April 22, 2016

New Albany Parish seeks to build stronger families

Ryan Raelson holds his son Sawyer while playing Apples to Apples Bible Edition with his wife Sarah (partially obscured) and seminarian Michael Bower during a family game night at Holy Name Parish in New Albany on March 2. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Ryan Raelson holds his son Sawyer while playing Apples to Apples Bible Edition with his wife Sarah (partially obscured) and seminarian Michael Bower during a family game night at Holy Name Parish in New Albany on March 2. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

NEW ALBANY—After two synods focusing on families in the last two years, Pope Francis just published his document “ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love), on Love in the Family,” which summarizes the results of those two special meetings.

Meanwhile, the aptly named Holy Family Parish in New Albany is one step ahead in forming faith-filled families.

It started about a year ago when the parish’s director of religious education, Theresa Shaw, was inspired after attending a conference and a workshop that both reinforced the same message: families and catechesis go hand in hand.

“The conference talked about [Church as] a ‘family of families’—I really liked that,” she said. “Then the workshop I went to at the Mount [Mount St. Francis Retreat Center for Spirituality in Mt. St. Francis] was called Engaging Parents—Forming a Family of Faith. My ideas started from there.”

Shaw presented ideas of multigenerational faith sharing and catechesis to Father Daniel Atkins, the parish’s pastor, parish staff and the members of the Faith Formation Commission she chairs. She received enthusiastic support.

“About 10 years ago when I was at St. Paul [Catholic Center in Bloomington], a group wanted to do an alternate approach to faith formation,” said Father Atkins. “They suggested a program that would invite families, not just children, to participate in growing in their faith. It really caught on.

“So when Theresa suggested that we look into a more family-oriented way of going about faith formation, I supported that 100 percent.”

Learning the faith from other family members is one of the goals of the multigenerational catechetical and faith sharing concept. Through this method, family members are encouraged to learn from each other—not just children from parents, grandparents and siblings, but all from each other, Shaw explained.

She has put this method into action with her Catholic Faith Formation (CCF) classes for children making their first Communion and first reconciliation who do not attend Holy Family School.

“One Saturday a month for three hours, we have all the families with their children split up into different groups with a catechist,” she said. “We don’t split them up by age group—we have families of adults and children together with a catechist, and we have five groups like that. We read the Scripture for the next day, and then discuss the readings.

“[This method] helps coach and empower parents to learn how to talk about the Bible with their children. So many of them don’t know where to start, or they feel like they don’t know enough about their faith to teach their children. But as parents, they’re the first educators in teaching their children the faith.”

Previously, the CCF parents and children would remain together for 20 minutes for prayer and a brief lesson, then the parents would leave and return for their children later.

“The way it was all set up, it was not conducive to visiting or sharing,” she said. “It was just rows of people.

“Now they’re in smaller groups. It’s more conducive to sharing. The people in the groups are becoming closer and bonding as a little family. And we include grandparents and other extended family in our definition of family. All generations can benefit from time spent together sharing their faith, so we encourage all ages to attend.”

The same is true for the several fellowship evenings the CCF families have throughout the year. Each CCF grouping of families has the opportunity to organize an evening of family fun, from soup and bingo to board games to playing a life-size version of the Hungry Hungry Hippos game.

“They may or may not have a religious theme, but it’s an evening to be together and have fun as families,” said Shaw. “One little first-grader said he really wanted to come [to one of the events] because he wanted to be with his ‘Church family.’ ”

Shaw is seeing results from this family approach to fellowship and catechesis.

“I’ve noticed a difference in my religious education families, that the families seem closer and are more likely to attend the events,” she said. “I think that now they’re starting to view the program as community as opposed to just classes for the kids.

“I think too that it’s caused many of the parents to examine their relationship with Jesus and improve on it. They’re starting to learn and getting a spark to grow closer to Jesus. … If you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, what good does the doctrine do you?”

Although the family focus initiative was started by Shaw within the realm of religious education, the idea is spreading to other areas of the parish.

The parish has declared the first Monday of each month to be “family night”—no parish committees or groups are to meet on that night so that time can be spent with families.

Additionally, a sign was placed in the church’s narthex inviting families with small children to sit toward the front where children can better see and hear during Mass.

“Sing the hymns, prayers and voice the responses,” reads one of the statements on the sign. “Children learn liturgical behavior by copying you.”

Shaw is thankful for Father Atkins’ support of the initiative.

“He’s been very involved in this, very encouraging,” she said. “I think it’s really important that you have the support of the priest, or it’s not going to go anywhere.”

From his perspective, Father Atkins sees the initiative as a way for the parish to help families grow together in faith.

“We need to help families to develop their own special spirituality, their own way of being a Catholic family, and encourage that,” he said.

Shaw agrees.

“We as a parish are here to help, guide and support parents in the role of teaching their children the faith,” she said. “With this focus on the family, we hope to give parents a role model for sharing with their children.” †

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