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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97, April 2005 



New directions in Catechesis with

Immigrants in the USA 


Mr. Dan Schwieterman 

Religious Educator

All Saints and Saint Rose Catholic Church

Houston, Texas


There is a catechetical challenge and urgency regarding Catholic USA immigrants. The vast majority of the Catholic immigrants are from Latin American countries where they have lived as a Catholic majority. Among the Asians, immigrants from the Philippines arrive with a similar experience. Others from Asia and Africa already have experienced what it means to live the Catholic faith as a minority, often under pressure. In a “Catholic country” there is a protection and cultural Catholicism that envelops and nurtures the faith of these families as well as passes it on to their children. Arrival in the USA changes this. Many other faith groups are actively seeking to evangelize these new arrivals. The Catholic Church must energetically reach out to welcome and catechize them.  

The US Catholic Church has been an immigrant church that for 200 years put tremendous efforts in catechizing its immigrant population. The efforts of saints like John Neumann, Francis Cabrini, Katherine Drexel as well as the efforts of bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders throughout its history is strong testimony to the sacrifice and pastoral care extended to immigrants. The past tension of the Protestant/Catholic polemic also fueled this effort. This gave a serious urgency to protect the Catholic traditions of new immigrants. The last half of the 20th century has brought many changes to the US Catholic Church. It became an accepted part of the American main stream that was reflected in the success of a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, who was elected President in 1960. Catholics no longer felt as a persecuted minority among the Protestants. The influence of Vatican II changed Catholic perception towards the majority Protestants from that of an “enemy” to that of brothers and sisters in the same Christian faith. Even more so, the American Catholic Church was no longer an immigrant church. The second and third generation of Catholics began to take leadership. To a great extent the challenges and hardships of an immigrant church shifted to that of a more comfortable middle and upper middle class Catholic Church.

While these changes took place, the Church changed from a leadership predominately of priests and religious in its parishes and schools to more and more reliance on lay leadership. The Catholic school system and religious education programs of the first half of the century had reached its peak in 1964 when 50% of its children were in Catholic schools and 35% in its other catechetical programs (CCD) with a total of 85% of all Catholic school age children in formation. By 1994 Catholic schools and CCD programs were only reaching a combined 49%[1]. All indications are that the decline in these formation programs for the children continues. A case in point is the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas which has a large immigrant population. There are 385,000 Catholic children between the age of kindergarten and the end of high school with almost 80% of the under 20 year old population being from the Hispanic community.[2] Yet, only 115,000 children were in religious formation in 2002-2003. Often only 10% of the children in Spanish speaking parishes are in formation.[3] Significant research shows that this decline in religious formation is having a devastating effect in the Catholic community on those younger than 45 years of age in their loyalty and understanding of the Catholic tradition.[4] This concern raises the question, what will happen with the present generation and new immigrants who participate even less frequently and for shorter periods of time in faith formation than their parents? 

At present the Catholic Church, weakening in the pastoral care of its children, is even in less of a position to reach out to the “marginal” members of its community, the immigrants, through its traditional programs. The public schools enroll about 85% of the Catholic children in general and an even higher percentage of the poor and immigrant children who cannot afford Catholic schools where these exist. The bright side is that the public schools no longer have a decided anti-Catholic bias. The separation of Church and state rulings in the 1950’s have created “faith free” zones where the word, God, is seldom heard – for better or worse. Many decry this “wasteland”, especially the Evangelical and Baptist groups. However, it has allowed Catholics and other non-Christian groups to feel less persecuted. Yet, it has also excluded the ability to do any significant faith formation where the children spend a significant part of their time learning “secular life skills”. 

Recent developments in the legal issues of the separation of Church and State have changed this in the past ten years. The public schools frequently encourage the community to get involved in the schools. Guidelines by the US Department of Education since 1994 have clarified how public schools are to chart an unbiased course for both religious and secular groups.[5] A 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Milford versus the Bible Study Club, reinforced these guidelines. Religious clubs can now meet on the public school campus. The permission of the parents is usually required for children to participate. The public school officials can place no pressure on student participation or non-participation. Many groups such as boy and girl scouts (rooted in a theistic faith), YMCA/MWCA (a Young Men and Women’s Christian Associations, which direct community sports/activity centers), arts groups, etc., are already offering programs on campus. If the school allows community groups to offer programs, it must also allow others to do the same without preference or prejudice due to the religious or secular nature of the groups and its programs.

This change has opened up new avenues for the Catholic Church to reach its immigrant population. In 1994 an inner city parish, Christ the King, with 1,200 Catholic children (98% Spanish surnames) in the parish boundaries had 500 in its weekend parish catechesis. The majority of these students were from low-income immigrant families – children born in Mexico or of Mexican parents who recently settled in Houston. Christ the King began to offer catechesis on the public school campuses after school. The schools appreciated the support and interest of the Catholic Church with these enrichment programs that would further form the children into responsible adults. By the third year there were 600 children registered in eight public schools. Four out of five of the children had never been in catechesis, and many families had no idea where the local Catholic Church was located. As the church and its staff met the families in the public schools, more families began to participate in the Sunday worship as well as enroll other children at the church, who were not able to participate at these public schools. Enrollment grew from 500 to 1,600 children in eight years even though the demographics of the parish remained the same. The parish celebrated three English masses and one mass in Spanish in 1994. After several years of reaching out to the Catholic children in the public schools and their families, it was necessary to add three more Sunday masses in Spanish due to the growth in Sunday worship.   

