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Faithful teachers

Catechists on front lines of a battle to instill faith amidst a faithless culture

The following story appeared in the November 5 Idaho Catholic Register.

Jessica Gallegos, top photo, with some of the hundreds of young people she has taught for the last five years as Director of Christian Education for grades K-12 at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Pocatello.


 

Editor’s note: Catechists are among the hardest laborers in our parishes, working diligently to pass on the faith to children and young adults. The Idaho Catholic Register recently posted these questions to catechists, two of whom have served for many years and one recently appointed. They are Jessica Gallegos from Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Pocatello; Heather Uhlenkott from the Tri Parish Churches in Cottonwood, Ferdinand and Greencreek; and Stephany Morales of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Caldwell.

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your faith journey.

Jessica Gallegos: I was born and raised in Pocatello to a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother. I am a cradle Catholic, having received all my sacraments in St Anthony Chapel. I am currently the Director of Christian Education for kindergarten through 12th grade. Most of my schooling was in American Falls. I received an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Care and Education from Idaho State University. Faith was a big part of our lives, but you also could have called us, at one point, CEO (Christmas, Easter and Other) Catholics. We attended Mass every so often, but especially for major celebrations. However, once my mother started to work at the church, we became very involved whether we wanted to or not. I was very active in youth group and altar serving. My middle school youth minister, Cathy Heggenberger, was and still is an amazing role model. Father Enrique Terriquez is also a big role model of how to live the faith. He was always there for me and my family and helped me grow spiritually. My entire parish has seen me grow into the woman I have become. They have helped me grow and pray for me.



Heather Uhlenkott: I was blessed to be raised in Cottonwood, a community that prioritizes faith and family and has high moral expectations for its members. I attended the public school and received my faith formation in the public school released-time program. (The schools release students for one hour to receive religious instruction.) My mother was Catholic and my father was not. I look back at that as a great gift to my ministry. I have found that being able to relate to people that aren’t cradle Catholics and have different

views is vital when accompanying families on their faith formation journey.



Stephany Morales: I was born in Bellflower, Calif., and raised in Los Angeles. I moved to Caldwell when I was 8. This was also the time we started attending Our Lady of the Valley

Catholic Church. I attended Vallivue Middle School and High School, where I enjoyed being a part of the dance team and choir. Along with my school activities, I attended youth group at OLV, where my interest for the ministry began. I asked my youth minister at the time, Daniel Miller, if I could do my senior project on youth ministry. I shadowed him for a year and continued to intern and learn from him through my freshman year in college. I attended College of Western Idaho and graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. I am a cradle Catholic. My family has always been very traditional and devoted to the faith. My parents have been involved in the parish and dedicated to teaching us our faith since I was young.




Jessica Gallegos with Bishop Peter Christensen. She is holding an earlier photo of her with the Bishop at a Confirmation Mass. (Photo courtesy of Katie Sullivan)


What circumstances led you to becoming a catechist?

Gallegos: To be honest, it wasn’t my idea to be a catechist or a youth minister. I wanted to be a Pre-K school teacher, but the Holy Spirit had a different idea. I was working at Holy Spirit Childcare in 2013 when I was asked to take on First Holy Communion classes. During that same year, about half way through the year, Father John Worster asked me to take on all religious education for kindergarten through 5th grade. I began helping the youth ministers in about 2016 and by 2019 had taken all K-12 grades. I also work as a Middle School religious education teacher at Holy Spirit Catholic School and am the Quincenera coordinator at our parish.


Uhlenkott: In 2004, our parish’s Director of Christian Education asked me to become a catechist, an invitation that changed my life. I began absorbing everything I could about the Catholic faith. I couldn’t wait to share it all with my students. Outside my vocations of wife and mother, being a catechist has been the greatest work in my life. I was hired to be our Tri-Parish’s Director of Religious Education in 2010 and in 2015 my husband and I began four years of Servant School after which he was ordained a permanent deacon and I received my Master Catechist certificate and my Lay Ecclesial Minister certificate. I have been very blessed to continue to be a catechist and serve our parish.


