Many of our parishes do an excellent job in educating our faithful in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Our Catholic schools have programs that integrate faith into every aspect of daily living. Religious education provides catechesis for grade school and secondary students attending public education. Youth ministers offer programs for teens that incorporate Catholic teaching into social and spiritual programs. Our parish directors of religious education establish sacramental preparation programs for baptism, reconciliation, first Communion, confirmation and marriage. But I know that many pastors, myself included, would acknowledge the area we seem to neglect is adult faith formation.
In every area of life, we are constantly called to improve our knowledge and understanding of what we do. At work we are required to update the understanding of our position and are encouraged to creatively think of how we can improve our productivity. This only makes sense as we merge our experience with our work. Professionals are required to do a number of hours of continuing education in order to retain their licenses to practice. Ask your doctor or lawyer next time you see him or her.
However, for years, adult faith formation in a parish was thought to be providing a lecture during Advent or Lent and afterward offering the traditional coffee and cookies. Unless some fantastically well-known, popular theological speaker was delivering the message, usually only a smattering of adults from the congregation would attend. Some parishes ceased to offer adult faith formation, relying instead on sacramental preparation which usually included parents of a newborn for baptism or parents of students seeking to receive the sacrament of reconciliation or first Communion. Marriage preparation meant attending pre-Cana classes, yet we know that marriage needs the continual support of the church as the couple continues to grow in the sacrament.
Many confirmation programs include a night with the sponsor, emphasizing the importance of the relationship and explaining the liturgical symbols used in the administration of the sacrament.
I remember attending one of these nights when I was a sponsor for my cousin who was being confirmed. I had just been named a bishop and although the parish would have exempted me from this requirement, I chose to attend as a sign of my solidarity with all the sponsors who were called to sacrifice an evening for their candidate.
Although these programs are definitely needed in our parishes for preparation of the sacraments, as with all of these programs, the attitude is that once they were completed, the participants thought that they were finished with their formation.
When I was named archbishop of Milwaukee, I was asked what my vision was for the church. That vision has been given to us by Christ in the Gospel, but there is a particular lens through which we view that mission: Catholic Identity (who we are), Evangelization (what we do) and Stewardship (how we do it).
When we speak of evangelization, “proclamation of the Gospel in order to bring others to Christ and his church” it is worthy to note that evangelization occurs in three modes. First there is the evangelization of those who have not heard of Christ and his church; second, the evangelization of those who have embraced Christ and his church but have become lax in the practice of the faith; and third, the continual evangelization of ourselves personally so that our understanding of Christ and his church are profoundly deepened.
It is in this third aspect of evangelization that adult faith formation is most needed. There is a Latin phrase – “nemo dat non quod habet” – which means one cannot give what one doesn’t have. Therefore, we must maximize our understanding and practice of the faith so that we can share our faith with others.
I am encouraged by many initiatives I discover as I travel the archdiocese. There are small groups formed in order to continue to fashion lives around prayer, teaching and action. Scripture study and discussion groups make various passages come alive. Some Catholics are pursuing higher degrees and certificates of ministries at our Catholic universities and colleges.
I recently had the privilege of addressing the directors of religious education, youth ministers and pastoral staffs of various parishes. I reminded them that their ministry was more than conveying information about the faith. It was more than providing programs for people to plug into. In a real sense they were “formators,” helping to integrate the church’s teaching into the lives of the people they serve. We must take responsibility for growing in the faith.
Ask yourselves the following questions:
- How has my prayer life developed over the last few years?
- In what manner has my knowledge about the Catholic faith increased over the last few years?
- What charitable service or activity do I perform on a regular basis?
- Who or what challenges me to grow in my faith?
This present moment in the history of our church, and especially in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, needs individuals who are grounded in the faith and formed to witness to a world that often rejects Jesus, his church and the message of love. We need saints; we need you.