Many people who grew up in the Catholic Faith, especially those of a certain age, remember the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) programs that were once widespread in parishes. The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine was an association established in Rome in 1562 to provide religious education. Today, CCD refers to a religious education program of the Catholic Church, generally designed for children, and it still exists in the same way in some parishes. CCD had been what the students who did not attend Catholic School attended at night and on weekends for their Faith education.
At St. Francis, the Faith Formation programs encompass formation for all students. The effort to break down the ‘traditional’ Catholic School student/Public School student ‘divide’ in Faith Formation is a continuing effort. Jeanne Lewin, the parish Director of Faith Formation, aims to change the model and mindset to bring everyone together as one parish. She enthusiastically states, “When you step on the St. Francis campus, we are St. Francis; we are not public and parochial. I think it’s important to integrate everyone as one faith community.” Mrs. Lewin has a wealth of experience in the Diocese of Raleigh, having served in similar formation positions at three other parishes since starting her leadership in Faith Formation in 2005.
Jess Kelly, a TFS and St. Francis preschool parent, feels the same way as the new director. “I am involved in Faith Formation, even though we are at TFS, because I want to build a sense of community among the youth of our parish. Studies show that belonging leads to overall well-being and greater happiness. These kids need to feel like they belong. They need a place where they feel safe, welcomed, and loved, and what better place to feel that sense of belonging than their church family?”
Jess mentioned, “when they can have this personal relationship with Christ, it will go with them through life.” She echoes the same need for a personal relationship with Christ offered by Director Lewin, who said, “As individuals and families, we are at different steps in our journey. It’s reaching the parents because they have not been formed well, but that’s not meant in a derogatory way. It’s getting to the parents, and students, the importance of Jesus Christ in their lives too.”
Melissa Walsh, a TFS alumna and current faculty member at the school, also remembers being involved in the parish faith formation outside of her religion classes when she was at TFS; she continues helping today! “For me, it started as giving back to a faith community that helped to build me. The youth respond when they have people who are excited about their faith in their lives. We can’t continue to talk about how young Catholics are leaving the Church when each of us has a Baptismal call as priest, prophet, and king.” Melissa feels her role as a Catholic school teacher is as a mentor and example to all the parish youth. She connects with her students in the school and Faith Formation: “The only way to help the problem is to be present, vocal, and good stewards of our community. My students, and the kids I’ve met through youth ministry, get so excited when they see me at Mass, Francis Fest, or even at their Confirmation.” The fact that the push to be more inclusive resonates with Ms. Walsh. “(TFS students) being involved with faith formation allows them to connect with other kids their age who they might not meet otherwise. It will enable them to have a widened perspective for the world around us, and only helps us to grow as people,“ Melissa believes. Jess added in the same vein that “… the kids from TFS and the kids from public schools have a lot they can learn from one another. The tricky thing is that they need trust before sharing vulnerable stuff and therefore learning anything or opening their hearts to other perspectives. They need that sense of community first.”
This viewpoint merges well with the vision Jeanne hopes to move the Faith Formation program toward in the future. She is building the program up from the ground using the experience of veteran adult volunteers with enthusiastic new people. As Jeanne builds, she wants to be sure that the activism and desire for engagement of today’s youth are recognized. The spirit of Justice and Peace of the St. Francis Parish is engaging and far-reaching. Unfortunately, the active component of formation programs is often a tiny part. Usually, as she says, “it’s the last nugget of an amazing aspect of our faith that we don’t even explore. Today’s youth want to participate and be actively doing something.” She wants formation to live up to Catholic social teaching, where they can be a voice to those without a voice; this way, they better understand what it means to be Catholic.
Working with Trevor Thompson, the Director of Justice and Peace, the program has implemented Catholic Social Teaching nights. It is expanding that focus within the summer camps through Mission Mercy and Mercy Camp. She is also starting to reach out to families to get their thoughts on service in Faith Formation. Jeanne says, “an amazing aspect of the community is how many families connect to a (service) organization.” She wants to be sure to leverage what families are doing to support them in their efforts and find out what service they want to provide in growing their faith.
As the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi grows its Faith Formation program, how does Jeanne see success beyond just enrollment? She says that sometimes parishes get hooked on the numbers, but it isn’t about the numbers. Jeanne wants to see a connection and a transformation in her students, including peer ministry leaders and the core team of adult leaders. She wants the program to come together and gel to create disciples of Christ and “to apostle” to help the youth understand their charisms. As she explains, she wants them to ask themselves, “What have you been given to give back.” She loves the parish’s Franciscan spirituality and the support she gets back from the parish leadership and staff. With us coming out of the pandemic, she feels there is a fantastic opportunity for the St. Francis Faith Formation team to redefine and re-enliven the program. She hopes to build upon past success and make the program even more inclusive and engaging to our Church’s future, our youth.
Author: Mike Watson