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 kid catechesis and adult catechesis. I think catechesis fails when it 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.

We’ve already experienced the tyranny of teaching to “academic  standards” in the school systems–I hope we don’t move towards that kind of enforcement at church, because I’m sure there’s a textbook company out there somewhere that would love to create a computer program to help you memorize the entire Baltimore catechism in order to regurgitate on the annual test. No child left behind!

And I’m not arguing for replacing bad catechesis with worse catechesis (“I am special” textbooks, felt banners, and hand-holding). 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. That’s how my faith has grown in any case–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.

Which is why, if I were designing an ideal Catechetical program for families I’d start, not with classrooms and catechists– but rather, with a meal– Mass followed by a Parish-wide dinner occurring at least monthly (but each week would be better).

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 dialogue. 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.




“Go On”: Interview with Jack Baumgartner, Part III
“Hunger”: Interview with Jack Baumgartner, Part IV
When Will My Work as a Catechist Bear Fruit?
A Kind of Catechesis
About Elizabeth Duffy
  • EH

    Amen Betty! I’ve been pondering this topic a lot recently as I am the lead catechist for confirmation in my parish and I have a real heart and vision for family life/faith in the Church. Meals are always the heart of community so I’m right behind you on that one and you’re a woman after my own heart with the other ideas you have for reflection/prayer/silence/service.

    • EH

      by the way, this is Lizzie (from London, UK) – not sure why I’m EH on disqus. It’s all a bit high tech for me!

  • Sue

    I agree with you that catechism prep has started to go overboard. Our parish requires the 2nd graders to take two years of weekly night classes (plus about 10 weekend classes each school year), parents required to take classes while their kids are in class, weekly mass attendance is also taken – kids have to sign in. They are second graders! and some of them can’t even read! it’s ridiculous. I disagree with you on the meal thing – yuck, I hate communal meals at our parish, especially pot luck. Everyone is always sick and cooking food anyway, or someone brings something they made the previous weekend and we all wonder why we got food poisoning.

  • Lauren

    This is beautifully simple, Elizabeth – as most good things are. I love it!

  • GeekLady

    This is the best idea I’ve heard! I’ve long felt it ought to be a family affair, but never quite known how to flesh it out so it worked. This might.

    What I have observed teaching 5 year olds this year is that they learn eagerly when it isn’t school. When it is like school the only thing they learn is to hate church.

    • Christian LeBlanc

      Yes. That’s why what happens in my 6th-grade classroom isn’t like school. It’s more like talking with Socrates in the Agora.

      • Brian Sullivan

        And if you want to know how that works:

        The Bible Tells Me So: A Year of Catechizing Directly from Scripture by Christan LeBlanc

      • GeekLady

        Which is what I did when I taught high schoolers. But they rolled all the high school CCE into the youth group which only meets on Sundays during dinner time, which is sacred family&friends time in my house. So I had to shift ages. Now I teach five year olds. You can’t hold Socratic dialogues with five year olds.

        The most successful thing I’ve tried is reading Angel in the Waters to them – roughly every other class session, if we have time for a story. They were quiet and entranced the first two times I read it, on the third reading, the dams broke. These days I can barely get through a page without a question, and at least half of them are really good questions.

  • Liberty

    “A bit of silence”? But you just extolled the virtues of a noisy Mass because “This is what fertility sounds like.” When I go to Mass I want to be in peace, not noise like the rest of the world. There’s enough noise in the world. What we need is silence, contemplation, reverence. Children need to learn to sit quietly & pay attention at Mass, not run around. If you go a King’s house do you run around and make noise at will? Do you do it during a ceremony honoring him? No, you don’t because that’s terrible manners & terrible Mass behavior. Children don’t learn how to behave at Mass (and elsewhere) if their parents aren’t teaching them how to be quiet & reverent. There’s plenty of time after Mass, outside of the Church, to engage in chatter and running around. Please let’s encourage more Sacred Silence, not less.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      Just to clarify a bit, I don’t think there’s “virtue” in a noisy mass, but sometimes noise is the outgrowth of families striving to live virtuous lives, and it can be tolerated for the benefit of children and their parents being able to attend Mass together. Silence, which is necessary for prayer, I believe, is something that people have to learn to cultivate interiorly. So that a child making noise, or an older person whispering loudly in the sanctuary doesn’t inhibit one’s prayer. Certainly, we teach children reverence at the Mass, but it doesn’t happen overnight. And in that interim, children are a joyful sign at church.

