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Although religious education programs for children, teens and adults have grown since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a decline in the number of participating Catholics and a loss of Catholic culture in America. Learn how we can create faith communities to improve and develop the Catholic way of life.

Vatican 2 Today

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Sharing Our Heritage
of Faith

by John Roberto

We live in times of exciting developments in faith formation in the Church. Parishes are engaged in new ways of encouraging Catholics of all ages to deepen their relationship with Christ and their understanding and practice of the faith.

Over the past 40 years we have seen the reintroduction of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults as well as the growth of religious education programs for children and teens, family-centered religious education, youth ministry, parish renewal programs, adult faith formation, small faith-sharing groups and Bible studies to name only a few. Many of these are so commonplace we don't realize that they were absent from parish life prior to the Second Vatican Council and, in large part, were initiated in response to the vision and energy generated by it.

We also live in times that present tremendous, new challenges for developing a Catholic way of life and sharing our faith with future generations. American Catholics have experienced the gradual loss of a distinctive Catholic culture. We are challenged by declining levels of participation among Catholics in parish life and, in particular, the Sunday assembly, resulting in fewer opportunities for people to experience the Catholic way of life and make it their own.

We are challenged in our families to find meaningful ways to create patterns of family faith sharing—learning, praying, celebrating, serving—that are woven into the fabric of daily life. Many of the challenges we face—individually and as parish communities—can be summarized in a question: How can we create a faith community in the parish and home that provides an ongoing support system for the development of a Catholic way of life?


The ‘old days’

I went to public elementary school, so I was a “CCD kid.” On Mondays I was released from school one hour early and took the public bus across town to Holy Rosary (Italian) Church. (What did you expect from someone named Roberto?) The sisters came over from the Catholic school and taught us in the church. Monday’s program was for 5th- through 8th-graders, all together. Our textbook was the Baltimore Catechism—Third Edition (blue cover).

The sisters’ teaching approach was pretty simple: Each week we would cover a series of questions. We responded from memory or by reading the answer from the book, and then they explained what it meant. By the end of the year we had covered all the questions and answers. When we came back the next year, we started all over again with the first question!

The catechism approach to faith formation reflected a static view of the Catholic faith and of learning. We were taught as children what we must believe and that we were to believe this for the rest of our lives. Once we had learned this as children, there was only a need for reminders and reinforcement through the rest of life. This usually happened through Sunday sermons, devotions and special missions.

Fortunately, my own faith formation was much more than CCD classes. I grew up in a three-generation, Italian-Catholic household. We actively participated in all aspects of parish life: the sacraments, feasts and festivals, traditions and social activities. I was surrounded by a Catholic support system of family, parish and friends.

From static to dynamic

The Second Vatican Council replaced the static view of the Catholic faith with a more dynamic understanding. The Church—and faith formation—were re-centered on the Gospels and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; on the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; and on service to the world.

The new terms “People of God” and “Pilgrim Church” communicated the dynamism of this new approach in several important ways: 1) We learn throughout life. We never arrive; we are on a journey. 2) We deepen our understanding and practice of the Catholic faith throughout life. Every stage presents new opportunities and challenges. 3) We live and grow in community. Vatican II emphasized that the Catholic faith needed to become more personal and more communal at the same time.

Inspired by the Council, the Church embraced a dynamic view of catechesis. The goal has become an active, living discipleship and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This goes far beyond the minimalist approach prior to Vatican II. Faith formation combines informing people by nurturing their minds and hearts in the wisdom of the Catholic faith so that who they are and how they live are deeply influenced by what they “know,” forming people by nurturing their identity and lifestyle in Christian discipleship, and transforming people by empowering them to live their faith so that the world is transformed by the Catholic vision.

Looking ahead

What are the implications of this renewed vision of faith formation? How can we create supportive faith communities for the Catholic way of life at home and in the parish? How can we learn and live our Catholic faith today? Here are three suggestions that each of us can act on individually, within our families and together with the leaders of our parish communities.

1. Embrace lifelong learning.

Over the past 25 years we have become a society of lifelong learners. At many American universities, the largest program is the school of continuing education. Twenty years ago Elderhostel was a small program; today it is an international program involving millions of older adults in a wide variety of learning activities. Think of all the ways that you continue learning for your job or for personal enrichment.

