By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
JAMISON – It’s a challenge every pastor and director of religious education must face. What happens to the children who do not attend Catholic schools in about sixth grade after they have received the sacrament of confirmation from the hands of a bishop?
Hopefully they will attend Mass. But even if they do, they may not receive a single bit of formal religious education until taking pre-Cana or pre-Jordan classes in preparation for marriage or parenthood.
Like many parishes, St. Cyril of Jerusalem in Jamison, Bucks County, doesn’t have a parochial school. About 200 families do send their children to neighboring parish schools and 600 other children are enrolled in St. Cyril’s PREP program. For this latter group there were no religious education programs available after confirmation at a stage of life when they were entering the crucial middle school years.
Three years ago the parish came up with a program it calls Genesis, which through six weekly sessions twice yearly fills that need, and guess what? It is very well attended.
“The name came from one of our adult leaders. It’s taken from the first book of the Bible. It is a new beginning,” said St. Cyril’s director of religious education, Dan Rackers.
When Genesis began three years ago, the sessions were conducted on a week night, but through trial and error, it was discovered optimum attendance was really Sunday morning because there were so many other competing activities on week nights, Rackers explained. Genesis is open to everyone, both public and Catholic school kids, and they don’t even have to be Catholic. The overwhelming majority is public school kids, and that is the targeted group.
This year’s program began Oct. 11, and if last year is a guide, the sessions will attract 70 to 80 boys and girls each week. Counter to what might be expected, boys will outnumber girls.
The sessions run from 10 a.m. until noon, after which the young people can attend the noon Mass or if they prefer, the 8 a.m. Mass before the sessions.
A major component of the sessions is breakout discussion groups. There are five of these, and in addition to the Genesis kids, they each include two adult and three high school student leaders.
This fall the topic is “learning to communicate.” In February they will tackle the sensitive issue of “growing up sexually.”
There will be other single-session faith formation activities throughout the year, for example, a December Advent prayer service. Along with the spiritual aspect, there are both service and social activities through the entire year. On the schedule is a December event of serving coffee and doughnuts after Masses, and two projects at Manna on Main Street, a Lansdale soup kitchen. The next scheduled social is “Genesis Lock In,” an all-night supervised sleepover in the parish hall, and a future ski trip is also planned,
But while the service and social pieces exist, the real focus is youth ministry with faith formation at its core. As Rackers emphasizes, “Genesis is youth ministry, it is not a youth group.”
Genesis wouldn’t be possible without a core group of 10 or so dedicated adult volunteers, according to Rackers.
“It’s been an incredible experience for both the children and the adults,” said Frank LaRusso, who takes charge of music ministry for the group. “Everything stops in sacramental education after confirmation unless you go to Catholic school [and yet] seventh and eighth graders are struggling with some of the most critical decisions in their lives,” he said.
It is difficult for children in that age group to build trust with adults, LaRusso believes, but through Genesis he has seen young people reveal some fears and issues that are important to them.
“Through Genesis they’ve gotten skills that will last forever,” he said.
Taylor Romeo, an eighth-grader at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, might be typical of young people in Genesis. This is her second year, and she also attended the parish Vacation Bible School.
Genesis “is an awesome program,” she said. “We learn a lot and it’s not just reading from a book. It’s never boring. Mr. Rackers always has lots of things for us to do. You wouldn’t think it would be, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Brian Nessel, on the other hand, isn’t a typical member because he does attend Catholic school at Nativity of Our Lord, Warminister, where he is in eighth grade. Although he has religion in school, through Genesis, “we learn a lot about everyday life and it helps us to connect with God and with the people around us too,” he said.
The socials are also nice. In recent months “we went to see the Trenton Thunder (baseball team) and took a trip to Dorney Park,” he said.
Eileen McCole, another eighth-grader who attends Holicong, said she liked Genesis because “It makes me feel closer to God. It’s part of our Church. We talk about a lot of things and it makes us understand what it means to be a Catholic teenager. It’s fun to talk about God in a way we can understand.”
Incidentally, there is another group more recently formed for the kids when they get to higher grades, according to Rackers. It’s called GYM (God’s Youth Ministry) and the tag-line is “Free gym membership at St. Cyril’s.”
The parish certainly doesn’t lack imagination.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.