Family-centered faith formation

Parish without a school uses “family catechesis” to minister to many age groups

By Christina Gray

As he sees it, Jacob Tolentino’s own youthful faith formation — along with the Holy Spirit — led him to St. Bartholomew Parish in San Mateo, where he has served as religious education coordinator for five years.

He was so familiar with the mission and methods of youth and young adult ministry that when he inquired about an opening for a youth ministry leader at “St. Bart” in 2018, he was hired on the spot.

The fact that St. Bart is a parish without an affiliated school makes his role unique, and a bit more challenging, he said.

“It’s easier, or at least more natural for families to be involved in a parish school community,” said Tolentino, now 30. He became religious education coordinator in 2020 after earning a master’s degree in pastoral ministry at Santa Clara University.

“Family catechesis” is the heart of the parish religious education program under his direction, he said, serving about 30 families.

“My goal is simple. It’s to make disciples,” said Tolentino.

The sacraments are natural “entry points” to youth ministry for children, he said. The young adults he serves are the parents of those children who often end up becoming more active in their own faith lives when they want their children to receive first Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confirmation.

“The parents are young, in their 30s or 40s,” said Tolentino. They come in for their child’s faith formation, but end up relearning or reconnecting to their faith through family faith formation activities.

He said he plans “family nights” at least once a month, where families come together in the parish hall for dinner and take part in faith-building lessons.

“The children and parents often learn, or relearn, how to pray, and also how to pray together,” said Tolentino.

There is also a Family Mass or Youth Mass once a month, donation drives and Sunday socials, where “families can come in and serve together.”

His greatest challenge is “competing against people’s schedules,” a challenge Tolentino said is not unique to St. Bart. Religious education is often at the “tail end” of the ranking of family priorities, including sports team schedules.

What has helped him really turn the tide with families is what he called “personal accompaniment.”

“I ask individual families, one at a time, to participate in various ways, directly, personally,” he said. It may be as simple as reaching out to one family to ask if they could be responsible for bringing snacks to a particular activity or event.

“When you ask personally, that’s when people are more inclined to get involved,” he said. “Then they bring a friend, and next time that friend may bring a friend.”

Tolentino said a spirit of inclusion and shared investment in the parish is vital to ministering to Catholics of all ages. He shared a story as evidence.In his first month as youth minister at St. Bart, a seventh grader he met as a fifth grader approached him.

“He said, you may not remember me, but you made me feel at home and you sang with me at church,” said Tolentino. “He became my first youth group leader who started to bring his friends, and they brought their friends.” 

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Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.