Family First: How the Diocese of Fort Worth is Helping Parents become Primary Educators Again

The article below is an excerpt taken from Mind and Heart, a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Marlon de la Torre, Director for Evangelization and Catechesis in the Diocese of Fort Worth, shares their innovative and effective catechesis program being implemented across the diocese.  They utilize Echoing the Mystery, published by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and spearheaded a program approach where the catechists serve as guides rather than primary educators. The parents and children participate together in the catechism classes, and the parents are given ample opportunity to educate their own children one-on-one. This approach is an effort to bring the parents back to the forefront as the primary educators of their children, whose souls are their responsibility.

Sister John Dominic: 

I’m very happy to have with me Marlon de la Torre from the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. Could you introduce yourself?

Marlon de la Torre: 

I currently serve as the Director for Evangelization Catechesis, that entails a lot of different moving parts in the Diocese of Fort Worth, primarily catechesis formation, sacrament preparation, training of teachers overseeing youth ministry, adult ministry, campus ministry, and RCIA. I’ve got eleven offices technically under my department plus an external campus ministry office that helps us with our Campus Ministries and a retreat center. My job encompasses a lot of moving parts per my boss which can be hairy at times or interesting at times.

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Sister John Dominic: 

Do you sleep?

Marlon de la Torre: 

My wife gets on me because on a good night, I’ll sleep maybe six hours. There’s always something going on. Our diocese doesn’t stop growing. We can’t keep up with the influx of Catholics coming into Fort Worth. We’re up to 1.2 million Catholics. We’re the fastest growing city right now in America. We do a lot of different things, and because the distinctive Texas culture being what it is with Hispanic influence, there’s a lot of multiculturalism that we handle with respect to catechesis and evangelization formation. There’s never a dull moment, and for us, it’s not just dealing with the Hispanic population. We have a Tongan. We have Samoan, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese coming into the diocese in droves. 

Sister John Dominic: 

What’s brought us together in this conversation would be Barbara Morgan, God rest her soul, and the wonderful work that she’s given to the church and Echoing the Mystery and those of us who are blessed to have been her students and experience the transformation that takes place with her approach with catechesis. How do we carry that forward? Can you share your thoughts and how you’re using the resources? How you can see it can touch each of those areas that you’re working with?

Marlon de la Torre: 

Barbara had an uncanny ability to look you dead in the eye and tell you first and foremost you’re here for a reason and Christ is the reason. Immediately, she would completely disengage you from any sense of outside thought, and now she has our attention. Tell me what are you up to? This ability of her to not only be an effective witness to us but a mother who would care and discipline you and hold you accountable, and then all of a sudden, she would use the scripture, apply it to a personal life testimony, and then weave in the doctrine, and we’re like, where did this come from? How did you do this where I didn’t know that existed? Where is that in Scripture? She would tell you where it is a scripture. But how does that connect to this? She opened our eyes. We thought we knew something. No, we didn’t. We understood that she had already pondered this in her heart. She had discerned Doctrine in a way no one else I have personally ever encountered ever did. The closest thing was my high school theology professor who had a very similar ability to Barbara. I’ve been in all this for 24 years, and he is the only one that discerned Doctrine the way she did. She would tell you, “Don’t just give me what the doctrine says. Don’t just identify it or define it. Discern it. Pray it.” For me, it was like Lectio Divina on the catechism. She introduced us to a new form of prayer where the catechism itself is echoing the mysteries and reflects discerning Doctrine in a way where we see an organic symphony of Faith. It’s something that flows. It’s something that is part of our construct as children of God, and one of the things that we’re going to use Echoing the Mystery for part of our formation is most catechists don’t discern Doctrine. They don’t pray a Lectio Divina format of the teachings of the Church, so Echoing the Mystery is going to give us that opportunity. We already use the essentials in the keys and the unpacking of doctrine for formation, but phase two is opening that new door for them to pray on Doctrine.

Sister John Dominic: 

Catechists need to be able to study, pray, and to be a witness. What you said reflects what we see in Echoing and with her keys and because of all the different offices you oversee in your work. I’ve often looked at Echoing as something that brings together evangelization and catechesis because of the keys that she has, and then you as you talked about, you discern. If we look at this Lectio, this pondering is praying over it. The keys are different entry points that someone can have to be drawn into a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. 

