I’d like to suggest that, as we approach the holiday season, we offer a particular gift to the Christ child that will bear fruit for eternity in beautiful ways.
Let’s make a new and passionate commitment to pray for and love the parents of our students.
NOTE: If you want to skip past my pontificating, there are seven practical tips at the end of this post.
Here’s what I’m thinking. I teach workshops for catechists, and I’ve had a number of conversations with DREs and catechists that indicate that they feel a real and understandable frustration with some of the parents they meet. They don’t take their children to Mass… they don’t know their own prayers… they skip religious ed whenever it conflicts with (fill-in-the-blank)! Some of them are so blazé about religion that, if catechists and DREs were not so dedicated, they’d be tempted to ask, “Why do you bother bringing them to the parish at all?”
It’s a huge problem, but I have great sympathy for those parents, having once been like them. After Vatican II, the emphasis in catechesis was primarily on having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. On the surface, it was a very good thing. Too much emphasis had been on facts and rules, many thought, with not enough heartfelt living of the Christian message.
But the change in emphasis opened the flood gates to a lot of well-meaning experimentation that resulted in religious education being dumbed-down and sugar-coated for the masses–as if Jesus were not our complex and awesome eternal God, full of mystery and power, who made demands and took time to patiently teach the faith that would save us from our sins. A plush-toy, nice-guy Jesus took his place, and he simply didn’t inspire conversions.
In the mad rush to welcome young people to the Christian message, out went rote learning and study that might have equipped teens to understand and defend their faith in an increasingly conflicted and challenging culture. Out went the traditions and prayers of the Church, as hand-holding and folk songs took hold of liturgies, robbing generations of Catholics of much of the transcendent beauty that is our spiritual inheritance.
The anti-authority movement of the sixties and the “me” and “money” generations of the seventies and eighties finished the job, as they gutted our culture’s connection with the teaching authority of the Church. Many went the way of the culture and generations of Catholics were lost to ignorance of the sacramental and theological treasures of the Church.
As a result, the parents of many of our students have been robbed of their religion, but they don’t know it. They don’t have a fire for the Faith, don’t understand why they feel like they’re on the outside looking in, and don’t have a clue what they’re missing. They are the spiritually poor among us and they need our help.
Some parishes are addressing the problem through whole-parish catechesis and other innovative models designed to educate parents along with children. But most of us are handed a child-centered curriculum and asked to fight what seems an uphill battle. So what do we do?
- First of all, we stop criticizing and start honoring. Parents, on the whole, no matter how poorly catechized, love their children and work very hard, making sacrifices to give them everything they think is important for a good life. They’re awfully good to us catechists, too. In spite of a bad economy, they buy everything on our supply lists, and bring us gifts at Christmas and at the end of the school year. They’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got and it’s not appropriate for us to judge where they are on their spiritual journey.
- Second, recognize, because many children and their parents are “un-churched,” that you as the catechist are the face of the Church to them. Everything you do to either welcome or distance yourself from them affects their impression of what the Church is, what it stands for, and whether or not they are welcome to join in as members of the family of God.
- Greet them warmly every time you see them.
- Pray for them and their families, making small sacrifices for their intentions.
- Ask for their help and advice where needed, to better serve their children.
- Praise their children where appropriate.
- Send home weekly notes that keep them up-to-date on what their children are learning, fostering lively discussions at home. Include (at various times): excerpts from the catechism to help them understand the concepts they may never have been taught themselves; the texts of any prayers the children are learning; reminders of approaching holy days of obligation; fun ways to celebrate Catholic culture in their homes; lists of great websites, children’s Bibles, books of saints’ lives, or other resources that might enrich their life of faith; your personal testimony of faith in small, appropriate doses. Encourage feedback by providing your contact information and do clear all communications with your program director.
- Get their email addresses at the beginning of the school year, so you can send them a copy of your weekly summary when they are unable to attend. Hint: they can easily hit “reply” and let you know what is going on at home. If the child is ill, the class can pray for that child and you can let the parents know this. If the family has experienced a tragedy, you can offer prayers or other support as appropriate. In fact, if you can possibly manage it, attend wakes or funerals. Seeing your face in the crowd can mean a great deal to the family.
- Send home thank-you notes for gifts and other kinds of help or involvement. By honoring parents in small ways throughout the year, your caring outreach may provide a bridge back to the sacraments for those who have fallen away; and might just fan into flame a spark of faith that will draw the whole family into the heart of Christ. God bless you!