A Few Priorities For Catechesis

A while back (a few weeks ago, so eons in Internet time) there was a big debate among Catholic Patheosi on how we should do catechesis. I wasn’t a Patheosi at the time so I just threw a few spitballs. But it seems to me that I (and we) skipped a step. Before we ask how we catechize kids, we should probably ask what for. “To make disciples for Christ!” Well, ok.

I’ve been in the frontlines of catechesis, in one form or another, most of my life. I taught catechism for many years in the school which I attended, and now I teach catechism in my parish. And of course before that I was in catechism as a good Catholic pupil. And before all the problems we could talk about–milquetoast materials, a syrupy tsunami of good intentions, non-methods…heresy…–I think one problem is a lack of priorities. Catholicism simply has so much stuff.

In particular, it seems to me that the way that many adults in the Church evaluate catechesis is by the criterion of knowledge. “In my day, people used to know the theological virtues! And could rattle off the seven sacraments! And the color of the vestments for each holy day!”

It should be obvious, I hope, that between a kid who doesn’t know the difference between the Assumption and the Ascension, but knows, in her heart, that Jesus Christ is Lord and died for her personally, and a kid who can rattle off all the high holy days just because he can rattle off a poem he’s learned, we should prefer the former. Of course, ideally, we would have faith and knowledge. But if we had to choose, we would pick the former. And the landscape of contemporary catechesis makes me think that we are very much in a “field hospital” and we should do triage. And I say this as someone who is reverently impressed at an octogenarian grandmother he’s met, who could still recite by heart the pre-Vatican II Catechism of the Bishops of France that she learned as a little girl.

With those prolegomena in mind, here are a handful of very simple priorities that I think we should keep as lodestars:

1. The kerygma. This may sound obvious but, believe you me, it is not. Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God, who became man, and died on the Cross personally for you, and rose again on the third day, and through His Cross and Resurrection he destroyed death and sin and through Him we are free. This fact is literally the most important fact in all of the Universe, in all of existence. If you have gotten this fact through to the little ones, you have succeeded in your catechesis (note: it’s not “you” that gets it sink in, it’s the Holy Spirit). What is the point of spending months making a poster-sized timeline of the Old Testament if nobody has even heard this?

2. Salvation by grace. I wish I’d had a penny for every time I heard some well-meaning housewife explain that to be a Christian is to try hard to be a good person. No! To be a Christian is to surrender to the grace of Christ and be incorporated into His Body which is the Church, and to be changed by His grace. The everyday pseudo-Pelagianism of  many Christians is a tumor to be extirpated. Yes, yes, it is a grace that we co-operate with, as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord. But we are saved by grace, not by works. And it pains me to think that this is still something many haven’t realized. This is particularly important in the context of catechizing children, because the worst thing you can do is to teach a young kid that being a “good Christian” (a contradiction in terms) is coloring within the lines and obeying Mom and Dad (obeying Mom and Dad! Yes, I have heard this!), because as soon as they reach adolescence they will junk the “Christianity” they’ve been taught as so much conformism and control structure (and they would be right to junk this false Christianity). Salvation by grace is and remains the most subversive message of Christianity, and it is one that is not taught enough.

3. The sacraments. I think my co-blogger Fr. Dwight Longenecker is absolutely right that one of, if not the biggest problem, in the Church is that most Catholics, even most Mass-goers, have stopped believing in the Real Presence. How fundamental this is! The Real Presence is everything. It is the key that unlocks everything about Christianity. It shows us–makes present–the Living God who became incarnate out of love and generosity, not necessity, a humble God, a God who came to serve, not to be served, a God who rescues us through nature and through the world and through our own humanity. The Real Presence is the rescue party of God, it is our help, our medicine, it is what carries us, what lifts us up. If kids aren’t catechized in the Real Presence, we have failed. Little kids should go to Eucharistic adoration. We need to think really hard about paedocommunion. The other very important sacrament for catechism is confession! God smashes the chains of sin that we keep putting on ourselves. It is liberation. When I was a kid and I went to confession, I literally felt like I was walking on air afterwards. Confession is so, so powerful for children. Once we get you hooked on the Real Presence and confession, you can’t leave. Muahahaha!

