by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.
Therese: I was very fortunate to be raised in a family where faith was a central part of our lives. Family prayer, regular attendance at Mass, involvement in parish life in Saint Brigid’s Carnhill and a concern for others were just part and parcel of growing up. I attended Catholic schools from the age of 4 until 18.
The ‘Wee Nuns’ school, as my first primary school was affectionately known, Saint Patrick’s Primary School and Thornhill College were communities, rooted in Jesus Christ and I was very lucky to have been educated by some very inspirational teachers committed to helping each person develop to their full potential. In Post Primary School, we had formal Religious Education lessons each day, daily prayer opportunities, the Liturgical Year was well celebrated and there was an opportunity to explore our personal relationship with Jesus, through retreat days. I enjoyed Religious Education as a subject and studied it as one of my A-Level subjects prior to going to University.
Dr. Knight: Did you go to college and study Religious Education. How did you make that decision?
Therese: I didn’t go to University and study Religious Education. I chose to study History as I had a great love of the subject and hoped to eventually become a History teacher in a Post Primary School. Whilst at Queen’s University, I attended the Catholic Chaplaincy for daily Mass and lunch. The Chaplaincy offered liturgies throughout the year, guest speakers, retreats and social events.
Father Joe Gunn, the chaplain, was available for support and guidance if needed and there was a great sense of community where everyone was made to feel welcome. When I finished my degree in History, I went to Saint Mary’s University College, Belfast, a Catholic Teacher Training College, for a Post Graduate Year. Instead of choosing Post Primary Teaching, I found my real love was for working with younger children in the Primary sector. Part of the teaching course was a Certificate in Religious Education which gave me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of my faith and Church teaching, as well as preparing me to be a teacher in a Catholic Primary School.
In 1990 I was offered a teaching post in Saint John’s Primary School, Derry. I was privileged to teach there for nearly fifteen years, working with colleagues who were inspired by Gospel values. School and parish were closely linked in supporting parents and children on their faith journey.
The children taught me so much about joy, forgiveness and love and I really enjoyed being involved in the Sacramental Preparation of children for Confirmation-a sacred time for everyone. Outside of school, I continued to be involved in parish life. We had moved as a family to live in the area served by the parish of Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry and as in my previous parish, I was happy to be involved in parish life whenever possible. I also enrolled in a Diocesan Adult Faith Course for two years and completed a catechist course for my own faith development. I always hoped that I would have the opportunity to be work full time in the Church, but I was very content in my teaching and also completed a professional development course for school leadership, in case I felt in the future that this was something I would like to pursue.
Dr. Knight: You were called by God to direct religious education programs. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ?
Therese: The ‘call’ to work or minister full time in the Church came very unexpectedly on the Monday of Holy Week, 2004. I was invited to consider taking on the role of Diocesan Advisor for Religious Education in Primary Schools, by the then Bishop of Derry, Most Reverend Seamus Hegarty, through the newly appointed Director of the Derry Diocesan Catechetical Centre, Father Paul Farren.
I was offered an eighteen-month secondment to try the role, new for the diocese as well as for myself. I couldn’t believe at the time that I would get to carry out a role within the Diocese, which combined my love of teaching, my faith and a desire to help others to come to know Jesus. Through prayer, discernment, advice from friends and family and a few sleepless nights, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse and the eighteen months turned into sixteen years! There have been many joys and challenges throughout those years, but I have never regretted my decision and in our office, challenges are always to be viewed as opportunities! I am, I believe, where God has called me to be, using the gifts he has given me and thankful for the gifts, guidance and prayers of the many people I have encountered along the way.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview What does your job entail?
Therese: I am part of a team who work together to make the vision statement of the Derry Diocesan Catechetical Centre a reality. The Derry Diocesan Catechetical Centre (www.catecheticalcentre.org) was founded in 2004 at the request of the Diocesan Bishop to devise and implement a strategic plan for catechesis and evangelisation throughout the Derry Diocese. Our vision statement reads,
The catechesis of children, young people and adults aim at teaching them to meditate on the Word of God in personal prayer, practising it in liturgical prayer and internalising it at all times in order to bear fruit in a new life. (CCC 2688)
The vision of the Diocesan Catechetical Centre is to enable young people, families, schools and parish communities to grow in their relationship with Jesus in the Body of Christ, the Church. The Centre endeavours to meet the challenges in the Church and society today, with the message of Jesus, proclaimed in a simple, enthusiastic way. This allows, especially the young, to engage with Christ and to experience His presence and love in their lives.
The model for the Catechetical Centre is rooted in communion and community, believing that a unified approach is the most effective means of developing catechetics in the diocese. There is a strong emphasis on effective communication within the team, with schools, with the parishes to which the schools belong and with our volunteers, to ensure we stay focused and united in presenting the message of Jesus Christ.
The Catechetical Team has developed over the years. The Director is Father Paul Farren. Mary O’ Boyle and I are the Diocesan Advisors for schools. Yvonne Rooney is the Diocesan Pastoral Youth Leader, Lizzie Rea is the Diocesan Youth Coordinator and Anne Marie Hickey, the Office Administrator. In addition to the core team, there are over 50 volunteers.