    • Katie

      When children came running noisily to Jesus, he chided, not them, but those who criticized the inappropriateness of their actions. Why should He feel differently if they run to Him joyfully when He is present in the Eucharist? You seem to be making Jesus a king of the earth, more invested in decorum than in the hearts of His people. Silence has its place, certainly, but so does learning to find your own peaceful center in spite of enthusiastic participation by others,

  • Christian LeBlanc

    I’m a longtime Bible-belt catechist. My opinion is that if the classrooms were run by knowledgeable, motivated, live-the-faith teachers, and the classtime was spent on substantial catechizing and evangelizing instead of time-fillers such as crafts, games, parties, movies, group discussion, etc. we would not be having this conversation.

    • Dorian Speed

      I strongly agree with Christian here. I really enjoy being a classroom catechist and I think there’s benefit to having kids of a similar age range together. I see what you mean re: the problems with “assessments,” grades, etc., and I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would assign homework as part of CCE, but I think classroom-based religious education can be very effective when done well. Part of the problem comes when Sacramental preparation is being lumped in with all classroom-based catechesis.

      • Elizabeth Duffy

        I agree with Christian too, but I think a lot hangs on that “if.” At every Parish where I’ve been involved with Religious Ed, there has been an eleventh hour call for Catechists, and once a volunteer has been secured, there is difficulty in getting them to also commit to go through sex abuse training, some sort of retreat or training to be a catechist, and then helping them prepare ahead of time to teach a class. Discipline issues in the classroom are exacerbated because the teacher is often Mom, and/or kids know they’re dealing with teachers with fewer disciplinary tools in their toolbox.

        Our archdiocese now requires at least two adults in every classroom, and there is often such a social disconnect, particularly in large parishes, that it’s difficult to vet a potential catechist for their knowledge and faithfulness to Church teaching, while at the same time making them feel appreciated for the considerable volunteer contribution of time and effort they are making.

        I’ve also observed that potentially strong Catechists are so committed to the catechesis of their own children (which is, of course, a great good) that they will split with a religious ed program when conflicts arise over textbooks or other factors which could be problematic to them. It is their right and privilege to do so, but it does weaken the pool of strong, dynamic catechists.

        It can also be difficult to transmit exactly what “substantial catechesis and evangelization” consists of. What would that look like for the average volunteer catechist?

        I don’t want to be too much of a naysayer, because the benefits you mention are real–and when it works, it works well. But getting it to work in every grade level in every Parish is a Herculean feat.

      • GeekLady

        I think there’s a place for classroom catechesis, but in my observation they tend to be plagued with same problems as public schools, like teaching to the lowest common denominator and an irrational fear of asking kids to memorize anything.

    • RAnn

      Christian, I’m always impressed by your blog posts on your classes. How long have you been teaching? What percent of your students are from families that practice the faith (let’s define that as attend mass at least twice a month)?

      • Christian LeBlanc

        Twice a month? I’d guess 25-30%. But that doesn’t seems to matter much. All the kids have a native curiosity about God and life. The ones who come from faith-forming families have head start; but it’s often the God-starved kids that throw themselves into the experience.

        • RAnn

          Have you been doing it long enough to tell whether you are making Catholics out of the kids who don’t go to Mass?

