For many teachers, the goal is to have students retain what they learn in class — and hopefully apply some of those lessons later in life.
But at Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown, putting lessons into action is the class.
Faith in Action is a peer ministry course offered to juniors and seniors as a theology elective. Students are tasked with preparing and executing many of the school’s pastoral activities, from planning food drives to leading liturgies and managing retreats.
The aim, says school minister Father John Donia, is to equip students to act out their faith by sustaining their prayer lives and becoming leaders.
“It is an active response to the call to service which is rooted in baptism,” said Father Donia. “We seek to empower young people to be a living Gospel within the community.”
Before coming to Bishop Shanahan, Father Donia was organizing activities for Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia when he realized that bringing in a guest speaker for retreats wasn’t proving effective.
“It might have seemed good for the moment,” he said, “but there was no follow-through, and it felt disconnected in the end.”
So he tried turning over the reins to people who understand students best: fellow students. The idea evolved from a group that met weekly to a class that met daily.
Father Donia was able to bring that idea to fruition in 2016 with Bishop Shanahan’s Faith in Action Team — or FIAT, as members like to call it. In order to join the club, students had to complete an application and undergo an interview.
Students were selected by their ability to demonstrate leadership skills and willingness to serve. Even so, many were surprised by just how much of an impact they were able to make.
Daniel Gorman and his fellow FIAT members had their work cut out for them. The team was tasked with planning and leading the student retreat for St. Joseph School in Downingtown last year.
“Spending an entire Saturday teaching 200 hyper sixth graders about the gifts of the Holy Spirit seemed insurmountable,” said Gorman. “But it proved to be an exciting challenge.”
FIAT members had put in months of work preparing icebreakers, activities, lessons, videos and music for the event. They paid special attention to ensure each element was personal and applicable to the middle school-aged attendees, according to Father Donia.
That emphasis on personal impact is consistent throughout all of FIAT’s projects. In the 2016-2017 school year, the team planned and executed 16 projects, including food drives, Christmas caroling and Advent initiatives.
When the group gathered goods for the Thanksgiving food drive, they made each delivery personally. And when students collected donations for hurricane relief in Haiti, participants boosted awareness by creating their own videos and signs.
“The biggest eye opener for me,” said Father Donia, “was that the response was a lot better when peers encouraged fellow peers.”
The application for the Faith in Action program makes it clear that the course isn’t meant to be easy. It’s a challenge to serve the school and fellow students while keeping up with academic responsibilities.
Yet the program is growing rapidly. While the initial course was only open to high school juniors, the school now offers a second class for seniors. Its primary focus is social justice, drawing on the school’s longstanding Global Awareness Month.
In addition to increased interest from students, Father Donia points to the overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents and administrators. That includes praise from St. Joseph Parish, where the team led last year’s student retreat.
How is the team handling its success? In true FIAT fashion, they’re already putting it to use. The team is booked to lead four more confirmation retreats this year.
Nick Regina is deputy secretary of enrollment and marketing for the Office of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
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