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home : features : catholic schools

8/17/2011 5:44:00 PM
Team-teaching catechists ready for new year
Education after confirmation
Bernard Miller, a catechist at Holy Family parish in Little Falls, wishes faith formation in parishes could continue beyond students' sophomore year of high school, when they are confirmed in the Albany Diocese.

Inspired by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard's recent columns in The Evangelist (see the "bishop" section) about why Catholics fall away from the faith, Mr. Miller wants to change the focus of his ninth-grade class this year to include more decision-making lessons.

He agrees with Bishop Hubbard that cultural phenomena like consumerism and secularism pose a risk to the faith development of young people.

"We don't realize how that influences us," Mr. Miller told The Evangelist. He wants to teach his students "how to become people who desire to do the will of God and how to look for the will of God in the decisions we are making. I think it's remarkable that so many of them come out unscathed. It's a tough age group, because many of them are not comfortable in their own skin."

But he says that 19 classes a year - just 50 minutes each - do not give catechists enough time to "teach about a Church that's been around for over 2,000 years.

"Maybe some students, after confirmation 'graduation,' don't want to return because we don't make it appealing enough," he mused.

"Some of these students are enrolled in advanced placement classes [in school], studying college math, science and languages. Why not introduce them to [Ss. Thomas] Aquinas, Bonaventure, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, [Blessed Pope] John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger [who became Pope Benedict XVI] and the encyclicals of the 20th century and the present?" (AC)


The two men teach ninth-grade faith formation behind a crooked music stand at Holy Family parish in Little Falls, but they take their duty so seriously, you'd think they were college professors.

Bernard Miller and Dave Van Meter will enter their fourth season of team-teaching about values and the sacraments this school year. Mr. Miller is a tool-sharpener by trade and a lay member of a Cistercian religious order; Dr. Van Meter is a financial advisor and a convert to Catholicism. He holds a doctorate in medieval history and has taught at Boston University.

The pair say their backgrounds afford them unique skills in the classroom - and enhance the learning experience for the teens.

"Bernie and I are as different as night and day," Dr. Van Meter said. "Bringing two people together just adds value. It makes it more fun. It removes some of the stresses" for the catechist.

Dr. Van Meter said he brings the stand-up comedy, and Mr. Miller brings the theological knowledge.

"I try," Mr. Miller said humbly. "I try to be very conscious in the class of who I am. I'm not a preacher; I'm not a teacher. I'm just a guy from the pews who's learned a couple of things over the years."

Mr. Miller noted that he teaches from the book - definitions and skill-building - while Dr. Van Meter offers a scriptural basis for why Catholics believe what they do.

"I give him the bulk of the time," Mr. Miller said of his teaching partner. "Because he's had to ask those hard questions himself, he's more comfortable with giving the answers."

Dr. Van Meter was raised in the Baptist and Methodist faiths in Las Vegas. He and his wife traveled the country while they were in the U.S. Army; he converted to Catholicism in the mid 1990s after earning his Ph.D.

To earn the degree, he had researched a time period mostly documented by Benedictine monks. Consequently, his dissertation featured theological themes, from the lives of saints and miracles to commentaries on Scripture.

Dr. Van Meter ended up sending his children to Catholic schools - and joining the Church himself.

He said being a convert gives him a teaching advantage: "If you're new to something, you perhaps value it more than if you grew up with it. What I bring to it is a value of the differences" between Catholicism and other denominations. He also tries to make lessons relevant by providing historical perspective.

Teaming up
Mr. Miller, a Little Falls native, was a catechist for 15 years when his daughters were young. The faith formation director at Holy Family parish called about coming back to teaching when he was 57.

"My thoughts were, 'Maybe I'm too old to be teaching ninth-graders,'" he said.

But he was getting to know Dr. Van Meter at that point. When he learned about his friend's medieval history background, he proposed team-teaching.

In his half of the teaching time, Mr. Miller checks in on students' feelings, asking who they talk to if they're having a bad day and how they feel when they see someone bullied.

"I'm hoping that, at the end of the day, they can look at themselves and know that what they are going through, others have gone through and others are going through," he said. "We have the same emotions as when Christ was walking this earth."

He also uses stories and vignettes from The Evangelist to spur discussion. When he was a life insurance representative, for instance, he met a diabetic man with amputated fingers who fed his wife every meal at her nursing home. The man later died in a fire.

Mr. Miller choked up as he recalled the first time he told that story in class. "There was a girl in that class....She put her head on the desk and she was sobbing."

It was her grandfather.

"We never know the experiences that we share - how they are going to affect other people," he said. "I think the concepts we talk about aren't so readily absorbed. Stories give them color.

"Every time that I step in front of a class, I'm nervous," Mr. Miller concluded. "I want to be able to let the Spirit move me."

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