There is not just one way for young Vermont Catholics to learn about the Catholic faith and become young disciples. Some Vermont parishes use familiar classroom programs while others offer family-centered catechesis and youth-driven experiences.

Family Formation is one type of program that has taken root in several parishes. “Family Formation equips parents to pass on the Catholic faith to their children and grow in their faith together as a family,” explained Jennifer Ploof, director of religious education at Nativity/St. Louis Parish in Swanton and Highgate Center. This model for grades PreK-6 combines monthly whole family gatherings and weekly home lessons and provides parents with the tools they need to share the Good News and the beauty of the Catholic faith with their children and to form them into true disciples of Jesus Christ.

Family Formation follows the three-year liturgical cycle, aiding families in developing traditions that integrate the seasons of the Church. Driven by Sacred Scripture, lessons cover all the major principles of the Catholic faith.

“I would definitely say that switching over to it has been a homerun for our parish,” enthused Jordan Easley, director of faith formation for St. Francis Xavier Parish in Winooski.

At Nativity families meet on the first Sunday of each month. They begin with a time of fellowship and opening prayer, and then children go to age-appropriate classrooms for a lesson with their peers, and parents go to a presentation for adults that helps prepare them to share their faith at home that month. Families are sent home with three lessons or activities to do as a family during the rest of the month.

“At the heart of Family Formation is the domestic church. Weekly home lessons provide the backbone for the children’s spiritual formation and cover the major principles of our Catholic faith,” said Ann Gonyaw, director of Catholic formation for Mater Dei Parish in the Newport area, which also uses the Family Formation program.

Lessons include hands-on activities for the whole family, memory verses, audio teachings, stories, games and seasonal booklets to aid the family in developing traditions that incorporate the liturgical seasons of the Church. “Our junior high and confirmation students meet simultaneously with K-6 to allow the whole family to come all at the same time and learn together,” she said.

In Swanton, participants work fun and lived faith into the Family Formation program, so they meet one additional time per month for a fun activity like the All Saints Carnival or a service project like Operation Christmas Child.

According to Gonyaw, equipping parents to take an active role in their child’s spiritual formation is the most important benefit. “It provides a place for youth to stay involved after confirmation because there are so many ways to help with the program, as aides, catechists, snack volunteers, set up, clean up etc.,” she said. “It allows me as the director to form personal connections with parents and work through them to reach kids instead of circumventing the parents to try to get to the kids.  When parents see the church as a partner and support to help them in their very difficult task of passing on the faith to their children, they welcome the connection.  If I can reach the parents, I know I can reach the kids.”

Easley said the program helps him equip parents to be the primary educators of their children. “It teaches parents how to build a Catholic culture in their home. It also provides the opportunity for parents to learn or re-learn the faith as they pass it on to their kids,” he said.

Ploof outlined the benefits of Family Formation for her parish youth are many:

Quality time — Children get guaranteed quality time with their family each week, sharing and living their Catholic faith as they do the home lessons together.

Flexibility — Families choose to do the weekly lessons at a time that works best for them; there is not a forced class time each week, just the monthly gathering.

Witness — “Most importantly children get to witness their parents practicing their faith, which studies have shown time and time again is the driving force behind children growing up to practice the Catholic faith as adults themselves,” she said.

And for parents, Family Formation empowers them to be the primary catechists that the Church calls them to be. “Our goal is for parents to grow in their own personal relationship with Christ through this experience and for the entire family to grow in holiness and become missionary disciples, which will help lead to a more vibrant parish in the future,” Ploof said.

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In Essex, John McMahon is the faith formation director for Holy Family/St. Lawrence Parish in Essex Junction and youth minister/confirmation coordinator for St. Pius X Parish I Essex Center. He creates youth group sessions “from scratch with the help of some great long-time adult volunteers,” he said.

They usually meet every other week in the fall through spring and traditionally do either a pilgrimage or a service trip each summer. The group is composed of 12-15 high school youth.

“Our youth group folks tend to be more involved in other parish functions, like Serve Our Neighbor Day, that go beyond the high-school-age only-experiences,” McMahon said. For example, nearly a dozen youth assist in the bible school program. “So the rest of the parish gets to experience their gifts and energy firsthand.”

He informally refers to as the group as “Informal Association of Suspicious Characters,” the name Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati gave to his youth group. “I read about his youth group approach and thought it had a good connection between what we traditionally do with youth at Holy Family/St. Lawrence and St. Pius X: service work, having fun, being ourselves, focused prayer time, etc.”

Dr. Teresa Hawes, former director of religious education at St. Monica Parish in Barre, said the parish had been using A Family of Faith (K-6) program since 2017. “Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it empowers parents to assume their God-given role as first, best and primary educators of the faith,” she said. “A living faith is only transmitted through love, and no one loves children as their parents do.”

The program, as she described it, builds and strengthens faith-filled families where children and parents learn to live out the faith together in daily life. It shares knowledge about the faith and helps this knowledge descend from the head to the heart and become living faith.

Parents attend a monthly meeting and then return a second time with their children for a Family Session where together they have activities and prayer time with other families.

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—Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.