We Patheos Catholics received a letter recently from a distressed catechist: The kids don’t know a thing about the faith, the parents just want the First Communion party, and everyone seems happy to settle for a platter of American Culture with Catholic Dressing on the Side.
Christian LeBlanc ably answers the question of how to teach the last few classes of the year. I’d like to back up and answer the question from a different angle. Take a deep breath and get a cup of water ready, because the medicine might be a tad unpleasant going down. But I promise: If you take it, you’ll feel better in the morning.
I’ve got these kids and this class, now what?
You can have all the theories in the world about the ideal way to evangelize and catechize, but at this very moment the question is: What am I going to do with these people for an hour a week in my classroom?
The answer, and yes I’m shaking your shoulders, and staring you in the eye, and yelling just a little, is this: You are going to teach them the Catholic faith.
Are they a bunch of ignorant slackers who don’t even know the Sign of the Cross? Then you pick up your hand, and you put it on your forehead, and you very slowly walk them through: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Good. Let’s do it again. Good. And again. It’s a prayer kids, pray it like you mean it. Good.”
Yes, that’s your life. You told God you’d do anything for Him, and what He wants is for you teach a bunch of tired, cranky, fidgety kids how to make the Sign of the Cross. Or what Christmas is about. Or why they really, really, ought to ask Mom and Dad to please take them to Mass on Sundays. I’m sorry God didn’t give you a mission field in Haiti or a convent full of future St. Dominics, but hey, God loves jaded suburbanites with nasty cases of affluenza just as much. The physician is for the sick, not the well.
You have to love the kids, and like them too.
In a workshop once, a young, single catechist asked me for suggestions on ways to chit chat with parents after class. What should she talk about? I stink at chit-chat, so I was sympathetic to her plight. I suggested maybe she say something good about their child. Parents like that. She asked, with a few likely culprits in mind, “But what if there’s nothing good about that kid?”
I try to be a nice person, but don’t pull that line in my workshop. “Honey, there’s something good about that kid — there’s a lot of good about that kid — and it’s your job to find it.” Just don’t even walk through the door of that classroom until you are resolved to fall madly in love with every single bratty, bored, back-talking precious child of God in there. That student was made in the image of God, thank you very much. God doesn’t screw up His work. Don’t you screw it up either.
You have to love Jesus more than anything else in the whole wide world.
One of the troubles with catechesis is that it attracts good people. Organized people. Diligent people. The kind who follow instructions. People who have it together. “Good flesh,” as I heard a preacher call it once. When it comes to teaching wretched sinners, it pays to have lousy flesh. I might know one or two good catechists who are generally on the up-and-up, but the ones who do it best are the ones who know what horrid failures they are, and how desperately they rely on the love of God just to get their teeth brushed in the morning.(Yes, troll friends, the sinner needs to be vetted scrupulously. The right sinner for the job, and all that. If you’re unclear on the concept, read this post here.)
If you have a room full of eager disciples, you could ask Siri to read the Catechism for you, and they’d hang on every word. Thanks, Siri! You need a human in the room when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel. That human is you. You can’t just know the faith, you have to be madly in love with the Author of that faith.
Teaching religious education can’t be that thing you do because you’re supposed to do it. It has to be that thing you do because there’s nothing more important in the world to you than helping other souls find their way to Jesus.
Love won’t make you teach well. But it will make you teach enthusiastically, and that’s a start.
The rest of teaching is a skill you can learn. With hard work, you can get better it at over time, even if you stink at it now. Suggestions below on where to learn how to do that.
Why yes, your parish has a problem.
You’ve got a discipleship crisis on your hands. Your one class, no matter how well taught, is not going to fix everything.
(And yes, you can safely assume that the kids are never, ever, going to do the homework. Send home study guides, but visualize them dropping straight into the recycle bin the moment that child walks through the front door. It probably won’t happen. They’ll probably be blowing around the church parking lot. But the recycle bin is a nice image for planning purposes.)
The long term solution is for your parish, under the leadership of your pastor, to get serious about real, grown-up, soul-at-a-time evangelization. Until then, your religious education class is a tiny water cooler in the middle of the desert. So be it. Ask someone who’s living in a drought: Would you rather have five more gallons of faith, or none at all? Five gallons every time.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few practical resources to get you started:
- Christian LeBlanc’s book is an excellent primer on the art of teaching well, highly recommended.
- Here’s an article I just posted at AmazingCatechists.com that discusses how to overhaul your class in light of a serious mismatch between what the kids know and what the book says you’re supposed to be teaching.
- For a handful of specific teaching techniques that work well in the pressing conditions typical of many American parishes today, you might consider a look at my book. Technically it’s about classroom discipline, but the easiest way to get good behavior is to teach a really good class. So I spend a lot of chapters on ways to teach a good class under trying conditions.