WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Val Johnston, left, explains a point of Catholic faith to attentive Holy Family Parish children as mother Valentina Varsallona looks on.
The assertions that Protestant churches have superior youth programs or that Catholic faith programs are struggling do not hold true in St. Albert.
At Holy Family Parish, youth are definitely a high priority, as shown by the parish's thriving catechism program.
No other faith program for children is so well attended as the parish-based catechism classes at Holy Family. When the program started seven years ago, 39 children were registered. There has been a steady increase every year since. Now, almost 200 children and teens attend the Friday afternoon classes at Holy Family Church.
The program, one of only a few of its kind in the greater Edmonton area, is showing great success.
Designed for children in Grades 1 to 9, it has 28 instructional days throughout the year, running from September until early May. They follow the Faith and Life religious education series, which was approved by Pope John Paul II. The Faith and Life program was the first catechetical series to conform with the Catechism of the Catholic Church without any need for change.
"It's a very no-nonsense program that is age appropriate for each grade level, and it's a workbook-based program. Basically in the hour that we have each week, we try to cover as much as we can," said Val Johnston, who leads the program.
The older grades do not use the workbooks, but have access to Church-approved DVDs instead.
Every group is divided by grade into various rooms throughout the church. The children learn and explore their faith through crafts, reading, workbooks, group discussion and audio-visual resources. The children and their families vary in their faith formation and Church knowledge.
WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Matthew George is a catechism student.
"With the children's faith education, we like to work as a team between the Church, the school and the parents," said Johnston.
"We feel that the Faith and Life program complements the program that they use in the school system. With that kind of triangle of support, these kids can get all of the information that they need about their faith."
On one recent Friday, some children were discussing the importance of obeying God, while others were learning about guardian angels. Others were asked if they could find Leviticus in the Bible.
Lessons for the Grade 2 students are preparation for the first reception of the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion, with the law of God and salvation history as background. The lesson emphasizes God's mercy and love.
By Grade 5 they delve much deeper into their faith. The lessons then are a thorough study of the articles of the Creed as the basic belief of their Catholic faith, with a special emphasis on careful understanding of definitions through the words of the Gospels and the prophets, and the prayers of the Church.
According to Johnston, a mother of three children, the support of the parish's priests and the dedication of many volunteers has resulted in the program's success.
"We are probably one of the busiest and largest ministries in our parish. We started with six teachers and now we have 14 dedicated teachers because the program has grown. Without them, we couldn't run the program."
She gives kudos to the families who, even when busy with other commitments or enduring a hectic week, find the time every Friday to bring their children to the church. They have made their children's learning of the catechism a priority. The parents recognize that their children's knowledge of their faith is important.
"We all believe that our kids need to learn their catechism. It's good to know that God loves them, but they need to know why God loves them and how God loves them too," she said. "I know that my generation was kind of weak on the catechism, whereas my parents' generation can quote the catechism."
By virtue of their ministry of educating, parents are, through the witness of their lives, the first heralds of the Gospel for their children. By praying with them, by reading the Bible with them, they are setting a path for their children that they are less likely to stray from later on in life.
"People should know their faith, and if kids know their faith then they are not going to waver. When they reach their high school years and their university years, when they would typically waver, they won't," said Johnston.
"That is our goal as parents: to bring our children to Christ."