By Elizabeth Fisher
Special to the CS&T
Overheard at a recent high school graduation: “It won’t be easy to get the kids to church this summer. I don’t make them go during the year because they go to Mass all the time when they’re in school.”
This story demonstrates in a very practical sense the awesome responsibility that rests on the shoulders of religion teachers. Many times, in today’s environment, religion teachers must go above and beyond the call of duty to instill the faith in their young charges, said Sister Patricia Healy, I.H.M., principal of Good Shepherd Catholic Regional School in Ardsley.
Good Shepherd was formed at the former Queen of Peace when that school, St. John of the Cross in Roslyn and Holy Martyrs in Oreland closed their doors. That brought children of various ethnic and racial backgrounds together under one roof, Sister Healy said.
“Teaching religion is a challenge because of the gaps in the children’s religious backgrounds,” she said. “Many parents don’t go to church, so the children don’t. Our job was to make religion a priority, and to involve the parents as much as possible.”
The faculty started the year before Good Shepherd opened by bringing the students from all three schools together for various events. They learned about why Jesus is called the Good Shepherd, and they were taught a song about the Good Shepherd that they sang on opening day this past September.
The faculty started the current school year emphasizing the Eucharist and prayer – both personal and communal prayer. They studied lessons from the Loyola teaching series, they prayed the rosary and participated in special ceremonies, such as the Living Stations of the Cross.
“We work to teach both the parents and the children about the obligation of going to Mass,” Sister Healy said. “It will be a struggle until parents experience the need in their own lives to participate in the Church. What we really need is more adult education.”
As Catholic school teachers work in the vineyard, there are dedicated professionals who search for the best methods of teaching the faith, such as Ann Menna, director of parish elementary religious education in the archdiocesan Office for Catechetical Formation.
Menna said Catholic school principals can choose teaching materials from a list approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the study of Scripture are also elements of the religious curriculum.
Issues concerning human life and technological advances require review so that the Church’s position can be clearly communicated to students.
“Sometimes information must conform to modern language in modern times,” Menna said. “It’s not the same rote-type of approach as in the 1950s. Doctrine hasn’t changed, but we have to meet the times.”
Curriculum updates are formulated by the Elementary School Religion Curriculum Committee, of which Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister William Catherine is a member. The committee is comprised of volunteers who collate new information, rewrite religion examinations and prepare study schedules for teachers.
Last year, the group decided on a vocations theme by researching saints from most religious communities in Philadelphia, preparing worksheets and biographies of those saints. It is one way, Sister William Catherine said, of giving teachers the tools to effectively convey the Catholic faith.
She said her work on the committee is based on her belief that the Catholic faith is a gift that needs to be passed on.
“I can’t imagine starting my day without prayer or without God,” she said. “I need that strength and guidance. I try to instill in my own students the need to take a few minutes to ask God to help them.”
Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.