Veronica Hershberger has been involved in religious education in various capacities since 1976, and it is “very heartwarming” for her to have her first “second generation” family in the program she oversees at Our Lady of Grace Church in Colchester program. The student is in third grade, and Hershberger was involved in the program when the child’s mother and two uncles participated in the Our Lady of Grace program. Her second “second generation” family will begin classes next year.

Hershberger is the lay ecclesial minister and director of religious education for the parish.

She got involved in teaching religious education while in high school; a woman whose children she babysat asked if she would like to be her classroom aide for a first-grade class at St. Columba Church in Hopewell Junction, New York. “I agreed to teach ‘CCD’ — as it was called back then —  because I was asked and was considering a career in education and thought it would be a good experience,” she said. “I love and cherish the Catholic faith and wanted to share it with others. That is, I believe, the most important reason for anyone to be involved in teaching others, no matter what age, about the faith.”

Throughout the years, she has taught several age groups including children, college students and adults.

Hershberger has been the paid director of religious education since 2007. She has not yet completed the Diocese of Burlington’s Parish Catechetical Leader training, so uses the title DRE.

“My experience being in front of a class of children has helped me be a better DRE because I

know first-hand what challenges both the students and catechists face,” she said.

It has given her insights into understanding behaviors and how different children learn in different ways. It has taught her how best to encourage parents to be active participants in bringing their children up in the Catholic faith. “Many feel inadequate in their own knowledge of the faith and can be hesitant in teaching their own children,” she said. “Most importantly, it has taught me to meet each child where he/she is on his/her faith journey, which can vary greatly within a classroom of students.”

Our Lady of Grace uses the traditional classroom style of teaching; classes take place on Monday nights in a local grade school.

The two most common challenges Hershberger has experienced are parents who are lukewarm in their own faith and sports. “Realizing that we will never compete with sports, we ask parents not to schedule sports activities on Monday nights,” she said. “When this absolutely cannot be avoided, it is explained to the parents that they will be responsible for covering any missed chapters on a weekly basis.”

A better solution, while maintaining the importance of attending class in person, is to work out an agreement that the child will alternate one week at religious education class and one week at the sport activity, she advised. “A willingness to work with parents goes a long way in gaining cooperation and building the confidence of parents as ‘teachers’ of the faith.”

Parents who tend to be lukewarm in their faith tend happily to leave the teaching of the faith to

the parish catechists, she continued. “Some have deep-rooted issues with the Catholic Church for a variety of reasons and perhaps no longer come to Mass. However, they still want their children to learn about the faith. To me, this is a good sign. Helping parents understand that this journey is a joint effort, and their cooperation is imperative and puts some the of the responsibility and expectation back onto the parents.”

The DRE and catechists cannot replace the important role of the parent in a child’s faith journey, and helping the parents understand that is extremely important, Hershberger said.

“For any program to be successful and life-giving, it is imperative that pastors and parish priests

be involved in the religious education/faith formation program – whatever form it takes,” Hershberger added. “The catechists and students need to know their priests and vice versa.”

Born in Kingston, New York, she has been married for 33 years and has two daughters. She earned a master of social work degree and a masters (plus 60 additional credits) in theology and pastoral ministry from St. Michael’s College in Colchester. She graduated from the diocesan Lay Ministry Formation Program in 1998 and served on the advisory board.

She enjoys counted cross stitch, gardening and photography.

Veronica Hershberger’s five tips for religious educators:

  1. Meet each child where he/she is on their faith journey. Not every child in a class will

be at the same place. This means getting to know your students.

  1. Always extend patience, kindness, encouragement, compassion and love to your students and their families. None of us knows what a child is experiencing in life outside of class, and we want to be a caring and trusted adult in each child’s life.
  2. Get to know the parents of your students. A catechist’s role is to assist the parents which can be a challenge if the catechist does not know who he/she is assisting.
  3. Take care of your own spiritual life, growth and development. You cannot give to  others what you do not have within yourself. Pray. Know the scriptures and the catechism. Read books that will help you on your own spiritual journey. Take advantage of parish missions, diocesan retreats, speakers, the sacraments etc. Let your students see you    at Mass. Be involved in the life of your parish.
  4. Remember that, as a catechist/aide, you are part of a team. There is no “I” in team and you are not in this alone. Do what the Diocese and your DRE asks regarding safe environment training and required paperwork. Lastly, be patient with your DRE/PCL who is trying to do his/her very best job for the children in your parish community.

—Originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.