As many of you have noted, parish schools are virtually the only thing in many parishes that will bring adults out of their homes. For this reason, the parish school can be absolutely vital to adult formation.
You may think this an odd position for me to take, given what I’ve written so far. It isn’t. Successful adult formation is built on sales. As a friend of mine likes to say, “No need, no deal.” Gas can be twenty cents a gallon, but I won’t stop if I have a full tank. On the other hand, it may be twenty dollars a gallon, but I’ll fill up if it’s the only station in town.
Adults are driven by interest and by need. We are often not interested in learning the Faith but we will come when we have to. How does your parish get adults into formation sessions right now? That’s easy – nearly all parishes require six months of marriage formation. Nearly all parishes require one or more session of adult instruction in order to get a child baptized in the parish. The adults all come even though most of them hate it. Why? Because they want to get marred in the Church or they want that baptismal certificate and celebration. They’ll put up with the sessions. The price is worth the trade.
So, we use that principle and expand the concept. We all know the Sunday homily is not sufficient for adult formation. The popes have said this for roughly a century. It makes sense. Can you name any subject that you can master simply by listening to a 10-minute talk once a week? Neither can I. We need to demonstrate that the Catholic Church actually has useful things to say to adults.
Get the parents first
But first, we need bait to get them in. We have it: the parochial school. Most schools already require the parents to invest a certain amount of “volunteer” hours. Simply require some of those hours to be spent in weekly or bi-monthly adult formation session as a condition for their children’s attendance in the parochial school. Sure, some of the parents aren’t Catholic – so? They don’t have to convert. They just need to listen. This is informed parenting – the parish insists on making sure every parent knows what the school teaches. Run short session series: an hour or so a week for four weeks, with free baby-sitting (the eighth-graders can pitch in here), perhaps with a light dinner thrown in. Then they can take a break for four weeks. Keep in mind that some parents work split shift, so schedule accordingly.
Motivate the parents of younger children. Parents are supposed to be doing sacramental preparation, so the classes in kindergarten and first grade teach them how. When this first parent class hits second grade, close down the First Confession/First Eucharist component in the parochial school and the CCD. It’s the parents’ job from now on. For third grade and later, continue the sessions – now the parents have to prepare their children for confirmation, after all. If your parish is one of several in a big city, get other parishes on board, get the bishop behind the plan. Otherwise, parents as lazy as I am will flee to other schools in a wild attempt to avoid the coming responsibilities.
Now, sweeten the pot. Getting them in the door is a start, but we have to keep them coming back without rebellion. So, parents or parochial school teachers who attend a certain number of weekly formation sessions get a cut in tuition, a bonus, or cash payments/prizes. Maybe a local travel agency will donate a cruise, the local appliance store a refrigerator. Ask parents and teachers what they would like for prizes, and get those prizes. Make the sessions look and feel like an adult event. It should resemble what professional people see when they walk into a conference in their field of expertise - classy.
“But not all parents will do this!” the pastor exclaims. “I am responsible for seeing that those kids are prepared for the sacraments!” Not really, Father. The parents are responsible for that. They are the primary educators. Pastors need to get to the parents – without the parents, the kids will generally abandon the sacraments. Remember, priests assist the parents, not the other way around. Assistants often have to live with bosses who are impossible, as we all know. Does a priest take over another pastor’s parish when he dislikes what the pastor next door is doing? Parents are the priests of the domestic Church, the family is their parish. In the family, every priest is a visiting priest. When it comes to the children, treat the parents the same way you would treat a brother pastor. They are, you know. And they’ll respond well to that level of respect.
American Parish Idol
Pastors, you have an enormous resource staring you in the face. Homeschoolers are the best teachers and mentors you could ask for. They know the Faith, they know how to transmit it, and they know what it is like to be scared doing it, so they know how to deal with parental fears. Have them run your adult education classes, especially the sacramental prep sessions. Pay them.
In fact, pay professional speakers to come in on a regular basis. Most charge somewhere between $500 and $1000 for a talk, plus travel expenses. Put them up in the rectory and book travel well in advance to minimize costs. Forty weeks of that will cost forty to sixty thousand dollars, or the price of four parochial school teachers, and you get top-notch presentations. But only 20 adults show up! So? How many kids do you need to fill a grade school class? Why is this different?
Now, I could plug the speakers at places like Bridegroom Press, Catholic Exchange, Catholic Answers, St. Joseph’s Communications and the like, but there’s no need. A parish can generally roll its own speakers’ bureau. Set up a committee and have an audition night. Anyone who wants to speak on a topic can audition for a spot on the roster. Make it clear that you are paying several hundred dollars for a person to give a one-hour talk plus Q&A on any subject that touches on Catholic Faith, and people will come out of the woodwork.
Have the committee decide who makes the cut after a ten-minute sample presentation. Then have the full talk previewed and vetted for orthodoxy. For the first year, take anyone remotely good, have the audience vote, and invite popular speakers back for four-week or six-week series. It’s the parish version of American Idol. You might even use one of the many fund-raising cruise firms to put together a cruise for the parish, with popular parish speakers as the highlighters – they get a reduced price or free berth in exchange for talking on the cruise. That way, the cruise pays for the adult education and the educators have a prize to compete for all in the same boat, so to speak.
Once adults start seeing that the Catholic Church actually has useful things to say, form parish small groups around specific topics: men’s group, women’s group, health group, etc. Family groups should figure prominently. Families are supposed to band together to support one another. Start a group reading Familiaris Consortio or John Paul II’s Letter to Families. There are good study guides out for both, and I’ve never met a parent who studied either one and wasn’t delighted by them.
What to use for material?
Start a Catholicism 101 class and give out certificates of completion at the end. Do a series on Catholic-Protestant differences. A presentation on medieval and Renaissance artwork brings enormous numbers of people out – you can download pictures off the web and run an overhead to show them. Run the RCIA series slightly adapted for Catholic adults. Catholics who have been sponsors in orthodox RCIA programs love it: they’re finally getting the Faith at an adult level.
I will try to make available on my website the talk outlines I used when I was teaching RCIA. The first six weeks of that instruction is essentially found in my book Sex and the Sacred City, and it is written to be used for group study. As I get the opportunity, I will make available the class notes from the graduate theology courses I took. These notes will be free downloads. I’ll also set up a web discussion board at www.bridegroompress.com for blog readers to throw ideas around. Watch for it before the end of the month.
Other good resources to build a class around: Frank Sheed’s A Map of Life or Scott Hahn’s A Father Who Keeps His Promises. For Bible study, Jeff Cavin’s Great Adventure timeline is a good start. Both Emmaus Road and Ignatius Press puts out good Scripture studies, and the Navarre Bible study series is excellent. The Little Rock and Collegeville series are short on doctrine, but some people like them for the emotional support they provide.
Ask the adults in the parish what they want; maybe a series on stem cells or medical research or gay marriage or the problem of pain. A talk on annulments and divorce is almost always popular. Debunk The Da Vinci Code, discuss The Passion of the Christ, take your topics from the news media headlines and let the pagans do your advertising for you. Give Catholic adults a list to choose from, poll them, collect the forms along with the collection envelopes. Listen to them, answer their needs, and they will respond.
Advertise, talk to your friends and start your own group in your home or at the parish center. This is both the right and duty of lay Catholics, described in the documents of Vatican II, and we need to start living it. But most of all, pray. Gather a small group regularly in front of the Eucharist and ask God for assistance. He will send it.