Faced with the challenges of planning religious education programs that would ensure the physical and spiritual safety of students, one thing remained certain for parish directors and coordinators of religious education: the faith formation of young people would resume this fall.
“No matter what is going on in the world, religious education is critical,” said Kelly Krakowski, Director of Religious Education at St. Matthew Parish in Dauphin. “How sad would it be to give up on children’s religious education?”
Like her fellow catechists throughout the Diocese, Krakowski refused to throw in the towel on this year’s program, even when that meant revising plans as safety guidelines developed changed over the past six months in response to the pandemic.
“We constantly had to re-assess, and followed guidelines from the Diocese and the state,” she said.
Leading up to the start of religious education programs this fall, the Diocesan Office of Evangelization issued guidelines for them, based on those issued to Catholic schools and the most recent information from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the CDC.
Each religious education program developed its own plan specific to its location, in following the Diocesan guidelines. Highlights include specific plans for cleaning; minimized number of students and catechists present, to allow for social distancing; and the use of properly-worn face masks.
“Planning for this year involved the guidelines and then thinking through things like the size of our program, the resources we have, and if we could effectively implement all the cleaning, sanitizing and social distancing protocols,” Krakowski said. “We also had to think about parish families and how they would receive the options.”
“We really tried to take a holistic look at all the options and factors, and make the best decision for our parish,” she said.
What resulted for St. Matthew’s is a hybrid program of in-person and at-home religious education. Students in second and eighth grade – sacramental years for first Holy Communion and Confirmation – will meet at the parish education center one Sunday a month. The remaining classes will meet in person every other month. The weeks that St. Matthew’s 75 students aren’t in class, they’ll be expected to work through lessons at home.
“At-home learning will take place with parental assistance,” Krakowski said.
Students will be given their classroom textbook and supplemental activities, and parents will be provided with guidance and expectations of what should be accomplished when classes begin Oct. 4.
Krakowski acknowledges that moving roughly 75 percent of the program into homes can have its challenges and even pitfalls.
“Safety is at the forefront of our thinking, but we also understand that there are some downfalls and challenges with remote learning. People get isolated and sometimes unmotivated when everything is online,” she said.
“There are some households where everything we ask for will be done, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, there will be some families, sadly, where not a lot will happen,” Krakowski acknowledged. “We know there will be all different levels of engagement with the at-home learning. That’s the challenge of the hybrid model.”
Yet, the model of learning at home can also bring the added bonus of family engagement.
“The hybrid model offers an opportunity for families to engage in a way they haven’t before in their child’s religious education, and have conversations on the faith that they might not have had before, she said.”
At Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Lebanon and Our Lady of Fatima Mission in Jonestown, religious education programs are taking a similar approach, with 75 percent of classes taking place at home.
“With the number of unsettled issues we are still faced with, Father [Robert] Gillelan and I felt this was the safest way to go,” said AnneMarie Boltz, Director of Religious Education. “The new twist is that most classwork can be done online anytime, anywhere. This is two-fold, because it allows the parents, the primary catechists of our students, to be deeper involved in their faith formation.”
Each month, students will have three sessions online and one session in person at both St. Mary’s and at Our Lady of Fatima.
Catechists are using the same formation series they’ve relied on for a number of years, the “Faith and Life” series published by Ignatius Press. It will be provided by the online program “My Catholic Faith Delivered” for the 78 students at St. Mary’s and the 29 at Fatima.
With the workbook being voiced over, and a few assessment questions prior to the beginning of each chapter, parents are able to hear what is being taught, and help their child answer the questions beforehand,” Boltz said.
The faith-formation is two-fold: children and parents.
“Not many of us know all there is to know about our faith, and I am positive that parents will learn something through the observation and assistance they will be offering to their children,” Boltz said. “I am sure there will be the ‘ah-ha moments’ of ‘Oh, that’s why we do that at Mass,’ or ‘Oh, I remember that, but I have forgotten about it.’”
