More on Religious Ed…

Here’s the thing about religious education. Kids need it. Whether we can agree they need to receive this instruction from a nun, a priest, a lay person who’s a certified Catechist, or from their parents, they most definitely need it. And they need it presented to them properly. These are the foundations of life long faith we’re building here, so children’s formation is a serious business.

That’s why I truly appreciate all the thoughtful debate.

Joanne McPortland writes in What’s Really Wrong With Catholic Religious Education

This morning, sharing a friend’s dismay about yet one more over-promoted but under-attended parish workshop for adults, it hit me. Our catechesis fails not because of our methods or our teachers or our educational philosophy, but because we have been—for as many decades as I can remember in my own life, and long prior to that in ancestral memory—catechizing the wrong damn people.

Our whole formational structure is and has ever been concentrated on children. What formation opportunities most adults—that is, Catholics not engaged in regular liturgical or catechetical or outreach ministries–encounter in the average parish consist of extensions of the parenting of children: sacramental preparation for Marriage, Baptism, First Confession and First Communion, Confirmation, and the occasional intergenerational catechetical activity. There may be adult workshops and classes on a variety of topics related to family life, but they’re rarely attended by those not already in the ministerial loop.

Now while I don’t agree with Joanne, I don’t completely disagree with her either. Yes, as adults we need religious education as well because who can remember everything they were taught as children? I think adult formation goes without saying. Catholicism is a continual call to conversion. Meaning… don’t ever stop learning. It’s our responsibility as Catholics to keep learning our faith, because how else can you faithfully practice it?

So Joanne proposes a more adult centered approach to religious education. It’s not a bad proposal per se but I’m not entirely sure how it ties into children’s religious education. Is the idea here that pious adults automatically breed pious Catholic kids negating the need for formal classroom education? Because St. Monica is not impressed.

Speaking of formal classroom catechism, Elizabeth Duffy shares her own ideas about children’s catechism.

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.

To me it sounds as if her approach is more Montessori in nature, which I get because not everyone learns in the same way. I see her point but still contend that a classroom environment is strongly needed, mainly because without it the door opens wide for … puppets.

Today, boys and girls, we are going to learn about irreverence.

Not to imply Elizabeth is advocating irreverent puppetry. But you get the idea… things have a habit of getting wonky when you minimize the academic nature of formation. I speak from experience, having fought a parish teacher who thought having kids make their first confession to a teddy bear a smashing age appropriate idea.

In Persona Caniformia? NO.

All the great thought provoking dialogue on the subject aside, I really think the solution here is a little more straight forward, and a lot less complicated. Have babies. Go to mass. Teach sin.

Have babies.

You know how having kids opens your narrow, cynical adult mind up to experience the joy of small everyday wonders we typically take for granted? Well it’s the same thing as kids learn their faith. We get to re-experience it anew with them. I know Elizabeth and Joanne both object to the idea of children having to “teach” Catholicism to their parents and I want to ask, why? I’ve learned a great deal from my son and his inquisitive nature. I still firmly believe that this is the most effective form of adult catechism out there. Parent and child learning together.

Sure, we can offer an adult Bible study group and some people will go, others will not. But know, you cannot force people to continue their adult educations. You can however, require it of children who are making their first sacraments. And those kids will take it home to their parents. And I see nothing wrong with this at all, other than some parents will be move involved than others and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about that… which is precisely why teaching solid non-watered down catechism is so dang important.

Go to mass.

If a child is seven years old and doesn’t know the Lord’s Prayer then that child’s parents are not taking them to mass regularly and are certainly not praying it at home. And while it puts a catechist in an awkward position to mention that fact, it’s still a fact that needs to be plainly mentioned to the parents and the parish priest.

Which brings me to, teach sin.

Do the parents know missing mass is a mortal sin? Does the child? Well, now you can let them know it is. And if they get offended they get offended.

It’s not religious education that needs a complete overhaul… it’s our attitude toward it that does. It doesn’t need to be tailored or altered to fit the needs of a failing few, like a Catholic version of No Child Left Behind. All that does is lower the standards for everyone else and we’ve all seen what that has gotten us.


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About Katrina Fernandez

Mackerel Snapping Papist

  • Michael O’Keefe

    Excellent thoughts! I have so many I can’t make a coherent comment. But I agree that there is nothing we can do about some people being un engaged, and that children need clear cathechesis.

  • vox borealis

    Yes, yes, and yes…and twice yes on Sundays! Preach it, sister!

