September 12, 2014

Religious Education Supplement

Nourishing the young soul: Catechetical leaders work to put substance in religious education programs

Children, teenagers and volunteer college student teachers shout for joy on June 20 at St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis at the conclusion of a Totus Tuus vacation Bible school at the Indianapolis South Deanery faith community. (Submitted photo)

Children, teenagers and volunteer college student teachers shout for joy on June 20 at St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis at the conclusion of a Totus Tuus vacation Bible school at the Indianapolis South Deanery faith community. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

When Christine Beiriger was a child growing up as a member of St. Barnabas Parish on Indianapolis’ south side, she participated in her parish’s annual vacation Bible school and served as a volunteer as a teenager.

Then she went off to college at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio.

While there, she learned about a different kind of vacation Bible school, one that was more distinctly Catholic than the ones she had experienced.

It is called “Totus Tuus” (a Latin phrase meaning “totally yours,” and is connected to devotion to Mary) and has been developed over the past two decades by a growing number of dioceses across the country.

Totus Tuus is also different from typical vacation Bible school programs in that it uses volunteer college students from outside of the parish to teach the classes. Beiriger volunteered two summers in Totus Tuus while a college student.

So when she began her ministry as director of faith formation at St. Barnabas, she wanted to bring Totus Tuus to the archdiocese for the first time.

“That’s a program that I can really stand behind, knowing that it [features] solid, Catholic doctrine and how the volunteers are trained,” said Beiriger, 24.

The program took place at St. Barnabas on June 14-20 and involved college students from the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., as its volunteer teachers. The approximately 80 children and youths who participated in it learned about the luminous mysteries of the rosary and the Ten Commandments.

But the young people signed up for Totus Tuus weren’t the only ones who learned during the camp.

“I had a mom come up to me and say she was so excited,” Beiriger said. “Her fourth grader had come to the dinner table and was talking about sanctifying grace. She stayed for a while after registration and came to me and said to me, ‘What is sanctifying grace?’ Even the parents were learning a lot.”

Sponsoring a vacation Bible school in which children and teenagers of various ages learned the substance of Catholic teachings and traditions was a natural choice for Beiriger.

“I don’t think it’s effective or fruitful to water down the faith for kids,” she said. “Especially nowadays, kids are maturing so much faster. It doesn’t do them any good to treat them like they won’t understand.”

Amy Baker, a St. Barnabas parishioner who had children in Totus Tuus’ pre-school and fourth-grade classes, was pleased with how the program passed on the faith and laid the foundation for her children to proclaim the Gospel themselves as they grow older.

“We don’t give the kids the credit that they can learn these difficult concepts. They really, really can,” said Baker. “And once they feel that [a teacher] entrusts them to know this, and that it’s a big deal, then they’re more willing to pass it on.”

Baker’s 9-year-old son, Mason, said that he learned a lot in his class.

“We read some verses from the Bible,” he said. “We talked about venial sin, mortal sin and vocations.”

But he also liked that he had a fun time learning about these things from college students that were great for him to be around.

“They’re kids still, a little,” Mason said. “Grown-ups would just want kids to behave and act very good. But if you have [college] kids, then they understand what it’s like being a kid. You want to have fun. Kids want to be kids.”

Having energetic college students pass on the substance of the Catholic faith in a way that is attractive to young people is a way that Totus Tuus addresses this challenge in catechesis.

Kristina Vogt, coordinator of religious education and youth ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Clark County, faces the challenge of handing on the substance of the Catholic faith to audiences across the age spectrum, not just for children and youths.

“The hardest part is knowing where your listeners are, what they need to hear and what they must know to be informed and prepared,” said Vogt. “Knowing what you want your listeners to take home with them that day to me is the best way to make sure you deliver the right substance. You have to be intentional about what you teach, making sure to emphasize the important things. How will this make a difference in my listeners’ lives? Will it draw them closer to Christ?”

Vogt said that shaping the catechetical programs at her parish, with this goal in mind, helps those who participate pass the faith on to other people in ways that make a difference in the world around them.

“Catechetical and youth ministry programs should be nourishing and provide the tools the participants need to be better disciples,” said Vogt. “They should share the love of Christ with others. If the message they have heard is indeed Good News and has changed their lives for the better, then they should want to share that with others.”

Ken Ogorek, archdiocesan director of catechesis, said that teaching the faith can make a difference in people’s lives through fostering a deeper relationship with Christ and the word of God.

“I think of Jesus himself quoting Scripture, ‘Man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ ” said Ogorek, citing Matthew 4:4. “So, our catechesis has to have substance, because, in many ways, good catechesis feeds our souls.

“[Jesus] doesn’t say, ‘Man lives on one or two sound bites that come from the mouth of God,’ but ‘on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ God loves us so much that he reveals quite a bit of helpful truth to us.” †

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