Lay-driven adult education a big hit


CHARLESTON — It may be the most successful parish adult education program in the Diocese of Charleston, yet it runs with no money and with no help from the parish staff. Adult education at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in this see city was born of necessity and nurtured by commitment. It is a prime example of lay ownership of their Church.

“It’s unique in that it is run directly and completely by lay members of the parish,” said Mariano F. LaVia, one of the founders, with John Knott, of the program. “We have a zero budget. The driving force behind the program is that we all realize we are invested in our faith community by virtue of our baptism.”

Adult education at the cathedral began early in this decade as a discussion group meeting with the pastor in the conference room of the parish hall while Sunday School classes were meeting in the classrooms. It evolved slowly over the years until Jane Myer took over as parish director of religious education. She developed a larger program, mostly taught by herself and an occasional speaker. When she left the parish to relocate in the spring of 1997, the cathedral was not able to quickly find a replacement DRE. Adult education became an orphan for a time.

LaVia approached Knott about his idea and the two recruited six other lay leaders of the parish. With the blessings of the parish staff, they met over the summer and developed a curriculum based on seven segments of four Sundays each. One moderator was put in charge of each segment, with full responsibility for scheduling speakers for the first three weeks of the segment on a specified topic and for developing resources on the topic for participants who wanted to pursue it further; the last Sunday was an open discussion session of the first three. The theme for the year was “What does it mean to be a Catholic today?” and it was arranged along the lines of synodal concepts.

No one knew what the public response would be. LaVia admitted to being nervous about the reception the program might receive.

“Suzanne (Doscher) started off with Brother Ed (Bergeron) and it was unbelievable,” he said.

More than 100 parishioners showed up to hear the spiritual director’s talk on spirituality on Sept. 21, and the hall stayed full of animated participants every Sunday for the rest of the 1997-98 academic year. The average attendance in the program was 75.

Michelle F. Bull, a teacher at Bishop England High School and a new member of the adult education committee, found that she and her Southern Baptist husband were sacrificing their one late morning of the week to attend the 9:30 a.m. session every Sunday.

“We found ourselves getting up to go to the 8 (a.m. Mass). We had a weekly commitment to adult ed. My husband loves it and feels very welcome,” Bull said.

Edward J. Golka, a parishioner and one of the original moderators, said that the program encompasses learning, and more.

“It’s a lot more than religion,” Golka said. “An important undertone of the program is the friendship and fellowship that develops. I feel comfortable enough now to go to a person and ask a question without feeling stupid.”

Knott said that keys to success in their adult education program are stating a theme, setting standards and recruiting “entrepreneurial” moderators.

“Our criteria are that each segment must have a scriptural connection, a historical link to the evolution of the Church and must reference synod documents or encyclicals. If you really believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, then you should relegate responsibility to each moderator. That way you also get a much broader range of thinking,” Knott said.

The committee members, LaVia, Knott, Bull, Golka, Doscher, Jennifer A. Collins, Martha Kanapaux, Jay LeVan, Dwana Meisenhelder and Jim Augustin, admitted that some parishioners were concerned about the fact that the program was lay-driven and not run by a cleric. Others didn’t like some topics. The committee did not shy away from controversy; they scheduled talks and panels on racism and sexism in the Church, had Mayor Joe Riley speaking on social outreach duties and they discussed sanctity of life as Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless garment concept. A local television station manager created a whirlwind of heated talk one Sunday when she stated that TV is geared to the two-thirds of their audience that are not college graduates and that stories are selected for their interest value rather than their news value.

But it was all a formational experience for participants who filled the parish hall each week, even into the summer (when the program became Bible study). That’s what attracted Collins to the program. When she taught Confirmation classes in Texas two years ago, she saw the need for on-going formation.

“It was refreshing to find other adults interested in continuing the learning of their faith,” she said.

The 1998-99 theme for adult educaiton at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is Augustin’s idea — although he credits the Holy Spirit. The history, evolution and meaning of the seven sacraments will be integrated into the pope’s three-year millennium focus of Father, Jesus and Spirit. It promises to be another lived experience, according to Doscher, an illustration of “being accountable and taking responsibility for our own faith.”