Even though the academic year is well underway, both for schools and for most parish religious education programs, the subject of Formation has still been on my mind. I think some of us have an inadequate idea of what it means, so I want to share some thoughts with you to correct three common errors.
Error #1. Formation and education are the same thing. I think I can make myself clear if I say that education is one aspect of formation – a very important aspect indeed – but not all of it. In this context, when I refer to education I mean the conveying of knowledge about the Faith of the Church and what she teaches about Christian morals. Instruction on the Bible, the creeds, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and all the rest falls under the heading of education or instruction.
And this instruction is an essential part of formation. No one can apply the Church’s teachings if you haven’t been taught what that teaching is. But formation goes deeper. Formation includes both learning how to apply that knowledge and conversion, the decision to live according to that knowledge. Knowledge alone is not formation.
Error #2. Formation is only for the young. It is true that formal, obligatory classes in a structured setting are almost universal for children in most parishes, much more so than for adults. But we never graduate from the responsibility of deepening our knowledge of the Faith. One of the best changes in the life of the Church since Vatican II is an increase in both the number and variety of adult education opportunities.
But increased knowledge by itself does not lead to better Christian living. That’s where ongoing conversion, the willingness to ask God where He wants to lead us, comes into play. Growth in our relationship with God needs to go along with growth in our knowledge about God. That’s where prayer and worship are needed to supplement what we’ve learned about God’s truth and the moral law, so that we become better stewards, using our abilities and what we’ve learned in God’s service.
Error #3. Formation only takes place in structured classes. Formal classroom settings are very useful. They help us focus on the topic, and a commitment to attend provides an incentive for regular study. In addition, both teachers and other students can provide correction when we’ve misunderstood a concept or are wandering off on a tangent.
But formation does not have to be limited to those settings. That means you aren’t “off the hook” if your schedule doesn’t allow you to attend the fixed classes our parish provides! A large number of good books are readily available, some with excellent study guides. There are now many courses online, so you can study at a distance on your own timetable. Articles in your parish newsletter, and even the homilies you hear at Mass, can provide you with instruction on the teachings of the Church and how to live your Faith.
But with more access to the Church’s treasury of knowledge comes the responsibility to take that instruction, that education, and see how our lives measure up. We are called to know the Faith. Turning our lives over to God, conversion, is the way we come to believe the Faith, and then with ongoing dependence upon God’s grace, to put that Faith into practice in our daily lives.
One of the goals of any stewardship parish should be to provide total formation. Our teachers hope we not only learn, but also believe and practice what we learn. But it’s an ongoing process throughout our lives, and this applies to our lives as stewards. If we begin to consciously return some of our time, our talent, and our treasure to God, we discover the joy found there, and can make a stronger commitment the next year. We’ve learned what we should do as stewards. Have we been formed so as to live it out?