September 15, 2006

2006 Religious Education Supplement

Young catechetical leaders consider formation, challenges

By Sean Gallagher

In more ways than one, Emily Perkins represents the next generation of parish catechetical leaders.

First, she is taking up the same ministry that her mother had embraced.

Emily is the daughter of the late Beth Perkins, who was the director of religious education at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood when she died of cancer in 2004.

“I spent a lot of time at the church with my mom, both myself and my brothers,” Perkins said. “And that helped draw me into being active and wanting to be a part of the parish community, and creating personal relationships with the religious education teachers and my youth minister when I was in high school.”

She also represents a new way of recruiting and forming parish leaders in religious education.

Perkins, 23, graduated from Marian College last spring after studying theology and participating in an internship at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish that allowed her to test her possible call to parish ministry.

She is now looking forward to seeing many of her friends who are still studying at Marian graduate and move into parish catechetical ministry.

“I am thrilled to death to see what they’re going to bring to parishes,” Perkins said. “Knowing them on a personal level, on a spiritual level, and knowing them on an academic level, I can only imagine what great assets they’re going to be. I’m sure that that’s happening all over the country in many different schools.”

According to Professor Andrew Hohman, chairman of Marian College’s Philosophy-Theology Department, Marian has graduated eight students over the past 10 years who are now serving as parish catechetical leaders.

But Marian is not alone in encouraging its students to consider full-time catechetical ministry.

The Center for Catechetical Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame offers the Echo Program, where recent college graduates can earn a master’s degree in theology from the northern Indiana school and gain experience as a parish catechetical leader.

The first 13 participants in the Echo program completed it last spring, and 11 graduates are now in ministerial positions, most of them catechetical in nature, in several dioceses across the country.

There are currently five Echo apprentices serving in the archdiocese.

One of them, Alexa Puscas, is ministering alongside Perkins at Our Lady of Lourdes.

Like Perkins, Puscas, 23, is the daughter of parents who have been involved in parish ministry. Her father was recently ordained a deacon and her mother has served in a number of lay ministerial positions for 30 years.

Both Beth Perkins and Puscas’ parents entered full-time ministry after seeking out other career options. They entered ministry then received formation for it later.

Puscas sees an advantage in the fact that her current generation is being offered the opportunity to receive formation first.

“I think that this is definitely the way to go,” Puscas said. “Having formation before you enter into parish ministry, I think, is indispensable. Because Echo forms you academically, but also pastorally and professionally, I think I was more prepared for some of the things that I would encounter.”

The University of Dayton in Ohio also helps its students consider ministry in religious education through its Catechetical Leadership Forum.

“Colleges are beginning to realize that they have to build at the campus level a culture of vocations and begin to challenge people to serve the Church,” said Harry Dudley, archdiocesan associate executive director for lifelong faith formation and evangelization.

Both Perkins and Puscas bring a youthful excitement to their ministry. But they also are aware of the challenge of entering full-time catechetical ministry in a parish at a time when they also are considering getting married and starting a family.

“I think the Catholic Church is about having a faithful family,” Perkins said. “It’s not going to be the easiest thing, but I know that it is possible.

“I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve spent many Sunday mornings at the church. And some evenings, my mom would come home for dinner and then go back to the church for a meeting.”

Although balancing family life with ministerial responsibilities can be difficult, Puscas knows from her own experience an advantage in it for growing children.

“I think if I didn’t have brothers and sisters, I would have been pretty miserable,” Puscas said. “But we were kind of all stuck there together, and we found ways to occupy ourselves.

“And I think it was pretty awesome to be so comfortable in a church. It was our other home. So that was actually a gift. And that would be something I would be excited to give my children, too.”

Perkins and Puscas are both serving with and learning from Beverly Hansberry, the director of religious education at Our Lady of Lourdes.

In many ways, she represents the first generation of lay parish catechetical leaders. She entered the field 11 years ago as a second career after being a teacher, stay-at-home mother and school secretary.

And it was only after entering full-time catechetical ministry that she entered into a formal formation program for it.

Although Hansberry is not sure if the young adults entering into full-time catechetical ministry will stay in it, she thinks they have great potential.

“Most of us are really qualified, but maybe we weren’t as qualified when we first started,” Hansberry said. “But I see them [young catechetical leaders] as being more qualified and, for the most part, having more experience. I think it’s a great thing.”

At the same time that Hansberry praises the young adults entering into catechetical ministry, she also recognizes that older adults should still be encouraged to enter into it like she and so many others of the first generation did—as a second career.

“I think there are a lot of people that are out in our churches that could do this ministry effectively,” Hansberry said. “I would really like to see people start considering the ministry of the DRE or pastoral associate or youth ministry. No matter what age.

“I changed my career when I was older. And it’s been a blessing.”

Recognizing that continuing trend in the recruitment of future parish catechetical leaders, Notre Dame is hoping to expand its Echo Program. Its leaders are now in discussion to see how the program might allow those already serving as parish leaders in catechesis to earn a master’s degree in theology through it.

But no matter at what age the next generation of parish catechetical leaders enters into the field, Dudley thinks it is essential for the current generation to invite others to join them.

“One thing I tell every DRE is that they should be inviting the next generation,” he said. †


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