Marlon de la Torre: 

Each key is its own distinctive charism, but they’re all interlocked. If your devotion to the Holy Spirit is stronger, then you’re going to see what is relational with that Doctrine because you’ll be inspired by it or if you’re really echoing the Divine mystery, and you want to see what is God telling you. That’s exactly what each Doctrine does. It’s a revelation of God’s intimacy with you, and so for each catechist, we all have different charisms. Somebody may be attracted to the common errors, or somebody who’s linear might want to see how all these doctrines connect to the Incarnation. At least for me and what Barbara would do in the classroom, her students were never siloed in the classroom. We were all together as one family the moment we walked in. Even though we all have different charisms, we all interlocked, and she was the master at getting us all to listen and to look, which reflects what Echoing does. I can tell you that now. I couldn’t tell you that then because we all wanted to observe and absorb everything she was throwing at us, and now as a husband and a father as I apply some of those principles to my own children connecting the dots, it’s something I took from her that I applied to my kids. They range from 20 to 5. I tell them to view the world through a Catholic lens. That means that your understanding of the will of God, how you view Christ, how you respond to the urging of the Holy Spirit is what’s manifested in you by the gift of your soul and is supposed to be transmitted out into the world, and what you transmit is your Catholic faith. It’s Jesus Christ crucified. Are you presenting a Catholic world view? Yeah, then somebody sees you living a world that’s reflective of your Catholic faith and vice versa. All that was part of my understanding development of what she taught in the classroom. She introduced that to a lot of us, and we’ve never forgotten.

Sister John Dominic: 

 I was thinking about what we were talking about earlier, and the work that you’re doing is you’re transforming how catechesis is done in the parishes. You’re teaching your children what you learned yourself, and they may not know it, but you’re teaching them how to discern doctrine. How is that shaping the work that you’re doing now in the Diocese of Fort Worth. 

Marlon de la Torre: 

We’re trying to focus on more of a family catechetical model based on the catechumenal model, so it’s very charismatic. We must be evangelists. but we can’t ignore Doctrine. They have to coincide. You tend to an emphasis on evangelization, but I don’t hear the Creed, so we could proclaim the curriculum effectively, but we need to start subtly tying in how the scriptural basis of evangelization drives and develops our understanding of Doctrine. A basic structure that we’ve developed in a typical Parish religious education setting is taking a very charismatic approach, very similar to what Barbara taught us in the classroom. We would have an opening Retreat for families at a parish. It would have mass, adoration, a communal meal, and a general lesson for everybody. We would guide the parents on how to demonstrate this to their children. We have a captive audience, so feed them. We nourish them because they don’t know that they need to be nursed. Between mass and adoration, the pastor would offer confession intermittently as the lesson’s going on to keep that Spirit going. Then our master catechists would lead the communal lesson based on the age appropriateness of the children. That’s the orientation that we would do, and then from there on would be a four week cycle where the catechist would initiate the lesson with the children for one week and lay the groundwork for them and give them the materials to take home for mom and dad to work with him. The second week, the parents come back, and they teach it in the classroom. The catechist is only there as a guide. 

Sister John Dominic: 

All the parents of the students come in and then teach their son or daughter one-on-one. 

Marlon de la Torre: 

The catechist is serving as a lead. The third week, the catechist lays the new lesson again for the child, sets everything up, guides them, prepares them. They take that information home to parents who are working with him. Then the fourth week they come back. There’s a capstone to that teaching by going over it with the children, and then once a month, everybody would gather for another communal meal, Mass, adoration, celebration, and then a general listen again is a capstone. We’re trying to incorporate the mother and the father into the life of the child. In the weeks they are not there, the parents are learning themselves. Every week somebody is there, and that’s part of the initial family catechetical component we’re trying to develop in Fort Worth that’s already brought great success to our families. 

Sister John Dominic: 

On the creation of the materials, you do that at a Diocesan level and provide that to the parishes. How are you tying in this resource? 

Marlon de la Torre: 

Echoing the Mystery is a very smooth transition for us in Fort Worth because what we’ve been doing for years is teaching the development of Doctrine. That mindset started with our catechists back in 2010. Through the years, it’s become a staple for the Diocese to expect this. The second Echoing the Mystery came out, we did a full orientation on it, and it’s like fish to water if they could see the connections. We can use this as a primary curriculum because our standard curriculum is our standard that you can adapt. This becomes the tool that’s the adaptable of all adaptable tools. There’s nothing that you’re going to use in here that’s going to hinder your ability to present the Gospel.

Sister John Dominic: 

If anything is going to help the catechists discerning Doctrine and teaching them the Lectio, the prayerful understanding of it, the resource of Echoing the Mystery with the scripture, the artwork, and the Liturgy is going to bring them into this prayer life which leads to the conversion which leads to the life of a witness.