          • Christian LeBlanc

            I don’t see much difference in the personal faith of kids in my class that I see at Mass, and kids in my class that I don’t see at Mass. And once kids graduate from highschool, I’m most likely to never see them again, period. So I have no idea. But I don’t worry about that anyway. I have them for 30 hours for one year. I make those 30 hours as effective as possible. They spend 30 hours being catechized and evangelized by an informed, motivated, live the faith Catholic man. The rest I leave to their parents, the other catechists, the Church, and the Holy Spirit.

  • michicatholic

    What you have there doesn’t work. There are three concurrent journeys to the spiritual life, and if you have only 1 or 2, it’s like driving around on a flat tire. You need to attend to all three simultaneously. The three are:
    1. The sacramental journey. You all know about this: baptism, confirmation, etc.
    2. The journey of practice. Going down to the church on Sunday, having Christian conversations, praying on a daily basis, studying the bible and so on.
    3. The personal journey. Where you strike up a relationship with God and then nurture it throughout your life. This is a choice, a personal choice.

    When one of the three journeys are missing, Catholicism isn’t complete.

    • Christian LeBlanc

      I don’t see a reason that your 3 items can’t or won’t succeed within the model proposed by the OP.

  • Karyn

    I agree with you that the classroom set-up isn’t working well. On the other hand, the idea of taking my family to a communal meal once a week sounds just awful to me. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work, but personally, I would dread it something awful (guess I’m too introverted). I’m also very traditional whereas my parish is very liberal, so I would probably be getting “twitchy” throughout the discussions.

    I don’t have any good suggestions except that I wish they would at least select more inspiring materials for the kids. The textbooks are so hokey. At home we use books from Seton Press – the material is orthodox, there are beautiful works of “real” art, there are stories of the saints instead of made-up examples of holiness, etc.

    I wonder how they used to decide who received the Sacraments? Yes, you read about Therese, but look at her family! What about her neighbor whose child wasn’t catechized well? I’m assuming there was some sort of criteria?

    • Christian LeBlanc

      Re class materials, yes. In both RCIA and 6th grade catechism, I punted the stuff I was given and wrote curricula from scratch.

  • RJ

    When my kids were young (elementary school) we pulled them out of the religious ed program and, with the blessing of our pastor and director of religious ed, started a lectionary based home program with several other families. We were motivated parents who didn’t want our kids to go to yet another classroom setting after being in school all day. So, we found a lectionary based curriculum that worked well. (Yes — we did it all year long). We got together with the other families every 4-6 weeks, sometimes to study, sometimes to go caroling etc. At our house we also began to pay much more attention to the liturgical year. We began including some old traditions into our family life. We found that having to teach the faith our children really helped my wife and I learn more about the faith as well. I think parishes should offer and promote this kind of thing as an option. We did it on our own, but I can see more parents being interested if they had support from the parish.

  • Stefanie

    Totally agree!

  • Nancy de Flon

    There’s a lot of wisdom here but there’s one problem: first you have to get these families into the church for Mass. Not easy when a large percentage of the kids are dropped off for CCD and, once they’ve received the sacrament, are never brought back to church again. Actually, what do you expect when so many First Communion Masses are arranged by ignorant catechists to resemble a graduation, instead of a true commencement (of their close relationship with Christ), at which the reception of the Eucharist takes a distant second place to the handing out of those all-important certificates?

  • Faithr

    I think donuts would be enough. Seriously, my parish is too big to feed everybody a real meal after all 4 of our weekend masses, plus people have allergies, etc. I think just coffee and donuts with a gluten free alternative would work. You could call it ‘donuts and doctrine!” The priest could give a 5 minute presentation and a quick prayer. I don’t think you could draw it out too long, people wouldn’t stay. But it might help to pique interest. It could be a beginning. And this is exactly what our youth ministry does. Once a week we have a ‘family mass’ where the teens sing, read, usher, etc. Afterwards, they eat dinner (sometimes just pizza, sometimes a bunch of moms get together and cook something special up) and then they have a talk or a service activity. But even with this, only a handful of youth show up for it.

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