National Catholic Reporter
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Catholic Education
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

Scarce resources challenge South's religious educators


Religious educators face stiff challenges, beginning with their job description. What is it, exactly, that they’re supposed to accomplish? And how?

Before Vatican II (1962-65), religious educators, often nuns, drilled children in the grade-school edition of the Baltimore Catechism, a basic compendium of questions and answers whose opening lines many older Catholics can still recite:

Q: Who made us?
A: God made us.

Q: Why did God make us?
A: God made us to know, love, and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.

These rote and ritualistic answers have gone the way of sock hops and air raid drills, and 21st-century youth often know more of the world at age 10 than their grandparents did in high school. And for a variety of social, economic and religious reasons, contemporary parents often lack the time, training or desire to educate their children in Catholicism, or even get their families to Mass.

For religious educators, the reasons don’t much matter. What they care about, and care passionately about, is how to educate and initiate young people into the faith community. Catholic education seems to have broken down in recent decades, and religious educators are searching for ways to do it right.

The question is, what does “doing it right” mean? What does it mean from one generation to the next? One geographical region to another? And what does it mean in a time when kids are no longer willing to settle for -- much less give unquestioning compliance to -- stock answers?

Participants at the recent Johannes Hofinger Conference in New Orleans were acutely aware of these challenges. In search of answers, they attended workshops on everything from using media in catechesis (Britney Spears’ “demographic” audience starts at age 7), to the drama and dance of discipleship (during worship or in class), to putting life into the liturgy (which needs to be more than a “hymn sandwich”).

Between workshops, several parish-based religious educators shared their experiences of working with Catholics in the South. Although the numbers are increasing, traditionally Catholicism has not established itself in the American South to the extent that it has in, say, the Northeast. And coupled with small Catholic populations are perennially scarce financial resources.

For religious educators in the South, especially, doing catechesis right depends not only on time, place and circumstance, but also on elusive funds and lack of parish churches. According to the Glenmary Research Center, from 1990 to 2000 the number of Catholics in the South grew by some 30 percent (compared to the Northeast’s 4 percent). But numbers of parishes and priests are not keeping up. Currently, some 12 percent of all Southern counties are without a priest or even a pastoral administrator.

Tradition and turmoil

Mary Lombardo and Mary Rose Varacalli of St. Frances of Assisi in Logan, W.Va., are typical of many religious educators in Southern parishes. In West Virginia, approximately 105,000 Catholics (a decrease of about 3 percent from 1990 to 2000) make up less than 6 percent of the population.

Lombardo and Varacalli know virtually the entire history and demographic make-up of St. Francis parish, a Catholic community of about 100 families administered by the Glenmary Home Missioners.

Lombardo, a licensed social worker with experience in sex abuse cases, is a middle-school teacher who leads a church youth group and Boy Scout troop. She knows that formal religious education is important, but so is the formation received outside the classroom. “In the spring, Glenmary brings in college kids to fix houses” in the area. “We get the parish kids involved in that.”

Religious education at St. Francis is traditional. High school seniors and persons in the catechumenate meet on Tuesday night. Wednesday night is for religion classes for grade school students and those in the first years of high school. Prison ministry takes place on Thursday nights. But one characteristic of parish catechetical activity is contemporary: It’s busy.

Varacalli, a liturgist and organist who works with the catechumenate program, recalls religious education when she was young. Local nuns taught catechism in families’ homes. Later, children went to the church where the priest taught catechism.

“Of course,” Lombardi added, “[girls] didn’t get to be altar boys, but we always wanted to be.”

The women clearly hold conflicted feelings about religious education. On the one hand, they are searching for new ways to reach parish youth. Yet, contemporary religious education seems emptier for the lack of tradition.

“We’ve lost the innocence” of earlier generations, Lombardi said.

Varacalli agreed. “The church is in turmoil. We’re all searching for a way to bring us all back.”

But back to what? And even if pre-Vatican II Catholics could define “it,” would younger Catholics want it?

Mixing it up

Randall J. Roberts is an electrical engineer who, after five years in that profession, realized he “didn’t like it.” During those years, he volunteered as a youth minister in south Mississippi, a state where only about four percent of the population (some 116,000 people) is Catholic. Waving goodbye to engineering, Roberts became a full-time religious education coordinator last summer for Sacred Heart Parish in Hattiesburg and St. Thomas Aquinas in Oak Grove, a bordering community of about 9,000 people.

Southeast Mississippi, like much of the rest of the South, is being challenged with growing numbers of Catholics and shrinking resources. The situation demands fresh ideas and contemporary ways to implement them.

Roberts said that in ministering to young people, it’s important to “meet ’em where they’re at.” He attempts to do that with a college friend, Robert Murphy III, in a two-man outfit they call FLANK: Forever Loving and Needing the King. They travel to parishes and conventions giving talks, conducting days of reflection and retreats, including Christian music. As part of his FLANK shtick, he performs “Stupid Human Tricks with Randall” -- he multiplies multi-digit numbers in his head faster than people can enter the numbers in a calculator.

With the teenagers of Sacred Heart and St. Thomas Aquinas, Roberts said, “We’re trying to mix it up, to bring them together more.” But that can pose challenges. “The ‘permission givers’ can derail the best of plans,” he said. But parental cooperation in bringing teens of these two parishes together is only a small piece of a larger puzzle facing religious educators in any endeavor. “If parents’ attitudes would improve,” he said in what could be a religious educator’s motto, “the kids’ attitudes would improve.”

One attitude challenge among students, Roberts says, is the cohort of post-confirmation high school seniors. “Too often, their mindset is, ‘Once you’re confirmed, it’s over.’ We need to tell them that you don’t graduate out of the Catholic church, you graduate into it.”

‘A sense of awe’

Community of the Holy Faith Sr. Maura O’Donovan is director of religious education and parish coordinator at the Church of the Epiphany, an African-American congregation in eastern New Orleans. Louisiana has a strong Catholic community, about 1.4 million, but it shrank by about 1 percent in the 1990s. In terms of race, New Orleans is 70 percent black, but the area’s large parishes are overwhelmingly white. Parishes are overwhelmingly segregated, and unlike white parishes, black churches in New Orleans are notoriously underfunded. For Easter last year, for instance, little money was available for Epiphany congregants to treat the adults joining the church to a reception. So, they took up their own collection and produced $200.

But even more important to catechesis than funding is the need to honor the cultural roots of a Catholic congregation. O’Donovan explained, for instance, that while most Catholic churches baptize by sprinkling water on the heads of infants, “for this community of Catholics, immersion is important -- it carries a sense of awe.” But for a long while, the tradition of immersion was frustrated at Epiphany because the baptistery consisted of a “kiddy pool.” Baptismal water was drizzled over people’s heads before splashing to the plastic below. Not an awesome sight.

With O’Donovan’s help, the congregation built a proper baptismal pool with funds applied for and received from a financial grant in the area of Catholic “formation.” The successful project underlined the importance of adapting catechetical formation to the congregation it is intended to serve.

Finding what works -- how to do religious education right -- is an ongoing process likely to have as many answers as there are Catholic communities. To the question of how religious educators can best respond to the needs of contemporary Catholics, Roberts perhaps gives the most straightforward answer of all: “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

Deborah Halter is a lecturer in World Religions at Loyola University, New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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