Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference builds hope, encourages catechists

By Cathy Hayden
KENNER, La. – The Diocese of Jackson was well-represented among about 1,200 Catholics who attended the Jan. 11-13 Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference in Kenner, La.
Among the parishes sending catechetical leaders to the “Go! Build a Future of Hope” conference were Pearl St. Jude, Natchez St. Mary, Yazoo City St. Mary and Jackson Holy Family. Most of those attending the 36th annual conference were lay ministers to children, youth and adults in dioceses throughout Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
“For the Diocese of Jackson, we are fortunate to have such a first-rate conference that is very reasonably priced and offers such great quality speakers, workshops and vendors. I love seeing our folks there,” said Fran Lavelle, director of the Office of Faith Formation and Religious Education for the Diocese of Jackson.
Lavelle, a member of the planning committee, said the theme of “hope” was discerned in 2016 and was “truly the work of the Holy Spirit … A huge part of the success of the conference (is) that we really trust the Holy Spirit and one another.”
Over the three days, participants were challenged to withstand today’s cultural storms and were rejuvenated with talks centering around hope inspired by Pope Francis’ recently published “On Hope.”
“The conference was very enjoyable, with sessions that pertained to a variety of ministries and some that simply nourished the soul,” said Margaret Riordan of St. Jude. “In addition to the talks that included information on music and liturgy, I especially enjoyed the session on ‘Praying Our Lives: Hope for the Restless Heart,’ which introduced the Ignatian Examen.”
Gladys Russell of Jackson Holy Family Parish goes to the conference every chance she can get. “Each time I have been able to attend the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference, I have left with information on new ways to meet the Faith Formation needs of our parishioners,” said Russell. “Information shared at this years conference, from research done on ‘why young people leave the church,’ was especially helpful. I hope we at Holy Family, will be able to use the information to keep our young people involved in parish life,” she added.

KENNER, La., Mary Birmingham presents “Catechesis and the Catechumenate” at the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference. Helen Benson, director of religious education for Vicksburg St. Michael is visible in the red sweater. (Photo by Rhonda Bowden)

Keynote speakers included an opening day tag team presentation by Dr. Veronica Rayas, director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of El Paso Texas, and Dr. Joe Paprocki, a national consultant for faith formation at Loyola Press. The two of them laid the groundwork for the rest of the conference. With families no longer living in a Catholic “bubble,” they declared the current catechesis delivery “broken” and in need of repair.
“We have a new reality. The answer is not in the past,” he said.
Among Paprocki’s suggestions to repair were 1. Instigating faith instead of indoctrinating, 2. Forming small faith groups, 3. Empowering parents to be primary catechists and 4. Empowering adults to share their faith with one another.
Adding to that, Rayas emphasized that, especially with young people, the most powerful catechetical pathways are community, prayer and service.
On day two, psychologist Dr. Tim Hogan used humor in describing today’s “cultural hurricane” with revolutionary changes in technology, economic, information, relationships and religion disrupting the patterns of life we once knew. He described the result as an opportunity for responding by “priming ourselves for gratitude” instead of negativity.
Wrapping up the third day was Brian Butler, executive director of Dumb Ox Ministries, who inspired with stories of hope coming from often dark circumstances. “We have to choose to hope,” he said.
Breakout sessions appealed to a variety of church ministries, all targeting how to bring hope through catechesis to children, youth and adults.
“One could not leave “Go! Build a Future of Hope” without feeling renewed HOPE,” said Joyce Brasfield Adams, coordinator of Faith Formation at Jackson Holy Family Parish. “Each keynote speaker and each concurrent session leader gave concrete examples and practical ways to continue to hope. The session that touched me most deeply was, ‘Making Hope Real,’ led by Becky Eldredge. She led us into prayer with the acronym HOPE (Hark, Open, Pray and Encounter) based on Mark 2: 1-12. The session was not just a presentation, but a spiritual experience.”
(Cathy Hayden, a member of the RCIA team at St. Jude in Pearl, received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Spring Hill College in May 2017. She is director of Public Relations at Hinds Community College. See her related column on page 12.)

Registration open

By Maureen Smith
Pastors, DREs/CREs, catechists, youth ministers and pastoral leaders have until Thursday, Sept. 15, to take advantage of the early bird discount for GO!, the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference. The conference is set for Jan. 12-14, 2017, at the Pontchartrain Center in New Orleans.
“We are extremely pleased with the new direction the conference is taking this year” said Fran Lavelle, director of faith formation for the Diocese of Jackson. GO! is planned by all of the faith formation and evangelization directors in this region. “We have national speakers as well as tapping into the tremendous talent and experience of folks in our region,” she said.
The theme this year, “Prayer: the Faith Prayed and Lived,” is based on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ catechetical theme for the year.  The keynote speakers will focus on prayer, reflection and witness. Sister Lynn Marie McKenzie, OSB, JD, JCL, presents prayer.
A Benedictine Sister at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Ala., for more than 35 years ago, Sister McKenzie seeks to live a balanced life of prayer and work in keeping with the Benedictine motto of “Ora et Labora.” Sister McKenzie will share her experience of how prayer helps her as she tries to be a faithful seeker of God in her daily journey, intending and hoping to live a life of fidelity, but realistic about the challenges.
Dr. Brant Pitre is professor of sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, and a multimedia author. He is an extremely enthusiastic and engaging speaker who lectures regularly across the United States.
He has produced dozens of Bible studies on CD, DVD, and MP3, in which he explores the biblical foundations of Catholic faith and theology. He will offer his reflections on how the faithful can “pray the Scriptures.”
Bishop Fernand Cheri, OFM, will present the witness portion of the weekend. Bishop Cheri is a Franciscan Friar and is auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He has dedicated years of his life to developing and supporting African-American liturgy and communities in the church. His strength and testimony comes from God’s Word in Scripture, “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection.” (2Cor 12:9) Participants will be inspired as Bishop Cheri encourages them to “Go forth and witness.”
In addition to the keynotes, participants can select a one-day leadership option or select a liturgy or lights of hope track. The liturgy track is for anyone who serves the church through planning and participation in the various aspects of liturgy. However, catechists, teachers and catechetical leaders are also invited to participate in these sessions.
The lights of hope track is dedicated to those who work with high school-aged students in Catholic schools or parish programs.
A significant portion of the lights of hope sessions will be spent sharing best practices and approaches to concerns that are relevant to adolescents and teenagers.
Leadership Thursday is a new feature of GO! This day is designed for principals, clergy, lay ecclesial ministers and other leaders in schools and parishes.
The three themes are spiritual leadership, evangelization and the digital world. Speakers include Father David Caron, OP, vicar of evangelization, Archdiocese of New Orleans, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome and Paul Sanfrancesco.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz will celebrate the closing Mass for the conference. Register online at