  • Gail Finke

    I think it priests would just TELL PEOPLE they are expected to be at Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation it would, a) shock some, b) offend some, and c) GET A LOT OF PEOPLE AT MASS. This whole idea of “well, come when you FEEL like it, and if you love God enough you’ll feel like it” is stupid. People need expectations. And if you don’t expect them to be somewhere, they won’t be there. There’s a difference between breaking a rule and not believing there is a rule. The former is better.

    • Gail Finke

      Sorry for yelling…

      • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

        No, it was appropriate. ;-)

        • david

          VERY appropriate! ;)

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    See, I do object, and strenuously, to using kids to catechize their parents. Because it is a step towards using the child as a tool, it’s an affront to their dignity. In situations where the parent is not supportive, it promotes conflict in the parent child relationship. And children should not have to parent their parents. This doesn’t describe your interactions with your son that promote your own learning.

    Honestly, I think family based catechesis is the way to go not because it’s more academically rigorous, but because it strikes at the rotten core of our current method, which is the lack of a shared Catholic family life.

    I think you could get a lot done with a catechetical program that consisted of daily Mass or Vespers, a shared meal, and a short section of Fr. Barron’s Catholicism DVDs. It’s remedial, but from what I have seen from my students, we need remedial badly.

    • Christian LeBlanc

      In short order the kids in my catclass learn stuff beyond most of their parents. I don’t expect them to catechize their parents per se; but I do expect them to tell their parents what they learn each week.

    • Faithr

      I think it is wrong to try to catechize parents through their kids. First of all, if I tell the kids – you need to go Mass on Sundays or it is a grave sin and their parents say, no the travel soccer team is more important and we just can’t make it to Mass today – who is the child going to believe? Not me. Also, I firmly believe that religion is caught, not taught. Teaching is good and everything – definitely necessary but first must come the foundation of living it. That’s why I think family catechesis is the way to go, but not with boring lectures, etc. No, make it fun. Start out with the family doing some service project together. It feels good to help others, it warms the heart, the parents feel like they are parenting well, the kids admire their parents,so start up with the family service projects where families and the whole community joins in a does something wonderful. Begin it with a prayer and end it with a prayer. Maybe even have a short scripture study stuck in there somehow. Next work on living the liturgical year, another thing that makes parents feel good – they are celebrating things like Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter making warm memories with their kids. Have liturgical craft nights, etc. Next how about some movie nights and then discussions about the meaning of the movie. They can be short ones for kids telling the story of saints (a company called ccc made some a decade or more ago); longer ones for older kids. When dealing with first graders – what’s the thing parents are most concerned with? Learning to read – give each first grader a Beginner’s Bible; have them take it home and either be read to from it or read it out loud to Mom or Dad if they can read. Then have them come in and put on skits based on the important Bible stories. Do you know how cute parents think their kids are in skits? (because the kids are cute!). Make participating in this sort of thing mandatory – must participate in a panoply of events at least 8 times a school year to receive the sacraments. Then at some of the events a priest or deacon should be present to go around and meet with each family. Just take a few minutes to say something nice, ask how they are doing, if they have any questions, etc. I could write more but I have to make dinner. I’ve been teaching RE for 8 years off and on for the past 18 years. It is discouraging as heck when the the 7th or 8th grader doesn’t know who Moses is or has never even heard of the Golden rule. I don’t even ask if they go to Mass because it is too disheartening to hear the answer. The church needs to put a lot more energy into this – it is a travesty that She has not done her most basic job – spreading the Gospel to her own baptized children.

      • david

        Sounds like you have some terrific insights and ideas. May I recommend you propose these to your local bishop and/or the USCCB for dissemination to other diocese. The pro-life movement has plans and programs for implementation; why shouldn’t “Pro-catechesis” have theirs as well? :)

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Hmmm… a lot of things here.

    Firstly, I think that we have to stop to wonder why the child was baptized and why they are taught about the scaraments so that they may receive them. The answer is one and only: Jesus Christ. We are baptized in Him, we come to His Church in order to receive Him. It is first and foremost about a personal encounter with Our Lord and Savior. So, if CCD programs are more worried about the ropes than passing on a way of life walking with Jesus, then it’s failed.

    In the same token, children imitate everything their parents do, consciously and not. If they see and hear their parents praying on their knees, they’ll do the same acts first and then realize about and meet the Person they are offered to. The parents are the primary educators of children and no program, even a Montessori program, will be able to make up for parents that teach, by their actions or lack thereof, the opposite. Period.

