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By Story by Joyce Donahue, associate director for the diocesan Office of Youth Formation | September 2020

Partnering with Parents to Hand on Catholic Faith

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”

(Theme for Catechetical Sunday, 2020)

For years, parish leaders have told parents that they are their own children’s primary catechists, while the parish community simply assists:


“Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith. Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God. The parish is the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2226)

With the status of in-person parish faith formation uncertain at the time of this writing, the role of parents is more important than ever. Parishes around the diocese will soon begin socially distanced faith formation in religious education and youth ministry programs that serve over 31,000 children and youth who do not attend Catholic schools. Most parishes will start formation in person, but leaders are preparing for at-home learning if the pandemic worsens.

Several even plan to begin their program with virtual meetings or using an online curriculum delivery tool, such as Flipgrid. But if catechesis takes place primarily at home instead of at the parish, are today’s parents equipped to assume their primary roles to hand on the Catholic faith?

Parish leaders of youth formation and catechists who assist them are called to partner with parents, accompanying and guiding them. This partnership, when in-person gathering may be reduced or impossible, requires more, rather than less, effort than a traditional on-site program. To be effective, catechists and leaders should do much more than simply check in homework. They are called instead to walk with young people and their families. Pope Francis has called this the “art of accompaniment,” which “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Exodus 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.” (Evangelii Gaudium, #169)

We are entering a crucial moment in the history of the Church where it will be vitally important for us to be attentive to where the Holy Spirit is moving. We have inherited a classroom model of faith formation that does not lend itself well to relationships or to forming entire families as we walk with them, listening to their stories and acting as the Holy Spirit’s facilitators in their spiritual growth.  The parish community is called truly to master the “art of accompaniment.”

Last year, in response to Bishop Emeritus R. Daniel Conlon’s 2018 pastoral letter “Go,” He Said, the Diocese of Joliet began to raise awareness of the role of parish faith formation in making missionary disciples. More than classroom learning, parishes are called to provide an apprenticeship in the Christian life, involving relationship, mentoring and connection to the Sunday liturgy, as well as exposure to the living example of practicing Catholics in the community.

Faith formation for missionary discipleship begins with an encounter with Jesus and empathy for families. The family faithfully coming to Sunday Mass every week with a well-developed practice of praying at home is not the same as the family who identifies as Catholic but has barely practiced Catholic faith.

Parents who have registered their child in a parish program with an eye primarily toward satisfying requirements for First Communion or Confirmation because that’s what their family “has always done” will require extra invitation and support. A family with a child with disabilities has other significant needs. As we deal with fallout from the pandemic, a family struggling with unemployment or illness will have spiritual needs different from families that have continued to do well.

Catechetical Sunday 2020

In this uncertain time, some parishes have, due to financial constraints, unfortunately reduced resources and personnel dedicated to the important work of passing Catholic faith on to the next generation. Yet, families need the comfort of faith in Jesus Christ and connection to the parish community now more than ever during this pandemic.

Now is the time for parishes to reach out to develop a partnership with parents to form children and youth – not to reduce parish programs to impersonal administrative tasks, such as tracking completed assignments. Leaders and catechists who are mentors – adequately prepared, valued and supported by the parish – can work effectively together with parents to pass on a living faith that will last beyond this time of pandemic. This is key to a post-pandemic revitalization of parishes.

If we want the next generation of Catholics to receive and live their faith into the future, parish communities need to dedicate support for faith formation of families. Financial sacrifice to provide adequate staffing and the time and talent of parishioners to serve as catechist-mentors will be more important than ever this year. The Church needs all of us, committed together in faith and hope, to make handing on the faith to our children and youth a high priority, now more than ever.

Joyce Donahue has served as associate director of the diocesan Office of Youth Formation for the past 18 years, where her primary ministry is supporting parish faith formation of children and families.

SIDEBAR - Catechetical Sunday (September 20, 2020)

Every year, parishes around the U.S. celebrate, bless, and commission those in catechetical ministry. The list ideally includes:

  • Catechists of children, youth and adults.
  • Directors and coordinators of parish religious education and youth ministry
  • Catholic school teachers and principals
  • RCIA teams
  • Baptism preparation teams
  • Marriage preparation teams
  • Leaders of children’s liturgy of the Word
  • Liturgical ministry trainers
  • And, typically, the last to stand for the blessing: Parents of children and youth (their children’s first catechists)

SIDEBAR: A Prayer for Catechists

Loving Father, we pray today for our catechists. We thank you for their gift of ministry in your Church. Grant them your wisdom that they may grow in the understanding and teaching of your Word. Grant them also your love that they may be fruitful heralds of your Word and lead others to love you. Pour forth your Holy Spirit upon them to grant them wisdom about what is important; knowledge of the truths of faith; understanding of their meaning; right judgment about how to apply them in life; courage to persevere even in the face of adversity; reverence before all that is sacred and holy; and that loving zeal which leads others to a transforming encounter with your Son. We pray this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

(USCCB Catechetical Sunday 2020 resources)