Archdiocesan program trains parishes to bring catechesis to public schools
July 10, 2018
HOUSTON — The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is relaunching its efforts to bring faith formation to students in public schools by way of an after-school program.
As a consultant to the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis (OEC), Dan Schwieterman, who is now retired and has extensive experience in this area, is looking forward to empowering and educating parish leaders to begin this program in their area of Houston.
‘We have lots of work to do’
“It was exciting to hear last year through Julie Blevins (director of OEC) that Daniel Cardinal DiNardo had approved the project of catechesis in the public schools with a budget to begin moving it from a couple of parishes to look at the whole Galveston-Houston Church as ground to grow the effort,” Schwieterman said. “With well over 400,000 school-age Catholic students in the public school system, we have lots of work to do. I’m excited and very hopeful about this effort from my initial contact with pastors and catechetical leaders that I have spoken with in this past year.”
According to Schwieterman, only about a quarter of the children in the Archdiocese enroll in some type of Catholic faith formation at their local church. Teaching faith formation to children as an after-school program is permitted under the U.S. Supreme Court case of Milford vs. Good News Bible Club (June 2001), which declared religious-oriented programs by religious groups for before or after school as legal. Such programs include Boys and Girls Scouts, YMCA programs, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, etc. Also, Schwieterman has analyzed extensive research from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, with Dr. Stephen Klineberg, to understand the need for those families who identify as Catholic, but are not enrolled in faith formation at church.
‘We will bring the Church to them’
“Catechesis at public schools began for the first time in Houston more than 20 years ago,” Schwieterman said. “The decision was made if ‘they’ won’t come to the church, then we will bring the Church to them! These efforts resulted in a significant increase in the active participation of Catholic families in catechesis, the parish and Sunday worship. In the first parish, Christ the King, CCE enrollment grew from 400 to 1,500 participants in 10 years.”
Schwieterman was a director of religious education at Christ the King Catholic Church for 10 years and later was in the same role at All Saints Catholic Church for 13 years. At both parishes, he and many others instituted this program with success.
“Our job as Church is to serve and lead the church through leadership — to help them as families and singles, elderly, etc. The challenge is to find ways to meet the families where they are — go out to teach all as Matthew 28:16-20 says — and not expect them to meet with us necessarily at the church campus.”
A Mission Spirit
Schwieterman said that since public school catechesis is a “different” approach, it takes some time, effort and a mission spirit. He recommends “Seven Effective Steps to Catechesis in the Public Schools.”
A general overview, in no particular order, of the steps are:
1. Positive Approach: Public Schools and the churches need to form one community.
2. Constitutional Issues: Understanding that Church activities in the public schools do not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
3. Initiating Programs: Know the schools to target and involve the necessary people (parents, Catholic teachers, religious education directors).
4. Getting Started: Give yourself a year to build relationships with the public school’s principal and staff. Make sure to have proper forms and be clear about programming.
5. Parish Resources (staff, volunteers and costs): Allow various catechetical levels to be offered at the public schools but sacramental preparation at the church following a year of catechesis.
6. Religious Education Volunteers: School parents, through the PTO model, are accustomed to volunteering in their children’s activities. Get them and your parish volunteers and staff involved.
7. Catechesis as Evangelization: You are inviting people into the Church. When children are catechized, the parents often follow with parish involvement.
“Pope Francis challenges us to smell like the flock — be in its midst,” Schwieterman said. “Most of our Catholic families in the USA have become fairly distant from regular church participation. How do we get away from our church campus, office and computers to be where our people are? That has been my search. No one program will solve the whole problem of reaching all, but it is a big step forward with many — being in the midst of the Catholic children and by our actions a witness of the faith in the market place and others. To be effective one must jump in the water to swim; so also with catechesis in the public school. Just do it; mistakes are made and through them each becomes skilled.”
The effort to reach out to parishes is currently underway. If you would like to encourage your parish to begin a program like this, contact the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis at 713-741-8796 or visit archgh.org/oec.