    This is why I think that in this age when the first extremely poorly catechised generation are parents with children in CCD need to be catechised. Our parish realized this (v. http://saintwilliams.org/AdultFaithFormation ) It seems to me that the greatest factor n the success of this parish program is that adults learn to decompartmentalize their lives, that Jesus deserves and wants to be present in all facets of the day and of life, private and public. And the fruits are yielding ten, sixty, one hundred fold: devout adults evangelize, primarily their own families. They are eager to introduce to others their Savior, their Lord, their Brother, His Mother and His friends; they are His friends now and want to increase His number of friends. His friends are then eager to meet Him in His Church and in His sacraments, to know Him and about Him and to enjoy His company.

  • alwr

    Here’s what I find interesting. No one writing these scathing reviews of religious ed programs seems to be actually engaged in teaching religious ed.

    Also, some of us simply can’t have babies. But thanks for one more church-based slap in the face about that.

    • Christian LeBlanc

      I’ve been catechizing kids or adults since 1998. My worldview of catechesis is uhh, worlds away from most commenters on the subject. But then what happens in my class is worlds away from most catechesis.

    • Romulus

      As one who’s been teaching adult catechesis for ten years, I must step in and say that catechists are all very well but to really transmit the faith, the liturgy (unfiltered and un-monkeyed-with) gets the job done without having to rely on the rare and passing availability of inspired teachers.

    • http://embersofincense.wordpress.com/ HonestlyCatholic

      I have taught 5th grade, the confirmation class and third grade. I have also assisted in youth ministry. I fully believe the people we should be educating are adults. You tell kids they should be going to Mass weekly and you do indeed create conflicts between parents and kids. You start putting the parents’ authority in question.

      One of the parishes I used to attend was brilliant. We had sacramental preparation for the kids. It was a couple years before first holy communion and a couple before confirmation. Everything else we offered was in the form of adult education and wasn’t aimed exclusively at parents.

      You need sacramental preparation and you need to invite adults to adult formation classes. Childcare with the class would be a great benefit. Most classes should not have to be manditory. Beyond that you then need to get the parish focused off its immediate community and to its local community, reaching out to non-Catholics, fallen away Catholics through things you can agree on, through aid to the poor, etc. You give people a taste, you get people coming.

    • BHG

      It’s not a slap in the face. She wasn’t talking about YOU. I faced the pain of infertility too but it’s a good idea not to read insult into every comment about having kids. Catholics–like the rest of the Western world–are in an elective demographic winter. You may not be able to do anything about because you cannot have babies, that but there are those who can by responding to the call to conversion she issued. And I am sure you do not mean to imply that her comments are invalid simply by virtue of her not being involved in religious ed–did you?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat Katrina Fernandez

        Or the assumption that I am not engaged in religious ed based programs. I figured they aren’t long time readers or they’d know about my involvement in RCIA and my own homeschooling religious ed w/ my son.

      • alwr

        It is a constant slap from the more right-oriented faction of the Church. The assumption that childless couples are making a selfish choice is extremely demeaning and insulting and lacking in any attempt at understanding what people’s actual circumstances are. And infertility is only one reason. I have no idea what the status of my fertility ever was. I married later in life but have the misfortune of looking much younger thus being accused openly by one parishioner of being a “selfish contracepter” (the latter not being a word, mind you) and implored to “just have a baby” constantly. Even if I were 30 or so as I apparently look to be, we could not feed or house a child due to under employment for four years now.

        My point about the people not being involved in teaching is a wide angle view based on the flurry of posts on the topic this week that seem to have a “you people are doing it wrong!” tone rather than any constructive suggestions. It also shows a severe lack of understanding child development and how people learn. Children would learn nothing from dinner lectures as the original post suggested. Most adults would not either as most people retain very little of what they hear. Believe it or not, many people involved in religious ed for our children are current or former teachers who do know how people learn and are putting their knowledge to use in our classrooms at church while still making sure that it is not the exact same environment as school.

        • BHG

          I am sorry for your pain and bad treatment at the hands of others. But it doesn’t change the fact that the author is not talking about you or anyone like you. It seems any reference to the fairly obvious point that Catholics are not having children and are failing to appreciate the beauty of Church teaching on family (all of it, even the help others in need part) is off limits to you as a slap in your face. It’s not, really and truly–it’s raising an important issue for discussion.

          I think you are over-reacting to the comments about education as well. The complaint is not about GOOD teachers it is about the ones that are not good, and there are many in PRE and in schools. If you are good one, good for you, keep on keeping on. But if you are the kind who would suggest confessing to a bear as age appropriate and hunky-dory, then…… The author raised some issues about education including how to assess whether catechesis is proceeding well, and gave some specific suggestions. It would appear you don’t like them.

