PLAINFIELD — Religious education students at St. Paul Parish are involved in a new program that is implementing in a unique way Bishop David Ricken’s six-year pastoral plan, “Disciples on the Way.”
Using a program developed by the parish, they are spending one week in the classroom learning about Christ and the next week putting their faith into action by going out into the community to “live” Christ by doing service for others.
“It’s transforming our program by getting our kids back into parish life and attending Mass,” said Deacon Jim Trzinski, pastoral coordinator at St. Paul Parish. “We are always asking, ‘How can we get young adults back into the parish?’ With this early start in religious education, we will start to see them taking charge of doing these things, making a difference in the community and being refreshed by the graces through the sacraments to help them continue to do that type of work.”
The idea started with the youths themselves as they returned from this year’s youth mission trip. “I asked the students where they wanted to go next year — a spiritual type of mission trip or a work-type mission trip again,” Deacon Trzinski said. “They said they wanted to do something with their hands to help people. All that excitement from a mission trip burns out quickly. We had to move quickly to do something to incorporate the mission experience with our religious education program here at home.”
Deacon Trzinski and director of religious education Carla Murray developed the “Learn Christ, Live Christ” program, with about 80 students participating in two sessions a month in the classroom and two times a month doing community work.
“We are basically doing mission work within our own community,” Deacon Trzinski said. “The students are greatly enthused, and the parents, grandparents and members of the parish are getting involved in helping them.”
A major project has been the students in grades one to six, building scarecrow “saints” to line the entry sidewalk to the church. The students researched saints and had to come up with patron saints to build scarecrows. The scarecrows were decorated with items that represent that saint.
For example, St. Isidore the Farmer was dressed in overalls and a straw hat, surrounded by tractors, hay bales, a cow and a pitchfork. St. Kateri Tekakwitha was dressed in her Native American clothing near a teepee and wood crosses like those she reportedly used to distribute.
“We gave the kids a little competition,” Deacon Trzinski said. “Whoever got the most votes would get a pizza party at one of their class times. The only way they could vote was before and after Mass, with a monetary donation.”
The students had to encourage their parents to bring them to Mass to vote on their scarecrows.
Money raised was donated to the local food pantry and the Share Our Surplus Christmas project. “So it wasn’t just about them building a scarecrow, but to hopefully invite their parents and other relatives to church and, secondly, to make money for our program,” he said. “We were living Christ in a couple of different ways.”
Other youth projects have included cleanup around the cemetery expansion and landscaping around a new flagpole to be dedicated to veterans.
“We invited the entire church to come out and work with the kids on this particular project,” Deacon Trzinski said. “There were parents, grandparents and parishioners all working with the kids to help them. We had close to 80 people, and that was with students from just the older grades.
“The idea is not only to get the kids involved in living Christ but also for groups of the church — such as Knights of Columbus and the Parish Council of Catholic Women — to start to be involved with the kids so they will want to get involved with the groups. Develop a relationship with the kids so they get to know them and invite them to get involved with their organizations and their projects.”
He said a brainstorming session with the students came up with more than 20 different ideas for projects and he gets calls from other parishioners daily with more ideas. Younger students learned how to bake cookies and took them to home-bound people and some in nursing homes. Some students have started a music ministry and they are helping to clean the church.
“There’s been a renewed excitement about coming to religious education,” Deacon Trzinski said. “‘What are we going to do next week?’ they ask. Some of the kids are volunteering to come in early so they can start working on the projects, even ahead of their religious education time — which I find to be extraordinary,” he said.
“Kids can really put their faith into action and they’re seeing that that’s a neat thing to do,” Deacon Trzinski said, adding that he likes to see interaction between youth and the rest of the parish. “It’s starting to become a whole parish-wide thing.”
The reason for the program’s initial success is simple, he added. “I listened to the kids and what they wanted to do to make a difference in their faith, see where their passions lie. By doing things in the community for others and for the church, we can build upon that passion and start to get them fully integrated in parish life — be ‘disciples on the way.’ Disciples didn’t sit in their homes. They went out and lived their faith.
“Faith is living it outside the four walls of the church and doing things for people,” he added.