"We are using information to assist in formation that will lead to transformation," is how Msgr. Michael Heras, pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Corpus Christi, Texas describes the parish's Lay Formation Program. Started in 2002, the program has enrolled some 870 students.
The idea for the program stemmed from the introduction of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992; indeed the three-year program closely follows the Catechism. "What a gift the Catechism is," Msgr. Heras said.
The program encompasses formation in four areas: spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral. The first year of the program, called the Bronze Year, includes topics such as the existence of God, the incarnation, the Holy Spirit and the founding of the Church by Jesus. The second year is called the Silver Year and focuses on the Sacraments, the Eucharist, Mass, sin and marriage. The third and final year called the Gold Year covers the Ten Commandments and the church's teaching on social justice.
"When I began the Lay Formation Program, I was a little intimidated because of the three year commitment," Mary Ann Ramos said. "I thought it would take forever and that I might not be as good a student as I was in my childhood years. I could not have been more wrong. The three years flew by, and I found that learning was easy when you have an excellent instructor and life changing material to learn."
Each year consists of four semesters of six classes each. Absence from more than four classes each semester requires the participant to repeat the semester. Absence from any class must be made up under the direction of the teacher. Aside from the regularly scheduled classes, each participant must take a yearly one-day seminar in order to fulfill the academic requirements of the course. Each participant must be committed to meet every month with an appointed formation advisor, which is a priest, sister or deacon.
In order to be accepted into the program, each participant must make a serious commitment to a life of prayer. This includes daily prayer, including the Rosary and Mass when possible; weekly prayer, such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour; and monthly Reconciliation. While participants do not have to parishioners of Our Lady of Perpetual help, they must be baptized, full initiated Catholics in good standing with the Church. By good standing, it is meant that the participant must be a person who leads a moral life.
"The parish has to have people who understand what Jesus intended," Msgr. Heras said. According to Paragraph 2179 of the Catechism, "A parish is a definite community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular church; … It is the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ's saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love…"
The aim of the Lay Formation Program is to develop parishioners that can meet the standard of Paragraph 2179. Too many retreat programs, Msgr. Heras said, take people away from the Parish for a few days that provide them with a spiritual high. Like most highs, the emotional uplifting is followed with a letdown. Many people go from one retreat to another to try to maintain the spiritual high, Msgr. Heras said.
"What do you do after the retreats?" Msgr. Heras asks. "We must address the whole person not just their emotions. We must address their spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral needs. Real formation takes place in the parish on a one to one basis."
Each participant in the Lay Formation Program must complete the Real Life Program, which consists of 10 weeks of meetings followed by a weekend retreat. While no exams are given, at the end of each semester each participant must write a brief reflection on the subject matter the teacher covered during the semester.
"Before Lay Formation, I thought I had a good understanding of my faith, but every once in a while, someone would come to me with a question about being Catholic. Most times these questions were from people who were genuinely interested in learning about the Catholic faith, but sometimes these questions took on a more challenging tone. Sometimes I had answers for them. A lot of times I did not," Ramos said.
The Lay Formation introduced Ramos to the Catechism, which -along with instruction from her instructor- gave her the best resource to answer most if not all of those questions coming her way.
At the end of the three-year program, each participant will be awarded the Apostolic Parish Diploma. This diploma must be renewed every three years based on pastoral requirements set by the pastor of the participants' home parish.
"This program greatly strengthened my prayer life and, with the help of my assigned spiritual advisor and of course the Holy Spirit, allowed me to gain a more balanced life. I would strongly recommend the Lay Formation Program to every Catholic." Ramos said.
Printed with permission from South Texas Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Corpus Christi.