By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 8, 2009
Glaciers have become an appropriate metaphor for the trek now underway by the staff of the Office of Religious Education, particularly for its director, Dennis Johnson Jr.
He equates a glacier’s movement with how ORE must be poised to respond effectively to the church’s social climate while retaining essential principles when forming area Catholics in their faith.
“Like a glacier, it needs to extend or retract.”
Following an assessment of ORE programs and structure, Johnson and his staff have begun maneuvering through changes they hope will help Catholics better live out Christ’s call to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
He called the task “ambitious,” and offered, with encouragement, “We’re here to walk the journey with you.”
If one has attended Theology on Tap, the Sonfest beach retreat, a Bible study or taught religion to children, ORE had its hand in the event or program. Indeed, the task of evangelizing is immense as ORE’s mission to form Catholics in their faith spans generations and stretches across many cultures present in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
To complete its mission ORE relies on funds from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, this year entitled, “You Are the Light of the World.”
Johnson explained the importance of giving to the Appeal as a component of one’s stewardship to the church.
“If it’s important to you to animate leadership that will support and engage your family in their faith development, if it’s important to you to have a vibrant parish community that fosters all the elements of what it means to truly be a community, if it’s important to you to be the best follower of Jesus Christ, to know your faith, to participate in the liturgy, to know its morals and ethics, then support our office (through the Archbishop’s Appeal). Dollar for dollar, we’re a very good investment.”
After his installation in Atlanta, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory consulted with staff for evangelization and catechesis from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in reviewing the structure and program offerings of the archdiocesan ORE. Atlanta’s staff has absorbed the feedback, along with Johnson’s own informal assessment after coming to his position in the summer of 2007. As a result, ORE has begun refining the archdiocese’s approach to parish-based faith formation and will include, among other things, a more deliberate focus on fostering “mature discipleship” among adults, empowering and expanding support of parishes and creating “broad and permeable programming.”
“Too often we tend to treat our faith like the educational model of little to big; that (faith formation) is something you graduate out of,” Johnson said. “You never graduate out of growing your faith.”
The strategy is to place a greater emphasis on expanding opportunities for adult formation that, in turn, would produce a greater knowledge and love for the faith that would “trickle down” to one’s children or out into the community.
In hand with furthering ORE’s increased focus on mature discipleship is an approach that gives parishes more resources to initiate programs of their choosing that match their unique communities. The assessments showed the need for ORE to play a more supportive role at the parish level for reasons that include the inability of Catholics in outlying areas to travel to downtown Atlanta for programs or training. Johnson hopes that more opportunities to grow in one’s faith will be offered through parishes and at the deanery level. Currently, there are 10 deaneries in which parishes are grouped together based on geography. Efforts, too, are being made to create a comprehensive Web site in both English and Spanish through which information, programs and events will be communicated.
Johnson is bilingual in English and Spanish as is one of the office’s associate directors and a member of the support staff, while another staff member is bilingual in Portuguese and English.
“We need to spend more time engaging the parish structure,” said Johnson, who also expressed ORE’s desire to keep more resources at the parish level. While the Atlanta Archdiocese has “well-resourced parishes” that need less assistance, other parishes lack financial resources or staff. ORE staff members are available to help parishes chart a course that may translate into, for example, beginning a youth ministry program if one currently does not exist at a parish, Johnson said.
“We are a partnership department—we work with other folks.”
The last component—broad and permeable programming—has been Johnson’s most well known “mantra” for many months. “I’ve sounded like a broken record describing our approach as a broad, comprehensive, systematic and permeable framework that people can plug into and out of as they live their faith.”
He understands how difficult it is for adults to make long-term commitments to “hard-core programs.”
“I want parishes to offer a plethora of programs from which to pick and choose.”
This approach will be used in forming catechists. ORE plans to offer “a framework of lots of options to folks so they can fulfill requirements … and achieve competency. Pastors would help discern (with parishioners) to decide what the focus is to be. There will be much more participation in the approach (to catechetical formation) instead of a top-down management structure. Most parishes do this at some level, but we can all improve.”
He shares this line with many to whom he speaks: “My philosophy is to invite, encourage and support instead of mandate, regulate and dictate.”
Johnson also likes to explain that evangelization is the calling, not just of the ORE, but also of all Catholics commissioned at baptism. As described in the overview of the ORE, the church understands evangelization as covering three essential moments: the proclamation of the Gospel, not just to ourselves but to the un-churched; initiation into the church through the sacraments; and one’s participation in programs and events that further develop one’s faith from “womb to tomb.”
“Religious education is evangelization,” Johnson said. “The church understands it as proclaiming the Gospel, initiation into the body of Christ and ongoing catechesis.”
One effort that forges ahead into the territory of promoting “mature discipleship” will be a small faith community rally scheduled for 2009 that will allow parish leadership to view various models of small faith groups and choose what suits each parish.
“We want to offer a plethora of things and let parishes find what vehicle works best. It may be more than one thing,” Johnson added.
“The question we need to start asking is ‘what do we want to see happen?’”
Johnson’s answer is to have “parishes with strong leadership from clergy and laity alike, mature discipleship, and vibrant communities that transform and empower parishes.”
He explained that ORE’s three associate directors—which include one for the areas of Adult and Young Adult Ministries, Youth and Children Ministries, and Catechetical Ministry—will support the start-up of desired programs within parishes or deaneries.
“I think my mantra, when thinking of one of the most critical concerns as Catholics in North Georgia, the U.S., and the world, would be to make sure we do everything we can to engage and teach others the responsibility of those baptized in Christ to know the faith and live the faith.”
For Johnson, a husband and father of two, his faith is his “anchor” and being part of a community of believers is crucial.
“I’ve had some incredible things happen in my life,” he said.
Without the church community he may not have had “the wherewithal” to face the difficulties put before him.
“People stand with you, pray for you. I know that God is there.”
Because of his faith Johnson wears his hat as the director of ORE. One of three boys, the church was like a second home to him when growing up. “My whole life, I’ve been involved with the church.”
He understands that organized religion does not only bring about personal spiritual fulfillment but must involve a community’s response to the world in which it resides. “The Catholic faith is not just personal but communal; it builds structures that improve society.”
As a parent, he also appreciates the guidance received from the church’s teachings.
“I have two children and I tell them why God is important in life. They are able to make connections with God and come to see how God’s hand is in the good and bad, suffering and joy.”
Like an imposing glacier, the challenges are before the ORE staff. Johnson remains “euphoric” in his work, though. He even has a dream—an endowment to facilitate pursuits in three areas: to further fund efforts to form catechists; to support the academic training of lay ecclesial professionals (who now outnumber priests in ministry) so as to further “animate leadership”; and to support emerging initiatives in parishes where “seed money” can impact a community.
Johnson is enjoying his place atop the ORE glacier while living his faith. “It’s a lifelong adventure with the Lord that the church walks with you.”
“Ultimately everything we have is given to us by God; we are responsible for meeting our own needs and others’ needs as well.”
The archdiocesan Office of Religious Education is one of the programs subsidized by the 2009 Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.