The following story appeared in the October 21 Idaho Catholic Register.
Deacon Jason Batalden, director of religious education and evangelization at Pope St. John Paul II Parish in Idaho Falls, quiets more than 200 students for a prayer.
By Kristina Batalden
For the Idaho Catholic Register
IDAHO FALLS – Deacon Jason Batalden, who serves at Pope St. John Paul II Parish in Idaho Falls, remembers well the day last February when a woman contacted him asking that her daughters be enrolled in religious education classes.
“We had only sacramental prep classes. I felt badly telling her we had no place for her daughters,” said Deacon Batalden, who is the director of religious education and evangelization at the parish.
What a difference a few months can make. On Sept. 11, more than 230 children from first through fifth grades entered a crowded hall with their parents and found their “place.”
Liam Tocheri was one of the students that arrived on the first day. He felt a little nervous because there were so many kids, but ultimately had fun making folders and reading from the Bible. Liam was one of 35 third-grade students, meeting in an “extra” room created in the parish hall by portable partitions. “It was pretty good, but a little small,” Liam said about Miss Paige’s Prairie room.
Space is just one obstacle that the Idaho Falls Catholic Community is facing this year. Carol Castro, the religious education program coordinator looks at it as a blessing. “We have been blessed with many children and parents opening their hearts and wanting to give the sacraments to their children. We just need to keep praying to our wonderful God to give us a bigger space to host all the classes.”
Many children stayed home during COVID, unable to prepare for First Holy Communion or Reconciliation with their peers. Now, with the pandemic subsiding, the Idaho Falls Catholic Community and its missions in Roberts and Mud Lake are striving to get every child on track for their sacraments this year.
The parish hired Deacon Batalden last February to work full-time to spearhead religious education and evangelization. Batalden and those working with him, found that it was not only second-graders who needed sacraments, but students in upper grades as well.
“We advertised and we had open houses to meet with parents,” Batalden said. “Now that we have a structured program in place, people are taking advantage of it.”
For a few years, there was not a junior high ministry at the parish. “So one of our first goals was to get that going again,” Batalden said. “I figured we’d be lucky if we had 15 kids show up. We got just over 80.”
In total, there are now about 450 students from grades 1 to 12 who are in religious education in Idaho Falls.
Catechists Jill Phillips and Sherri Arnone-Wheat get the attention of students on the first day of religious education classes. (Courtesy photos/Kim Lloyd)
Some of them may be new to the growing community; others are longtime members responding positively to a revitalized program. “Some families weren’t as engaged as before, but I think there’s a major movement of people being called back to the Church,” Batalden said.
A large number of students requires an even bigger need for catechists. Not all the catechists from the past were available, so new teachers were needed. In total, 37 were called to help form the children.
One catechist has been tasked to teach the teachers. Irene Franklin is a retired teacher who meets with catechists once a month to offer strategies on how to engage students. Not every catechist is a certified teacher, so it was imperative to make sure the teachers felt comfortable.
“Safe and supported,” is Deacon Batalden’s motto for equipping the new crop of catechists. For Batalden, that means the catechists are given a place, a curriculum, a structure, and support from the leadership team to help them give children an opportunity to have an encounter with Christ.
Rob Morris leads about 42 in grades six through eight. “Forty-two is a big class, but I can handle it because I’ve taught public school for 37 years,” Morris said.
In addition to sacramental prep, the students also go to religious education classes twice a month, ensuring they have adequate time to prepare and form their faith.
Paige Prairie meets with a few of her third-graders religious education class at Pope St. John Paul II Parish in Idaho Falls. (Courtesy photo/Kim Lloyd)
Jill Phillips, one of the catechists returning to teach this year, likens the changes to “taking a trip and actually having a road map. Between the curriculum that has been developed and the support we are receiving from parish leadership, I feel set up for success.”
The outreach is to more than just students. This year, there is a new class titled, “Family Formation” for all the parents of students receiving sacraments. The parents are required to attend the formation class once a month. To help the grace of the sacraments unfold for students, parental help is necessary.
Parents, along with catechists, are tasked to ensure that the disposition of the students to receive the sacraments is clear. “The parish wants children to receive their sacraments as a continuation of their journey of faith, not the end,” Deacon Batalden said.
Father Francisco Flores, pastor at the parish, believes in challenging students and their families to live the faith. “This is about the parish being able to provide a program that not only assists parents, but actively involves them in the religious education and formation of their children. Primarily, we want to challenge and help parents to live the faith and to model it for their children. My hope is that as families together delve deeper into the beauty of the reality of the faith, they will be inspired to become more faithful to Jesus and His Church.”
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