‘Christ is Alive’ Theme of Educational Leadership Day
By Sharon Boehlefeld, Features Editor
October 3, 2019
ROCKFORD—”What’s missing?” asked Matt Schwartz  as he challenged his audience to wade through tenets of “moderated therapeutic deism.”
This was among the first points he made during the day-long Educational Leadership Day sponsored by the diocesan Office of Educational Services on Sept. 26 at St. Rita Parish in Rockford.
The list on the screen seemed in line with beliefs about God: He exists. He wants people to be good.  ... Good people go to heaven when they die.
As the room full of religious educators and catechists from around the Rockford Diocese pondered his question, he asked again. 
“What’s missing?”
Finally, he saw a few people recognize the problem. 
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Salvation. That’s what’s missing.”
For the rest of the day, Schwartz led the group through key elements of Pope Francis’ “Christ is Alive,” an apostolic exhortation directed “to young people and the entire people of God” after the synod on young people held in Rome last fall.
During lunch, Schwartz described the biggest thing he was trying to get across during the day. 
“We’re called to become Eucharist,” he said, “not just receive it.” 
In ministry, especially youth ministry, he added, “If we’re not empowered, if we we’re not spending time with Christ, we’re just a program.”
The aim of religious education, he said, is to form young people into “religiously engaged adults.”
Defining what such an adult would do and how to get a young person to that point sparked lively discussion at the tables around the room. 
At one table, the group began with simple things, like Mass attendance for the first question and altar serving for the second.
“Prayer would be huge,” said Diane O’Donnell, director of religious education at St. Mary in Woodstock.
“Showing your faith ... actively living your life,” added Theresa Emricson, also from St. Mary in Woodstock.
“Being authentic,” offered Teresa Chiappone, director of youth ministry at St. Margaret Mary in Algonquin.
In terms of things to do for children and youth, Emricson and Tara Kaufmann teach classes they have developed at the parish.
Emricson teaches “Encounter” to third- through fifth-grade students to show them “how to encounter Christ.” 
Kaufmann follows that up with “Cross Training” for sixth- and seventh-graders. 
“Once a month we have activites to follow Christ, to ‘carry my cross,’ ” she explained. 
The programs put St. Mary School and parish religious education students together.
After people at tables talked for a while, Schwartz brought the discussion to the four ways  the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops define adults as “missionary disciples”: encountering Christ, accompanying Him, remaining in Him and becoming His disciples to bring Christ to others.
Using sports and popular media metaphors, Schwartz brought home ways adults can and should act to live and pass on their Catholic faith, including by allowing young people to try and to fail.
“Do we allow our kids to fail in their faith and say ‘That’s ok. Let’s try again. Let me show you how to do it.’ ?” he asked.
He also encouraged the teachers and cathechists to be prepared to get into areas that are “gray and messy.”
Families with one parent who is not Catholic, or where parents are divorced, are “gray and messy.”
He asked what people do to reach people who are not engaged at all with the Church.
“We do a night of prayer,” said Kaufmann from Woodstock. “We have (people) come in to ... light a candle, to say a prayer for peace. They don’t have to be Catholic.”
Parish youngsters help invite people into the church. Priests are standing by to hear confessions, she said, and sometimes non-Catholics ask just to talk to a priest.
When talking about bringing people into the Church, Krystin Helin, coordinator of religious education at St. Paul the Apostle in Sandwich, said, “Mass can be overwhelming when you come back. I think we need to define our engagement .... and not let perfect get in the way of better.”
Donna Doherty, director of faith formation at St. Gall in Elburn where Father Christopher DiTomo is pastor, says she works around parents’ schedules.
“I have four different kinds of programs,” she said. “It makes Father’s life complicated and it makes my life complicated, but that’s all we think we can do.”
Schwartz encouraged the group to listen to each other, to  “use the wisdom of the room to assist you. That’s why we’re here.”
Early in the program, he discussed differing definitions of “youth” around the Catholic world. Elsewhere, youth begins about age 18 and continues through the mid-30s.
In the U.S., most think of youth as encompassing students preparing for confirmation, often as young as sixth-grade.
Jennifer Collins, director of the Life and Family Evangelization Office, elaborated during a break.
In the U.S., she said, “We have to be very careful (to provide) a safe environment. We also, in America, see a distinction between those ministries” serving youth and young adults.
“Matt provided an engaging day that was well attended by our parishes and schools,” said John Jelinek, diocesan director of Religious Education and Formation. “He challenged us to examine the approach, methods, and goals of our school and parish youth programs. 
“Our faith is not primarily  transmitted by programs, but by an encounter with the living God and His disciples. If we hope to journey with youth as they encounter Christ, we must first listen, build genuine relationships, and partner with their parents,” he said.