by Gordon Nary
Gordon: In Corinthians 2. 10:15, St. Paul reminds us that "... we hope that your faith will grow so that the boundaries of our work among you will be extended." It appears that your responsibilities at our church and school truly extend the boundaries of faith to which St . Paul referred . You have responsibility for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel's Religious Education, Sacramental Preparation for School and Religious Education, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), Children’s Liturgy of the Word, and Bible Summer Camp. You must have one of the busiest schedules of anyone on the Parish Staff. What initially attracted you to a career in Religious Education?
Razia: I come from a family of seven - two boys and five girls - living in an extended family in Pakistan. My parents put us in Catholic school to realize their dream to educate all of us. My parents never went to school because their parents could not afford it. But both of them had great desire to learn. When growing up, we always prayed as a family every night after dinner and then did our homework. My dad always sat with us as we did our homework.
As we grew older, my parents also realized the need to learn catechism. They talked to our parish priest and requested a catechist to visit our home weekly to teach us. So the catechist eventually taught catechism to the whole family. We started reading the Bible together during our daily prayers. My dad would memorize the Bible verses and used to explain them to us. That is where I learned to love scripture and develop the desire to learn more about scripture.
I was 15 when I joined the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary religious congregation. I taught from first to 10th grade and was asked to take on a leadership role. I used to teach children and train our teachers to teach catechism. I really loved doing what I did. I was fortunately a good student with a passion for reading. That helped me keep learning and passing on what I learned. I grew in my love of God and His Word.
In 1990, I was given a chance to study at Loyola University in Chicago. I came to study Pastoral Counseling but also was given some time to become familiar with the culture and learning style in United States. I chose to take classes in scripture and prayer. I was fortunate to study the four Gospels with Fr. Bill Thompson (RIP), a Jesuit priest.
Now looking back, I believe that God was preparing me for what I am doing now. Fr. Bill used to tell me how much he appreciated my reflection papers. Once, when I was sitting with him at one of the social events at the university, he asked me what degree I was pursuing. I told him Pastoral Counseling, and that I was accepted into the program and would be starting in August the following year. He asked me what degree I was pursuing the current year. I said none.
He was surprised at my answer and asked me how many courses I had completed to date. When I told him, he pointed out that I only needed to take two more courses in the summer to have a degree in Religious Education. He advised me to discuss this with my dean for advice which I did. That is how I completed my degree in Religious Education. But at that time, this wasn’t my goal. However, I now believe that God was preparing me for my current responsibilities.
After completing my studies, I went back to Pakistan and served my people for five years. Those were spiritually difficult years for me. I was very active and involved in several ministries, including Peace and Justice, Christian and Muslim dialogue, and the Human Rights Act.
However, I eventually decided to leave religious life after 23 years serving faithfully. I requested my congregation to give me some time to reflect on my vocation. I was sent to India to make 30-day retreat to contemplate if the religious life was the best choice for me. One of my biggest fears was that God would not love me if I left the religious life. The evening that I arrived in India, I was sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament with my eyes closed. As I was praying. I had a vision of a large body of water, and there was an earthen pot tilted, half full and half empty. I opened my eyes, but of course there was no water and no pot. But it happened three times.
I shared this experience with my spiritual director and he told me to spend time reflecting on this experience and that God might be saying something to me. That month was the hardest and longest month for me. But by the end of the month, I had peace knowing that, no matter whatever I decided, God will continue to love me. That was very comforting and helped me to be at peace with my decision, even though part of me was very sad for leaving the life and ministry that I loved and cherished. Now looking back, I believe that God was preparing me for something that I wasn’t even aware of that time.
Life brought me back to the United States in November of 1999. I started my life again from zero. I had nothing and was looking for a place to live when the BVM sisters opened their hearts and arms to take me in. Sr. Ann Ida Gannon was my first contact and through her, the BVM sisters became my family. In the beginning, I was looking for a job as counselor and realized that I had to be certified as a counselor. Unfortunately, I had no money to study. Sr. Ann Ida Gannon sent me to Sr. Joan Mc Glinchey, and from there, doors kept opening for me and all paths lead me to be a Director of Religious Education. This is why I believe that God led me to stumble upon the right direction to earn my Religious Education degree, and that became my source of income and a spiritually challenging, enriching, and rewarding ministry.
Since then. I have learned more and more and about our faith, and I love doing what I do. I will never trade it for anything. It gives me a great joy to watch children run up to go to the Children’s Liturgy. It is so rewarding to see children grow in their love of Jesus and receive communion. It is also so rewarding to see my eight graders to be confirmed in the Spirit and become future leaders for our church community.
RCIA spiritually is enriching and challenging for my own faith journey. It is amazing to see adults seek to grow in their relationship with Christ and learn with commitment, ask questions, and find answers for themselves. I feel privileged, blessed, and honored to be part of their faith journey. My biggest reward s to see them get involved in our parish ministries and enrich our parish family with their time and talent.
Most important, I can’t do it alone. I am blessed with support of my parish, school staff, and parents. I also have the wonderful support of Catechists who serve so selflessly with love and commitment. I can’t thank God enough for so many blessings in my life that come to me through my ministry.
Gordon: What attracted you to join Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish staff?
