Teaching the teachers of religious faith

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

John Valenti travels around the Davenport Diocese making presentations to encourage and foster catechists’ growth.

“We’d like to equip you for your job. We’d like to help you grow in your job,” he tells a group of catechists gathered at St. Anthony Parish in Dav­enport on a stormy evening. Valenti, diocesan coordinator of Lifelong Faith and Lay Ministry Formation, didn’t let the weather disrupt his mission: to get the catechists on board for Echoes of Faith, a program of catechist formation for the digital age.

Valenti
Valenti

“It’s not us who teach, it’s Christ who teaches through us,” Valenti said, explaining why ongoing, lifelong faith formation is so important.

“The way you touch people on behalf of Christ is miraculous.”

Indeed, 761 catechists in the Davenport Diocese are touching the lives of 12,185 students who are under religious instruction —either in their parishes (7,366 students) or diocesan schools (4,819 students). Nineteen percent of all catechists in the diocese are certified, meaning they have achieved at least a basic level of competence in their area. The diocese has set a goal of having all catechists certified.

It’s not about creating one more requirement for already busy catechists. The ultimate goal is to help Catholics “to better celebrate, live and pass on the Catholic faith to our young people and adults,” Valenti wrote in the recently updated and revised diocesan Lifelong Faith For­mation Curriculum Guide. “Cate­chesis for all assures us that every person in our parishes and schools has a foundation in the teachings of the Catholic Church.” Through a lifelong faith journey, “we learn and experience the Lord in our homes, workplaces, parishes and communities.”

That’s also the aim of a group of catechetical leaders from the Davenport and Clinton deaneries who meet monthly to collaborate. The Ministers of Religious Education (MORE) seek to “share in the life of the parish and collaborate at the deanery and diocesan level and continue to develop in personal and professional growth,” according to their mission statement.

MORE members shared their thoughts about catechist certification with The Catholic Messenger following their April 19 meeting at diocesan headquarters. “It’s important to have catechists certified so that we’re all in line with what the church is saying,” ob­served Joyce Kloft, minister of faith formation for children ages 3 through sixth grade at St. Ann Parish-Long Grove. Kloft herself has be­gun participating in Cen­tering Prayer and attends various workshops and seminars. “It helps my spiritual growth and knowledge of the faith.”

“Catechists are not there just to fill a position, but to articulate the faith. Being a catechist is not something we do, it’s something we live every day of our lives,” noted Brenda Bertram, director of faith formation and youth ministry for Prince of Peace Parish-Clinton. “In my own life, I take advantage of any opportunities for en­richment, from spiritual to meth­o­dology. Dedication to prayer is so important, too. I go to daily Mass as often as I can. Being connected to the Eucharist keeps the real presence of Jesus in my daily life and in the people I encounter in the ministry I do,” Bertram reflected. “You have to look in the eyes of others and see the eyes of Christ in them.”

Pat Sheil, director of religious education and youth minister at St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt, agrees that ongoing formation for catechists is essential. It’s a challenge, though, to get volunteers to take on additional training. Faith formation, she added, “is the responsibility of the entire parish, not just the catechists in the classroom.”

Valenti thinks the Echoes of Faith online catechist training program will make certification doable because it’s designed to accommodate catechists’ busy schedules. They can work at their own pace. He’s so convinced that he obtained 100 access codes for the online program and distributed them to interested catechetical leaders.

Denise Hoteling, the new director of religious education and coordinator of youth ministry for St. Anthony Parish-Davenport, was one of the first to accept. Ten of her 20 catechists have signed up, she said. The certification process is a way for her and the other catechists to build on their understanding, together. “It’s good to have that baseline,” she added.

Mary Ann Hagemann appreciates the flexibility the online program offers. “You can do it at home, relaxed, at your own pace,” added Hagemann, the director of religious education and youth ministry for St. Alphonsus Parish-Davenport.

Pam Drury, one of two directors of religious education for Church of the Visitation-Camanche, is currently enrolled in the diocese’s Ministry Formation Program (MFP) for her own faith enrichment. All catechists “need faith formation to make sure we’re all on the same page. That’s what I’m doing now.”

“Our catechists need as much enrichment as the kids,” observed Jennifer Wemhoff, a graduate of the MFP program and director of religious education for Our Lady of Victory Parish-Davenport. “They’re hungry for their own spiritual nourishment.”

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