I have a bias for numbering things in threes, so I’ll probably leave this as the list, but I would nonetheless mention a couple more points. The first is prayer. It seems increasingly inconceivable to me that coaching people in prayer is something that the institutional Church basically doesn’t do. Especially for kids, this is criminal. Prayer is something that we’re basically supposed to know how to do innately. Now, of course, in one sense it is true–the Holy Spirit can reach us anywhere, at any time. But we are co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord. Imaginative prayer. Discursive prayer. Contemplative prayer. Meditation. Lectio divina. Little children, who are so receptive to the numinous, should be accompanied and coached and helped to pray, and pray well. Through this, they may deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that never leaves them. (This is a big hobbyhorse of mine–we need to do this for adults too. Stay tuned.)

The second is a “method” thing rather than a “goals” thing but I think it’s so important that it needs to be mentioned whenever the opportunity arises: it’s never too early! The truth of Christianity totally can be grasped by little children. Very little children. Three year olds. Four year olds. And they have such a link to the numinous! The faith of a child is a wonderful, important thing, which must be nurtured and strengthened so that it can be the seed of adult faith. This is especially important nowadays that–I see it, catechizing 9-10 year olds–the traits of adolescence come earlier and earlier, with its self-aggrandizing hermeticism, and its rebellion for the sake of rebellion. It’s never too early! A three-year-old can understand the Incarnation, insofar as it can be understood; in fact, probably better than you or me.

I’m sure I’ve missed something, and I’m sure I’m going about this the wrong way. But I have a feeling that if we were all on the same page, at least on this, we would have taken a very big step forward.



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  • Nicholas Haggin

    I like your top three list. I did a little self-assessment before commenting which suggests my household is stronger on points 1) and 3) than on point 2), a deficit which will now have to be remedied.

    It seems to me that, having defined what we are trying to teach, how we do it becomes self-evident: we as parents begin with our example and our words, and do our best to sustain them for the rest of our lives, but at the same time we include other teachers as our children grow.

    I think non-parental teachers are an absolute necessity because they show the children that it’s not just Mom and Dad who care about this stuff. When my older son started kindergarten, he discovered that, just like Mom and Dad, his teachers expected him to behave himself at Mass and not treat the pew as a narrow playroom. His behavior on Sundays improved almost immediately thereafter, and so did his appreciation for the liturgy.

  • JohnMcG

    For my family, and I mean no disrepsect to their teachers and catechists, I think the most learning happens in the car on the way home from Mass or their catechism classes.

  • mochalite

    Completely lovely. And you saved the best for last: “It’s never too early! The truth of Christianity totally can be grasped by little children. Very little children. Three year olds. Four year olds. And they have such a link to the numinous!”

    Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said that we all need to become as little children … He knew what you’ve said here. I’ve been teaching adults for many years; you’re making me think that I ought to volunteer for the young ones!

    • Teach the children like they’re adults, teach the adults like they’re children.

      • mochalite

        🙂 because all of us really are always both.

  • Carole

    Since you mention method, here’s something I would like to see us Catholics experimenting with a bit more: personal, Christ-centered witness testimony. Teens and young adults need to meet people who have encountered Christ in a personal way, and be able to talk with them, or at least about them. I’m really impressed with this project here, and going to try to start a similar project. http://www.iamsecond.com/seconds/eric-metaxas/

    • That’s a really good contribution, thanks.

    • mochalite

      One of my favorites of the IAmSecond videos is Scott Hamilton, perhaps because I’ve followed him as our daughter grew through figure skating. Very powerful!

  • perpetualmin

    Love this. Great way to cut through the static and talk about the heart of how we draw young people and children into a relationship with Christ. I think you are spot on about the order also.

  • In America #2 is problematical. Because it’s used to separate children from the church by certain fundamentalist cults.

    Look out for those Catholics, who believe that they are saved by their works!

    Teach them this, and it will become *much* harder to teach about purgatory.

    • It’s “acting in faith” in my class.

    • I should hope that teaching the Truth would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

      • But is it a truth?

        Sola Gracias is indeed a doctrine of the church- but it can also become the downfall of the Church.

        If you reject the idea of grace leading to faith leading to works- by rejecting the works- then of what use is the faith?

        • To your question, I can emphatically respond “yes.”

          • What about the second question, which is more pertinent in certain apologetics circles?

            If we accept Sola Gracias- which leads to Sola Fide- then Martin Luther and Jean Calvin would have us believe that leads to predestination- that good works are not of any importance to our salvation at all, which we can never merit but can merely be picked for, born for heaven or hell with no possibility of conversion.

