Training teachers, the ‘front-line catechists’

Kindergarten teacher Yusra Hence of Saint Mary School, Williamstown, pictured with students Giovanna Arango and Brayden Storey, has taken classes to complete her catechist certification.
Saint Mary’s fourth grade teacher Christine Cole with students Valerie Ashong and Christian Lampone.

Mariann Lilley is a lifelong Catholic. One of 10 children, she cherishes her pre-Vatican II upbringing, which included saying the rosary daily as a family, novenas, prayers before and after every meal and the family lineup at Mass for genuflections that were repeated until perfectly executed.

“We lived two blocks from the church,” said Lilley, adding the family’s proximity meant there was never a reason to miss Mass. “We rode our bikes there.

“My brothers would get last minute calls to serve at funerals. The church was our life.” She made a comment, half-joking and half-serious, about her mother attending funerals for people she didn’t know. “It’s what you did,” she said.

This past July, Lilley added a new dimension to her faith life — and her Pre-K classroom at Saint Mary’s, East Vineland — by attending an intensive, two-week series of classes to complete final requirements for her Catechist Certification. The classes covered the Old Testament, the Gospels, Foundations in Faith, Christology, and Lay Ministry.

Lilley said she discovered joy in reading Scripture and a deeper relationship with Jesus through the courses. “When I was little, I don’t think I saw Jesus as my friend. I saw him as my God, like some super hero or something,” she said.

Lilley has continued daily Scripture reading and is introducing her 3-year-old Pre-K students to Jesus, their friend.

Mary Lou Hughes, co-director of the Office of Faith and Family Life Formation, shares responsibility with Sister Kathleen Burton, SSJ for training diocesan catechists. Open to lay individuals seeking catechetical formation, the two-week, Level One series was scheduled with school teachers in mind.

Hughes said most faith formation classes are held at night over several weeks. It can take months to work through one series, and years to complete the three required for certification. The summer program enabled participants to complete a full series in just two weeks.

“We have had teachers [attend] traditional classes, but this was a concerted effort to reach more of them,” said Hughes. Nearly all of the 38 individuals who attended summer courses were teachers in South Jersey Catholic Schools.

Catechetical certification for every teacher is a primary goal outlined in “Forming Minds and Hearts in Grace,” the Bishop’s Commission report on the future of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Camden.

“Our teachers are the ‘front-line’ catechists and evangelizers in our schools,” said Mary Boyle, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the diocese. “We need to make sure they have the tools they need to bring their faith to the classroom every day, no matter what academic subject they teach.”

Christine Cole and Yusra Hence, who teach at Saint Mary’s in Williamstown, had the same enthusiastic response to the series as Lilley. [The instructors] gave us not only information, but strategies to help in the classroom,” said Cole.

“[The classes] were relaxed, like a mini retreat,” added Hence. With the two-week format, she said, “You could see how the courses built on each other.”

Antoinette Esposito wondered what else she could learn after years as a faithful Catholic with a lifetime in Catholic school — as a student and teacher. She said the sessions kept her attention and she never stopped learning, especially while studying the Old Testament.

“The instructors were fantastic,” said Esposito. “When I went home I felt the need to share with my husband, daughter and sister. I just felt better.”

A fifth grade teacher at Our Lady of Hope in Blackwood, Esposito said the courses would be inspiring for anyone, not just teachers.

By all accounts, the catechetical sessions went far beyond fulfilling a requirement.

“In general, people don’t realize their own hunger or need for this information and possible transformation until they actually get their feet wet,” said Hughes. “Once they get a taste of it, they’re ready for more.”