El Camino, a Catholic faith formation program, helps children, their families, and their teachers to know, love, and serve Christ and His Church; develop the habits, dispositions, and beliefs that are indispensable to human flourishing and happiness; and live as disciples in this world and saints in the next.
The vast majority (over 80 percent) of all Catholic children in America now attend public schools. For the 5 million or more of our Catholic children who live in poverty, too many are attending troubled public schools. Children not enrolled in Catholic schools generally have the option to attend weekly catechetical classes. These classes do all that they can, but with limited funding and time, they can only cover the bare minimum of catechesis, and cannot connect the sacred with the secular in the way that Catholic schools are best suited to do.
As more Catholic schools close in our inner cities, and fewer of our neediest children have access to a Catholic education, an opportunity has arisen to provide a new way to share the beauty of the Catholic faith with children who do not have access to a Catholic school. Especially urgent is providing vibrant and rich faith formation to Latino children and families—the future of the Catholic Church in America.
About El Camino
Amidst the shuttering of 60+ Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York—the bulk of which were K-8 schools providing a safe haven to children living in poverty—Cardinal Dolan asked Seton Education Partners to find a new way to evangelize underserved children and their families. In August 2013, Seton launched El Camino, an extended day faith and enrichment program in a largely Latino neighborhood in the South Bronx, where over half of all families live below the poverty line. Our call: to create a financially sustainable way to provide rich and engaging faith formation and enrichment for underserved children who cannot afford even the low tuition at most urban Catholic schools.
El Camino, which means “The Way” in Spanish, provides Catholic faith formation, activity classes and sports, character development, and homework help through a fun and enriching extended day program. Broadly, we want to help our children to know, love and serve Christ better; to grow in virtue; to achieve academic success; and to have fun. And we want to strengthen the Church by evangelizing whole families. The program is modeled after a much smaller and very successful pilot program that Seton launched in Oakland, CA, which is showcased in this video.
El Camino serves more than 350 kindergarten through sixth-grade children for 90 minutes a day, Monday through Thursday. Four days a week, our children receive homework help from experienced teachers, a nutritious snack, and 30 minutes each of catechism and physical fitness or sports. Children and families have regular opportunities for reading of Holy Scripture, and for shared and personal prayer. Below are key components of El Camino’s model:
Forming Lifelong Disciples: At El Camino, children are called “disciples,” not “students” or “scholars”. We want to instill a life-long understanding that we are all called to be disciples of Christ, who must “not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it” (CCC,1816).
Rich Content: El Camino uses the Faith and Life catechetical series by Ignatius Press—approved by the USCCB, aligned with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the most robust catechetical materials we could find. We dedicate substantial professional time to lesson planning to ensure the content is as engaging as possible without watering it down so that children grow to love learning about Christ and His Church.
Catholics Who Know Scripture: Regrettably, many Catholics do not know Scripture as well as other Christians, and we wanted to change that. At El Camino, children are taught that Scripture is sacred. Not only do disciples read the Bible on a regular basis, they memorize and love to recite Scripture verses when they are answering questions or praying.
Growing in Virtue: El Camino emphasizes the four cardinal virtues of Courage, Justice, Wisdom, and Self Control—teaching disciples what each of these virtues means, and what each looks like and sounds like in practice. We have deepened our work to help children grow in virtue by implementing Disciple of Christ – Education in Virtue, a Christian curriculum on the virtues rooted in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. This curriculum was created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in response to the call for a New Evangelization. It aims to provide systematic instruction on the virtues so that youth can form the right habits and dispositions, with an understanding that happiness is found in a life of holiness.
Evangelizing Whole Families: At El Camino, the call to discipleship is extended not only to the children but also to their parents. Every Thursday, families join their children at a prayer circle to thank God for His blessings, and to ask for His help. An astounding 50-75% of parents participate in community outings and faith formation nights. We also spend time forming staff and challenging and encouraging them to grow in their own faith, giving them opportunities to pray, go to mass, and go on retreats together. Our mid-year retreat is held in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the national March for Life.
Close Partnership with Local Parish: One of El Camino’s key objectives is to strengthen our local churches. We have a close partnership with our neighboring parish, St. Rita of Cascia Catholic Church. St. Rita’s pastor celebrates mass for our children and families; provides family faith formation; and administers the Sacraments of Baptism, First Communion, and Reconciliation for our disciples.