  • akmeyer

    Love the thoughts; learning the doctrine should be all encompassing from the adults, to the kids, and back on up the hierarchy. We all learn from each other, and some are actually gifted with the charism of teaching! Imagine if we all used the charisms God gave us, the world and Christ’s Church wouldn’t be in such disarray. I actually send home thoughts and activities on the week’s lesson for parents to engage their 1st & 2nd graders. This gets them both involved in contemplating the preparation for First Reconciliation and First Communion.

    On a side note, the language grammar teacher in me thinks the word “Mass” is capitalized. It is different than the “mass” of an object. Very different…

  • WRBaker

    As a Catholic school teacher, I’ve heard and seen a lot of shuffling when it comes to this subject.
    You have different parents to deal with, from the very religious to the not so much.
    In the classroom, you can almost tell what the parents are like by how much the student participates in religion class (say from about 5th through 9th grade – I’ll leave out high school students because the peer pressure and the lack of catechesis seems to really kick in during their first years there).
    Teachers often avoid the difficult subjects. Homosexuality, for example, will often be presented by a student, often as a challenge something like, “My parents don’t think it’s a big deal and I don’t either.” Invariably, no one has taken the time to dig out the scriptures and explain not only what, but why the Church says what it does about it.
    It is so vitally important to “get” to the students by the middle school grades, before they go on to “social justice” issues.
    The basics are also not to be neglected: I would introduce beginning Latin, learning altar serving, reading a classical Catholic novel and a little Catholic philosophy (e.g., St. Thomas’ Quinque Viae). The parents were always somewhat astonished when their child would tell them what we were learning and they would often comment that they were learning a lot, too.

  • oregon nurse

    I’ve been following the various threads on this topic and I keep running into the notion that parents and/or CCD teachers are needed to pass on the faith. I disagree. They are needed to teach the religious doctrine. It is God who confers the faith. If you want faith, pray for it, for yourselves and for your kids. Like Katrina said, St Monica knows the difference, invoke her intercession. The best we mortals can hope to ‘do’ is to prepare the soil of our children’s hearts to receive God’s word but God is solely in charge of passing on the faith.

  • Rosamund

    What on earth is a clown Mass? That’s probably the most disturbing thing I’ve seen all year…so far…epps.

  • Todd Flowerday

    Too much education and not enough formation. No program will work unless and until parishes are prepared to form people into disciples. It goes way beyond being believers, even knowledgeable believers.
    Children can be formed as disciples. Just like adults. The Church’s educational institutions are just unwilling to engage the real issue. But once disciples are formed, everything else falls into line.

  • SteveP

    Well put, very well put, Katrina. Liturgy is the pattern of life much as our genome carries the pattern of our mortal bodies. Attending Liturgy in all its forms — Liturgy of the Hours, Liturgy of the Word, and the pattern par excellence, Liturgy of the Eucharist — is life as well as the practice of life. Perfect practice makes perfect.

  • Blake Helgoth

    Well, if we poured the kind of resources into adult / family formation, instead of say, parish schools and RE programs imagine could be done. I also think we need to move away from the idea that if we build it they will come. We can’t be satisfied with only reaching the 7 – 15% that come to our stuff. We must go out, as Pope Francis says, and meet people were they are at. Once we begin to walk with them then we start to share the Gospel and then invite them to our stuff to be formed. Once they are formed they can be sent out. Where did I concoct such a radical idea? From the example of Jesus. Think about it. Did Jesus start parochial schools and RE programs? Did the Apostles? My experience as a youth minister and a catechism taught me that, for the most part, it was only the kids that had a solid life of faith at home that even stood a chance of maintaining even the basics – Sunday Mass attendance – no matter what you did.

  • Mater

    Require parents to teach their own kids. Provide weekly classes to assist them in this endeavor. Have pastors (not DRE’s) evaluate children to see if they are ready to receive sacraments.

    Have academic type test for adults to show proficiency in basic church teachings BEFORE pre-cana and marriage.

    Provide ongoing higher level (high-school and beyond) resources (class, books, DVD’s) in the parishes.

    Boom, done.

