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Professional development of catechists remains priority for Diocese of Wilmington Office of Religious Education

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Dolores Ballintyn, director of religious education at St. John the Beloved Parish, engages socially distant students in the Sunday morning program.

Education could not take a break because of the coronavirus pandemic, and that goes for religious education in addition to regular schooling. In the Diocese of Wilmington, the Office for Religious Education has been working to ensure that its teachers remain in the best possible situation to pass the faith along to their students.

Colleen Lindsey, who directs that office, has worked with the directors and coordinators of religious education around the diocese to provide their catechists with the tools necessary to make that happen. This year, the office is holding ongoing virtual professional development sessions with a professor of education from Immaculata University to help “teach the teacher.”

Lindsey said the diocese has just shy of 10,000 students and 1,500 catechists in its program for kindergarteners through eighth-graders. The work of educating those students would not be possible without the DREs and CREs, Lindsey said.

“They’re responding to the needs of the parish. They’re responding to the needs of the families, the needs of the students. Sometimes, there are many needs coming in to the parishes every single day. Their dedication has not wavered also in their professional and spiritual development,” she said.

Joseph Corabi

Developing the catechists is also a priority, and that is where Joseph Corabi comes in. The veteran educator said he met with a few directors of religious education after Lindsey approached him, and he was struck by “the willingness on the part of the DREs to learn and see how they could enhance their programs.”

Corabi spoke during a virtual professional development day in October, and he will do so again in January and April. He said he is addressing teaching as both an art and a science and trying to help the catechists who have stepped up to help in the formation of young Catholics.

“They know the stuff, but they sought some help in delivery, the art of teaching, and the feel behind it. The excitement that one can show,” he said.

The ability to grow depends on one’s ability to see the need for growth, he said. One of his goals during this year is to help the DREs and CREs and, through them, the catechists, hone their skills to recognize the areas in which they need to grow. That involves examining one’s own strengths and deficiencies, which is not always easy.

The catechists, he said, are willing to grow professionally, and their commitment to the faith is evident. He credited Lindsey and Louis De Angelo, the secretary for the Catholic Education Department for the diocese, for being willing to ask the DREs and CREs what they need for their catechists, and then delivering on that.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has made “I received from the Lord what I also handed to you” its catechetical theme for 2020. The USCCB is focusing on the essential work of catechists, Lindsey said. She also noted that Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, who is also the chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, invited all of those involved in religious education “to consider earnestly ‘the importance of our own faithful nation as catechists since we are the instruments through which many come to encounter Christ.’”

The formation of catechists is a topic among the DREs and CREs all year long, not just during professional development sessions. They share ideas and collaborate, although their in-person meetings have been replaced with video conference calls. They bring in people like Corabi when they need to sharpen their skills to reach the goals of catechesis, which Lindsey described as “communion with Jesus Christ.”

“If the skills needed are there, communication and transformation is possible, which is the object of catechesis. The catechist must learn how to learn,” said Lindsey, who is also a doctoral candidate studying under Corabi at Immaculata.

Corabi said he knows where Lindsey and De Angelo want to go, and his job is to help them get there. One of the keys in education is recognizing what one can and can’t control.

“We can concentrate on the uncontrollable variables, and we don’t go anywhere,” he said.

He met with a few of the directors and coordinators before the first professional development day so he could generate a plan. It was based on responses the Office for Religious Education received from catechists about what they needed.

“It was an overt recognition from the diocese that ‘we want to help you get better. What do you need from us?’ And it wasn’t just a top-down, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do whether you like it or not. That wasn’t the process,” he said.

Corabi said the diocese is fortunate to have people who are willing to listen and to help its teachers grow.

“You don’t invest in the thing,” he said. “You invest in the people. And there are some very, very good people that I’ve met in the short time that I’ve worked with Colleen on this project. The diocese is in good hands.”