Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian
The family who prays together, stays together, as the old saying goes. Parishioners at St. Therese, Chesapeake, have discovered a corollary to that adage: that the parish who attends religious education together, stays together, finding a renewed sense of community along the way.
Once a month, parishioners at St. Therese gather after Mass to share a meal and to attend classes as part of the parish’s “Back to Basics” program — a sort of Catholicism 101 for all ages.
Those who attend are divided into five groups according to age. Each group rotates through two sessions that explore similar themes, leading, at the end of the day, to a unique, shared experience for all.
“It’s a nice way for all of our families to all come together,” said Jean Hawley, coordinator for Christian formation at St. Therese. “Since everyone hears talks on the same topic, hopefully it gives them something to talk about when they leave and encourages discussion at home.”
As Lent approached, February’s session — held on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday — concentrated on Catholic Social Teaching. The tenets, laid out by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” were written in response to changes in society wrought by the Industrial Revolution and include such principles as upholding the sanctity of human life, solidarity and stewardship.
“It’s all about delving into the teachings and looking into the ways that we all can put our faith into action,” Hawley explained.
Father Kevin O’Brien, pastor of St. Therese, said that intergenerational sessions have been a staple of St. Therese’s religious education program for more than 10 years, but that the focus on revisiting the basics began two years ago as part of the parish’s efforts to embrace the call of the New Evangelization.
“How can you evangelize if you yourself don’t know the basics of your faith?” Father O’Brien said. “So, we try to go through the broader topics — the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacraments — to try to touch on topics that people might have missed or forgotten.”
The goal, he said, is to make the sessions as interactive as possible, allowing discussion time for the adults and teens, and games and activities for the younger participants.
Parishioners Jeff and Ashley Sherbinsky said that they enjoy the program and have found it helpful to have the chance to brush up on the tenets of their faith as their children grow. Their older child, who is receiving first Communion this year, is beginning to ask more questions, they explained.
“Whereas our kindergartener is still simply here for the fun,” Ashley Sherbinsky said.
“The program seems to be well-received,” said Dick Campbell, a Back to Basics volunteer and presenter. “It’s a good opportunity for people to broaden their knowledge of Church teachings.”
“Plus,” he added, “there’s pizza.”
All God’s children
After Mass, the groups divided for lunch and for a session exploring the concept of stewardship.
Twenty-five first- and second- graders gathered in one of the classrooms, where they were made “kings and queens for the day,” fashioning brightly-colored crowns to decorate and to wear.
But with great privilege comes great responsibility, and in keeping with the theme of Catholic Social Teachings, the children also were asked to make rules for their kingdom — ones that would embody the values of caring for God’s creation and of respecting the dignity of others.
“Everyone has to love one another!” one child called out.
“No one goes hungry!” said another.
“Everyone can have a pet dinosaur or other pet by their side,” a third child said, as volunteers Jessie Bailey, a 10th grader, and Allison Starkey, a ninth grader, helped the children put finishing touches on their crowns.
“No ducks!” chimed in one little boy.
“What? No ducks?” the others at his table immediately protested, before the group dissolved into giggles.
Later it was ruled that, of course, the ducks can stay.
‘Jesus’ mission statement is our mission statement’
As the children worked to make fair and just rules to safeguard their imaginary kingdom, Father O’Brien spoke with more than 20 teens about how they might help to make the real world a better place through following the call of the Gospel.
In his discussion of the Catholic Social Teaching regarding the preferential option for the poor, Father O’Brien cited a passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Christ goes to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue.
“Of all the scrolls, he chose Chapter 61 of Isaiah,” Father O’Brien said. “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.’”
“Jesus came to bring freedom to the captive,” he said. “It’s almost like Jesus is giving us his mission statement. And Jesus’ mission statement is also ours.”
Father O’Brien encouraged the teens to think of ways in which the parish has served the poor and needy over the past year.
In response, the teens assembled a list that included collecting food for Oasis, the food pantry in nearby Portsmouth; housing the homeless at the church for the first week of February; and buying Christmas gifts for children with a parent in prison.
In working together as a community, the parish is following the call laid out by Christ in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, Father O’Brien said. “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”
‘Never stop asking the question’
Campbell, who has taught in diocesan schools for 43 years, led a group of about 50 adults in a talk overviewing the basics of Catholic Social Teaching. All of the teachings, he said — whether it be caring for God’s creation or upholding the dignity of work and the rights of the worker — can be summed up in the first teaching: recognizing the sanctity of all human life.
“When we remember that central point, all the rest flows from it. We are all children of God,” he said.
This holds true, he added, even for those who don’t seem to recognize our own human dignity in return.
“I don’t have to like them, or agree with them, but I have to recognize that,” he said. “That’s hard.”
Respect for life encompasses all life, he explained, from womb to tomb.
“Every stage of human life is worthy of respect: the unborn, the poor, the people who are left on the outside, the people who don’t have the same advantages that we do,” Campbell said.
He noted that Catholics are called to conversion and that Lent was a good time to assess what they could to do to grow in faith and answer the call of the Gospel.
“There is always something new we can do,” Campbell said. “Never stop asking yourself the question, ‘What it is that you can do next?’”
As the sessions concluded, the parishioners reconvened in the parish commons, the kids galloping to their parents to show them their new crowns.
“It was interesting,” parishioner Joe Caragliano said. “It gives you something new to think about. And that’s always a good thing.”