Morales: I have had many jobs where I was able to work with children. When I was 18, I started working with children and adults with developmental disabilities at Community Partnerships of Idaho. I found my calling in working with small children, so I decided to give childcare a try, working at a YMCA toddlers class. After working in childcare, I taught dance to children ages 2-12 in schools through-out Boise and Nampa. I loved teaching dance, but there were many factors that led me to children’s ministry. My experience with my former youth minister and mentor really helped me see the true impact that a ministry can have on children. As I interned and interacted with the youth, I felt a calling to serve God in this way.

Last year, I went to the parish for a marriage prep class and was told by my priest (who is now my boss) that there was a position open and I should look into it. So, I truly feel like this is where I should be right now.


What has been most challenging for you?

Gallegos: Not having the training and knowledge I needed when I started. Also not knowing how to set the boundaries I need to between ministry and my personal life.


Uhlenkott: Seeing the struggle that families have for time. I see a real battle for balance in the lives of both parents and their children that continues to worsen through the years. Helping them prioritize God at the center of their lives can be very difficult, but I do sense a strong and deep desire from both parents and youth, and that definitely encourages me. My catechists and I try to stress to our students the importance of taking time for sacred silence, something that most of us really have to intentionally place in our lives. It isn’t always easy, but it is essential to our relationship with God.


Morales: The most challenging for me has been the lack of parental involvement. Many parents don’t understand that more with than 200 children in my program, we need to effectively communicate with each other. Even something as simple as returning calls or reaching out to me when something is wrong can make a huge difference in the ministry. Though there are many children, I will always make time to talk with them and work with parents. Communication is key.


What has been most rewarding?

Gallegos: Most rewarding for me has been watching these kids grow in their faith, especially those who I seen grow through the program. I now have some kids who I taught in First Communion who are going through confirmation now. In 2019, I had the chance to take my god-daughter, godson, and a large group of high schoolers to ICYC (Idaho Catholic Youth Conference). During Adoration at ICYC is when hearts change. I saw one of my youths who didn’t know if God exists, encounter Him. My goddaughter and godson were at my side, and I was able to pray over them and see their face light up because of Jesus. Seeing our teens give it all to Jesus and then come back from that experience only to crave more time with Him was truly rewarding. They were freshmen during that year, so they are now seniors, and seeing them grow and still have that hunger and yearning for time with Jesus is amazing. Our 14- and 15-year olds came back from ICYC and wanted to have Adoration every week. From that point on, every Monday when we have youth group, there is also Adoration.


Uhlenkott: Most rewarding for me is working with my fellow catechists. The men and women God has called to work in our parish as catechists over the years are true inspirations to me. Their creativity, knowledge and passion for God strengthens my faith. I am so proud to have worked be-side each of them. It is tempting to think of catechists as doing a small, menial ministry, but this is so far from the truth. The work that catechists do every day is consequential to the future of our Church and our children’s souls. I can’t imagine better work than that. Another reward has been to be in charge of our Released Time Program. Offering religious education to public school students in the middle of their school day is an amazing opportunity. Families do not have to work around after-school schedules and children realize the importance of intentionally placing time in their day for God. We have over 240 students in our Released Time Program, a 25 percent growth over last year. More than 12 percent of our students are non-Catholic, and many of them are baptized into the Catholic Church each year. This program has such potential in so many parishes as an alternative to current religious education programs. I am very intent on working to start similar programs in other parishes throughout our Diocese.


Morales: Last year was my first year leading the ministry. I had no idea if the lessons were effective or if the children were going to enjoy the program. Leading up to First Reconciliation, I was beyond nervous. I wanted the children to feel like they were in a safe and understanding environment where they could have a positive experience. Some were nervous and unsure of what to do. As I walked around to check up on them, one little boy, who is usually shy, looked at me right after his confession and said, “That was fun!” I remember thinking “fun” would never be a word I would use to describe confession, but I’m so glad that he had a positive experience.


What can parishes and Catholics in the pews do better to support you in your ministry?

Gallegos: Prayer is the most powerful thing people can do for your youths. Also, having help in this ministry is paramount. We need more people who are willing to journey with these kids. Trust me, these young people won’t be the only ones getting blessed and gaining much from the experience if you choose to help. Also, we need parents and parishioners to listen to them and offer more opportunities for them to help in the church other than just cleaning up and taking things down after events. They want to belong.


