The Saskatoon diocesan Lay Formation program began in the fall of 1987. It is part of the diocesan response to Saint Pope John Paul’s request that the formation of lay people should be among the priorities of every diocese (Christifideles Laici #57). The purpose of the program is to help adult Catholics fulfill their baptismal commitment to the mission and ministry of Jesus through a process of formation and faith education. To use a metaphor, it is to help lay people to “put on the mind and heart of Jesus Christ”.
Almost 900 people have graduated from the program over the past two decades. An indication of the quality of the program is the continued steady enrolment as well as a steady increase in the number of younger adults participating in the program. In 1997, Newman Theological College in Edmonton accredited the program and recognized successful completion as equivalent to 12 credits toward an undergraduate diploma in theological studies.
The program is two years in duration, with participants meeting one weekend a month for ten months from September to June. Queen’s House of Retreat and Renewal provides a beautiful setting for the participants. As a live-in program, Lay Formation costs are higher than some programs. As long-time presenter, Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, says:
“This is one of the few programs that recognizes the importance of community and prayer as integral pieces of the overall formation process, and that has been its strength. By asking people to live together, share meals together and pray together one weekend out of every month, the Lay Formation program becomes more than simply a workshop or an in-service, it becomes a journey that fosters deep spiritual transformation.”
Lay Formation is funded primarily through the Bishop’s Annual Appeal and participant fees, usually shared equally between the participant and their parish.
The emphasis through the years has remained solidly on formation rather than specific ministry training. This formation focus enriches the faith of all participants who come to the program, while still providing the impetus to move on to more in-depth ministry training for those who desire it.
The prayer component of the program is essential to formation and consists of commitment to daily prayer and many opportunities for communal prayer on the weekends. Each weekend the participants gather for the Liturgy of the Hours in the morning and in the evening, and the liturgical seasons are celebrated with special liturgies on Saturday evenings. The weekend concludes with celebration of the Eucharist/Divine Liturgy on Sunday afternoon.
Participants prepare and provide the lay liturgical ministries for Eucharist, lead the Liturgy of the Hours and other prayer services. In addition, participants are empowered to facilitate Small Christian Community prayer groups. Through the program, participants are introduced to various prayer forms and the varied and rich ways of prayer that are part of our tradition, for example, centering prayer, Taizé prayer, Aboriginal prayer traditions, praying with icons and with scripture.
Highly qualified presenters from Saskatoon and across Canada offer a broad spectrum of theological thought to Lay Formation participants. Areas of study include scripture, theology, morality, liturgy, justice and peace, and spirituality.
A strong Alumni Association has grown out of the program and graduates are found in all areas of parish and diocesan life. Parish pastoral leadership teams, diocesan commissions and advisory groups, RCIA, youth ministry, religious education, pastoral visiting, care of the sick and dying, preparation of liturgy, funeral vigils, lay presiding in the absence of the priest, inner city ministry, restorative justice, marriage preparation and enrichment are some of the areas in which the graduates of the program are providing ministry.
In the fall of 1999, participants from the Eparchy of Saskatoon joined with participants from the Diocese of Saskatoon in the first experience of a shared formation program. Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic perspectives were woven together into a program which celebrates the gift of diversity that enriches our common Catholic faith. Separate sessions were scheduled for topics that present the diversity of expression and tradition in areas such as spirituality and liturgy. This is the only shared program of East and West in the world.
Based on the success and the model of the shared diocesan-eparchial program, Lay Formation was expanded to include an Aboriginal Stream in the fall of 2007. Roman Catholics – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – as well as Ukrainian Catholics now study common topics together and meet in separate streams to explore faith and spirituality in the context of their own traditions and cultures. The bishops of the Prince Albert Diocese, Keewatin-LePas Archdiocese and the Diocese of Saskatoon work together to provide the program for the Aboriginal people of their three dioceses.
With the restoration of order of the initiation sacraments in the Diocese of Saskatoon, the need for providing resources and support for life-long faith development and the formation of missionary disciples has become a major emphasis. The Lay Formation Program is a significant diocesan resource for the ongoing renewal of adults in their Catholic faith.
Smaller rural areas of the diocese struggle to find human and financial resources. Because of the agricultural situation (ever-decreasing commodity prices, diminishing family farms and rural depopulation), many parishes, rural communities and families are stressed to the limit. The Lay Formation Program has been vital for parish renewal and support in these situations. The program is an essential foundation for lay ministry and leadership development in the diocese. This high-quality formation is especially critical at this time, as together clergy and laity face ongoing challenges. With increasing demands on our priests whose energies are spread far and wide, it is critical that the baptized be formed and prepared to collaborate and assist their pastors, parishes and communities.
What do graduates of the Lay Formation say about their experience? Graduates repeatedly express a profound sense of gratitude, describing a renewed confidence, and a deeper Christian commitment. They speak about new and deeper understanding of their Catholic faith. They value the Christian community they encounter at Lay Formation: the deep friendships that are formed are one of the most precious gifts of the experience. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Lay Formation graduates say the prayer and the spirituality that they encounter together in this program deepened their relationship with God. Lay Formation transforms lives.