By RENEE WEBB
When it comes to passing on the Catholic faith, research shows parents play a major role.
To help empower and challenge parents to become the primary faith educators of their children, the Diocese of Sioux City introduced the Strong Catholic Families: Strong Catholic Youth initiative at one pilot location in the fall.
Dan Ryan, Ed.D., superintendent of Catholic schools, said the diocese brought Strong Catholic Families to the diocese as a result of the Catholic schools’ long-range planning process.
“One of the goals of the Catholic schools’ long-range planning is increasing school and parish interactions and working with parents as the primary educator of their child,” he said. One of the main premises of Strong Catholic Families is the importance of assisting parents in their role as the primary educator.
Strong Catholic Families was rolled out at St. Cecelia Parish and its cluster parishes, Bishop Garrigan Catholic Schools and the Bancroft cluster parishes with a presentation in September to explain the process and stress the importance of parents’ role in faith formation. There were also leadership training sessions.
Father Ed Girres, pastor at St. Cecelia Parish in Algona and St. Michael Church in Whittemore, said after that first major session they invited everyone back in October for a listening session to provide feedback about how the parishes and school could help them become stronger in the faith.
“If we want to effectively pass on the faith, the foundational element is the family,” he said. “Research shows that adolescents can be very much influenced by their parents and the faith life of the family.”
As a result of the feedback, Ryan said the diocese has added resources online to help parents educate their children in the faith.
Sue Eldridge, principal at Sacred Heart School in Boone, is part of the Strong Catholic Families six-person diocesan leadership team that attended presentations held in the fall at Bishop Garrigan. She echoed Father Girres sentiments.
“All of the data shows the need for parents to get back on track for being the primary educator of their child in religious matters as well as in life in general,” she said. “Research shows if families are active in the church and children see it at home, that’s when they are most likely to remain Catholic and have a strong faith life.”
Lynn Miller, president of Bishop Garrigan Schools, said the way they incorporate Strong Catholic Families will be a continual process.
“We are just touching upon the surface,” he said. “As we hear suggestions, we look at them, review and see how we can incorporate them.” In many cases they hope to incorporate faith dimensions into already existing activities rather than adding additional activities to people’s already busy schedules.
Even though families are very busy, Eldridge stressed the importance of families taking the time to spend time together.
“It’s okay to not be running to something every night,” she said. “Society says to run here and run there. Having a process like this allows people to see it is okay to take some things off of the plate and be home with their families.”
In order to make it happen, Eldridge noted, it calls for a change in the way of thinking.
At Bishop Garrigan, Miller noted that last semester they made an extra effort to allow one night for family time. It was intended for the students to have time for dinner and conversations with their parents.
“Being a small school, our students participate in almost everything so there is hardly a night when they are free,” he said. “What we decided to do – we did it for the first Monday of Advent and we will probably do it for Lent, too – is we cut all of our activities, practices and everything off at 5:30 p.m.”
To incorporate a faith dimension to the evening, the school’s pastoral director, Rob Meister, came up with an item for reflection families could discuss around the dinner table.
“We will do at least two of those a year and we may add another one or two,” said Miller, who noted they are trying to incorporate more faith opportunities for parents to partake in. For instance, they may include a faith dimension into teacher/parent conferences. Another option, he added, might be to have parents and athletes attend Mass together during their sports season.
Father Girres said they are discussing and implementing various ways to help families with faith formation. At St. Cecelia’s, he noted by February they hope to have a nursery for toddlers up and running that will make it easier for young families to go to Mass. In Whittemore, they added a Children’s Liturgy of the Word, which was already offered in Algona. In the parishes, they are considering holding family faith formation events.
“We are not going to make major changes all at once, but it has made us more sensitive to families and helping them to be the best Catholic families they can be,” he said. “We look at ourselves as a resource both in the school and in the parish. We don’t want to burden them, but be better helpers.”
In homes, Ryan noted it could be simply making parents aware of the benefit of speaking about the faith regularly, even if just briefly.
“Small changes can have a big effect,” he said.
Ryan and Eldridge pointed out that next fall the plan is for another two or three schools to implement Strong Catholic Families.
Given that Strong Catholic Families is more of a process than a program, Ryan said the way that schools or parishes implement the initiative can look different in each location based on the needs of families.
As it is rolled out in more schools, Eldridge said they will also educate teachers about the process so they can help parents understand the importance of being involved with educating their children.
“We want parents to be partners with us as we educate their child both spiritually and academically,” she said. “We want to empower teachers to spread that message as well.”