by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
A lot of what we learn at a young age begins at home. Learning the Catholic faith is no exception.
So it was no surprise when Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe re-imagined its religious education program four years ago, placing a greater emphasis on in-home learning with parents.
Today, of course, learning from home is the pandemic norm. But moving away from a regular classroom setting has taught Prince of Peace families so much more, said Shannon Cardaronella, the parish’s director of children’s ministry.
“The goal of our family- based program is not attendance and grades, but to have faith formation enter your home,” Cardaronella said. “I’m committed to the family-based model. According to the data, if the faith is not studied at home, it’s gone in the later years.”
Outside the box thinking
While the initial change was born out of a desire to streamline weekly logistics for families with multiple children, Cardaronella said a family curriculum has enriched conversations about faith at home.
Traditionally, religious education classes meet once a week in the classroom with an individual teacher leading the week’s lesson. The family- based program relies on a small team of volunteer catechists to deliver the lessons through a closed parent network that families can complete at home.
Prior to the pandemic, Prince of Peace’s religious education students met as a group at the school one day a month. Since the pandemic, Prince of Peace relies on the closed network to incorporate a sense of community and spark engagement, Cardaronella said.
“Because we already had a family-based program in place, our parents kept going without a hiccup when the pandemic hit,” she said. “Now, we stay in contact with Zoom, text, direct message, email, phone and the closed network. I feel I’m in contact more with parents now than I ever was!”
Embraced by families
Prince of Peace parishioner Sarah Jurgens of Olathe has two children in the religious education program — 11-year-old daughter Drew, who is in fifth grade, and 8-year-old son Cooper, who is in second grade. Jurgens characterizes the program as having gone from a one-hour, weekly drop-off to becoming a family affair. For Jurgens, it makes sense, both logistically and spiritually.
“I do believe the quality has improved with me as the parent so involved. I’m able to gauge how much my children understand the material, how much they understand God’s word and teaching,” Jurgens said.
Jurgens said the format often allows her to enrich the lessons with her own faith experiences, such as when her son prepared for his first reconciliation.
“In talking to him about how we tell the priest how long it’s been since our last confession, I chose to tell him my story about returning to the faith and to the church after being away for 17 years,” Jurgens said. “His eyes got really big and his questions about why I’d been away so long and what brought me back probably added more to his understanding about this great sacrament than any workbook or video could.”
The family-based model also works for Prince of Peace parishioners Michelle and Kevin Heiman and their two children: Jillian, 10, and Ben, 8. As a product of Catholic schooling, Michelle said she and Kevin taught their daughter’s first grade religious education class four years ago because it was important for them to be involved.
It’s also a great refresher, she said. When the pandemic is over, she is looking forward to engaging in the large-group activities that supplement family learning.
“An aspect I really love about the program is the family gatherings. It’s been so nice getting to know other families in the program and I think the gatherings are what make this model so special,” Michelle said.
“A few of our favorites have been Bible Boot Camp for first year sacramental prep. My kids have also enjoyed the game night/information night with various booths and stations set up around the parish hall,” she continued. “We’ve also met in the church for [eucharistic] adoration, Stations of the Cross, and have prayed the rosary together.”
The family model is not without its challenges. Both families agree that it takes discipline and an adherence to a schedule to complete the lessons. However, each family likens the duty to the commitment families make for sports and other activities.
“The only real downside to this 100 percent online model is that it can easily be ignored or brushed to the side if parents choose not to make it a priority,” said Jurgens.
“My children know Saturday morning is SOR time and that they have to complete their lessons before they can do just about anything else. But the same could be said for last year’s model or even the previous years’,” she added. “Parents have to make religious education a priority — over sports, clubs and every other activity out there that takes up family time.”
Similarly, Michelle said her family sets aside time each week to complete the lessons and finds greater success when their religion time is scheduled, just like their other commitments.
“My kids know what to expect and a few cups of hot chocolate makes it all the better,” Michelle said.
Motivated to learn
Both families say they are motivated to stay the course because of their commitment to raising their children Catholic.
“I stay motivated because I want my children to grow up Catholic and to receive the sacraments,” Jurgens said. “It really helped to have Father Kenn Clem tell us he was an SOR kid that grew up to be a priest. That was a huge motivation for me, at least!”
And despite the pandemic, many of the families credit Cardaronella with helping them feel connected as a parish community. In particular, Michelle said Cardaronella is keeps everyone on track by providing calendars, relevant videos for the topic of the week and supplemental art projects and materials.
Michelle says her family has been reading the Bible more as well as journaling and learning more about people and saints in the Catholic faith. Recently, Cardaronella organized a Nativity Zoom with scripts for anyone who wanted to participate. It even featured a surprise cameo by Fathers Greg, Kenn and Francis as the Three Wise Men. It’s just one of the ways in which Cardaronella brings unique experiences to the program.
“We know our families,” Cardaronella said, “so we can help them in personalized ways.
“Whether it’s a classroom, big hall or closed network, you still need people working with people. You need to get to know your families.”