Drawing of Most Holy Trinity Church in Hartford, the first Catholic church in Connecticut. (As published in book Lift High the Cross)In any family, the celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries are truly special occasions on which we look back in gratitude for the many graces that God has bestowed on us in the past, and we look forward with great hope for the many blessings that are yet to come.
Humanity is hard-wired for God. Within us is a desire for eternity and no created reality can satisfy the deep caverns of the human spirit. Ours is a nature to know and to love, and so we can never say we have enough truth or that we love enough. Truth and love transcend material existence, so we can say we are made for more. God reveals himself to humanity so that humanity might find rest, for it is in God that we are possessed by truth and love itself — the source and origin of all things. This is the good news of the Scriptures. Despite the sad story of sin, which is really the story of trying to find satisfaction in things that can never satisfy, God reveals himself as the way to true healing and peace.
Q: Whose responsibility is it really to teach our youngsters the Catholic faith?
A: In a few short weeks, many parish religious education programs will get under way in earnest. Like our school teachers who have to deal with the dreaded “summer slump” in the first few weeks when students return to school full time, our volunteer catechists need to pick up where they left off with faith formation programs and sacramental preparation. We “drill” our kids in the Ten Commandments, in the mystery of the Trinity, in the Mass, in the essential prayers of the Catholic faith — the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, especially — and so much more. We pray that the foundation we’re giving them will be just that: the bedrock on which their faith will grow and mature just as they grow and mature.
All the work that directors of religious education and catechists (not to mention priests and parents!) do in religious education leads us to ask: Whose responsibility is it really to teach our youngsters the Catholic faith? Many have lamented the fact that there have been at least two, maybe even three, generations of Catholics who have not learned the faith and so have not passed it along adequately to their children, who have stopped practicing, stopped attending Mass regularly or stopped receiving the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness of sins in confession.
Rather than look at what’s gone wrong, let’s look at what lies ahead and at what we can do together to correct or improve the situation. The Catholic Church is clear when it comes to who should take the lead in forming young people in the faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (2223) and “Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of faith of which they are the ‘first heralds’ for the children. They should associate them from their tenderest years with the life of the Church” (2225). Yes, that can mean enrolling them in religious education when they are first-graders, but it really means bringing young children to Mass from the get-go, making the sign of the cross on them with holy water until they are old enough to do so themselves and much more. Formal education in a classroom is one thing; living the faith at home with prayer time, simple instruction and, above all, Sunday Mass attendance are what parents must not neglect.
But the catechism adds this: “The parish is the eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents” (2226). Note that well: “children and parents.” Parents should review their children’s religious education lessons with them weekly; it’s good for the kids and a refresher for adults as well.
In one respect, by linking religious education with the parish, the Church is keeping things local when possible — making decisions and taking care of problems at the smallest level possible. So, yes, families have as their first responsibility to teach their children the faith. But, they need to turn to, lend their support to and call upon the parish to help them in this task — not criticize and complain about schedules interfering with soccer or dance or you-name-it. Yes, these are important, but we pray our kids will be lifelong Catholics; very few of them will be all-star, lifelong soccer standouts or prima ballerinas.
Pope Francis has said time and again that pastoral work, such as a parish religious education program, must inspire and prepare the faithful to go forth and evangelize. It’s not enough to memorize names and dates and places, though these are important in their own right. In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis reminded us that our parishes should be places of “living communion” between the faithful of all ages and centers of “constant missionary outreach” where all members are encouraged and trained to be evangelizers (28).
So as we prepare to launch another year of parish religious education programs, let’s keep two sets of words in mind: “parents and parish” and “educate to evangelize.” Whose responsibility is it to teach our youth the faith? As Jesus instructed his disciples, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them. It is to just such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mk 10:14)
When I started working as an associate in the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Pastoral Planning Office, I, like some within the archdiocese, had only an elementary understanding of just what pastoral planning is. Similarly, I was unaware of why it was necessary. The statistics I learned on my first day on the job were eye-opening, to say the least: Between 1965 and 2015, the Archdiocese of Hartford saw a 27 percent decline in the number of Catholics, a 74 percent drop in the number of infant baptisms and a staggering 88 percent decrease in the number of archdiocesan seminarians.
Further actuarial statistics regarding the number of priests who will be retiring are formidable. Assuming that two priests retire before the age of 75, and two priests enter the archdiocese, which seems to be the trend, the classes retiring in the coming years will result in a loss of 67 priests by 2025, with that number climbing to a total of 96 in 2030, and a total of 109 by 2035.
I’m 29. The first three decades of my life have borne witness to a turbulent era for the Catholic Church in Connecticut. I recall that, up until my late teens, at any given church my family would attend, people who arrived fewer than 10 minutes early to a Sunday morning Mass likely would have had to stand in the back. Those same churches are only half full on a good day in 2017. While the factors that have contributed to this decline in attendance must be addressed, we must first confront the harsh realities that lay before us so that we can build a foundation that will enable the Church as a whole to be less reactive to, and more proactive about, change.
After co-hosting eight deanery meetings in front of nearly 1,000 people of the archdiocese, I have been exposed to a gamut of parishioners’ emotions. Some I expected, others I did not. By now, I have heard countless stories from faithful and concerned parishioners regarding their churches. I’ve heard from people whose great-grandparents literally laid the foundation at their beloved church, as well as from folks whose families have a rich sacramental heritage at a particular church. While these legacies should rightly burn bright in our hearts, the health of the entire archdiocese is dependent on a fruitful planning process, which, unfortunately, can result in the closing of such churches as those.
It is not overly dramatic to say that only through prayer and planning will the Catholic faith in Connecticut be viable.
I have also seen the many positive impacts of pastoral planning — firsthand. I had the great pleasure of attending the Palm Sunday celebration at St. Justin–St. Michael in the north end of Hartford. Parishioners celebrated a final Mass at St. Michael and then processed through the streets of their neighborhood to St. Justin’s (roughly a mile and a half away), and had a ceremony to solidify their community. This sense of community was the most striking aspect of this merger. Parishioners from two different churches were able to unite in faith as one community, with a renewed sense of hope and with great plans to keep their new community vibrant.
My suggestion to those age 55 and up in the archdiocese (including my parents, aunts and uncles) is this: Approach pastoral planning in the same way you would approach life insurance or a will. It is natural and prudent for older people to start considering what they will leave to those who come after them. It is also natural for these considerations to focus on tangible goods. Perhaps you have an IRA set up to pay out to your grandchildren, a cookbook filled with recipes that kept your family happy and full for decades or a will that will transfer a house that your father built with his bare hands. All of these heirlooms are practical and meaningful, but have you considered which spiritual goods you will bequeath?
In 2015, a study by the Barna Group ranked Hartford-New Haven ninth among the 10 most “post- Christian” populations in the country on the basis of people’s self-identification, belief and practice. In such an increasingly secular geographic location and era, it is vital to place your trust in the wisdom and the knowledge of the pastoral planning process. Bear in mind that you have received a vibrant and thriving Church from your ancestors. Will future generations of Catholics be able to say the same about you?
David Elliott is an associate in the archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Office
As a priest engaged in parish ministry, I sometimes get a blank look from others when I mention that I have been ordained twice. In fact, that is necessary for any Catholic priest. It is not that something goes wrong the first time around, but, rather, it is a reflection of the Catholic theology of holy orders.