settings like ours question every belief, she notes. “In 1 Peter 2:15, he says we must always be prepared to give a reason for our hope,” Dawson explains. “I think that’s a particularly applicable text for us today. We do have a very reasonable faith.”
Fully developing our Catholic beliefs requires religious education and a lifelong dedication to learning, she adds.
How can parents educate their children about Catholicism at home?
Practically speaking, families must formulate their Catholic beliefs together every day. “Faith formation sessions last 60 to 90 minutes and children attend 25 times a year,” she says. “The idea that those sessions alone will help them develop and sustain a relationship with God and the Church doesn’t add up.”
Integrating faith formation into a family’s busy life can be very simple, Dawson advises. Some of her suggestions include:
- 1.Say grace before meals – even if you’re eating at Taco Bell.
- 2.Participate in Sunday Mass.
- 3.Make quick visits to Eucharistic Adoration to say hi to Jesus.
- 4.Make the sign of the cross on each child’s forehead as they head off to school.
- 5.Read Bible stories together. Ask your children, ‘does this make sense to you?’ and discuss them.
“We really need to establish an environment where children are free to ask difficult questions.”
Trusted sources online that Dawson recommends include catechistsjourney.loyolapress.com, which offers extensive resources for helping to explain various concepts to a child, and catholicicing.com, which is full of activities, information, and crafts families can do together.
“The question is if we are keeping God as the main thing in our lives,” Dawson says. “It’s a lifelong challenge for us to making God the center of our lives – and being called to mission by a loving God.”