One of the best gifts of the year arrives each January at St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon.
GIFT — Growing in Faith Together — might not be wrapped with a big red bow, but it could be.
For the month of January, the children in faith formation take a break.
It's the adults' turn.
When the program started three years ago, 25 workshops were scheduled. From Jan. 5-27 this year, 37 workshops were scheduled, as many as three an evening.
"Here at St. Joan of Arc there's such a spirit of evangelization," said Mary Machi, director of youth ministry. When she was a high school youth minister at Catholic Community of Pleasanton, there was a similar program in that parish.
"If we are not nourishing the faith of the parents, we aren't effectively serving our teenagers," she said.
The parish, rightly, puts many resources and effort into faith formation for children, she said. "What can we provide for the parents?"
The word goes out to parents, she said: "In January, it's not your kids who go class; it's you who go to class."
At St. Joan of Arc, the lineup of workshops changes each year. Workshops can be on basics of Catholicism, to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. One is presented by popular demand each year: "Top Ten Reasons to Be Catholic" by Father Mark Wiesner, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish of Livermore.
There are opportunities for parents and students to participate in workshops together, Machi said. The pastor, Father Ray Zielezienski, celebrated a teaching Mass for high school students and their parents.
Many young people joined their parents for Father Wiesner's presentation, which ended with a lively question-and-answer session.
Not only are the GIFT workshops "bringing families together," Machi said, but the program "continues to grow."
And it's not just young families attending the workshops, she said. "Some people we see every single night," she said. They also see people who tell them they don't go out at night — but they do go out for this.
During the first week, 800 people registered to attend workshops; the second week drew 800 registrations. People are asked to register, online or through a form, so they can allocate space. They have been able to accommodate everyone.
Some workshops might draw a dozen; the most popular in the first two weeks drew 150. "It's not about the numbers," Machi said. "Did you find something that nurtures your spirit?"
The mix of workshop topics is important, Machi said. "Having just one class would not be enough."
When February rolls around, parishioners may choose to join a faith group that lasts more than a single session, such as a Bible Study group that debuted in the GIFT month.
But Machi acknowledges that people are very busy. When offered a one-time opportunity, they are more likely to say, "I can do that," rather than make a longer commitment.
All the workshops are offered free of charge, as a gift to parishioners.
"The feedback is almost 100 percent positive," Machi said. "The worst seems to be: that's not what I thought it would be."
GIFT, she said, is "a really firm commitment on the part of Father Ray and the parish: This is our gift to you."
At St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Berkeley, two groups began in the new year, one following the Alpha program and the other exploring church history through Epic.
The Alpha course, on a Monday evening, began with a meal prepared by volunteers, and served buffet style. Participants sat at a trio of round tables to eat and converse.
Alpha, which describes itself as "for everyone who wants to explore life's big questions," moved from dinner to the viewing of a DVD in which the presenter, Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton in London, described his journey to Christianity.
Afterward, those around the tables moved them together for a discussion of what they'd seen and what they'd like to learn more about.
At St. David of Wales Parish in Richmond, a parish mission with Catholic evangelist Richard Lane began under the theme, "Breaking the Chains of Bondage."
Lane, who is based in St. Louis, offered the mission at 7 p.m., but also offered it following the 8 a.m. Mass for those who don't go out at night.
"God wants to know us intimately," Lane told the gathering of about 50 on the first night of the mission. He encouraged people to let go of fear, and move on to doing the work that God wants them to do.
"We need to take the church to the people," he said, echoing Pope Francis. During his time in the Bay Area, he said he was meeting with young people who need to hear God's word, and know that people care for them.
At St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Livermore, Lent began with small faith-sharing groups — more than 450 people have signed up — and a video introduction from Father Mark Wiesner. The small groups will meet for five weeks during Lent, taking a break from the weekly schedule to allow participants to attend the parish mission.
The parish mission, which will be conducted by Father Wiesner and Pastor Steve Madsen from Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore March 9-11. The mission looks at stress, anxiety and fear — and what tools our Christian faith gives us to help us overcome them.
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