Family: The missing piece in catechesis

Written by Carol Baass Sowa, for Today’s Catholic

The keynote address at the Feb. 16 Midwinter Gathering for Catechists, Catechetical Leaders and Pastoral Ministers was of such import it merited two sessions, focusing on the significance of the family in catechesis. Presenter Joseph White, Ph.D., is director of family counseling and family life for the Diocese of Austin, co-author of the Allelu! and Alive in Christ/Vivos en Cristo religion series and a former director of religious education (DRE).

“The family is key to the most basic mysteries of our Catholic faith,” said White, noting God and the church are revealed to us as family in Genesis, which tells of our not only being created in God’s image, but to be in communion with one another. St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians explains Jesus’ relationship with us in a familial context, with Christ as bridegroom and the church as bride.

Parents are the primary catechists of their children, he emphasized, though some may expect to “drop off heathens and pick up Catholics” in a weekly hour in parish religious education classes, so catechists need to work at involving and engaging parents.

First, they should welcome families and meet them where they are. This is challenging, since recent decades have seen a 33 percent decrease in families eating dinner together, a 28 percent drop in family vacations, a 100 percent increase in time children spend in structured sports and a 500 percent increase in passive spectator leisure time. On top of this, our society is becoming increasingly more secularized, with an emphasis on compartmentalizing our faith and relegating it only to church on Sunday, which goes against our call to be “the salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” Religion class becomes just one more item to add to a child’s resume of expected activities.

Adding to the problem, many adults were poorly formed in their Catholic faith so have little attachment to it. A Pew research study showed 53 percent of U.S. adults have left the faith of their childhood, with only nine percent of these ever returning. “Sadly, the number is a little higher for Catholics,” noted White, “so we have some work to do here.”

It is important to be flexible and provide families with a variety of ways to plug into faith formation offerings, he said, especially in that evangelizing moment when they have been away from the church and looking into coming back to prepare their child for the sacraments. The flame of faith is still in them at this point, he related, but rigidity in how we react to them can “stamp out what’s left of that flame.”

Get to personally know the parents, he advised, recalling his DRE days and a family that seemed to be of the typical “drive-by sacraments” ilk. After a few weeks, the children were no longer coming to classes and the Holy Spirit prompted him to call the parents. It turned out the husband had abandoned the family and the wife was struggling to make ends meet. The parish reached out to give her support and the children returned to religion classes and received the sacraments. “That mom became one of our best and most committed catechists,” said White.

Reach out to parents, he urged, especially those with special needs like children in shared custody or being raised by grandparents. Send an introductory e-mail or actual letter, letting them know what their child’s class will be covering. For example, fourth grade focuses on conscience formation, so just as important as those grades preparing for a sacrament.
For the first few sessions parents usually walk a student to the classroom door and this is a good time to meet them, he explained, advising having a self-initiating activity ready to occupy the children, such as the free puzzles on Puzzlemaker at

It is important to connect faith with family life and White pointed out parent-child relationships are an image of God’s relationship with us. “Jesus chose a meal as the context within which he gave and continues to give his whole self to us,” he explained, with most of the major points of Jesus’ ministry centering around meals.

Research studies have shown it is “hardwired in our nature” that meals bring us closer together, so it is significant that, for the first time in history, our culture is moving away from family meals. However, studies show children who eat with their families five to seven times a week, have lower stress levels, are happier, have better peer relations and make better grades in school. White urged catechists to help parents understand and appreciate the value of the family meal, its connection to our faith and ways in which it draws people closer together. Elaborating on this, he noted young families sometimes do not realize in their work as parents they are already doing (and showing their children) the corporal works of mercy, feeding the hungry in their family at mealtime, giving drink to the thirsty in the middle of the night and even “visiting the imprisoned” in time-outs. Many teachable moments can be found while driving in the car, and he described such resources as a paper car visor holding a prayer for safe travel and religious conversation starters for children.

Catechists also need to build community among parish families and White recommended communicating with parents on an ongoing basis, always in five different ways. His included Mass announcements, bulletin blurbs, website posting, e-mail, poster on classroom door and handing out flyers in the drop-off/pick-up car line.

He noted hosting some sessions for children and parents together, where parents hear what their kids are learning on an adult level and conversations between children and parents can be facilitated, should also be considered. Publishers of your class program have resources to assist with this. He also recommended arranging optional family meetings outside of regular sessions, such as family pot-luck dinners or families gathering to see a movie together.

Families have developmental stages, White observed, and one of the biggest changes occurs when a couple has children. “This is the stage where families are completely restructuring their lives and ready to make changes and connect,” he related, and preparation for a child’s baptism is a time when parents are willing to do more than usual. Instead of offering them a class or two and then waving goodbye after the baptism until we see them again for First Communion, we should get them involved before they seek connections elsewhere.

“What if we took the hand of that family at baptism and we never let go?” he said. Baptism preparation could lead to post-baptism catechesis and formation of the family and to a parish early childhood program that involves the family in a practical way.

Another time we do not pay enough attention in the family life cycle is the teen years. Often there is a strong youth ministry program, but parents are not involved. White encouraged doing things with parents and teens together and structuring your catechetical ministry with parents in mind.
While the General Directory for Catechesis (GDC) states parents are the first and most important catechists of their child, it also says the parish is the most important place where catechesis occurs. White explained this, noting catechesis is more occasional and integrated in daily home life, but is more structured and comprehensive in the parish and both ways are necessary.

When he and his wife were DREs, they realized the current parish program did not resemble what the GDC prescribed, so they set about involving the parents through a registration form giving multiple ways to participate. After realizing the number of options they had, no one complained.
They could be a catechist, a catechetical assistant or substitute, serve on the special events or special projects teams or simply pray for special intentions. If a parent were already working in another parish ministry, they could promise to visit one class and share about it. Parents in adult faith formation could count that as their participation, since what they learned would naturally flow to their children.

When asked what they would like to study and when, parents’ first choice was the basics of Mass and then, Catholic parenting. They also asked classes be at the same time as their children’s, so the church and its hall were used.
Lastly, White put forth the need to help parents evangelize. “God invites us to do this work with him,” he observed, “but it is his work.” It involves word and action, and living this in the family, the parish and the world. While parents are the first evangelizers of their children, the children learn to be missionaries too as they share what they’ve learned with siblings and others.

“We need to prepare children to articulate their faith to others,” White said. “We need to assist parents in talking with their children about the faith and we need to give families practical ways to live the faith in daily life.”

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