Organized by the Office of Formation for Discipleship and funded through the Family of Faith campaign, the Early Catholic Family Life (ECFL) pilot project equips parishes to help parents and their children (ages 0-6) to learn about the Catholic faith and develop the skills to share our beliefs with others. ECFL is a parish-based program, typically offered as an eight-week, two-hour session that incorporates both early childhood activities and parent discussions in a faith-based, fun environment.
Two parishes, St. Barnabas, Scarborough, and St. Catherine of Siena, Mississauga, piloted the program in 2021. St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Pickering, recently completed their first in-person offering of the program. Paul Benedetti, one of the parent discussion leaders on the ECFL core team at St. Isaac Jogues, is happy to share his experience:
1. Could you please highlight the essential features of the ECFL program?
Thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences accompanying our parish families on the ECFL program at St. Isaac Jogues Parish. I can’t discuss the highlights of the program without mentioning the care with which it was produced. Leaders were trained with materials originally prepared by Joanne and Alan Foley along with the Office of Marriage, Family and Life of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
As described in our materials, each ECFL session consisted of a parent-child interaction component, a parent discussion time and a children’s time, but the experience was far more than that. Our program leader, Fr. Neil, emphasized prioritizing the interactions of the participating parents with their children. To that end, each weekly session was another leg in a journey of faith, together, and it was wonderful to see how our growing trust and fellowship led to deeper sharing and interactions each week. We were not alone on that road.
2. How do you think this program assisted parents in teaching their children about the faith and developing a Catholic family culture?
Through activities, Scripture, instruction and sharing, ECFL created a safe environment where participating families could learn, ask questions and apply new skills in practical exercises that they could take back home. It was also a lot of fun!
Ann Morgan and I led the parent discussions. We received feedback that the parents found it very helpful to talk about their faith with other Catholic parents in this setting. The parents generously shared their experiences in these sessions and the time flew by.
3. What did the families like most about the program?
The program created a weekly oasis where participants could relax and spend deliberate time with their family and their faith. There were many engaging and fun activities each week, but I am hoping that what the families will remember most were the interactions with their children as we talked about Jesus, the Holy Family and shared a happy fellowship together. I think that there were many “aha” moments as the Spirit worked with us.
4. How do you think running ECFL impacted life at the parish in this phase of the pandemic?
When we first started running in-person sessions of ECFL at the parish, we were still in a cautious time here in Ontario. For many, including myself, this was the first time gathering with a larger group of people. There was some trepidation at first, but soon relief and enjoyment at re-engaging with people. For me it was invigorating after so many months of captivity at home and I am sure that having the program live at our parish was a positive experience. Many of our participants said “see you at Mass” or asked which Mass time we attend.
5. Why was it important for you to volunteer to be involved in offering ECFL at your parish?
It was an honour to be chosen to work as a parent discussion leader on ECFL. My wife and I joined our parish over 20 years ago and family is very important to us. My mother and father taught me the importance of giving back to the community and I would like to set the same example for our children. Even better if my skills can be used to help families.
6. In what ways did being involved in running this program impact your own faith?
After our program ended, the first feedback that I gave to Fr. Neil was that I didn’t expect to learn so much from the participating families, especially during the parent sharing sessions. Parents were articulate, passionate and insightful about the challenges and rewards of Catholic parenthood today. I definitely came out of ECFL with more than when we started. Thank you, thank you, thank you to the organizers, our parish team and all the families who participated!
For more information about this pilot initiative, please visit www.archtoronto.org/ecfl or contact Patrick Douglas, Associate Director of Family Life at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-934-3400 ext. 509.