Razia: Before I joined Our Lady of Mount Carmel, I was serving at St. Thomas Becket church as DRE (Doctor of Religious Education) and Pastoral Associate. The parish was going through financial challenges, so they decided to merge their Religious Education with another parish. I started to look for positions in other parishes, and OLMC needed a DRE. I applied for the position and was hired in 2007. I love being here and love doing what I do. It is a great parish with wonderful community of believers.
Gordon: When we met, you mentioned the somewhat surprising response of the OLMCA 2cd graders to the Stations of the Cross. Could you relate that story?
Razia: It wasn’t just the 2nd graders. but my entire Religious Education program. I always arrange a few of sessions in the church during the year. We go to church for the Rosary, Adoration, Stations of the Cross, tour of the church; and Mass. I always invite the parents to join us for those sessions.
It was the first year when we went to church for Stations of the Cross. When we were done and as families were leaving, some of them said to me; “Razia this is very moving prayer and it is my first time doing the Stations of the Cross.” I told them that during Lent we have Stations of the Cross every Friday and they can join to walk with Jesus on the way of the Cross.
I also heard similar remarks about the Adoration.They also love the tour of the Church. I wish more parents could join us for these events so they and their children can discuss their shared experiences together.
We also offer sessions for parents' enrichment during the year. Although they are not well attended because of everyone's busy schedules, I keep planning and offering the programs because I believe that, even if we touch the life of one person and help them to deepen their relationship with Christ, it is well worth the effort.
Gordon: How often are there changes in the Archdiocese's religion curriculum for elementary schools?
Razia: There are certain catechetical text books that are approved by the Archdiocese of Chicago and publishers approved by the US bishops. Namely:
These publishers keep updating their text according to the time, need, and feedback they receive. Recently Loyola Press has introduced; “Adaptive Finding God” for grade 1- 8 for children with learning disabilities. I am so excited for this addition since it will make life easier for parents who have children with these challenges. They are also going to offer training online for catechists and other teachers
Gordon: We know from a recent Pew Survey that three-in-ten leave the Catholic Church as young adults between ages 18 and 23. How important is a Catholic elementary school education in keeping young adults in the Church?
Razia: Even though it is a sad reality that many young people leave the church, there are also many young people who join the church. Catholic education is important, but it has to be reinforced and practiced at home. We have to have ongoing faith formation even after our children leave school. We recently started a Youth Ministry and Dominic Moretti is doing a great job in managing it.
In an article that I read recently, it stated that that the first five years of children’s formation are crucial. I agree with that concept. If we teach our children faith, and they learn to live their faith. no matter what happens in their lives and. even if they lose their way for a while, they eventually will return to their faith. One of the Proverbs also confirms this: “Direct your children on to the right path and when they are older, they will not leave it” Proverbs 22:6. The sad reality is the split between learned and lived faith. If one doesn’t live one's faith, how it can become the part of one’s life?
Religious education is important, but living that faith is more important. I often comment that we may forget knowledge, but we always remember relationships - regardless of whether they are good or bad. We need to help our children learn to pray and talk to Jesus in their daily life. That helps them to grow in relationship with Jesus. and I believe that relationship is bound to transform their lives
Gordon: OLMC has a vibrant Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). I have several questions about OLMC's RCIA program First, how many people have participated on the OLMC RCIA program since it became under your supervision?
Razia: I started in July 2007 and since then almost 100 people have gone through the RCIA process. May God bless each one of them and they may continue to grow in their relationship with Christ.
Gordon: Based on your experience, what are the principal factors that interest the majority of people in joining RCIA?
Razia: We are blessed to have such a wonderful group of RCIA candidates each year to join our faith. I am particularly blessed to have such a faith-filled and committed team who serve so generously.
My experience is that people are always searching for God in their lives. They try different paths and very often they tell me they find something was missing in their lives and that was why they joined RCIA.
Gordon: What are some of the more common questions of people when they join RCIA?
Razia: When a young couple decides to get married, one of the questions they often ask themselves is how do we want to bring up our children? That is the time they often decide to choose their faith journey. When asked, why now? Their response is often that they want their children to grow in a faith tradition. Later it will be their choice on what they believe, but parents want to share with them their faith. I always reflect that, while some teens and young adults may lose their faith, what you share with them will often help them return to their faith. I have found so many of our young people continue to be very faithful and committed to their faith journey.
In some cases, I believe that children are the missionaries of the present generation. When children are in school and learn about faith, they often ask questions to their parents. Parents often t feel the need to relearn their faith. Sometimes one partner is Catholic and the other chooses to go through the RCIA.
In other cases, the child is drawn to our faith and neither of the parents are Catholic. We give them the option to find a Catholic godparent for the child, as we can’t refuse a child once they reach the age of reason. Very often, parents choose to embrace the faith of their child’s choice.
Gordon: What are the most rewarding aspects of managing the OLMC RCIA?
Razia: For me, the best reward is to see newly joined Catholics become involved in our parish life and enrich it. I praise God when I see some of them serve at Mass as ushers, readers, Eucharistic ministers. and servers. We have amazing faith stories of RCIA candidates. Their faith and zeal is always an inspiration to me. My faith is renewed each year, and it gives me a chance to grow, learn, and deepen my relationship with Jesus and do better in my ministry.
Gordon: You have an extraordinary interesting life and understanding of the heart and soul of religious education. We are all blessed to have you on the OLMC Parish Staff.
Razia: Thank you.