Marlon de la Torre: 

We would teach every catechist in the classroom to create a Sacred Space. We would tell them either create a semicircle or a focal point where it’s you and the child or it becomes the parent and the child so they can see that focus of one-on-one instruction, which is key. There’s one story I’d like to share with you. I was doing First Holy Communion prep for a group of 33 parents and was first looking at First Reconciliation. Some people are hostile here. They don’t want to hear it. That’s fine. As I’m getting ready to prepare, I was expecting the DRE to be by my side. She took off because she didn’t want to be around for the bloody mess. I’m going through the process of explaining Reconciliation first: scriptural relevance; doctrinal relevance; where it came from; etcetera, and laying it all out. I explained a couple of stories related to the Saints and Reconciliation, but then I always ask the inevitable question which gets me in trouble. I ask, “When’s the last time any of you went to confession?” Silence sounds. A father had just come to sit in the front because there’s no other table or chair. He had to sit up front, and he was an auto mechanic. He walked in right before I asked the question. No one’s answering. He looked at me. His face was angry. He slammed his hand on the table and said, “Two years. It’s been two years,” and then he went on this pedagogical rant, which is probably the best thing anybody could have heard. He said, “Who am I, Marlon, that I’m here expecting my son to go to confession if I don’t go.” He said it to everybody. Everybody was stunned. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, to have a father confess and admit and then call himself out was like a trifecta. “I need to be a better model to my son,” and then eventually a mother raised her hand, five years, and then another one, seven years, and then another, 10 years, 12 years, and then pretty much everybody except for two people refused to raise their hand. The wife is telling her husband, “Raise your hand,” and the husband, “No, I’m not. and there was it raised your hand said no, I’m not raise your hand. No, I’m not.” “Then you’re going to sleep on the couch.” Then he said 18 years. They both were confirmed at 17. They had to do the mandatory confession for the Sacrament of Confirmation. They were both in their mid-thirties now, and that’s the last time they were both in a confessional. The last person who did not raise her hand eventually did. She was very angry, but she admitted, “I didn’t want to raise my hand because I don’t want to be the worst one.”

Sister John Dominic: 

Somebody else beat her, so she raised her hand. She was safe.

Marlon de la Torre: 

It’s that type of story that ties into everything, not only of what Echoing the Mystery is trying to represent and does represent well, but also of what we’re trying to initially change in our cultural mindset that Mom and Dad should be first and foremost the primary educators of their children. We are merely assets. 

Sister John Dominic: 

There so many different things that they do as they’re growing up. There are sports where they’re going to go out there and practice basketball or soccer. I was a principal for 20 years. Several parents would tell me, “I’ve already been through school once, and now I’m doing math all over again” because they’re in there doing the tutoring. What is so wonderful about Hear Her is with the family learning it together, and this is their responsibility all day because you have the responsibility of leading this soul to heaven to the household of God, and you’re giving them the tools to be able to do it. That’s not an easy thing to undertake.

Marlon de la Torre: 

We start with one main parish per deanery as a test pilot. Once we knew that we had traction and it was going well, then we would find secondary parishes that had a similar structure to be able to pull that off, and because our diocese is so diverse, ours is either urban or rural. We have a lot of parishes who are nothing but hundred-member families with farmland around them, and that’s half of our diocese, so we have to modify that family component because it’s a completely different dynamic for a parish of a hundred families where everybody knows each other and half of them were related. It’s not a question of the family. They’re all related. The question is how are you teaching them? That shifts our focus on more teaching them how to teach because they’re already doing all the family stuff. It’s an opposite effect. We have the opposite problem where the families are involved, but they may not necessarily know how to articulate the faith. That’s where we come in with a modified understanding where we teach them the essentials. We would go through the premises of the faith, and then we modify their curriculum to include family adoration, Mass, and a communal meal, but we know that there are already teaching them on a weekly basis. It shifts a little bit. 

Sister John Dominic: 

God bless you. I find it so hopeful to hear that work that you’re doing, and for those people who have been listening, this is another way that this resource can be used. There are all these different ways that they can be adapted. This alone, touching the families, the domestic Church, and that’s going to change the culture of the parish, the schools, and whole communities and everyone else that interact with that. Thank you, Marlon, for coming. It’s a cold Michigan from warm Texas, and I hope that you’ll have other opportunities to be with us.

Marlon de la Torre: 

I’d love to do more, and I look forward to the opportunity. 

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