  • Tricia

    CCD is a recent phenomenon compared to our entire Church history. So are catholic elementary and high schools for that matter. So how was catechesis done until modern times? It was always done from the pulpit and thereby extended to the home. Homilies were always catechetical; they had to be. There was no other way of reaching families. Priests need to “hit” the crowd while they have a captive audience at Mass. I am very sad to say that in the twelve years my parish has been in existence people are no more instructed in the faith than from day one. Sad, but true. God will surely bless them for their attendance even though they have no real idea of what is going on at Mass. I’ve asked fellow parishioners what the Host is; most say it is a symbol of Jesus. God bless all the people who teach the faith in CCD or schools.
    They are valiant. But I think uncatechized parents and children need to be taught from the pulpit. I’ve asked many priests to do this many times; most say no. Once in a while you find a priest who does this. The priest needs to explain the beauty and theology of the Mass. Even if it was three minutes before his “planned “homily. The faith was always handed down this way. Even the beautiful stained windows were catechetical, as was the structure of the church itself and everything in it. Maybe we need to go back to the “old way” of passing on the faith and saving souls.

  • Aurelia

    I’m in my late teens now, and attended our parish’s CCD classes from kindergarten to high school (at which time we began doing our own lessons at home with the wonderful Kolbe Academy theology curriculum). For most of that time, we went to Mass fairly often, but not when we didn’t feel like it (like when it was raining or we’d just come back from a trip). I heard in CCD that you need to go to Mass every Sunday, and was told by a priest to tell my parents that, but being a shy child this was a seemingly impossible task. It’s unfair to tell children to catechise their parents because it requires them to confront their parents and tell them they’re wrong. Children naturally catechise adults, but this is because they are children, and nothing more. That wonder and innocence works miracles on adults. A six year old piping up hesitantly that we need to go to Mass this Sunday because Teacher said so doesn’t.
    Family catechesis truly is the most important. I had a very lite understanding of Catholicism until my mother converted, when I was in middle school. She was very excited and studied everything she could get her hands on, and she brought me with her on this process. It was an invaluable gift, and one year of her tutelage did more than the previous eight years of religious education.

  • AK

    My child is in the second year of a two year Confirmation prep through the parish program. Not even one mention of the gifts of the Holy Spirit yet. Not one of these tenth graders has a clue. Lots of pizza and pajama parties though. No curriculum whatsoever. No formation, no substance. I have hired a tutor, a Catholic school Religious Education teacher who didn’t even want me to pay her and was honored to be asked (although I do of course). Confirmation is 4 months away. Please pray for us.

  • Beth

    THANK YOU!

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    How about instead of puppets, movies? There are some really wonderful Catholic movies out now, not just low budget ones like the angel on the beatitudes one they showed my son for 1st Reconciliation, but good family movies about Catholicism that we should all be watching together.

    Change the culture, change the future

    • Christian LeBlanc

      I’ve been catechizing since 1999 or so. I never have games, movies, crafts, or parties. I fill classtime up with live, teacher-generated content. I do recommend movies to the kids, but to be watched on their own time.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        Probably wise, up to a point. That point is that we have a new culture starting in the first world based primarily around screen time.

        Technology can be used by good as well as by evil. But I think you’ve given me an idea for a new video game.

        • Christian LeBlanc

          Don’t worry, they get plenty of it every other year of catechesis, as well as every year of K-12.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    Oh, how people bemoan the level of parental involvement in catechesis. All I care about is that they drop their doggone kids off on time, every time. I’d be happy if atheists dropped their kids off. And Muslims. And Mormons. And pro-choicers. And pro-SSMers. And the adults would all be welcome to sit in the back. I’ll tell anybody about Jesus and his Church: 6:30-7:30 pm Wednesday night, St Mary’s, Greenville S.C.

  • http://www.lampofthebody.com/ Dave Zelenka

    The truth is that kids are smart, smarter than us adults with slow brains. They see hypocrisy a lot better than our brains that have been ‘conditioned’ to not see it.

    So, what happens is that when a child sees hypocrisy in their lives, when they cross the boundary from childhood to adults, then they start question all the precepts that the role models who taught them professed. This is the story of so many Christian children. This was my story until I came back to the Church.

    Jesus solves this problem. As role models we must: (1) not be hypocrites, (2) make our yes, yes, and our no, no, (3) profess our sin-nature, (4) take a daily humble pill, (5) learn how to love, (6) learn how to be grateful, (7) learn how to be joyful.

    Much of (1) through (7) has wrongly become endemic to our Christian/Catholic culture, which causes young adults to flock away from the church.

    But really, the key is to instill Hope, Joy and Love into our children. We are “Children of the Light” aren’t we? It’s really that simple.

    Dear Jesus, you said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” We adults have become so entrenched in our sin, forgive us and make us new. Give us joyful and grateful hearts. Amen.


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