The following is a proposal – or maybe more an apologetic, or an exhortation – for a Parish Adult Formation Program. The darker and more confused the secular world becomes, the more pressing is the need for systematic, comprehensive adult formation in the Faith in parishes and dioceses across the land. Is anyone listening? Is anyone awake?
1. Introduction: The importance of adult formation
The Church has collected many documents, studies, exhortations and recommendations concerning the importance of specifically adult formation in the Faith. (1) One such document is from the Vatican sessions on “Catechesis of Adults in the Christian Community” (1988). (2) Among problems, this document notes:
One must admit that in various communities, the formation of adults has been taken for granted or perhaps carried out in connection with certain events, not infrequently in an infantile way. Because certain external or traditional supports are sometimes lacking, a grave imbalance is created insofar as catechesis has devoted considerable attention to children while the same has not happened in the catechesis of young people and adults. (#21)
This imbalance is strikingly widespread and common. It is not unusual to find parishes with no adult formation program at all, beyond what can be received in Sunday homilies. Commonly all catechetical concern is toward that of the children, except for the group of adults in RCIA. The impact of RCIA on the parish as a whole is small, however, and at best brief. The Sunday homily as a solitary vehicle for substantive and systematic catechesis is not adequate. The document continues:
In summary, in order for the Good News of the Kingdom to penetrate all the various layers of the human family, it is crucial that every Christian play an active part in the coming of the Kingdom. The work of each will be coordinated with and complementary to the contribution of everyone else, according to the different degrees of responsibility each one has. All of this naturally requires adults to play a primary role. Hence, it is not only legitimate, but necessary, to acknowledge that a fully Christian community can exist only when a systematic catechesis of all its members takes place and when an effective and well-developed catechesis of adults is regarded as the central task in the catechetical enterprise. (#25)
It is worth stressing that it is necessary for a systematic catechesis to exist in the parishes, and this requires “an effective and well-developed catechesis of adults” as the “central task” in the catechetical ministry.
The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis (3), quoting an older Directory, asserts:
Catechesis for adults, since it deals with persons who are capable of an adherence that is fully responsible, must be considered the chief form of catechesis. All the other forms, which are indeed always necessary, are in some way oriented to it.
John Paul II’s teaching, Catechesi Tradendae (4), discusses the catechetical needs of all Catholics and collects us all into the universal right and duty of catechesis:
It must be restated that nobody in the Church of Jesus Christ should feel excused from receiving catechesis. This is true even of young seminarians and young religious, and of all those called to the task of being pastors and catechists. They will fulfill this task all the better if they are humble pupils of the Church, the great giver as well as the great receiver of catechesis.
To actually implement such a parish catechetical program, having adult catechesis as its “chief form” with other forms oriented to it, having adult catechesis as its “central task” is a truly revolutionary challenge.
2. Program Content
Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (or the recent Compendium) must be the two foundational necessities for an adult program. Both of these are essential. Both should be offered and accessible to as many adults of the parish as possible.
After the two essential components of the Program noted above, many other offerings could be collected in a category such as “Current Topics in Faith Formation.” Such a category could include single or a short series of sessions on specific issues of particular relevancy: Catholic Family Life, The Vocation of the Laity, Growing in Prayer, Catholic Sexual Ethics, Catholic Medical Ethics, The Challenge of Islam, Catholic Social Teachings, Catholic Education for Catholic Children, Keeping Home Safe for Catholics, Intermarriage and Catholic Ecumenism, Natural Family Planning in a Catholic Marriage, and other contemporary matters.
For both the essential components and the other offerings, obviously the catechists who teach adults must be selected with great care. Catechists of adults must have not only technical competence in the field, they must be faithful Catholics having the integrity of a Catholic life. They must have the teaching skills particularly appropriate to teaching adults, with all the challenges and purposes implicit in adult catechesis.
3. Integration into Parish Life
It is important that catechesis for adults be available and accessible to as many adult parishioners as possible. The Adult Program, in other words, should be integrated into the parish calendar and weekly schedule in such a way as to make it available and accessible to as many as possible. Being the “central task” of the catechetical ministry, it must have a place in the parish schedule that enables its due importance: it is not an “add-on” or an after-thought. The parish calendar and schedule may need to be revised to reflect the due importance of this ministry, and past priorities may need to be reevaluated in the light of this “central task.” Such revision may require reeducation of some parish leaders, and this of course must be done with due care and diligence. However, for the parish to meet its responsibilities, such correction and revision may be required if the current schedule and calendar effectively limit or discourage access.
4. Parish Support and Involvement
- The Pastor. The active support, leadership and involvement of the pastor or at least one resident priest is very important. If the pastor does not give genuine, sincere and continuing support to adult catechesis it has small likelihood of widespread success. Pastoral support can include personal endorsements of the need for adult formation, personal announcements at Mass of program offerings, personal attendance at sessions from time to time as his schedule allows, personally teaching some of the sessions, Bulletin articles on the need for continuing adult formation, integration of the need for catechesis and the actual catechetical ministry into homilies, and so on.
- The pastor can strongly encourage or even require participation in some adult formation sessions particularly of couples being prepared for Matrimony, of couples seeking Baptism or Confirmation of children, of Parish Council members and of other laity involved in other parish works and ministries. The pastor can help all parish leaders and workers understand the importance of their own continuing formation and participation in adult formation – and thus this realization can begin to extend to all parish groups and ministries.
- Parish Ministries and Lay Leadership. Not only the priests, but deacons and all lay leaders of the parish can set the tone in the parish: We are a parish of growing disciples; we take continuing adult formation seriously, personally. By their personal example and encouragement of all members in their groups, they can help establish this tone and atmosphere. In this way the acceptance of and participation in adult formation can pervade and permeate the entire parish.
Adult formation is crucial to the mission of the Church and to the local parish. The Church “exists in order to evangelize,” (5) Pope Paul VI taught. To ignite this mission in our times, John Paul II called for a “New Evangelization” (6):
Over the years, I have often repeated the summons to the new evangelization. I do so again now, especially in order to insist that we must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardor of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).
This passion will not fail to stir in the Church a new sense of mission, which cannot be left to a group of “specialists” but must involve the responsibility of all the members of the People of God. Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.
And in the light of this call for a new evangelization that must begin in the Church among Catholics, we see that the mission of the Church demands of us attention to the crucial ministry of adult catechesis. Adults deserve an adult catechesis, an opportunity to encounter Christ in His Word and in the teachings He has entrusted to His Church. Adults are called in their lay vocation to be “full, conscious and active participants” (7) in the liturgy of the Church – and hence also in the full and personal living of the liturgy in the secular world. We cannot give to the world what we do not have in our hearts; we cannot bear witness to what we do not understand or even know. We cannot raise our children in a Faith we do not understand and love. We cannot bring light to this dark and darkening culture if we ourselves can hardly see it or articulate it. We need to know the Faith, and to grow in that wisdom and in that life for the rest of our lives.
1 A good example: Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States, http://www.nccbuscc.org/education/ourhearts.htm
3 General Directory for Catechesis, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_17041998_directory-for-catechesis_en.html
7 i.e see the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium 14, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html
R. Thomas Richard