We need to become a Church of lifelong learners. Vatican II challenged each of us to take responsibility for our own faith growth and learning. And the good news is that there has been an explosion of programs and resources to nurture our continued faith growth: adult education programs, small faith-sharing groups, Bible study, books, video and audio programs and online learning.

Deepening our understanding and practice of the Catholic faith needs to be a top priority for us all. Learning how to apply our faith to the issues and problems of our world today is an urgent challenge for every Catholic. The static view of faith and learning is dead.

The Second Vatican Council and the catechetical documents produced since have challenged parish communities to provide lifelong faith formation, a vision still not fully realized. We need to encourage our parish communities to provide resources, programs, small groups and activities to nurture faith growth from birth through the later years of life.

One of the most hopeful signs in lifelong faith formation is the introduction of intergenerational learning programs that gather all ages in the parish to learn, pray, celebrate and share together. Intergenerational learning builds community and meaningful relationships across all the generations in a parish, provides a setting for each generation to share and learn from the other generations (their faith, stories, wisdom, experience and knowledge), creates an environment in which new ways of living one’s faith can be practiced and provides adult role models for children and youth.

2. Become active in a learning community—your parish.

We often think of education as a teacher instructing students, a “top-down” model in which one person has the information a group of people needs. A new understanding of learning sees the role of the entire community. In a true learning community, everyone is actively engaged in learning and in teaching.

Consider the learning opportunities in the life and people of your parish. Every year the Church offers a 52-week learning program: the Church year. We hear the story of Jesus through the lectionary, Sunday Mass and the cycle of seasons and feasts. Are we tuned into the Church year so that it can inform, form and transform us?

When we immerse ourselves in the Church year we journey with Jesus on the road of discipleship; we grow in intimacy and communion with him. Why not gather pilgrims to share this journey? Find time each week for reflection and discussion. In addition to the Scriptures, there are many terrific resources to guide you on the journey. This is only one way that the parish can become your learning community.

Parish leaders need to take seriously the implications of the parish as a learning community. Parishes need to provide learning opportunities that prepare people for active, conscious, meaningful participation in the Church year, sacraments and works of justice and service. Parishes also need to help people reflect on their learning.

3. Share faith at home.

Vatican II and subsequent teachings by Pope John Paul II and the U.S. bishops all emphasize the importance of the family in faith formation. In Follow the Way of Love, the U.S. bishops remind us, “A family is our first community and the most basic way in which the Lord gathers us, forms us and acts in the world. The point of the teaching is simple, yet profound. As Christian families, you not only belong to the Church, but your daily life is a true expression of the Church.”

We need to re-create a pattern of family faith sharing by learning about the Catholic faith at home, praying together, celebrating rituals, enriching family relationships and serving the needy. Start simply by finding a time each day (at a meal or end of the day) to read the daily Gospel and pray a short prayer as a family.

During the Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter seasons, introduce special family traditions such as table prayers for the season, blessings for special meals, an Advent wreath, a day-by-day calendar of activities or a seasonal service project. Celebrate special rituals for birthdays, anniversaries and family accomplishments. Use some of your vacation time for a family service project. With each new tradition, you will slowly build a pattern of family faith sharing.

Parishes have an important role in supporting families in their faith-sharing efforts by teaching the skills for family faith sharing, modeling or demonstrating the types of activities we want families to incorporate into daily living and providing resources for home faith sharing. Parishes need to equip and empower family members, especially parents, for this important task.

Challenges for the future

We live in times that present new challenges for developing a Catholic way of life and sharing our faith with the next generation. We come to this task with the wisdom learned over the past 40 years from the pioneers of the renewal of faith formation in the Church. We come to this task with an abundance of resources for parish and home faith formation. We come to this task with the energy and enthusiasm that are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In The Church in the Modern World the Council Fathers remind us that “the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping” (#32). May we rise to the challenge.

Question Box:

• Which of the changes mentioned in the article have you experienced in your own lifetime? How have you responded to these changes?

• How well is your parish providing opportunities for lifelong faith formation and serving as a learning community for all of its members? What more can be done?

• How can you become more of a lifelong learner in terms of your Catholic faith?



Next: Jesus Christ: The Model for All Humanity by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


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