Best practices for supporting adults’ faith

If adult faith formation is not working in your parish, try changing the scene

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By Michael P. Horan

Catechesis finds new energy whenever adults are placed in the scene. Let’s take a look at several pastoral scenes from parishes and schools around the United States where adult faith formation is linked to the formation of children and youth.

Act I: Nourishing the leaders
Catechists and teachers sometimes fail to nurture their own faith. Here are three scenes of communities that have answered that challenge.

Scene 1: Inspired by the catechumenate, each faculty meeting in one Catholic school begins not with business but with prayer and then brief sharing in pairs to consider these questions:

  • In the last month, when did you see or hear God in your life and in your ministry?
  • What does that event mean for you? What is the message that God’s Spirit might be revealing to your spirit?
  • What will it mean for you to take the message to heart and to act on it? Will it be easy? What will be challenging for you?

Scene 2: A group of catechists begins each year of ministry by asking these questions of themselves and each other on a retreat:

  • Who first invited you to the ministry of catechesis?
  • What gift(s) did they recognize in you that you may (or may not) have recognized in yourself?
  • What gifts did you recognize in them?
  • What insight have you learned about yourself since then that contributes to your effectiveness in catechetical ministry today?

They meet monthly to pray for one catechist assigned to them as prayer partners during the initial retreat. In prayer, they give thanks for the gift of that catechist as well as their own gifts, and they pray for the needs of all the catechists.

Scene 3: Faith sharing groups are forming in the elementary and secondary schools of one diocese in the Midwest. There the teachers have recognized that their “beginning of the year” retreat is not enough. They need more opportunities to meet in mutual support and prayer and to share their hopes about the great vocation of teaching. So each Tuesday morning, groups of about five persons gather before homeroom in corners of the school’s chapel. At the end of the time in the small group, the members of the various groups come together to pray for the needs of their students and their families. They pray the Lord’s Prayer and share a sign of peace before heading off to the day’s work. They regard Tuesday mornings as their way to consistently foster their own growth. 

Act II : Involving the parents and the parish
Catechists who see parents who may not be connected to their children have created the following catechetical scenes:

Scene 4: In preparing for sacraments of initiation, a parish on the west coast offers an evening of community and reflection. The evening begins with a social time to put the parents at ease. Then there is some quiet time for parents to consider the questions below:

  • What are your hopes for your child as he or she prepares for baptism? First communion?
  • What are your hopes for yourself as a parent (or sponsor) at this time in your child’s life?
  • What can the church community do to support you at this time?
  • What would you like to do to support this community into which your child is welcomed and nurtured?

Scene 5: A parish catechetical program and Catholic school jointly sponsor a way for parents to connect through the Internet. Graduate students with interest in adult religious education are writing the material that parents receive each week to support adult understanding of their children’s learning. Parents are invited to share their questions, ideas, and concerns around this material in an online discussion group. One of the graduates of the degree program has volunteered to monitor the discussion group and to facilitate the conversation.

Scene 6: Adult volunteer catechists’ aides at a large suburban parish read a book each month on Scripture, theology, or the church. (Their book list appears in the sidebar.) They have invited interested parents of the learners in the catechetical program to join them. Those who want to come together for the book discussion have some time built into each session for sharing their hopes for the parish and for the church at large. They are finding that this increases their desire to serve the children in the catechetical program.

Scene 7: Using principles of whole community catechesis, the Sunday liturgy in many parishes has become the place to include the intentions of the various small groups that meet throughout the week. The Sunday homily focuses on the question that the parish has adopted for the week’s reflection. This question or concern can function as the basis for small group faith sharing, reflection and journal writing, and conversation between parents and children.

Act II : Making sense of pastoral practice
These pastoral scenes share several important principles of adult faith formation:

  • They begin with adults’ needs, not the needs or questions that they “should” have. Adults flourish whenever their own questions are the driving force for their coming together and when they are invested in the planning and design of the experience.
  • In many of the scenes, the adults are also learning in non-school settings, gathered as they are in churches, homes, or comfortable places. Socializing is also an important part of the experiences.
  • Small is both beautiful and effective. Modeled on the catechumenate, the gatherings of people often are small rather than very large, often culminating in the large gathering at the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.
  • In each of the scenes, the adults understand adult faith not as some eventual goal, a promised land not yet reached, but rather as the very means through which the church renews itself now. The adults (teachers, catechists, parents, parishioners) who are in the midst of the children are the present lay leaders, and they recognize each other as companions in faith as well as collaborators in ministry.

Adult catechesis is the norm for all catechesis. At least, that is what the leaders of the church have been saying, writing, and repeating for more than 30 years. The vocation of the catechist or teacher who works primarily with children is a vocation of accompanying in faith for both the present and the future. Embedded in the present moment are opportunities to promote adult formation even as one’s work is explicitly geared toward children. TP


Bibliography for Book Discussion Groups
On the current state of the sexabuse scandal, the following books have been helpful:

Cozzens, Donald. Sacred Silence: Denial and Crisis in the Catholic Church (Liturgical Press).

Gibson, David. The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism (Harper San Francisco).

Steinfels, Peter. A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon and Schuster).

On the attitudes of Catholics, the following are well written and clear:

D’Antonio. (William V.,) James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge, and Katherine Meyer. American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment (Rowman and Littlefield, Alta Mira Press).

Hoge, Dean R., William D. Dinges, Mary Johnson, and Juan L. Gonzalez. Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (University of Notre Dame Press).

A summary of Cathol spirituality written in interesting and clear ways:

Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Imagination (University of California Press).

Groome, Thomas H. Educating for Life (Crossroad).

Books used by pastoral leaders and parish councils that help people see the link between adults and children in faith formation include the following:

Gallagher, Maureen. The Art of Catechesis (Paulist Press).

Wilkes, Paul. Excellent Catholic Parishes (Paulist Press).


*This article appeared in the January 2007 issue of Today’s Parish.

Michael P. Horan

Michael P. Horan, PhD, is professor of religious education at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California.