Transforming ancient catechesis and pedagogy with 21st-century technology

Dr. Tim Gray of The Augustine Institute talks about the new Word of Life religious education curriculum, which uses an integrated approach to catechesis in the full spirit of the New Evangelization.

(Image: www.wordoflifeseries.org)

The Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press are collaborating on developing a brand new religious education curriculum for preschool through 8th grade, called Word of Life. “An authentic catechetical renewal,” the Word of Life website explains, “requires new catechetical models that help children, teachers, parents, and families discover their authentic Catholic identity to reinvigorate fruitful participation in the Church’s life and mission.” Word of Life meets this need with an integrated approach to catechesis in the full spirit of the New Evangelization.

Tim Gray is President of the Augustine Institute. Under his leadership, the Augustine Institute has created popular study programs such as Symbolon (a comprehensive program of faith formation for adults), FORMED (a digital platform with Catholic films, ebooks, audio talks, and more), and Signs of Grace (a sacramental preparation program for children). He is also the author of several books, including Peter: Keys to Following Jesus (Ignatius Press, 2016), host of many video series produced by the Augustine Institute, and much more.

Dr. Gray recently spoke with CWR about the important role of catechesis in the life of the Church, and how Word of Life can transform the catechetical landscape.

Catholic World Report: You used to be a diocesan religious education director. Could you tell me a bit about that and kind of your personal catechetical experience and how that prepared you for establishing the Augustine Institute?

Dr. Tim Gray: Back in 1993 through 1995, I worked for then Bishop Charles Chaput as the Director of Religious Education for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota. And that was a great joy. And one of the first things we had to do is review the curriculum, kindergarten through high school.

As I surveyed the field of what was out there, I realized there were very few curricula that cared deeply about content. And the ones that did had some great content, but they were less refined and capable in terms of the pedagogy and the teacher manuals and making it easy for teachers to use. And so I realized that a lot of my teachers — 85% of them — didn’t care whether it was conservative or liberal. They just wanted something that was going to be user-friendly.

And so, at that point, I said we’ve got to provide things that both have excellence in content, but also excellence in pedagogy and teacher-friendly training manuals. I saw the need in the market and made a resolution that someday I would love to change that. The dream is finally fulfilled here with Word of Life, where we could finally create a curriculum that meets both those standards.

CWR: Some further background: can you talk briefly about the founding of the Augustine Institute, and the merger with Lighthouse Catholic Media?

Gray: Going back to 1993 when I worked for Chaput, one of the first things I did for him is lead the youth of Rapid City down to Denver for World Youth Day. And that was very inspiring. From that inspiration of encountering John Paul here in Denver on World Youth Day, the seeds were sown for starting a graduate school that would serve the new evangelization and to answer John Paul’s summons for a new evangelization. That was really the beginning of the seeds of the graduate school, and we started it in 2005 here in Denver, and it’s been a tremendous blessing and the Lord’s made it grow.

One of our core values is collaboration. We began collaborating with Lighthouse Catholic Media because Fr. Joseph Fessio introduced Mark Middendorf and myself, and they started to distribute our new video series we did called Symbolon and that went really well. Then I shared that I had a plan for a digital platform called FORMED, and Lighthouse was going to help distribute that. And we got a partnership in collaboration with Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute and Lighthouse. Then we were collaborating so closely with Lighthouse that Mark and I decided we could probably be more efficient, effective, and reach more souls for Christ if we did a merger. We merged Lighthouse and the Augustine Institute, I think, in 2015.

CWR: The Augustine Institute is involved in catechist formation and certification. What role does it play with Word of Life?

Gray: The Augustine Institute now has over 550 active students in its M.A. program. As we’ve grown, we’re training people who are working in Catholic schools and parishes and are doing the work of catechesis in evangelization. We know from our students and our alumni the need for better tools in the field. And that was one inspiration for us to embark on this curriculum project with Word of Life, and hearing from our alumni and students and wanting to give them good tools to be effective in their mission. That was really informative to this curriculum and this project.

CWR: Was Signs of Grace the Augustine Institute’s first foray into the world of elementary catechism, catechetical publishing?

Gray: As we were doing more and more sacramental prep for parishes — such as Reborn and Presence and Forgiven— we heard from all the parishes that our videos were so great, our pedagogy was so powerful. There needed to be something better for sacramental prep, for First Communion, first confession. That was the impetus for us to create Signs of Grace. Then we launched Signs of Grace and that was really the seeds for Word of Life, because a lot of the pedagogy that we developed for Word of Life came out of our experience with Signs of Grace.

There was a biblical thread through every chapter. There was also the life of the Church, and the Saints, and Church history that was woven throughout. Then we had Paul McCusker doing great storytelling for a modern day kids called the Nick and Sam Adventures. That way your kids could hear contemporary kids who are engaging with the faith, as well as the biblical stories and the stories of the saints in the church. It was really, really popular; the videos were very popular. The workbooks were beautiful, and we really focused on making it, from what I learned in Rapid City, effective pedagogy for the teachers. We really focused on the importance of good teacher books and teacher manuals to help the teachers.

CWR: One of the Augustine Institute’s greatest strengths is adult faith formation: you mentioned FORMED, Forgiven, Presence, the Lectio Series. Why is it important for adults to continue their own formation?

Gray: We’re called by Christ to love God with all of our heart and all of our mind. And so it’s so important for adults to continue to learn about their faith, because that feeds their prayer life. It is their imagination and it feeds their spiritual life. The more the Catholics do that, the stronger their spiritual life grows. One of the great assets we have for Word of Life is we really link up our content for an adult faith formation for the parents that links back to the FORMED platform.

Not only do we have a plethora of content for adults on FORMED, but we also have a lot of children’s content. That then becomes a great resource for the teachers to find supplemental materials to enrich the faith formation of the children in the curriculum K-8, whether it’s a Saint movie or a documentary on Divine Mercy. There’s a lot of great resources there and children’s content for the kids.

CWR: What do you hope will come from the publication of Word of Life?

Gray: I’ve got two great aspirations for this new Word of Life curriculum.

One is to really transform catechesis in the parish and school by providing a curriculum that has incredible pedagogy, great content, but also videos that are woven throughout the curriculum and designed for the curriculum. And that’ll be the first video series approved by the USCCB for catechesis.

Secondly, it has a great digital platform that serves both the students, the teachers uniquely and the parents. And that will be the first time a curriculum has a platform that really serves all three of those groups in a unique way. I think what we’re trying to do is bring 21st century technology to transform ancient catechesis and pedagogy. That’s what I think is really promising and exciting.

The final note is that we created a parallel curriculum for the parents. We find that it’s not enough to evangelize and catechize the children; we have to reach their parents and families. This is going to aim to do that; it’s exciting because we’ve already seen the fruits of that with Signs of Grace, with lots of parents converting and getting reignited in their faith. And if we can do that across the board, it will transform parishes and schools.


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About Paul Senz 105 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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