The Centre is responsible for the ongoing development of Faith Formation and Religious Education in 116 primary and 20 post-primary schools, across 51 parishes. We also have in place focus on working groups such as the Youth Ministry Commission, Primary Religious Education Team and the Pope John Paul II Award National Committee. Additional people help with retreats, sacramental talks in parishes and the Pope John Paul II Award coordination in schools and parishes.
The main activities of the Catechetical Centre include sacramental preparation linking home, school and parish. We advise leaders and teachers in Catholic schools in the Diocese about matters such as curriculum content, new methodologies in Religious Education and Faith Formation and create resources to support them in this vital work. The Centre is responsible for the creation and implementation of a vision for Youth Ministry which aspires to develop parish structures for Youth Faith Formation. We provide school retreats and we also facilitate the Pope John Paul II Award in the Derry Diocese and in 24 other dioceses in Ireland and 2 dioceses in the UK. (https://thepopejohnpauliiaward.com/) This award has to date engaged thousands of teenagers in faith-based activities and faith development through their school, parish and the local community.
The Catechetical Centre assists in the delivery of the RCIA Process, the organisation and leading of pilgrimages locally, nationally and internationally to places such as Knock, Lourdes and World Youth Days. We also plan and host Diocesan Faith Conferences and the Annual Diocesan ‘Fan the Flame’ Mass for all young people who have received the sacrament of Confirmation.
Our work is carried out in consultation with the Bishop of Derry, Most Reverend Donal McKeown and assists in the delivery of the Diocesan Pastoral Plan, 'God is Love' which has three areas of focus: 1.Build Welcoming and Inclusive Communities 2.Be Disciples of Jesus Christ, Growing in Faith Together 3.Work to Make Jesus Known and Loved.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church in regard to religious education?
Therese: In every generation, the Church is challenged to find new and creative ways to present the authentic message of Jesus and the teachings of the Church. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, enlightened by the Word of God, strengthened by the sacraments and guided by the teaching and tradition of the Church, we should never become despondent. That said, we have to acknowledge there are and will continue to be challenging to Religious Education and how and where it takes place. For example, in Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the right to have Catholic Schools, where Religious Education is the core subject, is constantly under threat, challenged by a secular society that sees little or no place for faith in schools or indeed in the public square. The teaching of Religious Education in schools faces untold pressure from other ‘subject’ areas all vying for space amidst an overloaded and often examination driven curriculum.
For Religious Educators within schools and parishes, there needs to be ongoing professional development in the new methodologies of Religious Education and the skills required to deliver these. The current pandemic has challenged all those involved in Religious Education and Faith Formation to look at the positive use that can be made of digital media to proclaim the "Good News". Throughout this last year, the staff at the Catechetical Centre and many more people throughout our diocese have found themselves using their websites, social media platforms and webcams to continue to minister and connect people to their faith and their faith community. Whilst we all look forward to a time when we can be together physically again to celebrate our faith as a community and to engage in Religious Education and Faith Formation Programmes, face to face, there are many new skills and ways of teaching and communicating that we will carry forward.
I believe ongoing Spiritual formation for Religious Educators, providing them with the opportunity to deepen their own faith and friendship with Jesus is also a challenge we face as a Church. Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter, Evangelii Gaudium, leaves us, I believe, in no doubt as to what is required of effective Catholic Educators with its frequent references to ‘commitment’, ‘witness’ and ‘spirituality’. Pope Francis asks us to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness. (2013:4)
We need to continue to provide creative programmes such as retreat days, reflection times and spiritual guidance for religious educators. We also need to encourage them to foster a rich prayer life if we want them in turn to nurture and form others in Christ.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced in this line of work?
The joys in this job are many-the people I work with in the Centre, the young people and adults I meet in schools, families and parishes, the creativity of Religious Educators and their passion for handing on the faith, the witness of so many to the importance of their relationship with Jesus and their desire to lead others into a friendship with Jesus.
I love visiting the classrooms in our schools, chatting to the children, praying with them, hearing them sing and talk about their ‘friend Jesus’. We have done quite a lot of work on Guided Gospel Meditation with children and young people throughout the diocese and I am frequently amazed at their engagement, their prayerfulness and their honesty in the time of sharing.
I enjoy the ‘big’ events we host such as our annual ‘Fan the Flame’ Mass for all children in the diocese who have received the sacrament of Confirmation. Celebrated by our Bishop, Most Reverend Donal McKeown, almost 3000 children from schools and parishes all over our diocese gather in an outdoor sports stadium to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and to mark the end of their time at Primary School. Priests, singers and musicians, youth stewards, adult volunteers and many more make this a day of great joy and excitement as the young people are encouraged to Fan into Flame the gifts they have been given by God. Fan The Flame | Catechetical Centre
Our annual Diocesan Mass for those with special needs is another occasion of great joy. The joy and love for Jesus that people with special needs radiate, the love and commitment of their families and school teachers and assistants are truly humbling and it is a privilege to be part of their journey-we have much to learn from them.
The last sixteen years have been a blessing, a joy and a privilege and I look forward to continuing the mission for many more years to come.