When it came to matters of faith years ago, Jim and Jan Schlueter firmly described themselves as “lukewarm as lukewarm gets.”
That was before a family tragedy 12 years ago changed everything. Two of Jan’s cousins were killed in a car accident. In her effort to find a reason for what had happened, she turned to a Christ Renews His Parish retreat at her parish, Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie.
“I found the reason there in Jesus,” she recently recalled. “That’s what catapulted our faith.”
Soon after Jan went on the retreat, Jim went on one, too. Their oldest child, Jacob, was in third grade. Growing in their faith wasn’t exactly at top of mind, yet there they were, with a young family and a new perspective on life, thanks to a retreat at their parish.
With a new zeal for their faith, the Schlueters are now more intentional in guiding their four children in their faith formation. While each of their children has a slightly different path, the Schlueters understand that no matter where their children are in life, faith formation is a lifelong journey, and one that is supported by the parish community. Jim and Jan also have become more involved in parish life themselves — Jim has begun studies to become a permanent deacon, and both are involved in several parish ministries.
Yes, faith formation is a lifelong journey. Catholic education comes in many forms — not just limited to going to a Catholic school or PSR program as a child, or receiving the sacraments, as important as they are. Being formed in the faith starts from the moment of baptism and should continue for the rest of our lives.
At Immaculate Conception, faith formation is intentional, from the early years on through adulthood. In addition to a full-time parish school and PSR, the parish also offers Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-based catechesis program for 3- and 4-year olds. There also is a Sunday school for preschoolers, and Children’s Liturgy of the Word is offered to older children. The school and PSR also work together in many areas, from sacramental preparation to support for the parish’s youth ministry efforts.
With nearly 80 ministries and organizations, there’s something for everyone at Immaculate Conception. “And if they can’t find something, we’ll try to help them,” said pastor Msgr. Ted Wojcicki.
The parish has developed a three-year strategic plan that establishes goals related to worship, evangelization, Catholic education, services, stewardship and youth ministry. The mission statement notes that parishioners are “called and chosen to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ through our lives.”
“What I say from the pulpit pretty regularly is that I want two things of all our parishioners, I want them in a faith-sharing group, and I want them to also be able to make disciples,” Msgr. Wojcicki said.
One of the specific goals in the plan is to expand mystagogia — a term for deepening the understanding of the mysteries of faith — programs for youths in key moments of their faith journey, such as Confirmation.
“As you know from all of the studies out there, such as CARA and Dynamic Catholic, the percentage of kids confirmed who are practicing their faith when they are 20 is pretty small,” said Msgr. Wojcicki. “We’re doing what we can to reach them and keep them coming back.”
From womb to tomb
“We need to look at what is our responsibility, and I’ve always said that it’s from womb to tomb,” said Sister Nathalie Meyer, OP, interim superintendent of Catholic education for the archdiocese.
Since taking the helm in January, Sister Nathalie, who served for several years as a consultant for Catholic education in the archdiocese, has been working with a team on forming approaches to Catholic education in the archdiocese. One of those ideas is encouraging parishes to work with one another more closely and to decompartmentalize the way education is handled within the parish setting.
In order words, a parish school should be working with the PSR and vice versa. Parishes should be looking for new ways to connect with and support young families from the moment their babies are baptized. Newly married couples could partner with experienced mentor couples in the parish. Faith formation activities should be planned to encourage the participation of the entire parish community, and so on.
Earlier this year, the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership’s Committee on Evangelization conducted a national survey to examine the role of parishes and schools in family faith formation. The report noted that relationships between the parish and families are the most important strengths in the parishes’ approach to family faith formation and evangelization. (See related item.)
The survey found that less than half of all parishes offer family service programming or family learning programs on a regular basis; additionally, efforts of parishes to reach families at home were weak. From a national perspective, there’s still much to do.
“We must have a new way of looking at parishes,” said Sister Nathalie. “They’re not supposed to be an isolated island. In the past, our social life was centered on the parish. Today, that has changed. If we can enliven faith formation and evangelization and get everyone on board and understand their responsibility, that will be a big step. We need to increase in catechesis, youth programs — ways in which all the children and families get connected in a parish. That could be a powerful tool.”
