By the middle of the summer, Covid-19 restrictions had been eased, the Sunday Mass obligation had been reinstated, and religious educators were gearing up for in-person classes for the 2021-22 academic year.

“I am feeling hopeful for 2021-22. I sense that families are eager to gather in fellowship and return back to the classrooms,” said Kathy Murphy, parish catechetical leader for Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church in Bennington and St. John the Baptist Church in North Bennington.

She and other parish catechetical leaders acknowledged that there was some drop in religious education enrollment during the height of the pandemic when classes were either subject to strict safety standards for in-person learning or conducted online, but they couldn’t give final numbers on the current year until registrations had concluded.

And not only are they looking forward to the return to the classroom and in-person learning programs, they are eager for the fellowship that comes with religious education. “This fall we are looking forward to bringing back a key piece of our Family Formation Gatherings — the monthly fellowship time with themed snack times, scripture memorization stations and family prayer times that we could not safely do during Covid,” said Jennifer Ploof, parish catechetical leader for Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary-St. Louis Parish in Swanton and Highgate Center.

During the pandemic, religious educators had to be creative and flexible, at times meeting in person, at other times providing online learning or resources for families to use at home.

“We know that families are the primary educators of their children’s faith, and in some ways, Covid provided an opportunity for this to come more into practice,” Murphy said.

For Lisa Grover, director of youth ministry and family faith formation at St. Ambrose Church in Bristol and St. Peter Church in Vergennes, the biggest challenge was equipping parents to be the primary religious educators of their children.  “We had a great online program … but it wasn’t very intuitive for parents to use, and most weren’t interested in trying to learn yet another online system,” she said. “We also battled virtual fatigue in our students. Everything else was online — school, Scouts, social activities — that it got harder and harder to keep their interest in religious education.”

To address the challenge, she supported parents as best she could and sent them weekly emails with helpful resources. It also helped to shorten class time from an hour to 30-45 minutes and to be more creative and fun in the lessons that were shared.

Pam King, parish catechetical leader at Immaculate Conception (St. Mary) Church in St. Albans, also supported parents in their role as their children’s primary educators. She sent them the information required for at-home learning and met remotely weekly with families to pray and offer support. “Phone calls were also good for our communication and as a way to reach out to each other,” she said.

“I firmly believe that the parents are the primary educators. Religious education is to offer our children a community of faith where they can walk hand in hand with peers who share their own values and faith,” King said. “I think it is so easy to get discouraged in this secular world. But, if we have each other, and we all are on the same page in terms of practicing our faith, it is my hope that we can successfully raise our children to remain in the Good Shepherd’s arms regardless of their surroundings.”

One big challenge for religious educators was the use of technology, particularly for those not familiar with its application for the lessons.

Other challenges: Finding and coordinating volunteers to do health screenings at in-person events, staying up-to-date with the Covid protocols and sanitization requirements, adapting to using technology like Zoom and Youtube and coming up with creative ways to move events and retreats online as needed or service projects to fit with protocols and helping families and volunteers who were nervous or struggling.

The religious education leaders agreed that assistance from parish priests and religious educators, one another and staff of the Diocese of Burlington was essential in getting through a pandemic year. “The Religious Education Team truly came together, went along with all of my … ideas and worked passionately and creatively to provide the best experiences of Christ that they could for the families of our parish whether we met remotely or in person, and I am so grateful to each one of them,” Ploof said.

“The Diocese did a wonderful job offering faith-sharing opportunities throughout the pandemic both within Vermont and beyond,” Murphy noted.

Despite any challenge — including a pandemic — it is important to maintain a religious education program in parishes. “We are all called to be missionary disciples. It is essential that parishes are committed to helping their parishioners, especially children and families, understand the beauty and uniqueness of our Catholic faith through the sacraments and Mass,” she said. “This will lead them to the joy that comes from knowing Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who loves each one of us particularly. This faith carries us through the good and challenging times of our lives.  If we catechize our families well, then hopefully faith will be the foundation of their family, and they will understand the sacrifice that Jesus made for our salvation which is celebrated each weekend at Mass.”

Grover hopes religious education students will be able to meet in person again, without wearing masks. “But we’re being very cautious with the new Delta variant spreading as most of our students are too young to be vaccinated,” she said.

Religious education “exists to assist parents in helping their families, children, teens and young adults to encounter the person of Jesus Christ and develop a lifelong relationship with Him through the Church,” Ploof said. “There was an even greater sense of urgency during the pandemic to fulfill our ministry mission as the children and families needed the strength and comfort of our Lord more than ever.”

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