            That’s a doctrine the church rejects, of course, but an overemphasis on Grace Alone can lead to it.

          • Simple: Sola Gratia does not lead to Sola Fide. And Catholics can affirm some versions of Sola Fide.

            And yes, an overemphasis on ANY doctrine at the expense of the others can lead to heresy–in fact, that’s what heresy IS.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Actually isn’t the teaching more correctly called Prima Gratia? The primacy of grace, not grace alone.

  • My starting point in my class is personal witness: Jesus matters in my life and here’s why.

  • Dan13

    I would add the three theological virtues. As you say, “it is a grace that we co-operate with, as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord.” The theological virtues are how we co-operate grace (and are in fact, gifts from God). Faith, hope, and love simply cannot exist without each other*. To say Catholics are justified by faith alone is accurate but disingenuous. Faith and love are linked and cannot exist separately from each other:

    “For to believe in a Christ so understood means simply to make love the content of faith, so that from this angle one can perfectly well say, love is faith.”

    “[I]t is also true that faith that is not love is not a really *Christian* faith; it only seems to be such–a fact that must redound both against any doctrinalistic misunderstanding of the Catholic concept of faith and against the secularization of love that proceeds in Luther from the notion of justification exclusively by faith.”

    -some liberal Catholic theologian (English translation from the original German)

    This also leads in to how we practice charity: we love God by loving God and each other. As Pope Francis says, the church is a field hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. By sharing our faith by loving God and one another, we bring in more patients to the field hospital.

    *There a nice sentence from the Council of Trent: “For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body.”

  • Laura Patten

    Thank you so much for this piece. I am going to go back over it when I have some more time. I’d like to ask, though, about point #2: There is definitely an emphasis from some around me (and perhaps me too?) on doing good. Granted, I think that it is framed in terms of doing good as a response to Christ’s love, but it still concerns me. But it is so much easier to say that “obeying mom and dad” is a part of the “good Christian life”, because it is so practical! How can we get practical with the transformative aspect of God’s grace? I’m also a convert from Protestantism, and find the whole “faith alone” thing abhorrent, as if once you say the “magic words” of “getting saved,” that’s all there is to it. How do we get real about point #2? Thank you!

  • I think you are getting evangelism and catechesis confused. They are both important and the Catholic church does a horrible job of both. Still they are very different. Evangelism needs to be something the church does constantly. We need to call people to embrace the gospel over and over again. People will respond in their own time.

    Knowledge is different. You can teach people things. Where people are at intellectually is way easier to predict then where they are at spiritually. They can learn the faith. It does matter. They might not say Yes to Jesus until many years later but knowing the Catholic faith will matter anyway.

    Catechesis does help with evangelism because it is the way we would act if we really believed it was true. One of the things both atheists and protestants do is learn the catholic faith better than 99% of Catholics. No hard to do. What it says to Catholics is that this person takes the Catholic faith seriously enough to learn it and talk with me about it. Why didn’t anyone at my parish or Catholic school take it seriously enough to do that? Is it because they don’t care? Is it because they don’t believe it themselves?

    The elephant in the room is the fact that many adult Catholics are really functionally atheists. If you really taught the faith the way it deserves to be taught you would get a lot of resistance from the parents. You want to teach the real presence. Great. What do you teach about Catholics who don’t go to mass regularly?

    • NicholasBeriah Cotta

      Haha, this point is well made. Catechesis has to be radical and challenging I think – it cannot shy away from certain things that “turn off” people of the world, it must defend them with vigor, compassion, and intelligence. If we let political correctness dominate our catechesis (like you suggest here, and I think is accurate), it is what closes the full Church to so many people.
      This is not about telling people they are bad and they need to follow the rules, it is more about telling them about the radical steps in our lives that take place when we follow Jesus.
      My point would be that catechesis needs to emphasize exactly how radical a figure Jesus was and why – he strengthened some levitical rules and toned down others and it is incredibly compelling and interesting to explain why. I think starting with Jesus’ ministry is how our ministry should be: he made people give up everything and follow him – if he wasn’t tough, he wouldn’t be God and he wouldn’t be remembered. His radical love is what changes the world and it culminates in his passion (which, agreeing with Pascal, also needs to be duly emphasized.)
      I guess I am saying to mirror our catechesis like Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. It would be like, “This is what radical love is and this is what it leads to.”