November 13, 2020

Virus forces catechists to be innovative to adapt to new ‘normal’

Axle, left, and Charlotte Pflum participate in a Bible scavenger hunt hosted by St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville. Parish catechetical leaders are seeking out creative ways to keep kids engaged in their faith even as families deal with health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

Axle, left, and Charlotte Pflum participate in a Bible scavenger hunt hosted by St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville. Parish catechetical leaders are seeking out creative ways to keep kids engaged in their faith even as families deal with health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

The to-do list is enough to keep a whole committee busy: spacing out seating, creating sterilization protocols, coordinating entrance and exit procedures, enforcing mask wearing, gathering digital resources, crafting alternative plans. Schools, businesses and churches alike have had to adapt to this new “normal” as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

Yet when it comes to religious education, the massive responsibility of keeping dozens, sometimes hundreds, of kids safe typically falls on the shoulders of one person. That person is the parish catechetical leader—sometimes called the director of religious education—who is most often responsible for the religious instruction of children, sacramental preparation and the ongoing formation of teenagers and adults in a parish.

Their to-do list was long before the pandemic; now they must manage safety as well.

“I just remember being down in the basement trying to figure out how I would keep everyone 6 feet apart and have enough tables to do it and make sure they’re safe,” described Deanna Dean, recalling the necessary preparation for a delayed first Communion at St. Michael the Archangel Parish Indianapolis, where she serves as director of religious education.

Called “heroic on an average day” by Ken Ogorek, archdiocesan director of catechesis, these leaders are using creativity and perseverance to provide religious education in the most difficult of times.

Those hungry for Christ ‘can’t be kept down’

Many parishes have reopened to provide in-person classes, which means that safety protocols must be followed to protect all those in the building.

“As far as we know, there has been no student-to-student [COVID-19 transmission] here in religious ed,” said Megan Rust, the parish catechetical leader at St. Paul Parish in Tell City.

Rust rewrote seating charts, communicated to parents that masks were required, encouraged catechists to teach outside and designed entrance and dismissal systems that minimized contact between classrooms.

Dean spaced out tables, assigned seating and ordered custom masks for all those receiving the sacraments of confirmation and first Communion. For children’s religious education, Dean also created the theme “Tell Me S’more About Jesus” as a creative enforcement of social distancing.

“We got carpet squares and made fake campfires so that we could have the kids farther apart and remind them without telling them, ‘Hey social distance, social distance.’ It’s kind of more like, ‘Hey, stay in your tent,’ ” she laughed, speaking with The Criterion on Oct. 13.

Having a real campfire and other outdoor activities allowed the parish catechetical leader to reach the teenagers of St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville and the nearby St. Bridget of Ireland Parish in Liberty.

In addition to faith-oriented conversations around a fire, Melissa Fronckowiak organized an outdoor confirmation retreat at a local nature preserve, a Bible scavenger hunt and a parking lot showing of the recently released movie Fatima about the Marian apparitions in that Portugese city in 1917.

“The phrase, ‘Where there is a will, there is a way,’ is a great motto for me during this difficult time,” described Fronckowiak.

“I have learned to adapt and stretch myself. I’ve learned that a person hungry for Christ can’t be kept down,” she said.

‘Learning, worshipping together are important’

More than six months into the pandemic, many of these leaders felt it important to reopen for in-person instruction and encourage attendance in any capacity. According to Tonya Welker, the director of religious education at

St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, the students are struggling to learn outside of a classroom setting.

“These are difficult times for everyone, and I feel like we need the Church more than ever right now, but so many are staying away due to fear,” Welker described in an e-mail interview.

“I am working toward including all the youths weekly in some small way, by reaching out to each one individually and just chatting about things going on in their lives, letting them know that I am here for them, and doing anything possible to keep them engaged in their faith,” she said.

Rust described that, for her first Zoom meeting with high school students, she had a large turnout. She planned an elaborate second get-together, thinking, “It’s going to be fantastic.”

“It was not fantastic,” she recalled. “I had two people show up that were not adults. And I had two adults come. It was so disappointing.”

She speculated that the students were simply experiencing burnout from attending too many virtual gatherings. She also guessed that they missed the physical company of their peers and the community that comes from sharing the faith together.

“That community, being together, learning together, worshiping together, they’re all important things that … they miss out on,” she described.

“Any opportunity that we can give our kids, our adults, our teenagers to just be with other people, I think we’re taking as long as we can do it safely,” she added.

Thinking outside the box—with boxes

Still, many families have health concerns or are simply not comfortable with in-person instruction. To minister to them, the parish leaders are also finding resources that don’t require screen time.

Dean discovered a ministry in California called Faith and Family Life Catholic Ministries that creates boxes to supplement learning.

The boxes were purchased as preparation for first Communion and reconciliation. Each box contains small items like holy water, yarn, a wooden cross and a small football, as well as instructions for family activities intended to prompt reflection on different aspects of the sacrament.

“I had someone already e-mailing me how their kid wants to do all of the sessions, right now, she can’t wait, and she’s already thought about how she can do the sessions again with family and friends and neighbors,” Dean described.

Even as they plan multiple ways to minister to the children and adults of the parish, these leaders encounter another huge hurdle. More than just creative thinking, resources like take-home education boxes, masks, sanitizer stations and digital textbook subscriptions require additional funding.

“Our parish is very, very supportive of our religious [education] program,” Rust said gratefully.

She described that the parish chose to reuse religious education textbooks, rather than order new ones, to defray the unexpected costs associated with safety protocols and digital learning.

The supplemental boxes ordered by Dean were funded in an almost miraculous way. Her predecessor at the parish had applied for a grant five years ago, but never realized that the money was awarded. Dean wondered how she would pay for the sacramental resource when she received news of the unexpected blessing.

“The archdiocese was calling me saying that we have to spend this money—spend it or lose it,” Dean recalled, “So I said, ‘I know exactly what I want to do.’ ”

‘The storm is rough, but God hasn’t left us’

The planning, re-planning, seeking out resources and especially the disappointments take a toll on these parish catechetical leaders. Rust recalled that Pope Francis compared the pandemic to the Gospel story where a storm at sea frightens the disciples as Christ sleeps in the boat.

Virtually praying with the whole world during Rome’s lockdown in March, the pope said, “You, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm.”

“That has been my mantra through this whole thing,” Rust said, “that this storm is rough, and we are on this boat and we are rocking back and forth, but God hasn’t left us alone.

“There are moments like that when it’s exhausting, overwhelming, but you just have to give it over to him,” she added.

When asked how parishioners can help support the work of sharing the good news in these difficult times, Fronckowiak replied, “Staff members definitely need prayer.”

“The words of encouragement and/or cards we have received have been great support,” she added, “It is wonderful when a parishioner sees a need and takes the initiative to bring it to fruition at any time, but even more valuable during this time.”

However, Fronckowiak added, the biggest source of encouragement is simply the presence of parishioners at the church.

“The best support would be to return to the sacraments, if they are comfortable with what we’re doing to help mitigate the risks,” she said, “and to encourage their friends and family to return also.”

(Katie Rutter is a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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