Last month I wrote in broad terms about how scheduling decisions affect our ability to evangelize. This month I’d like to look at a case study to show how these principles can be applied in real life.
Background: The Apostolate
A year and a half ago, a group of homeschooling families at St. Vincent’s* decided it might be nice to meet once a week for a class or two taught in common, centering around a home based religious-education program. Father E., a proponent of lay-initiatives, gave the group a tentative green light. Word of the forming apostolate spread rapidly, and within two months a half-day program planned for the pending school year had crystallized. Father E. approved a detailed proposal for policies, procedures, and the first year’s calendar of activities.
Challenge#1: Make the Program Accessible to Participants
In scheduling dates and times, the organizers had to make a number of decisions that would decide who could participate, and under what circumstances:
To accommodate families with many young children and a long commute, the program was slated to begin at 10AM, rather than first thing in the morning. The day of the week was chosen based on the most convenient date for the largest number of interested families. Parents were invited to enroll in as many or as few classes as desired, rather than being obligated to stay for the entire program.
Because mothers of preschooler tended to want to get home in time for an afternoon nap, the main preschool program was slated for the morning session only.
Young families tend to be short on cash. Rather than charging tuition, supplies were solicited via in-kind donations. This is a more complex arrangement, but it allowed families to participate who were unable to afford supply fees at other similar programs elsewhere.
To further lighten the financial burden, all instructors worked as volunteers, and all parents were required to stay on-site and assist. This did mean that every parent was asked to complete diocesan child-safety training (Virtus). Allowances were made for illness, maternity leave, and other serious situations.
From the outset, the program organizers knew that non-Catholic and slightly-Catholic families might be interested in participating. The policies set forth the unequivocal expectation that all instruction would be consistent with the Catholic faith, but also explicitly provided for consultation with a well-informed catechist (or the pastor, if necessary) should any questions arise. The working assumption was that no one was trying to intentionally teach error, and that any confusion or misteaching would be quickly rectified in a charitable and respectful manner. (Non-Catholic instructors do not teach religion, that wouldn’t make any sense.)
Challenge #2: Integrate the Parish Liturgical Life
There’s a tendency to create programs for the laity that operate in a spiritual bubble, disconnected from the work of the wider church. This fragmentation is inefficient at best, and works against any goal of building up a genuine Christian community. The new parish group at St. Vincent’s made a number of explicit planning choices to prevent this isolationism:
Eucharistic Adoration was already in place on the chosen morning for the weekly group gathering. Parents were encouraged to take their children to Adoration if they arrived early. Classes were slated to end in time for students who wished to attend Benediction to be able to do so.
St. Vincent’s daily noon Mass fell smack in the middle of lunch hour, convenient for office workers but hard on young children. A brief snack time was incorporated into the class schedule an hour and a quarter before Mass began, so that young children could reasonably hope to attend Mass, receive Holy communion, and not faint from hunger in the process.
With afternoon classes and clean-up time slated for completion as the 3:00 PM hour approached, the group decided to close afternoon sessions with a Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The goal in this was not to push a particular favorite devotion of the organizers, but to work with the natural rhythm of the Church’s daily prayer and devotional life.
The annual schedule was created with a Church calendar in hand. Days off and special events took into account Holy days of obligation, popular feast days, and the intensity of Advent, the Christmas season, and Holy Week. The rhythm of the apostolate worked in conjunction with, rather than in spite of, the pace of the liturgical year.
Trial, Error, and Trial Again
Trying to solve one problem can lead to others. In order to avoid overwhelming the preschool teacher — a mother of many young children — the preschool group began by meeting just every other week. While this approach did prevent new parents from having too hectic a schedule, it also became difficult to keep track of which weeks the formal preschool group was meeting. Meanwhile, the preschool-aged siblings of older students grew restless in the nursery on the off-weeks.
As a temporary solution, a second instructor stepped forward and offered preschool activities on the alternating weeks. For the new school year, St. Vincent’s has transitioned to a weekly preschool class but with multiple teachers so that the workload is spread out.
It’s important not to be constantly toying around with the routine, because that generates confusion of its own. It’s also important not to be married to the first attempt.
Good is Not Perfect, But It is Good
No one parish program is a perfect fit for every single parishioner. From the outset, the St. Vincent’s homeschool group made explicit contact with the nearest parochial school, knowing that many families interested in Catholic education would be better served in a traditional school program.
Meanwhile, some families enthusiastic about the new group found that the program being offered just didn’t fit their families’ schedules or their children’s academic needs. Parents were in no way pressured to stick with a program that was not working for them. The growth of the apostolate despite virtually no effort at marketing (the organizers intentionally aimed to keep the program small while working out the kinks the first year) suggests that it did indeed fill a genuine need within the parish.
It’s an Apostolate, not a Witness Stand
There’s a temptation to compare the number of satisfied parishioners with the number of “dropouts” and declare that something must be wrong with those families that don’t fit in with the crowd. Not so. Likewise, good evangelization requires a rejection of feudal thinking, as if a given parish program had a right to the weekly presence of any family that resides in its fiefdom.
Our responsibility as Christians means we ask: Do we have an existing program that will better fit the needs of those families who aren’t best served by this particular apostolate? If not, how can we can encourage those families who aren’t finding their place in the community to begin another initiative that serves them more effectively?
*Names have been changed out of respect for the privacy of the parish families. St. Vincent’s feast day fell on the day I submitted this article, and the “E.” in Father E. stands for “Excellent.”
Copyright 2014, Jennifer Fitz