The diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis is providing an online resource guide to help parishes as they evaluate how to safely provide faith-formation for the 2020-21 school year.
The resource, which is part of the diocese’s COVID website, includes suggestions for hybrid and at-home models of faith formation. It also outlines mandatory guidelines and best practices for safe in-person and virtual gatherings, following directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local and state health departments, and the Diocese of Rochester.
“There is a whole section on virtual gatherings, and that’s got a lot of guidelines involved in it,” Linda Mehlenbacher, director of Evangelization and Catechesis, said in explaining the resource. “The in-person gatherings — they are not going to be what they would have been before (the pandemic).”
In addition to the online guide, over the past few months the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis also has been hosting weekly virtual meetings with parish catechetical leaders to discuss preparations for faith formation this fall, Mehlenbacher said. She added that the online resource came together after her office fielded many questions and concerns from the parishes.
“We kept getting all these phone calls: ‘What do I do about that, and what do I do about this?’” Mehlenbacher said. “Finally, we said, ‘We’ve got to put something together overall and see how effective it is.’”
During a recent webinar with parish catechetical leaders, Mehlenbacher noted that many leaders said their goal is to gather in person, but they are preparing to quickly pivot to online formation as necessary.
While the diocese is not mandating a specific model for faith formation, it is recommending that parishes have hybrid plans in place, Mehlenbacher said.
St. John of Rochester Parish in Fairport has already begun registration for its 2020-21 faith-formation program, which will start Sept. 20. Families will have two options — an online-only learning platform and a hybrid family faith-formation program, said Pam Sikora, the parish’s director of faith formation.
Offered through My Catholic Faith Delivered, the online program will provide formation for children in kindergarten through ninth grade. Consisting of text, videos, questions and a quiz, each of The 28 weekly online lessons at each level can be completed at the pace and schedule that is best for students, Sikora explained. And through the platform’s dashboard, Sikora will be able to track individual students’ progression through the program.
The hybrid family faith-formation program option will include both in-person and home instruction. Participating families will meet in person on the first Sunday of each month following the 9 a.m. Mass. During these in-person sessions, students will receive instruction at their respective grade levels, while parents receive advice on how to best teach the faith to their children. Following the session, parents will take home lessons to complete with their children at times convenient for them during the remaining three weeks of the month, Sikora explained.
“The parents are taking on the role of being their child’s primary faith educator, which is what they are supposed to do based on their baptismal promises,” she said. “We (parish catechists) just become the support system for the parents.”
Most St. John of Rochester families have chosen the online option, according to Sikora, who noted that 146 students have registered for the online learning platform and 33 students have registered for family faith-formation as of Aug. 24.
As part of both programs, families are encouraged to attend weekly Masses and participate in such parishwide events as St. John of Rochester’s Day of Service and first-Saturday family programs, so they are “not totally disassociated from the St. John of Rochester community,” Sikora said.
While some parishes will begin faith formation following prior years’ schedules, others have decided to delay the start of their programs. Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish, for example, won’t get underway until October, according to Ashley Blank, coordinator of faith formation.
“After talking with other parents about what faith formation would look like, I was feeling that we were all stressed about school first. My thought was, ‘Why are we going to add to that by also starting faith formation?’” said Blank, who also is the mother of two young children.
Blank shared her concerns with parish staff and the pastoral council, which recommended that the start of faith formation be delayed until families had time to adjust to the new academic year. Even so, the parish’s plan for faith-formation does not involve in-person gatherings, she said.
Instead, the parish is working on an intergenerational program for the whole parish. The program will focus on a new theme every two weeks and will include a variety of activities geared toward specific age groups. Children enrolled in faith formation will participate in three family activities during each two-week interval, Blank explained.
“We really wanted to do this family-faith model and let the families take charge because the parents are their child’s first teachers,” she said. “We wanted conversations of faith to happen naturally, not while sitting at a desk in front of a computer.”
Although faith formation at St. Catherine this year will be delayed and very different from the programs of prior years, Blank emphasized the importance of continuing to teach the faith to children.
“It’s during these times of trial that faith plays a huge part,” she said. “Knowing that families can stay connected (to the church) during this time and knowing they have pastoral staff here for them, it can make a big difference in the lives for our children and for our families as well.”