This catechetical model of faith formation at the public schools has demonstrated a great potential to reach immigrant Catholic children. It can be effectively used in urban, rural and small towns where Catholic people are distant from the Church. The families are often widely scattered but the children are bused to a common public school where catechists could meet before or after school and even possibly during lunch hour to catechize children. In big cities the isolation of the immigrant community from the main Anglo Catholic Churches is significant, and frequently the Catholic institutional resources available to the immigrant community are very limited or overwhelmed. This ability to offer the children catechesis where they are already gathered for school is a tremendous help to parishes with limited facilities and resources as well as to families who often struggle with transportation, cultural, political, economic, and language disadvantages. Often the children have learned English well enough to study in English if the local Catholic Church cannot provide formation in the language of the children’s parents. The ideal methodology is in the language of the parents so as not to further separate the children from the families’ cultural and faith traditions.[6] Also, this allows the parents to better reinforce this formation of the faith in the home. Many of these parents also have catechetical experience and are capable of helping at the schools to catechize their children. There are now many Spanish and bilingual catechetical materials available from American Catholic publishers.[7] 

Seven Effective Steps to Catechesis in the Public Schools

1. Positive Approach and attitude: Public schools and the churches form one community to educate the children. Public school officials are generally eager to involve other members of the local community to serve the children and their families. Many public schools, as noted above, already have community groups in their schools. The Catholic Church is yet another community group.

2. Constitutional Issues: Church leaders need to take the initiative to educate the school officials that such church activities do not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.   

3. Initiating Programs with the schools:

a. Parents of the children in the public school where the program will be offered are the best initiators. If possible they should spearhead these “Catholic” clubs or activities.

b. Catholic teachers and aides in the public schools may also initiate or “sponsor” such “clubs/activities” as long as they do not “force” the children to participate.

c. Key parish staff such as the director or coordinator of religious education can help the Catholic parents, teachers, and aides organize and direct the programs. The sensitivity of some school officials on Church involvement in the schools might mean that priest and religious keep to the background. Other times the school officials may like the positive benefit reflected from the presence of clergy and religious. 

4. Getting Started: Arrangements are made at each school to send home an explanation letter and permission form that the parents return to the school. Once enrollment is known, the principal assigns rooms and completes other administrative details with the parish and its volunteers. The school is kept informed of those students who participate. Generally, the religious formation year begins with the students, parents, volunteers, and parish staff meeting in the public school for an orientation. At this meeting the program is explained, expectations clarified, volunteer teachers introduced, and classrooms assigned.

5. Parish Resources: Some parishes may wish or need to charge a fee. Others may see this as its contribution to the community and an opportunity to reach those who are not regularly part of the “flock”. The same catechetical textbooks and materials used at church are used at the schools. The parish provides training, supervision, preparation of materials, etc. The regular catechesis is offered at the public schools. Sacramental preparation is still taught at the church to foster parish identification and Sunday worship.

6. Volunteers are usually from the families who have children in the programs. School parents, through the Parent Teacher Association’s volunteer model, are accustomed to helping in their children’s activities. Public school teachers and aides also volunteer for these after school programs. Public school employees are a great addition since they know the school ambience and children. The church is responsible for the children who participate. It is very important that a parish staff member have oversight of these parish/public school programs. Often the public school officials will want to know the “insurance” coverage of the group offering a program to make sure all liabilities are covered. Most US parishes already have such insurance policies in place.

7. Catechesis as Evangelization invites people into the church. If the children come, the parents will follow! Parishes will need to expand their pastoral services to these new “parish” families. More baptisms, weddings, weekend masses, etc. will result.

When we are with our people, helping them with their children at the public schools, the parents quickly respond to God’s Word. A Mexican saying expresses this well: Amor de lejos es amor de los conejos (freely translated: Love from far away is a fool’s love!) American public schools can become “Catholic” schools with God’s Word born in the secular womb for our immigrant children and families.

[1] “Serving American Catholic Children and Youth: A Study of the Number of School Age Children Enrolled in Catholic Schools and Parish Religious Education Programs” prepared for U.S. Catholic Conference Department of Education, May 1994 by Maryellen Schaub and David Baker from System for Catholic Research, Information and Planning (SCRIP) Life Cycle Institute, Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.
[2] Fe y Vida, The National Research and Resource Center for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry, 2003, 1737 W. Benjamin Holt Dr., Stockton, CA 95207, 
[3] Baker and Schaub
[4] Laity, American and Catholic by W. V. D’Antonio, J. D. Davidson, D. R. Hoge, and R. A. Wallace (Sheed and Ward, Kansas City, 1996).
[5] More information can be found on a government website concerning the Education Departments suggested guidelines on these issues of schools and religious groups: 
[6] Erga migrantes caritas Christi  (The love of Christ towards migrants) Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, 2004: “Great importance of the migrants’ mother tongue, in which they express their mentality, thought and culture, and the characteristics of their spiritual life and the traditions of their church of origin” (n. 38).
[7] Publishers: Alba House (albahouse org), Benzinger (, RCL (, Sadlier (, Harcourt, Silver Burdett, etc.