What draws teenagers into a life of faithful church worship? The answers might surprise you.
The National Study on Youth and Religion conducted between 2001-2015 found that the most important factor in whether teenagers would practice their faith into adulthood is whether their parents did. The study found that youth from religiously active families tend to follow their parents lead. More than 70 percent of youth who do something religious with their families five to seven days a week aspire to be like their father, while 74 percent of those surveyed strongly agree with wanting to be like their mother.
"Which sounds a little counterintuitive when we presume that teens don't respect their parents or they want to get as far away from their parents and ignore what their parents say and do," said Mary Beth Coates, director of the diocesan Department of Lifelong Faith Formation. "The research showed, not just in Catholic circles, but across denominations, that if parents practice their faith, if they had what is referred to as 'God talk' - prayed at meals, night prayer, went to church regularly - that formed a foundation that as young people grow, they then emulate that. They incorporate those same practices into their faith. That being said, the challenge
is that fewer and fewer of this generation of parents are practicing their faith."
Coates has seen the common drop off/pick up model of parenting, where parents drop their children off at catechesis classes, then pick them up an hour later. By doing this, they turn the responsibility of educating their children over to someone else.
"The parish, the catechist, they can all be wonderful," Coates said. "We have over 3,500 volunteer catechists in this diocese. Even if every one of them was the best ever, if every one of them was Pope Francis, if these kids are going home to a family that isn't involved with their faith, there's no reinforcement of what they may be learning."
The research has caused catechists to look at how they can better partner with parents to help educate their children. There are many more distractions in the family than a generation ago. Many sports, clubs and school activities take place on Sunday. The culture doesn't support a priority on religion. The church used to be the central hub for gathering and social contact. Strong faithful families built up strong parishes, which in turn built a strong diocese. Coates thinks it's time to help bring faith back into the home.
"We need to come at things with a different attitude and a different point of view, and say to families, 'How can we as Church support you in developing your own household of faith so that we can have a stronger parish?'" she said.
A few years ago, the Department of Lifelong Faith Formation brought the "Strong Catholic Families, Strong Catholic Youth" initiative into the diocese, in cooperation with the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, Family Life Ministries and Catholic schools. This initiative is the stepping stone for parishes to motivate and inspire their parents to take more ownership for the faith formation of their children. By doing some parent and family workshops, parents can learn how to teach their children about the faith and sacraments. The parish becomes a support for the parents rather than the primary educators of the children.
"Many families do create beautiful traditions of practicing their faith, but statistics are going to point to many who don't. Not because they're consciously choosing not to, but maybe they don't know how to or it just never occurred to them that that's their role," said Coates.
Church documents speak of parents being the primary catechists of their own children.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Athol Springs uses the "Strong Catholic Families, Strong Catholic Youth" program. "Strong Catholic Families," which developed in 2012, is designed to motivate parents to embrace the responsibility for the faith growth of their children and family as a domestic Church. The parish had been using a similar self-designed program for a number of years, following their use of Generations of Faith.
The parish has regular sessions throughout the year with parents and their children, often with service projects. Parents also receive materials for the family to study while at home.
"First of all they need the tools to know how to make faith formation happen in the home," said Jean Hymes, religious education and youth ministry coordinator for St. Francis. "Faith formation not only happens in the home, but it happens over the whole spectrum of your life. We're trying to teach them to do this as a family. For instance, on Columbus Day, we had our whole gym filled with families making those tie blankets for the needy around the city. It was a wonderful experience. The families were doing it together, the mothers and the fathers and the kids. We put a little Scripture teaching with it. 'You're doing the corporal works of mercy now, did you know that?' then give them sheets to bring home to learn about the corporal works of mercy."
With distractions such as sports, work, home repairs and family obligations taking priority over Church, the parish has to be accommodating. Sixty sessions are offered throughout the year for parishioners to pick from. They are asked to take part in eight.
"That's a lot of work on our part, but we're willing to do it," said Hymes.
It will take some time before Hymes will know if this program keeps teens in Church, but she has seen parents understanding what it means to pray the rosary and being able to take that home to their children.
"We are seeing more families at Mass on Sundays. Our church mainly had older people coming. Now in the past three or four years, we've seen more families coming," she said.
At St. Francis of Assisi in Tonawanda, Michael and Sue Ann Saltarelli help parents prepare their children to receive the sacraments of the Church, focusing on First Communion and first reconciliation. It started as an initiative for small Christian communities for adults in the parish and realized that getting people together in small groups was very beneficial. So, they looked at doing the sacramental preparation that way as an alternative to the classroom.
"The idea really was to help build community amongst the families in the parish," said Sue Ann Saltarelli. "We did an experiment four years ago with the first class and it went over super well."
The families lead the sessions with plans designed by the Saltarellis. There are five or six families in a group. Some groups hold sessions in their homes, others in a homey room at the parish's faith formation building.
"It's definitely not a classroom situation," Sue Ann Saltarelli said. "We figure kids are in school all week sitting at desks. To come here on a Saturday morning and sit at desks and learn about God kind of puts God not in the light He should be put in."
Saltarelli still has a hand in the education process. She has adapted the Last Supper into a play format for a lesson on First Eucharist.
"They will actually act out the Last Supper," she said. "There are parts the children can read and adults can read."
At home, parents help their children with prayers and fun worksheets. The parish has been conducting family-based faith formation for nine years, so parents are used to taking materials home. It wasn't that much of a jump to add sacramental preparation into the mix.
"I think it's working very well," said Saltarelli. "I guess a testimony to the sacramental prep in particular is that the families that have met together in reconciliation try to get together with the same families in First Communion. They've even had a reunion of those families during the summer. Some of them get creative and have a session around a picnic or a meal."
She hasn't done a formal evaluation yet, but she does see a good group of kids who want to attend Mass and rosary during the week.
"From what I can see, there are more youth growing up in the Church. Our music ministry is mostly young people, and we have a lot of young people who are Eucharistic ministers. Now that they are older they're helping with the younger kids in different ministries."