A robust class of 30 second-graders made its first Communion at St. Matthew the Apostle Church in Indianapolis in the spring of 2014. But when the parish resumed faith-formation classes for third-graders in the fall, only seven returned, according to Aaron Haag, pastoral associate for the parish.
That anecdote illustrates a larger reality acknowledged by parish leaders and catechists throughout the United States: Many young people who receive their first Communion won’t return to religious education classes until it’s time for confirmation, if they return at all.
“There seems to be a drift,” said Danielle Ehlenbeck, director of religious education at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Kiel, Wisconsin, who noted that after second-grade faith formation classes, only some 25 percent of students return as third-graders. “After fourth and fifth grade, we lose some more,” she said. “That is the age where we lose them.”
The reasons why
Father Andrew Kurz, pastor of three churches in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, said part of the problem has to do with some parents viewing religious education as “jumping through hoops.”
“‘Here is first Communion, let’s get that done,’ and then they are gone until the next hoop, confirmation,” he said, describing the sometimes-mentality.
The emphasis on sacraments-only religious education could stem in part from parents wanting to please their children’s oftentimes more religious grandparents in order to avoid a perceived social stigma that comes with not receiving the sacraments.
“[This] is an interesting phenomenon that we are seeing across the country,” said Patti Collyer, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Oakland, California. “I think this generation of parents does not have a real comfort level talking about their relationship with God. I do see a lot of grandparents who are actively supporting the formation of their grandchildren, and I see that as very positive.”
Collyer also contends that two ends of the economic spectrum are playing a part in the erosion of faith formation for children.
“We have more dual-income families who are busy on the weekends with the ‘religion’ of sports and activities; and we have more single parents who are spent by the weekend from work and family responsibilities, and they don’t want to think about it,” she said.
Yet another factor in the drifting of children from religious education, cautioned Haag, could also be how the parents of the so-called “drifters” perceive they are being treated.
“I think (the Church) treats [so-called] ‘hoop-jumpers’ with frustration that they have pulled away after the sacrament, and (the parents) pick up on that, and they don’t feel welcome to return,” he said.
There is also a tendency for directors of religious education and catechists to focus too much on the students who aren’t in class as opposed to those who are, Haag added. “It is important to temper those concerns and focus on the kids who come,” he said. “For every one of those kids who are not here, there are kids who are coming to me to share Christ with them.”
Stemming the tide
According to several catechists interviewed, fifth-graders are the most challenging age group to retain. Rosann Halick, director of religious education at St. Bonaventure Church in Concord, California, said engaging those students in church activities is essential when it comes to keeping them.
To this end, on some holy days of obligation, Halick invites the fifth-graders to participate in the Mass as the lectors, the hospitality team, ushers and altar servers. Halick also said her parish’s summer Bible camp attracts young people in the key age group of third through fifth grade in big numbers.
“If I could capture the interest, involvement and enthusiasm of Bible camp throughout the year, we would stop the drift,” she said.
St. Matthew’s in Indianapolis attempts to involve elementary students with its Christ And My Peeps (ChAMPs) program.
Like many parishes, St. Matthew’s offers programs for middle-schoolers and older teens, Haag said, but ChAMPs is directed primarily at third- through fifth-graders. “ChAMPs is a great time for all pre-middle-school kids to meet with their friends while learning about a faith theme,” Haag said. “They use interesting opening activities, interactive games and/or sciencelike connections, fun age-appropriate music and other activities like acting out, making commercials or playing board games. They end with a prayerful connection to the theme of the night.”
Father Kurz, whose duties extend to St. Joseph Church in Champion, Wisconsin, and the neighboring parishes of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Killian, has received an enthusiastic response from young people to Rosary Camp, an overnight lock-in held four times a year.
In a school gymnasium, artificial Christmas trees are brought in to create a campout atmosphere, and the youth, all third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, set up tents for their overnight stay.
“On Friday night after they all set up their tents, I explain what a meditation is ... The prayers are the soundtrack to back up the movie going on in your head as you meditate on the Good News, the mysteries of the Rosary,” Father Kurz said. “I tell them that praying the Rosary is like tapping your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. They seem to just eat it up.”
The campers watch a movie about the Fatima apparitions, and Father Kurz repeats the earlier lesson about the Rosary before Friday night concludes with praying the Rosary and a campfire.
On Saturday, the young people have breakfast, go to confession and work on arts and crafts. During one retreat when there was a 20-minute gap between the end of camp activities and attending Saturday afternoon Mass, a little boy made Father Kurz’s day when he asked the priest, “‘Why don’t we pray another rosary?’ All the kids said, ‘OK, yeah, let’s pray the Rosary again,’” Father Kurz said.
Doreen Thorp is the mother of two boys who are in third and sixth grades. Her boys attended the Rosary Camp, and she saw an increased interest in their prayer life. Her third-grade son, Jack, “invited his Catholic friends to a Rosary party, and we prayed the Rosary and had craft activities related to the Rosary. He has been wanting go to church earlier so he can pray the Rosary before Mass.”
With that experience in mind, Father Kurz contends the children in third, fourth and fifth grades are the most receptive to encountering Jesus.
And it’s this encounter that’s essential to facilitate and build on when it comes to retaining that demographic who might otherwise drift away from the Church.
“The older they get, the more they get wrapped up in the world,” Father Kurz said. “The younger students are more influenced and have an innocence and a desire for spiritual things.”
Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.