Matthew Gambino

Many CatholicPhilly.com readers remember their Catholic school education. Not me. I attended public schools in the Norristown district. Which meant that on Sunday mornings I was in “Sunday school,” or CCD as it was known then (don’t ask what the letters stood for) or as it’s known today, a parish religious education program, or PREP. With a name that long, thank God for acronyms.

More than 40 years later I remember learning about Jesus, memorizing prayers, studying the sacraments and basic teachings of the church on faith and moral living. We had some homework and easy tests.

And after the Sunday morning classes with a few nuns or volunteer teachers, my parents would pick up my siblings and me and head over to church for Mass. Then as now, some parents would do this, others would not. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Today it is common to hear parish priests and religious educators lament the absence in church of some parents and their children enrolled in PREP.

Many parents do of course pray with their children every (or most) Sundays at church. Most parents try to do their best, whether that means PREP once a week or Catholic school every day. They are trying, but one gets the sense that many young people simply are not engaged with the church.

Clearly, PREP or Catholic schools are not one-stop shops for passing on the faith. I’ve heard church leaders say for years that parents are the primary educators of their children, especially in matters of faith. Religious educators, however, will tell you that parents admit they don’t even know what that means. They themselves do not feel equipped to pass on the content of faith that they may have relegated to the happy memory file of their own youth.

That is why some recent innovations at parish PREP programs in the Philadelphia Archdiocese show some promise. This is a time for experimentation with parish religious education. Not with the content but with its delivery.

That was the message of a conference I attended a couple weeks ago along with most parish pastors in the archdiocese, accompanied by their directors/coordinators of religious education, hosted in two sessions by the archdiocesan Office for Catechetical Formation.

Religious education consists of passing on the faith by teaching the person of Jesus himself and all that he taught us of the Father of mercy. That doesn’t change. But family life does change, and that is why new ways of presenting the content of the Catholic faith are so important.

In one presentation at the conference, leaders of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Warrington described ways to involve the parents and children in activities that were easy to accomplish and flexible for busy family schedules. Consider this “pray and play” activity: Parents and children together attend a communal Stations of the Cross at the church, then go out for pizza and discuss the devotion.

As another example, St. Robert’s offers PREP at the traditional Monday night time and a one-week summer session as most parishes do. It also offers a hybrid of traditional home-based catechesis. On the first Sunday of the month families go to the 9 a.m. Mass together. Following Mass and after refreshments, the kids go to classroom instruction while the parents receive a presentation and materials to help them reinforce the lesson at home over the next four weeks.

The process along with online resources and tests, plus one required spiritual gathering and one corporal work of mercy among the family, helps equip parents to teach their children in the home as well as at the church campus.

These and many other solid ideas (contact the Office for Catechetical Formation for more) emerged as priests, deacons, religious sisters and lay catechetical leaders and teachers do what Christians have been doing since the beginning: meeting people where they are and teaching them in word and deed.

Nonetheless, there are no guarantees for Christian living. Parents will admit that when their children were young, everything possible was done to pass on the faith: talking about God, witnessing prayer in the home, modeling good behavior, seeing to the kids’ religious education. And despite it all, one or more of their adult children now give no evidence that faith is important to them.

The conference I attended explored some good options that are worth trying. But no one there pretended to have the answer to that tough question for parents: Why doesn’t my son or daughter believe in God? Or if he or she does, why don’t they go to church?

There are reasons but no simple solutions. There is only continued effort in living what you believe and passing it on as best you can. That and constant prayer each day and over the years, confident that the seeds planted at the foot of God will bear fruit in his time and by his will, if not our own.