COLORADO SPRINGS. When Colorado was ordered to shut down all gatherings in March to stop the spread of COVID-19, parish faith formation had to shut down too. Parish formation teams across the diocese realized that their work of spreading and teaching the faith was more important than ever, and many of them went to extraordinary means to get the good news to their students, whether they shared the same space or not. All of them discovered that faith could not be cancelled or postponed by a pandemic. Faith formation directors from two parishes of the diocese shared their experiences and plans with the Herald.
Nancy Hartshorn, director of faith formation at Ave Maria Parish, Parker, spoke of the personal touch in faith formation, and what it meant to the families of the students when access to in-person classes was cut off last spring as the state was put under lockdown.
“The phone calls that we made and even the reaching out via e-mail seemed to touch them most,” she said, describing the efforts she and the catechists made to reach out once the in-person classes weren’t possible anymore. She said that all the parish’s programs had to change as a result of the pandemic, since they were all live and in-person. As the formation team adapted instruction to the new reality, they started sending families information. “We encouraged families to come in and pick up books for the kiddos.”
As the Ave Maria team adapted instruction to the new reality, they learned to value the human presence in teaching the faith. As Hartshorn said, ”I learned as the pandemic hit, Zoom seemed like a wonderful thing, but they (parents) were so overwhelmed with Zoom that it almost became better with the parents if we sent them encouraging notes and things to check out, and I learned that they valued more the small little notes of encouragement and where to go, than they would have long lectures of what they needed to know. We sent them to a lot of resources like Formed.org (an online faith formation program produced by the Augustine Institute), and Bishop Barron’s wordonfire.org, and they all really enjoyed it.”
Moreover, the Ave Maria team learned that faith is not always transmissible by electronic means. “I learned that faith is still is a personal thing and you can’t learn your faith and feel the strength of it through Zoom or through video-based programs,” said Hartshorn. “People were missing the contact, the conversation you could have with one another, the eye contact. They had been inundated with online things. There is no replacement for that face-to-face (interaction).”
“Faith is not a book-based thing. Yes, you can read the Bible. You can give them information, books to study, but faith is so much deeper than that. The personal touch is needed — the support in looking at each other and hearing a voice that’s caring was so much more needed at that time,” she said.
At Corpus Christi Parish in Colorado Springs, Faith Formation Director Gary Niemerg chose to take last spring’s classes to an online form. He was reminded that everyone learns differently.
“Some are more visual learners, so going to more of an online teaching actually was beneficial to those students,” he said. Niemerg learned that “concerning faith, it was just another opportunity — another teaching moment — that we can always trust God to help us through difficult times.”
With changes occurring almost daily in recommendations from health authorities, faith formation teams are approaching their plans for the new season with a great deal of diversity. Only time will tell which approach was “right,” with possibly a variety of the choices proving to be correct. In the absence of dependable information about what’s next, parish teams have to choose what form their classes will take.
Hartshorn explained how flexible the teams needed to be as they tried to plan instruction around the ever-changing conditions.
“I don’t know what is going to be the best form to take, but currently what we’ve decided is we are going to try for personto- person because we still insist our faith formation families need that contact, and so we are going to do face-to-face, and we are going to offer an at-home program,” she said.
The at-home program is for those who feel it’s not safe to come to person-to-person classes. She said Ave Maria wouldn’t be doing many Zoom classes, except possibly a confirmation class.
If in-person classes are not possible, Hartshorn hopes to do a hybrid program where the parents receive support from the faith formation team and then teach the children at home.
“For the majority of them (classes), we hope to have parents come by, pick up materials, and then meet with them on a monthly basis and have the dialogue: ‘How did this month go? Here’s what we’re doing next month.’” She hopes this will restore personal touch to faith formation. “We will offer them videos, if they want to go out to Formed.org, and give them suggestions. My reason for that choice is that I want to put the family back into the faith, always keeping in mind anyone that’s not comfortable coming in, we’ll go to Plan B. We’ve got all the way to Z, right?”
At Corpus Christi, the faith formation will consist only of online classes this fall.
“That is the only sure way to have consistency in what we present as the guidelines/ restrictions due to COVID-19 ebb and flow,” said Niemerg. He believes that this year can be a very unique experience in faith formation and that students may actually find that they thrive using the online format.
“This option will be the least amount of change for faith formation learners at the parish, since they started it last spring. I’m actually looking forward to this year as kind of an ‘experiment year’ to see if we implement some of these changes full-time, COVID-19 or not.”
The Denver Catholic Biblical School also announced that all of its classes will be online during the upcoming academic year.
Hartshorn wishes parents knew that the classes are for them. “They’re there for parents to increase their faith and work towards salvation, and we’ll work with them. They’re not meant to be another project, another task, their homework. They are there for them spiritually and to help them conquer their fears and learn to trust the Lord.”