Since the end of the Second Vatican Council, the Church has officially published no fewer than eight major documents calling for adults to be the center of the Church’s educational mission. All of these documents emphasize that adult faith formation must be considered the chief form of catechesis.
The landmark document for the U.S. church came in 1999. The United States bishops published Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States.
Often people resist reading church documents. They respond: “Don’t tell me what it is or how important it is. Tell me what we’re going to do about it.” Along with its Leader’s Guide, this indispensable tool and resource is a vision as well as a strategy (what to do) for adult faith formation in our parishes and dioceses across the country.
It emphasizes that the first goal for adult faith formation is to accompany people on their journey in the life of Christ through
- prayer and study.
The two other goals of adult formation, are to “form active members of the Christian community,” and to “prepare people to act as disciples in mission to the world.”
These three goals are achieved through information and formation for the sake of transformation. First, the lives of the baptized need to be transformed - this means to grow more and more into the people God created them to be. Through this personal transformation, they can then be witnesses of Christ, making a difference in the world. The overarching goal of adult faith formation is a sense of mission rather than just the enhancing of membership.
A few interesting/challenging aspects of this document include some new focuses (because every document on education and catechesis since Vatican II has said that adult faith formation is central):
- We see a paradigm shift about Jesus. In past documents we have witnessed Jesus as teacher. In Our Hearts Were Burning within Us we see Jesus as listener, one who intently listens to the needs of the people.
Then, of course, the implication is that is what we have to do. Our Hearts Were Burning within Us challenges us to:
- begin by accepting adults where they are
- journey with people
- ask them questions and listen as they speak of their joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties
- The document stresses that “The parish is the curriculum.” Everything that we do teaches! It’s not just a question of creating new programs, but of looking at everything we do and asking: what/how are we teaching in that practice, guideline, program or activity?
- We find a renewed, stronger, more committed emphasis on adult faith formation. What’s new is not the words but the energy and commitment behind the words. In the conclusion of the document the US bishops state: “Before meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the disciples were discouraged. We too at times may feel discouraged … There are many obstacles to adult catechesis … but like the disciples our hearts burn with us to proclaim the Good News of the reign of God. We are committed to this plan and are willing to exercise courage as we implement it.”
A few questions to study Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us within your parish:
- Explore the characteristics of a mature adult Christian (#45-63). Complete this sentence in as many ways as they can: “To continue to grow as Christians, adults in our parish need ______.”
- Review the three goals for adult faith formation (#67-73). Share your thoughts on how your parish accompanies adults on the journey of each of these goals.
- Discuss the principles for adult faith formation (#74-87). Which is your parish doing well? Which one might need more work?
- As you look at the six content areas for adult faith formation (#88-96), name the programs and opportunities in your parish which “teach” each of the areas.
- As you explore “Organizing for AFF in the Parish” (#113-153), how does this section describe your parish?
Janet Schaeffler, OP is a facilitator of days of reflection, retreats, parish missions, and workshops. She is an author, university teacher and continues the ministry she was involved in for many years in parishes as director for Adult Faith Formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit.