Families often struggle with finding time to practice their faith together. So last fall, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne implemented a new approach for its religious education program that draws whole families back to learning and creates new opportunities to connect with each other.
The need for an overhaul of the previously existing program took root when Debbie Blackburn, director of family faith formation at St. Vincent, attended a talk on family-focused religious education used by St. Jude Catholic Church in New Lenox, Illinois.
“The program is all about strengthening faith as a family to build up the domestic Church,” Blackburn said. “It gives parents confidence in their ability to teach the faith to their children, and it provides more opportunities for deeper family connections.”
Blackburn worked with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend to ensure the curriculum followed guidelines approved by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, and the parish kicked off the program last fall.
Instead of dropping their children off for religious education classes, parents and students in grades one through six gather in the church and begin the evening with a song, announcements and prayer. Parents then break off into a session led by St. Vincent pastors Father Daniel Scheidt and Father Jay Horning to cover that night’s catechetical topic. Meanwhile, students head to the classroom for grade-appropriate catechesis with a catechist. Guest speakers have included teenagers who discussed effective strategies for family prayer that were used by their own parents, and Father Scheidt and Father Horning share ways parents can establish their home as a domestic Church.
Session topics cover the four pillars of the Catholic Church — creed, prayer, sacraments and morality — with additional sessions for Advent/Christmas, Lent/Holy Week and a final session on the New Evangelization. First and second grade students then attend four additional sessions on sacramental preparation for their first reconciliation and Eucharist.
Between each monthly session, students work on lessons related to that month’s catechetical topic. Families have access to online lessons and receive a binder of educational materials at the monthly meeting. One or more family members are encouraged to participate in any other parish program each month and then write a short reflection sharing how service to others deepened their faith and family bond. Families also have the opportunity to write a reflection on the Masses they attend together.
St. Vincent uses a family-focused approach for its religious education program for seventh and eighth grade students, too. Edge, a middle school youth ministry program offered through the parish, was primarily attended by St. Vincent de Paul School students. Now St. Vincent combines instruction nights for the religious education students and the Edge student: This way the religious education students and parish school students get to know each other, and parents of the two groups can build relationships, too.
“At Edge nights, parish grade school and public school students benefit from programming that reaches the heart, not just the mind. And for public school religious education students and their parents, it helps them connect with the parish community,” Blackburn explained.
As for what’s next, St. Vincent will conduct a survey at the end of this year to evaluate the program. But so far, reflections submitted by the families tell a story of appreciation for the opportunity to share their faith together.
“Families are mini-churches that function within parish life. We have to model the Church in our homes for our faith to have meaning and take root in the hearts of students,” said Blackburn.
For more information about St. Vincent de Paul’s religious education program, contact Blackburn at 260-489-3537.
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