Catholic Herald Staff
Faith formation begins at home in the Rusk County Catholic Community’s pilot program.
Hudson native Katie Rolli, director of religious education for the six-parish cluster, is bypassing traditional weekly classes in favor of a family-focused, home-based curriculum for elementary and middle school students, and online coursework and community service for high-schoolers.
When Rolli joined the staff in June, she intended to go with the status quo.
“Then, I realized it isn’t working,” she said.
Currently, religious education students come Wednesday night for school-style classes. Call to Faith, the program taught to K-8 students in five of the six Rusk County cluster parishes, is the same series used at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School, Ladysmith.
Rolli said it’s the program’s lecture-driven design, not the delivery, that puts students off. They don’t want to spend more time in school.
“Catechists do a great job,” she added. “Despite the catechists’ best efforts, that’s just not what (students) want to do.”
Enrollment in religious education is low, Rolli observed. Community interest is low. When she noticed the lack of involvement, she contacted a few ninth-grade families, figuring ninth-graders were at the crossroads of the K-8 and high school programs and could offer some insight.
She learned that, combined with student disinterest, sports and schoolwork are major factors in declining enrollment. Schools no longer respect Wednesday as church night, so they don’t lessen the workload. Overall, events, sports and homework all take precedence over catechism.
“So, we need to do something different,” Rolli concluded.
Because she couldn’t find a published program that fit her vision, she assigned herself the task of rebuilding the program from scratch. Some companies claimed their Catholic school products were adaptable, but she wasn’t convinced.
“It wouldn’t be accomplishing what we want to accomplish,” she said.
A teacher with an early childhood degree and middle childhood certification, Rolli’s first inspiration was to add an Early Catholic Family section to their current lineup. Children from birth to Kindergarten and their parents will be invited to attend seven monthly sessions; each meeting will include family activities, children’s time and parent time.
Parents will learn more about their faith and how to pass it down, but they will also have an opportunity to build relationships with other families. Meanwhile, children might play with a mini-Mass kit or take part in a Nativity dress-up game.
“It’s specifically geared to their level,” she added.
Two parishioners traveled to St. Paul, Minn., for materials and training to run the Early Catholic Family program, Rolli said.
Faithful Families is Rolli’s name for her new curriculum for grades one through eight. Parents will attend a monthly meeting based on the catechism, and students will bring home both family and individual activities to complete in the second and third weeks of each month. In week four, families will come together to talk about their projects and to enjoy fellowship.
“It’ll be a time to regroup and share what they’ve been working on all month,” she said.
The program follows Diocese of Superior religious education guidelines, as well as the catechism, which is divided topically into age-based levels in a four-year rotation. Creeds, for example, will be the focus for the first year, which begins this fall. When first-graders are in fifth grade, creeds will be the topic again, but they’ll learn about them at a more advanced level.
The high school program, Called and Commissioned, combines online work, in-person sessions and community service projects. Grades nine, 10 and 11 will all learn from the same curriculum and, Rolli hopes, come to see themselves as valuable, productive members of their parishes.
Wednesday night classes are ending, said Rolli. Students will complete the online component at their leisure; their answers will be anonymous to classmates, but Rolli will use them to gauge whether they are grasping key concepts.
“They need to be held accountable,” she added.
Class work, as well as progress on service projects, will be discussed at a two-hour monthly meeting.
“I hope to have some fellowship time,” she said. That could include pizza and movies or discussions with a guest panel – the first will be on vocations – that offer students activities and real-life applications of their faith.
Service projects will be chosen by students based on self-assessment of their gifts of the Spirit. She offered an example: a student who is reverent, or would like to improve his or her reverence, could volunteer to fix up a cemetery. She envisions a community enriched and improved by a team of enthusiastic young Catholics, who will then create displays to showcase their projects for parishioners. Rolli plans to schedule the event for the end of the school season, sometime in May.
“In my mind, I think the project fair will be a highlight,” she added.
As she makes plans to implement the new religious ed programs this fall, Rolli is aware of possible resistance from parents, many of whom are accustomed to dropping off students, picking them up again and not getting too involved in the program.
She expects some parents to question why the burden of religious education will fall on them, rather than just students, and her response is that volunteer catechists have taken on the responsibility thus far. Passing on the Catholic faith is the parents’ duty, she explained, part of their baptismal vow.
She anticipates lower enrollment initially, but she hopes that eventually families will come to enjoy the new style of catechism.
“With any change, sometimes there’s resistance. We will persevere and work through that,” she said. “I have faith the programs will change people’s minds.”