Boltz said coordinators and directors of religious education programs throughout the Diocese are working to safeguard the physical wellbeing of students while ensuring their continued faith formation.
“With our religious education programs, we try to engage our students in a way that speaks to their level. We can teach our faith in a fun way, we can use games that engage them as they learn, songs that inspire them, and hands-on activities,” she said. “As catechetical leaders, we try to teach with examples just as their parents do. Parents are their children’s first true catechists, and we are certainly not a replacement for that, but we love our faith and we want to help reinforce the love of God.”
Throughout the Diocese, religious education programs vary this year with in-class, hybrid and all-virtual models. One program embarking on the latter is that of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Greencastle and St. Luke the Evangelist Mission in Mercersburg.
“Our K-6 program is one of family catechesis, so our focus is to provide support to parents as they live out their vocation, bringing their children to Jesus Christ,” said Lucy Schemel, Director of Religious Education. “Due to COVID, we’re forced to switch to virtual methods, but our goal is the same: to help parents to form a Catholic home – a true domestic church – so their children can grow in the grace they receive in the sacraments, and so in union with Christ.”
The program began on Sept. 13, introducing the theme of “Life in Christ” and equipping parents with materials such as the “Family of Faith” books from Sophia Institute Press. Catechists will support families with as much contact as possible through Zoom, which will also be the virtual gathering space for special activities for children.
“Hopefully, the beneficial result will be a greater connection between catechists and families, and a way to grow closer as a parish when we aren’t physically present as much as we’d like,” Schemel said.
Initial reaction from parishioners has been supportive and understanding.
“There is disappointment that we can’t meet in person, from both parents and children, but also appreciation that we’re finding new ways to reach out to them and support them,” she said.
As classes resume in various formats and with safety protocols of cleaning, sanitizing, social distancing and face masks in place for in-person learning, catechists can focus on bringing young lives to Christ, especially during times of uncertainty.
“We can have great confidence that this structure protects the children’s physical safety, but their spiritual safety is another matter. Catechesis can be conducted remotely, but the sacraments cannot, and catechesis cannot be effective without an active sacramental life. Life in Christ becomes starved without the sacraments,” Schemel said.
“We are seeing too many families who have not returned to the sacraments since March. I understand the uneasiness, but it’s time to reassure them that they can safely come to Mass. Our parishes have worked so hard to make Mass and Reconciliation safely available; we need to communicate to our families that Jesus is here for them in the sacraments and they need Him. That will be our primary task for catechesis at St. Mark and St. Luke this year,” she said.
“Religious education is probably more important now than ever,” Krakowski added. “Understanding the faith and being able to embrace it during difficult times has probably never been more important. We have to do whatever we can to offer it and allow them to engage in it.”
“For some kids, this is the only place they might get religious education. We’re not willing to give that up,” she said.
Jim Gontis, Diocesan Director of Evangelization and Catechesis, lauded the C/DREs and catechists for their dedication to students’ education and physical wellbeing.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these past six months have provided challenges that, frankly, most of us have never had to face before. I’ve been edified by the faith, enthusiasm, creativity, and work ethic of our Coordinators and Directors of Religious Education and of our catechists. They are a dedicated lot,” he said. “Six months ago, none of us could have had any idea that we would be talking so much about masking, social distancing, sanitizing, etc., all the while trying to do all we can to see that the Catholic faith is handed on faithfully, whether by in-person instruction, virtually, or through a hybrid of in-person and at-home instruction. But here we are. Our people have risen to, and are rising to, the challenges presented by these difficult times.”
“The Diocese of Harrisburg is blessed to have these catechetical warriors who strive so valiantly in their efforts to hand on the Catholic faith in all of its beauty and rigor and vigor,” Gontis said. “In doing so, they help their students and their families to be put more deeply in touch with, in communion with, Jesus, with our holy Mother Mary, with the saints and with the Catholic Church. Our catechists are going to great lengths to teach their students to know, love, and serve God, and to know of His limitless love for them.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness