If Canonized She’ll be Barbara-the-Barnburner – UPDATED

There is nothing quite like an essay by Barbara Nicolosi. She is forthright; she is knowledgeable and blunt; she has zero-tolerance for bullcrap; she is also deeply thoughtful and her intellect shines through every paragraph she writes.

Not everyone always agrees with her, but she’s okay with that too — she is always up for a good debate. In other words, Barbara Nicolosi is a strong woman with strong views; if she is ever canonized she will be known as Saint Barbara the Barnburner, and this is why:

We have a problem in the Church in the U.S. We need to suppress the impulse to defend the indefensible, because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the lovely people who have been pulled in to teach the Faith in all our parishes. They are lovely, and God will bless them for their sacrifices. But, in my experience, nice doesn’t mean good teaching and we urgently need some good teaching.

Most parish DREs find their religious education teachers from the rolls of the parents who have kids in the programs…The various dioceses count heavily on their one- or two-day religious education congresses to get their catechists up to speed, but it is an absurd expectation. You can’t make theologians and educators out of people in a day. Typically, the highlight of these conferences for the attendees is the exhibit hall where they swoop all over booths of Catholic publishers and purveyors of holy hardware, looking frantically for tools that they can use in their classes. Talk about setting people up for failure!

The sad reality of parish-based catechesis in most places is that it’s boring, lightweight, irrelevant drivel for the kids, and frustration and embarrassment for the catechists.

Not long ago, my husband and I attended a mandatory two-hour session at a local parish, for parents with new babies and their corresponding godparents-to-be. There were about fifty of us in the hall and the main miracle of the evening was that none of us left the Church for another religion during the course of the evening. It was dreadful! Instead of helping us understand and value the glorious baptismal ritual, the three “team leaders” wasted our time asking us to decorate little white cloth dresses with colors and pictures that made us think of God. They told stupid stories about when their babies were born and embarrassing moments they had seen at baptisms. There was a long, awful period in which every pregnant couple got to explain the name they had for their baby. Almost none had chosen a patron saint’s name. And why would they? No one on the “team” suggested it as a good idea!

The evening was a well-intentioned, dumbed down, idiotic mess that was a waste for everyone who had crawled out of their offices and homes and missed dinner. I hated how the much-needed opportunity to prepare these parents and god-parents was squandered. We don’t have time for this!

Read on! It’s important. I love the passion and the smarts and the creativity of Barbara’s piece.

We are all-too-aware of how great a disservice we do our kids, and our church (hence ourselves and the God we purport to love and serve) when we do not support the urgent message of God’s love for us with the tools that will help people to both tap into that love and grow in understanding of it. When Barbara’s piece appeared yesterday, someone asked me why we bother to teach children the Lord’s prayer and “all those details” since “kids can’t understand it, don’t know what it means…why confuse them when all they need to know is that God loves them?”

Well, for a couple of reasons — the most primary being that when we have need of prayer and cannot find our way into it, those prayers we memorized-without-understanding as kids become excellent portals to deeper prayer and (in the case of the Lord’s prayer) lifelong theological meditations and instruction. So, too, with the “rules” we memorized, the definitions and meanings. All of that information, all of that learning, becomes part of a whole that informs our lives, our thinking, our reason, our ability to draw from ourselves, and also to ponder in ways that go beyond skimming the surface of things.

Rote memorization has gotten a bad rap in education — and it is certainly not the only way to learn and ought not be thought of as such — but its devaluation makes no sense. We teach our kids to memorize the times tables because that is necessary information. We teach them geography — even as they whine that they’ll never use it — because they don’t know at age 12 that they’ll someday have to plot things out in ways they can’t imagine.

We get them to memorize the Gettysberg Address because it is a potent, beautifully wrought expression of ideals we want them to appreciate and take to heart, even if they won’t figure out what it means until they’re thirty.

So, why shouldn’t we get them to memorize some tenets of the faith — even if they won’t use it until later, even if they won’t understand it until perhaps much later — and at least implant these worthy things into their synapses, so that when needed they are there, and people are not simply foundering around, lost and untethered?

We wouldn’t dream of sending our kids into the world without their alphabet, their times tables, their necessary rhetoric — the fundamental tools for getting by! Why would we think it acceptable to send them out unequipped with the fundamentals of faith? How can we achieve a happy medium between the over-reliance of rote-memorization which can too often create distance (and yet has weight and value) and the over-correction that emphasizes love and mercy (and which is also imperative to teach) but too often seems to reach out to God’s children with mushy arms, all sloshing gravy, but no meat?

One thing Barbara missed, but perhaps her experience was different than mine: the Baltimore Catechisms were fun! At least I always found them fun. It’s fun to memorize things and be able to put it all out there upon demand, with these vivid images alight in the imagination, even as you recite — it’s communal! like call-and-response — “Who made us?” “God made us!”

“Who made the world?”
“God made the world!”

“Who is God?”
“God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things.”

“What is man?”
“Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.”

“Why did God make you?”
“God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”

All these years later, I can still spit it out, and it’s a happy memory for me, but then even as a kid, I loved this — I loved the tantalizing invitation to mystery wrought by precisely these succinct fundamentals.

The stuff we’ve committed to memory does not abandon us. When we are in a bad place, or a panicked place, and we have no words for it — the stuff of memory gives rescue and refuge and even consolation.

Pondering that last question and answer, though, that last call-and-response, I can’t help but think of my generation; how it uprooted everything familiar — notions of marriage, family, fidelity, permanence, obedience and more — in the zeitgeist-filled search to discover, “who I am, what I am supposed to do with my life…”

The answer was there — spelled out in the Baltimore Catechism — but for many, internalization of that very basic, primary information, didn’t happen. And the fallout from that lack has been disastrous for us as a society.

We all learn differently, and rote-memorization of basic principals can never be assumed to be sufficient instruction — there has to be the other part, too, the learning that comes from lived-out examples of what love and mercy and humility and obedience actually means. There has to be teaching that lays out that God is, finally, the All-in-All, but also the Father who races out to greet the prodigal, and who goes out to find the discontented obedient ones, too, to say, “but you are always mine and all I have is yours — and that Jesus, who the Father has appointed as Judge, is the one who modeled mercy for the sake of that Judgement.

Rote vs Love? Justice vs Mercy? There is no either/or; it’s all both/and. There has to be a Benedict XVI and there has to be a Francis I — this is how we reach the totality of church teaching.

I am so very grateful to Barbara Nicolosi for writing this fine essay. She is instigating a conversation we absolutely must have, and it has to be one that moves beyond agendas, or comfort zones, or polite fictions. The matter is too urgent for any more of that.

UPDATE:
Ryan Adams
picks up the point of managing to not be hateful with the truth

Related:
Peggy Frye on reaching the pews

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About Elizabeth Scalia