Missionary Disciples: Encountering Christ before formation through improved catechesis

September 26, 2017

Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz celebrates the Sacrament of Confirmation during Pentecost at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church. Photo by James Ramos/Herald.

HOUSTON — This month, the Church celebrates all catechists who are formally commissioned to minister as a community of faith to adults, adolescents and children living in parishes nationwide. The theme, established by the United States Conference of Bishops (USCCB) is “Living as Missionary Disciples,” which demonstrates Pope Francis’ call for all baptized persons to make a commitment to handing on the faith and witnessing to the Gospel.

Over the past three years, the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis (OEC) of the Archdiocese has been creating a system of new, innovative methods to help catechists in parishes and schools to better meet the growing, ever-changing needs of those seeking sacramental preparation and formation.

More emphasis is now placed on furthering the evangelizing catechetical mission of a family-oriented, multi-cultural Church of adults, adolescents and children, which the OEC provides through services that promote lifelong formation so that each person’s faith becomes living, conscious and active.

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As one of 60-plus ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), sacramental preparation is one of the ministry areas impacted by these changes, which includes children’s catechumenate, Infant Baptism, First Penance and Reconciliation, First Eucharist, Youth Confirmation and Adult Confirmation, offered in both English and Spanish.

An Archdiocesan team directed by the OEC is in the process of rewriting and revising the sacramental norms used to guide the processes for sacramental preparation across the Archdiocese, which were sometimes decades old and out of touch with what the faithful are facing today.

“We have learned that many people who come to celebrate the Sacraments live in a very mobile society, and are not always connected to a parish or have family support in their faith journey,” said Julie Blevins, director of the OEC.

“Feedback from our priests and lay leaders indicated that a pre-evangelization piece was needed before the immediate sacramental preparation, as well as better follow-up once they celebrate the Sacrament to encourage lifelong formation in the Church. It’s about encouraging an encounter with Christ first, through each of us as His disciples, and then we can begin the formation process.”

Blevins said the OEC’s vision is for every parish to provide sacramental preparation with both a catechetical team, which provides a revised teaching component based on 21st-century methodologies, and a separate team that assists participants in discerning where they are on their faith journey as a disciple of Christ before they enter into formation.

“This allows us to move away from a programmatic approach at the parish-level to having a more personal experience for each person celebrating the Sacraments,” said Juan Carlos Moreno, associate director of the OEC.

“This process anchored in the catechumenate model may look different for each person based on his or her need from in-depth discernment at the beginning of the process. We can better accompany people along their journey and prepare them for the high encounter of Christ experienced in each Sacrament.”

Blevins emphasized the need for parishioners to discern their own personal charisms and gifts to best serve their specific faith community’s needs.

“It is important for our parishioners to search their own gift bank to know where they belong in the sacramental process,” said Blevins.

“Those who catechize are typically expert facilitators and are gifted in teaching, and those who will lead the discernment process are active listeners with the ability to encourage sharing in small groups.”

Moreno said Adult Confirmation was one of the first sacramental preparation areas to restructure its processes. Under the Catechetical Framework for Lifelong Faith Formation approved by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo in 2014, the improved catechesis methods in all contexts will be implemented in parishes Archdiocesan-wide, which has been well received by parish clergy and leaders.

“We now have Adult Confirmation lesson plans for the parishes to use that contain a solid methodology with more interactivity between participants through faith sharing, which is how adults learn best,” said Moreno.

“Instead of sitting through lectures, participants now get to know each other better and become more engaged in learning about their faith and how to live it. This model allows them to have an encounter with Christ during the process, which is what having a true evangelizing catechesis is all about.”

Because of the innovation found in the new systems OEC is developing, the office has been approached by other dioceses around the nation to learn best practices.

Blevins said this includes churches in the northeast that seem to be losing membership, which impacts the number of those attending church and preparing for the Sacraments.

She said the growing number of faithful in the Houston-area celebrating the Sacraments, such as those in the Adult Confirmation process, is proof that the Archdiocese is vibrant and growing.

In 2016, more than 1,600 adults were confirmed in the Church locally, which does not include those who participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). This was an increase of close to 400 people in just one year.

“The growth in Adult Confirmation has been so significant, participants now celebrate at the traditional time of Pentecost Sunday, but also the Sunday before and after, as well as in January on the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord,” said Blevins. “Now, instead of using the traditional RCIA teaching model, we developed new processes for Adult Confirmation, because we learned these individuals have very different needs than those in RCIA.”

Both Blevins and Moreno are thankful for the support, which allows the OEC to better meet the needs of those it serves.

“The DSF supports all of the work that we do, from revising the sacramental norms to rewriting leadership formation and having the ability to bring experts in to provide leadership workshops and training,” said Blevins.

“This also helps us to keep our fees nominal for materials that we pass on to participants, so it’s affordable. We essentially couldn’t function without the DSF.”