Families Key to Strong Religious Education
Speaker Goes Beyond Classrooms for Diocesan Education Leaders
By Lynne Conner, Observer Correspondent
October 5, 2017

ROCKFORD—“Our spirituality is directly affected by our children,” said Denise Utter, to Rockford Diocese educators, Sept. 15.

Utter was the keynote speaker at the annual Educational Leaders Day, held at St. Rita Parish in Rockford.

Utter is director of Faith Formation at St. Jude Church in New Lenox, a parish of the Joliet Diocese.

She challenged those gathered to explore the crucial role that families play in the future of the Catholic Church.

“When you have a child, whether an infant, teen or adult, we, as parents can’t always control their environment,” she said. “But prayer helps so much.

“Even a parent who doesn’t go to church or doesn’t claim a religious faith,” Utter added, “if their child gets sick, they are turning to God, guaranteed, they’re praying for their children. Parents’ spirituality is affected by their children.”

Cultivating family faith and spiritualty, Utter said, is vitally important to the health of Catholic parishes who have seen a marked decrease in the number of parishioners in recent years.

“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it would be the fastest growing religion in our country. That’s depressing,” Utter said.

“In 2014, there was a one to six ratio, which is growing. For every person joining the church, six people leave,” she said.

Utter shared a statistic from a Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) survey that showed 68 percent of Catholic families do not have their children in a Catholic school or parish based religious education program.

Because of these statistics, Utter encouraged educational leaders to consider a paradigm shift in their schools and parishes.

Bring the faith home

“Pope Francis says that families are the foundation of the work of new evangelization,” she said. “The family is where God first gives us that sense of His love.

“If we don’t focus on that and on how God grows us there, what can we do?” she asked the group.

Utter champions a “process of partnering” where parents are engaged with their child’s Catholic school or parish religious education program.

“Parents should be informed of their role and empowered, not intimidated,” Utter said.

Some concrete ways that parishes can accomplish this partnership, Utter said, include:

♦ Monthly parent meetings on topics being covered in religious education classes,

♦ Family involvement in sacramental preparation,

♦ Family events to highlight church seasons like Advent or Lent and

♦ Online resources for parents’ spiritual formation.

Utter said a multi-component approach with a variety of activities works best in getting parents more attuned to religious education in a parish or Catholic school.

“We’re talking about empowering parents and walking with them, partnering with them and ministering to them like Jesus did,” she said.

At home, Utter encouraged parents to engage their children in “faith talk” which includes prayer at meals, creating a sacred space for prayer in the home, parents blessing their children and asking kids, ‘Where did you see God today?’

Tricia Weis, principal of St. Peter School in Geneva, appreciated Utter’s ideas on family inclusive faith building.

“I was very inspired today,” Weis said. “I love the fresh, new ideas that were presented and the idea that all parents, all families are at different faith levels. I am thinking about what we can do to reach out to parents and join them in the journey toward reaching heaven.”

Chris Rozanski, principal of Boylan Central Catholic High School in Rockford, said he found ideas in the morning’s presentation which are useful in the domestic church.

“I’ve seen some personal take-aways today that can help my wife and I as parents to strengthen our family’s faith and things we can do to help our daughters with their Catholic identity,” he said.

Educational Leaders Day also featured table discussions and fellowship among Catholic school principals, directors of religious education, youth ministers and personnel from the diocesan Education Office