Tom Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers, a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register and a Contributor for Catholic World Report. Tom formerly served as a Theology Advisor at EWTN and is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church (Incarnate Word Media) and The Biblical Roots of the Mass (Sophia Institute Press). He is also a Regular Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
I’ve heard the painful story too many times.
Participation in parish CCD programs usually spikes when children prepare for their First Communion (second grade) and later Confirmation (often eighth grade, but increasingly earlier), yet it drops off dramatically in other years of prospective formation.
The reason? In one sense, parents. But parishes can do more too.
Many Moms and Dads appreciate their Catholic heritage enough to place their children in a parish CCD program, but not enough to serve as “the primary and principal educators” of their children, particularly regarding their faith, as they are reminded to do at their children’s baptism.
So while these parents do take their kids to CCD classes, they don’t participate in weekly Sunday Mass. In addition, and not surprisingly, they’re not living the faith vibrantly at home, including re: what they view on television and the internet, and what they permit their children to do re: the same. As a result, children often get an introduction to the Eucharist and Confirmation, but they don’t become disciples. Because their principal role models, their parents, are not themselves disciples.
What to do? Pastors and parish directors of religious education (DREs) will do their best to encourage needful parents, but with little success. And because they don’t want to turn the kids away, hoping the parents will come around in time, the deficient status quo continues.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words — and That Applies to Both Parents’ and Parishes
Parishes should faithfully implement what Pope Francis has often exhorted: Truly accompany those in need. In this case, I propose—similar to RCIA—assigning sponsors to needful parents of existing and prospective CCD children. Parishioners who are disciples—i.e., established in learning and living the faith—would serve as sponsors, helping needful parents learn their faith better. That way, the parents could better teach and otherwise model the faith for their children, helping formation move toward a 24-hour family process, and not simply a weekly CCD class just for their kids.
Pastors are overworked and obviously need the lay faithful to make this proposal bear fruit; however, this plan needs to be initiated, implemented and overseen by pastors and DREs, as they are the administrative catalysts of a parish. But with parish disciples serving as sponsors, oversight shouldn’t require too much. So there is further incentive to get this initiative up and running.
As part of their sponsorship, parish disciples could be encouraged to develop a relationship with CCD parents and their children that extends beyond the CCD formation process. In addition, some CCD parents could possibly have two sponsors who could collaborate together, with one perhaps a committed family man or woman, and the other a single adult. And other parents who are themselves disciples—and also have children in CCD—could provide further support.
In any event, by meeting needful parents where they’re at, instead of expecting them to step up where parish leaders wish they’d be, a parish will cultivate well the “belong/believe/behave” model that Father James Mallon exhorts vs. the “behave/believe/belong” method that is much less successful with needful families. Father Mallon is a Canadian priest and an international leader of parish renewal, including through his influential book Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission.
The point is to give parents a sense of belonging through active and ongoing support, even when they’re not on board with everything the Church teaches or willing to live it in a committed way. That may well mean they won’t receive Holy Communion for a while, but if they’re at Mass each week, and see fellow parishioners reverently receiving the Eucharist, and they themselves can come forward for a blessing at Communion time, and then they see their children receive their First Communion at the end of the school year, seeds of faith can be cultivated little by little.
Family-Based CCD Is the Future
At the same time, needful parents have to make a commitment to their own formation, as Father Mallon began to require at St. Benedict Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, lest their actions speak much louder than their words to their children regarding the importance of First Communion— or Confirmation, for that matter—as well as ongoing and deepening discipleship.
I’m reminded of a famous anti-smoking TV PSA from my childhood, which I think can help pastors and DREs get this point across. “Like father, like son,” the narrator intones, showing how children tend to emulate their parents’ example. A little boy paints the house with his father, then they wash the family car and toss stones while going for a walk. And then . . . when Dad lights one up while they’re sitting under a tree at a nearby park . . . the son takes a closer look at his father’s pack of cigarettes. Again, what parents do will speak much more persuasively to their children than mere words unsupported by a lived example.
When Father Mallon made his CCD program family-based, he saw a drop of about 50% in participation, although the previous model of child-focused CCD had a weekly participation rate of only 40%, with none of the families continuing as parishioners after their children received First Communion.
With the new approach, Father Mallon adds, “Of the families who did not have a strong connection to the Church before they entered into conversation with us, as many as two-thirds of them have continued to be connected with the parish after the sacramental celebrations” (emphasis added).
To be clear, while providing sponsors for needful CCD parents is my idea, not Father Mallon’s, Father would affirm that such sponsors could provide a vital means of support to needful parents, not only for their own faith formation but—by extension—their children’s as well.
Given the present state of CCD for needful parents, I humbly submit this is a plan that bishops around the country and world should exhort their pastors and DREs to implement. The plan will help CCD sponsors and their families become even more committed disciples, and it’ll also help needful parents and their children realize their local parish is very much willing to accompany them to a greater knowledge of—and love for—Jesus Christ and his mystical bride, Holy Mother Church.