Religion consultant develops creative ways to engage students in catechesis

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

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ALAMEDA, Calif. — As parishes mark the halfway point of the year of Faith Formation studies and students trudge through the snow to attend classes at their respective parishes, some Faith Formation teachers are looking for different ways to engage their students in the Catholic faith. 

Victor Valenzuela, a national religion consultant for Bilingual Resources for William H. Sadlier, Inc. (, has presented workshops regionally and nationally and has been in ministry for 25 years. Though he has been living in California for more than 30 years, the parishioner of St. Joseph Basilica Parish in Alameda is originally from Arizona and credits his culture for shaping his Catholic faith.

“In the Latino community, my family was very immersed in the Catholic culture,” said Valenzuela. “If you go to Latin America, everything Catholic about the country or specific city, it’s very Catholic because our faith is what we live out.”

When Valenzuela was a sophomore in high school, he started a Bible study youth group in his parish: “The parish was very supportive of it, and that’s kind of where I got started in my ministry,” he said, and coming from a supportive community helped him find his vocation. “I had good Spiritual mentoring with the priests in the parishes where I lived, but more in the community – that’s what inspired me to study to become a priest.”

Valenzuela joked that at 18 years old, he didn’t even know where to go to become a priest, but found himself studying at St. Joseph Seminary in Menlo Park in California, earning a bachelor of arts. He added a masters in religious education from the University of San Francisco, but ultimately was never ordained as a priest because “I still felt called but it wasn’t the calling,” he said, and became a Catholic high school teacher, teaching for 10 years.

Now working at Sadlier Inc., Valenzuela said that today’s catechists can take cues from how he learned about the Catholic faith growing up: “For Latinos, the faith is very symbolic; it’s about pictures, paintings, drawings, and there’s more of a feel about that comes out of Religious Education and faith in general, they’re more about feeling their faith and perceiving their faith as opposed to learning their faith first. I think it’s Latinos’ strong-point, and I think it’s a way that it’s also the way that those in the U.S. are starting to see education, and how we learn, and instead of learning through a big concentration of information, but also perception.”

Sadlier has created some great resources, including resources in Spanish, that offer great ways to teach in either English or bilingual studies to help reinforce that perception-type of learning.

“It’s a way for all of us to learn our faith,” said Valenzuela. “Parishes tend to be academic in their Faith Formation, kids sitting in a classroom and giving them a pen and paper and book — that’s more school than learning the love of Jesus. How can we get away from that structured school-sense, and in a more organic” way of learning?

While learning prayers is a must, it may help to get away from doing rote prayers from simply memorization “because it’s really counter-productive to us trying to teach them faith,” he said, “because what that accomplished, doing those rote prayers, is you taught them how to memorize and become better at memorizing. You haven’t really taught them the faith.”

By not engaging the youth, that loss can be become clearer as those youth become adults and feel disconnected from the Catholic faith. They can recite prayers, but don’t have a true sense of what those prayers mean or represent because no one ever taught them the meanings. That’s where using images and having a more hands-on approach teaching method can make such an impact.

“One way to look at that from a different point of view is using symbols and more interactive learning,” said Valenzuela. “The Creed has symbols, like for God or Jesus, and you can do it in a variety of ways. One way is to have a Creed table in your Faith Formation class. You set up the table with all these symbols and each time you meet, you interact with those symbols — either you pray for them, or maybe do a little show and tell and have [the students] say what it means to them. Just do that every time you meet and by the end of the year, they will have learned the Creed.”

Another interactive exercise is to create an image of Christ, like print a headshot of His image or face, and put that into a frame. On the back of the frame, put directions — like build a prayer table or read Bible passages — and then have each student take Christ home for a week, and then return the following week with a report of what the student did when they brought Christ to their home. Each student will be given a chance to bring Him home until He has been in each home at least once.

“It’s a simple activity and it’s amazing how many Catholics don’t even have an image of Christ in their home,” said Valenzuela. “It’s a big evangelizing kind of tool.”

Though these examples may seem like they are geared towards younger students, many of the suggested activities can be used as a tool for any age; no activity is strictly age-specific.

“I think the biggest obstacle we have right now is to focus our catechesis more on formation as opposed to an information dump,” said Valenzuela. “I think in parishes, even in the bilingual world, the approach is — I’m the teacher, this is the classroom, these are my students, and I’m going to make this a school. From a kid’s point of view, that’s the last thing that they want, and then it becomes working in a school structure — how can we break out of that?”

Teaching is fine, just the learning in a school academic model, not a transformational model, doesn’t help engage students in the faith. It’s hard because many parish classroom environments add to that: “It’s Faith Formation, and teaching is important,” said Valenzuela, “but I think what we need to do is start with, and maintain that connection to, is the formation piece, that feeling piece, because if we don’t and it’s just a matter of giving them a bunch of information, kids are going to get bored and want to say, ‘When will this be over?’” 

Current culture has morphed into a sense of being Spiritual but not religious and that there is a pervasive feeling that faith can trap you in rules and regulations that being part of the Church implies: “I think the conversation has changed a lot because of Pope Francis; he’s more about, if the structure is getting in the way of you doing the mercy of God, then we need to do away with the structure — that’s what I’m hearing from Pope Francis. That’s the sense I’m getting,” said Valenzuela. “I think we need to learn how to live out our faith, and I think Pope Francis is a model on how to connect those two, Church and Spiritual.”

And that Spiritual feeling of engaging students starts with the catechist, he said: “Catechists need to tap into their own vocation. As catechists, we do this because we have this calling in our heart, not in our head. If you tap into that calling into your heart, I think it will give you a passion for what you’re doing, and give you an energy for what you’re doing. If you’re doing this in your head, like this is an obligation — people think catechists are highly trained people who know every detail about our faith and that’s why they’re catechists — but catechists are called by God who have an honest faith in their heart. People just need to focus on that honest faith and translate that into an experience for children, teen-agers and adults when they come to Faith Formation.”

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