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Parish catechetical leaders find ways to teach faith from home

Keeping faith alive during a pandemic can be challenging, especially for families with young children. Rising to the challenge are parish catechetical leaders tasked with helping to teach children about their Catholic faith. 

“The parish catechetical leaders had to switch very quickly to virtual learning,” explained Ron Pihokker, director of the Archdiocese of Newark Catechetical Office. “They have been very creative.”

Parish catechetical leaders typically do not meet during the summer. The Catechetical Office arranges county meetings throughout the year and a two-day retreat in June. But during the pandemic, Pihokker and his team organized monthly virtual county meetings for catechetical leaders. The teachers were “at a loss,” he said, and needed more guidance during lockdown.

“There was more cooperation and presence online,” he described. “They really hit the ground running.”

Parish educators used programs including Flipgrid, Google Classroom and Zoom to create unique learning experiences.

Patty Rodriguez, associate director of catechist formation and enrichment for the archdiocese, echoed Pihokker’s sentiment.

“Accompanying the parish catechetical leaders throughout the archdiocese during this time has been truly lifegiving and fills me with hope for our Church,” she said. “It has been inspirational to witness their tireless efforts in serving their parish families. It is a joy and privilege to learn alongside them and offer them support as they are determined to overcome whatever challenges they encounter.”

Pihokker explained that religious education classes will remain remote for the fall. “We are all anxious to return to in-person learning, but we are trying to not expose larger groups of kids to the virus,” he said. “Religious education programs draw kids from all different schools, heightening the risk of spreading the virus. Many of our catechists are older and some have compromised immune systems. We don’t want to endanger anyone for these brief sessions.”

The pandemic has been a tragedy, he stated, but also allowed for opportunities for families to become more involved in their children’s faith formation. “I often say that catechetics is a three-legged stool—the parish, school and family are all integral to educating children in faith. Catechetics can’t exist without the parents’ participation. At baptism, the family enters a contract to raise their children in faith,” he explained. “Virtual learning during the pandemic has provided an opportunity for both children and parents to share their faith together.”

Cathy Hunt, director of religious education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood, joined with two other local parishes to participate in a week-long virtual summer catechetical program.

Hunt and her team collaborated with catechetical leaders Maryann Facciola and Michelle Torpey from St. Catharine Parish in Glen Rock and Pat Keehaghan from Our Lady Mother of the Church in Woodcliff Lake.

From June 24 through July 2, around 800 children participated in the remote faith learning experience. Each day consisted of a virtual classroom program with Zoom webinar lessons pre-recorded by their religious education teachers. There were also at-home components where each student and their families were asked to complete an activity together. Each parish’s priests also recorded an opening prayer for each day of the summer program.

“We wanted to do the program in an organized way,” Hunt explained. “During May and June, the six teachers recorded 21 lessons on Flipgrid. Each child would watch three videos a day and participate in live virtual music classes. I had 115 kids in my class.”

Hunt heard positive feedback, especially about activities that encouraged participation from the whole family. Each student had a list of activities to choose from each day. Suggested tasks included baking cookies for essential workers or playing a quiz game together.

“We didn’t want it to seem like school,” Hunt said. “The children already had three months of online learning and we didn’t want to make them write too much. We wanted to create a fun, hands-on approach to learning. The parents got really involved.”

The summer program closed with livestreamed Mass at St. Catharine with all the directors of religious education participating.

The three parishes plan to keep working together in the fall. The program will also be shared with other diocesan catechetical leaders. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” Hunt explained. “Other parishes should be able to use your lessons and activities. The archdiocesan Catechetical Office did a really excellent job keeping us all connected during the pandemic.”

Colleen Jagde, director of religious education at St. Anne Parish in Fair Lawn, has also kept in close contact with her students during quarantine.

“I was driven by the fear that people would lose touch with their faith,” she said.

The parish provided YouTube videos of pre-recorded children’s Liturgy of the Word. Parish priests would recite the Gospel and homily and send the videos to religious education families.

“We had Together Tuesday where religious education students would meet with us virtually. We also sent out activities like a sacred scavenger hunt and a Bible discussion with their families. We thought of ways to keep that interest in their faith going,” Jagde said.

With 600 students in their religious education program, St. Anne Parish also sent out ideas for service projects, such as collecting socks and dental supplies for Bergen New Bridge Medical Center. The families also had a drive-by Mother’s Day and Father’s Day blessing. “We tried to keep people engaged with creative ideas to encourage faith dialogue at home,” Jagde explained.

Along with the pastor and parish priests, she continued to meet virtually with “Tuesday’s Angels,” a group of parishioners with developmental disabilities.

“The group is from age 7-18. The relationship they have with each other is so special that they had to continue meeting, even if it was via Zoom,” Jagde said.

She described how the pandemic caught everyone off guard. “At first, I was overwhelmed. It was important to stay connected with families, so I did a lot of livestreams.”

Now, there is a whole network of people helping out, including a parishioner who volunteers to record the religious education videos.

“With every challenge, there is a gift. I got to know people a lot better and learned how they deal with their everyday challenges. People have been living their faith a lot more through this crisis,” Jagde said.

For many parishes, preparation for the sacraments continued remotely and in creative ways.

Back in March, Chi Aquino, director of religious education at St. Paul Parish in Ramsey, wasn’t sure what to do with her First Communion youngsters.

“It’s always one of the more joyful times,” she recalled.

Aquino received a list of addresses and, along with the parish priests, visited the students with posters and balloons. The priests blessed the children and families outside their homes. Out of the 120 First Communion families, about two thirds requested visits over the two-day period.

“It was far beyond what I had imagined. We really needed that. We were all really down. Dealing with the uncertainty of a pandemic gets exhausting,” she said. “Some of the families even got dressed up. The visits were so special. Sometimes the neighbors would come out to their driveways and prayed with us.”

“The priests were so joyful,” Aquino continued. “Who would’ve thought that spending just five minutes with parishioners would cause such a reaction?”

Aquino is in her third year at St. Paul Parish, which has about 1,000 students enrolled in religious education. She went from putting together a monthly newsletter to sending it weekly during the pandemic.

“I wanted them to know that we are still here,” she said.

Aquino also relied on another way to stay connected. “I love talking with families over the phone. It’s so simple, just a conversation, but you hear a whole wide range of struggles,” she explained. “Some people haven’t really left the house much because they live with elderly family members. My husband, who is a pastry chef, hasn’t been able to work since March. We thank God that we have the Church when things get hard.”

Aquino is excited for the year ahead. St. Paul plans to host Adoration nights with praise and worship music for middle school families. The church will set up for social distancing with pre-registration to manage the numbers. 

On Catechetical Sunday, which is Sept. 20, families will pick up books at St. Paul, and the family project for the month will be holy water fonts for their at-home prayer space. She also plans to create a giant chalk rosary to walk through and pray, ending with an outdoor Mass and a socially distanced pizza party in the church parking lot.

Later this fall, the archdiocesan Catechetical Office will host the annual Catechist Convocation virtually from Nov. 6-8 in both Spanish and English.