Varied perspectives, common goal
At a holiday break, the Schlueters had all four of their children under one roof. Twenty-year-old Hailey, who was home from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., went to Immaculate Conception School and Barat Academy, a private, Catholic high school in St. Charles. Those experiences in Catholic schools, as well as involvement in youth group at the parish, has “helped me to where I am now in my faith,” she said.
Before she left for college, Jan gave her a pep talk: “I told her that she can find us in spirit at Mass on Sunday, even though we might not be next to her. I tell her, your heavenly Father is there to help you get through the week.”
Hailey said her parents have encouraged her to never shy away from the faith. Growing into young adulthood, Hailey is making faith her own. “My mom has told me to just be myself — and at youth group (at ICD) I learned that value as well,” said Hailey.
Her younger sister, Grace, attends Francis Howell High School and is pretty involved there — never hesitating to try new things. The 16-year-old said the lessons she’s learned in youth group are helping guide her in the hallways of her public high school. She’s learning not to be afraid to share her faith and looks for those “small ways” — like St. Therese of Lisieux — to encounter others, such as smiling someone in the hallway or telling them about her plans to attend to the Steubenville Youth Conference.
“I see those as little evangelization moments that bring out your faith,” she said. “And when you do that, you don’t feel so intimidated anymore.”
Jacob, 22, a Cardinal Glennon College graduate who is now applying to go to law school next year, said his formation — from Immaculate Conception School, to De Smet Jesuit High School and Cardinal Glennon — has encouraged him to make his faith his own. He gives of his time as a PSR catechist and youth group core member and is sponsoring an RCIA candidate.
“I wanted to give back to the parish,” he said. “ICD has always been there for me, and it’s where my faith was formed. I’ve seen that as a great blessing.”
The Schlueter family
Jacob, 22, is a graduate of Cardinal Glennon College. He eventually discovered the priesthood was not his calling, and he’s in the midst of applying to law schools. In the meantime, he’s teaching PSR at Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie and serves as a core team member with the parish youth group. He’s also serving as a sponsor to a parishioner going through RCIA.
Hailey, 20, is a sophomore at Rockhurst University, majoring in speech pathology. A graduate of Immaculate Conception School and Barat Academy, Hailey intentionally chose a Catholic university — and specifically a Jesuit institution because of her interest in service to others.
Grace, 16, is a sophomore at Francis Howell High School. She’s been involved in youth group at Immaculate Conception since middle school, and she said that what she’s learned there has helped her as she navigates the halls of a public high school.
Thomas, 9, is a third-grader at Immaculate Conception School. He plays soccer at ICD and volunteers with his parents at Communion services at a senior living facility.
Jan, 46, works several days a week in the school cafeteria at Immaculate Conception School, and is on the stewardship committee, assists with the youth ministry program, is involved in a women’s book study, and works with retreats at the parish.
Jim, 47, works in engineering and is currently a candidate in the permanent diaconate program. He also participates in eucharistic adoration, Bible study and a men’s ministry group and is involved in the vocations committee.
Strong Catholic Families
The Strong Catholic Families National Initiative is an effort to hep to help Church leaders envision how the Catholic Church can more effectively partner with parents to help bring home the faith. It is a collaborative effort of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL), National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM) and National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). See www.nfcym.org/programs-and-trainings.
Strong Catholic Family Faith is a project that grew out of the initiative. The website, www.catholicfamilyfaith.org, offers resources to assist parish and school leaders in helping them develop faith-filled Catholic families.
In winter 2017, the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership’s Committee on Evangelization conducted a national survey on evangelization and faith formation with families to understand the role of parishes and schools in family faith formation. Among the findings, the report noted that:
• Relationships between the parish and families are the most important strengths in the parishes’ approach to family faith formation and evangelization.
• Parish efforts to reach families at home is the weakest aspect of the parishes’ approach to family faith formation and evangelization.
• Sacramental programming is the most popular current practices, approaches, and programming in family faith formation and evangelization including family-centered sacramental preparation programs for Eucharist, Reconciliation, Baptism, and Confirmation; and parent formation for Baptism and Eucharist.
• Less than half of all parishes offer family service programming and offer family (or intergenerational) learning programs on a regular basis.
• Only 38 percent of parishes help families read the Bible as a family.
• Only one out of nine parishes use digital tools to reach parents and families at home.
• Only 20 percent of parishes help parents develop effective parenting approaches and skills.
To read the report, see www.stlouisreview.com/j5I