Looking back on how God has worked in her life, Jennifer Ploof said she has relied on prayer and God’s direction as her 13 years in catechetical ministry unfolded.

Ploof, who serves as parish catechetical leader in Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary-St. Louis Parish in Swanton and Highgate Center, began her ministry as a volunteer assistant catechist. Two years later, she was asked by the parish council to consider taking over the program. “It was never something I had planned on doing,” she said, “but … I prayed, I felt called to say yes, and it has been an amazing journey.”

As a parish catechetical leader, “most of what I do impacts the children and families of our parish,” she said, “but I would like to think that the various activities we do in in the religious education office … affect everyone in our parish, and, hopefully, for the better.”

As a result of her ministry, Ploof became involved in the Diocesan Lay Formation Leadership Program, a two-year process under the Institute for Missionary Discipleship, which provides a practical foundation in Scripture, liturgy and sacraments and equips laity to serve and evangelize their parishes and communities.

Ploof noted that, during the classes, a recurring conversation took place about providing children with an encounter with Jesus, but “not being able to help them grow their relationships with the Lord into lifelong personal relationships. It wasn’t enough for the children to come to class once a week and hear about Jesus.”

In order to be effective in catechetical ministry, a different approach was needed, said Ploof, a native Vermonter and mother of three. “I prayed a lot, did a lot of research … talked to other (parish catechetical leaders) who were doing different models of religious education in their parishes. I tried to discern where the Lord was calling our parish program to go. After reading St. John Paul II’s ‘Catechesi Tradendae’ (‘Catechesis in Our Time’) it became clear that a family formation model of catechesis was the model to try,” she said.

The lay formation program also opened her eyes to other needs in the parish, particularly evangelization among adults and young adults and provided the opportunity to make some inroads for both groups.

As part of the program, Ploof was required to complete two projects. The transitioning from a traditional religious education program to a family-centered catechetical program served as the first. The second was developing a parish retreat. With the approval of her pastor, Father James Zuccaro, Ploof brought Light of the World Evangelization Ministries, based in Illinois, to the parish for a four-day retreat in October.

As follow-up, participants came together weekly for six weeks in small-group sessions. “We have since formed a small faith community … that meets weekly to continue growing in faith together,” Ploof said, noting a second retreat is scheduled for March with the eventual goal of a parish-based evangelization and discipleship-building process.

“This has truly been a time of blessing for the parish as I see the transformation in the faithful though the diverse group of participants continuing to unfold,” acknowledged Father Zuccaro.

In December, Ploof said she “felt called to reach out to the young adults in a deeper way,” explaining that the parish hospitality committee has been sending care packages to college students every fall for the past five years.

The following month, Ploof hosted an evening for students so they could share what was going on in their lives, their spiritual needs and suggest how the parish could offer support. “I am now working on a plan to help better accompany our college students through a spiritual mentor/prayer partner program,” she said.

“I have come to see that, as Catholics, we have to be intentional about evangelization and discipleship in every age group. The Lord has called for all of us to come together in this work. … If we see areas for improvement in our parishes, it is up to us to seek guidance from the Lord and our pastors and step up to the plate to make our faith communities truly alive and vibrant places of worship,” Ploof stressed.

Reflecting on Ploof’s years of ministry, Father Zuccaro said, “I commend Jen for her commitment to the long-term faith formation of our parish for all ages and am grateful for the positive, uplifting and solid catechesis she has initiated at Nativity-St. Louis Parish.”

—Originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

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