Uhlenkott: Pray! Pray for our children, pray for our catechists and pray for our clergy. Our children are inundated with distractions and harmful messages. Our catechists hold the weight of their students’ worries as well as their own families while they work to bring the joy of the Gospel to their classrooms. Our clergy are stretched to their capacity and work tirelessly for their parishes. Another need is for people to discern their vocations. The vocation of catechesis is a call that many push aside. Listen to discern whether you are being called to accompany others in their faith formation? If so, say yes!


Morales: Parishioners who have had children or grandchildren go through our program, should volunteer in some way.


Parents want a good program and have certain standards that they would like our ministries to meet. However, they expect someone else to give of their time and efforts to teach their children. If you want change in the program, if you want more time options, if you want smaller classrooms, then volunteer. We are always in need of teachers and volunteers who are willing to commit.


The youth and children’s ministry at OLV has more than 400 children. Our teacher turnover rate is high. Every year we struggle to get enough teachers in the classrooms so that we can have a functioning ministry.


If our parishioners want a better program, or even want their children to participate, please join us in helping educate the children of the parish.


What do we as a Church need to do to better retain our young people and attract those who have fallen away? Why do you think so many young people are choosing to not practice their faith?

Gallegos: Young people are looking for the truth and a place to belong. They are also in search of community and relationship.


Many of our youths don’t know who Jesus is and do not know or under-stand the teachings of our faith. Young people are looking for the truth and community.


Young people fall away from the church because they don’t feel welcomed and don’t have a personal relationship with God. Offer more opportunities to build community within youth groups. Don’t be afraid to try things such as Adoration or more youth-related events.


Uhlenkott: We need to involve our young people in Catholic culture and traditions such as Advent wreaths, pro-life marches, the rosary, and all those things are at the heart of who we are and what we believe.


Research shows that people who feel a strong sense of belonging in their churches attribute it mostly to the cultivation of culture and traditions that have been passed down through time and that they can pass down to their children. Instilling those traditions in our children is our cooperation in the deposit of faith.


We need to invest more in religious education. It is time to start prioritizing faith formation in our parishes. The majority of Catholic children receive instruction from parish religious education programs, yet the money, time and attention that the worldwide Church gives these programs is not nearly enough. Our Tri-Parish is unique in the fact that we show we value religious education by paying our catechists, devoting a board to oversee our program, and offering a high level of support for our events and service projects. Unfortunately, students in parish religious education programs watch from the sidelines as their counterparts in Catholic schools get regular clergy visits, special Masses, and weeks set aside and devoted to them. Celebrating our Catholic schools is important. But it is equally important that we not exclude or ignore the majority of our children who are in parish religious education settings. We need to show our children that they all belong if we want them all to continue to stay.


The biggest reason young people leave the faith, in my view, it that we are failing to bring them the truth. Teaching about the “hot-button issues” like sexuality and marriage is not ideal for a catechist or a parent.


There is a real temptation to push those discussions to a later time. How-ever, the last formal religious instruction for most Catholics is in junior and senior high school. If we wait to share

the Church’s truth with them, they will more likely receive the secular view of what the Church teaches, which usually tends to be false.


Youths hunger for the truth. We have to be equipped, compassionate and willing to share it. And then have confidence that the Lord will work with the seeds of truth that we have planted in them.


Morales: It all starts at home. I have so many children getting ready for First Holy Communion, but they aren’t familiar with going to Mass! I ask if they have ever been and, most times, they look puzzled. They don’t know how to make the Sign of the Cross, they don’t know who Jesus is, and they are not familiar with what it means to be Catholic. There is only so much we can teach in 22 classes during the year. Parents are their childrens’ first teachers and must set an example for them.


 

Are you interested in learning more about volunteering or becoming a certified catechist in your parish? If so, contact your parish office and also see the Diocese of Boise website at: catholicidaho.org/religious-education. You can also contact, Jackie Hopper, director of Religious Education and Catechetical Leadership at 208-350-7541.


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.

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