Kicking Catechesis Out of the Classroom

Joanne K McPortland has started a conversation on Catechesis. In her post: What’s Really Wrong With Catholic Religious Education? Everything. she fleshes out why parents, not children, should be the focus of religious education. “Catechesis follows evangelization,” she writes, “and it has just never worked to catechize children and expect them to evangelize their parents.” It’s a great post, and should be read in entirety. She hits many key points.

The Crescat, however, observes that parents often don’t respond well when called to catechize their children. In her post Turning the Sacraments into Perfunctory Gestures she writes:

“A close acquaintance told me that she has several kids in her 2nd grade First Communion class who are obviously not ready. They’ve failed every test and consistently not handed in work. When I asked her if she just spoke to the parents, she said she’s tried. They always promise things will improve but they never do. She wanted my advice.

I suggested she tell the parents exactly what she told me… they are not ready.”

Apparently the parents in question responded badly to this suggestion:

“She was called a horrible teacher, a lazy teacher, ineffective, worthless, incompetent. You can’t fail my kid, we’ve already planned his First Communion party. Think about the nonrefundable venue deposits.”


Personally, I think that Sacraments “earned” through tests and homework are an equally perfunctory gesture as those to which one feels entitled by culture or inheritance. And while I agree with Joanne McPortland that it’s wrong to expect children to catechize their parents, I have to admit that I myself really don’t enjoy sitting in a parish basement listening to speakers or watching catechetical videos. That’s not how I learn.

I’ve taught catechesis for children and adult catechesis. I think catechesis fails when it too closely resembles the American school system. The problem with treating Sacramental prep like an academic subject is that the church is universal. Many Catholics are illiterate, many are mentally disabled, and many families as well as many teachers, are just limited in their knowledge of the faith, and their fervor to transmit it.

As soon as there’s a test to pass in order to be initiated into the Church, receiving the Sacraments is no longer an act of faith that confers grace. It’s a recitation, an achievement, something earned rather than freely given.

What I’m looking for is a lived faith, one that takes place in Mass, but finds opportunities in every day life for continued education and growth–family prayer and meals that prepare us for the Eucharistic meal with the Body of Christ. When questions arise, as they tend to do when someone cares about a subject, we seek answers.

I went to the Spanish Mass for the Feast of Our Lady Of Guadelupe in December. At the Spanish Mass, there is a constant hum of life–children talking, dancing in the aisles. They run ahead of their parents through the communion line. No one bats an eye, unless one of the children starts to cry, because kids are supposed to make noise, but especially happy noise. This is what fertility sounds like.

The music was not well executed, but there was an extra half hour of it after the Mass because people wanted to continue praising God with song. And after that, there was a meal, a pitch in, because it was a feast day, and it’s appropriate for families to feast both spiritually and physically on such a day.

A friend of mine went to Haiti after the earthquakes and remarked on how people still traveled to Mass on foot, stood and waited for it to begin and then stayed for hours even though many couldn’t fit into the sanctuary and stood in the street in front of it, worshipping God and singing songs because they were thankful for their lives and for the Eucharist.

In times and places of persecution in the Church–Japan in the 16th century, the Cristero Wars in Mexico for instance–Catholics went for months without the Sacraments or knowledgeable teachers. Do you suppose that when a priest finally made it to a Christian enclave, Sacraments were denied to people who could not recite the Act of Contrition?

What’s missing from American religious education is the simple spiritual fervor of Saint Juan Diego or Saint Therese of Lisieux the absence of which makes any catechesis, both the best and the worst kind, relatively useless.

There is definitely a need for study of the faith, most importantly, for reading  and meditating on Scripture, but also for digging deeper into the Catechism, lives of the saints, and the writings of great spiritual teachers and doctors of the church. But just as herd immunity protects the unvaccinated, a culture that has a fully developed Catholic identity can do the heavy catechetical lifting.

Which is why, if I were designing an ideal Catechetical program for families I’d start with a meal– Mass followed by a Parish-wide dinner occurring at least monthly.

The meal is a primary school of our faith. Jesus taught at the dinner table–it’s where he gave us the Eucharist. A meal draws families into the social life of the Church in order to share responsibility for it’s planning and clean-up, and create a cultural tradition that is founded on common faith. We learn charity around the dinner table, patience, temperance, generosity, and affability. Introverts learn to stretch at the dinner table. Extroverts learn to withhold. Children get to bask in the attention of loving adults, and adults get camaraderie with other men and women of faith. Plus, if you feed them, they will come.

At the dinner, the priest or a catechist would address everyone on one simple but critical teaching of our faith and then tables could talk about that teaching and how it’s lived while they eat. Families that have a stronger foundation in the faith would help families with a more timorous grasp. They could take under their wing the “orphan” children whose parents cannot or don’t wish to attend.

Dinner would be followed by a guided meditation for the whole Parish in front of the Blessed Sacrament with a bit of silence for individual prayer. Here, the community would be catechized in how to pray, and they would have time to build their own relationship with God that would take them through the next week.

For additional support I’d create small groups among the adults, separated by sex, and led by at least one knowledgeable catechist that would meet in homes for study and prayer. From these groups, individuals would delve deeper into the teachings of the Church, and meet service opportunities in the parish and the community–at crisis pregnancy centers, homeless shelters, or for families in need within the Parish, etc.


In short, my ideal approach to learning the faith would incorporate the whole Parish in:

1. Sacrament

2. Celebration

3. Silence and Prayer

4. Service


But not a single classroom.



Jennifer Fitz also weighs in.

Also, Dr Popcak on making parents into intentional disciples.




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