I have a single question for would-be catechists, and it is my failsafe predictor of success: Are you wildly, madly in love?
You think I oversimplify? I think you don't get this love thing.
Love's got a bad rap in the catechetical world, because it's been hijacked by the rainbows-and-unicorns crowd. Nothing wrong with rainbows, but love is something much, much bigger:
. . .you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
Did you see that? Or did you start tuning out after "heart" and begin thinking of teddy bears and needlepoint?
Our Lord was asking for your heart, and two seconds later he demanded your soul in addition. That's two different ways of pouring yourself out, completely and unreservedly, in your love of Him. Don't do one and think you have the other covered.
Then there's the mind and the strength. Don't tell me you're teaching the love of God, but somehow that doesn't include serious theology. Just no. It's not love if you leave your brain home. It's not love if you leave your body home. All of you. Everything. He's asking for everything you've got, all the time.
Give me someone madly in love, and they'll show up for class, prepared. Give me someone madly in love, and if they don't know the answer to that thorny moral problem, they'll ask around and find out the truth.
Give me someone madly in love, and they'll succeed at the follow-on to the Great Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. They'll love, wildly, that sullen kid in the corner who only comes to class because he's on the wrong end of a parental extortion scheme. They'll especially love that kid: preferential option for the poor in spirit.
Can the Faith be Transmitted in 30 Hours a Year?
In proposing solutions to our catechetical crisis, one recurring theme is that religious education classes are not enough. I agree. You can't teach someone to pour themselves out in love for our Lord by teaching them that the faith is nibbled at two hours a week, and then put away in a heart-shaped box and stored on the knickknack shelf until guests come.
Another theme: Education is not schooling. Absolutely. We deal our siblings in the faith a gashing blow when we persuade them that the measure of readiness for a sacrament can be found on an attendance sheet.
And it doesn't do to merely lecture on those themes. You have to follow up. If you really mean to have a Christian community, you have to organize the life of your parish so that the members actually spend time together. Praying, serving the poor, helping each other, all that stuff, all week long.
If you really mean for adult Christians to have an adult faith, you must treat them like adults – not like naughty children on probation. Too often our parishes are like the coddling mother who complains her children are spoiled, even as she runs around behind them, cleaning up all their messes.
First Kill All the Catechists?
What place, then, for religious education classes? If schooling isn't education, and attendance isn't faith formation, and parents need to take responsibility for their children's education . . . should we have a purge?
I say no. I see several important roles for weekly catechism classes in all their various forms and flavors:
- Classes are an efficient way to teach some things. When you have a group of people who are all interested in learning the same thing, getting together with an instructor is a handy way to make that learning possible.
- It is good for us to have many mentors in the faith. That doesn't mean every mentor is going to be an instructor. But some? Sure. Why not?
- It's fun! Yes? If you teach a cool class, it is. If it's not fun – I don't mean bubble-gum fun, but exciting and interesting and energizing – what exactly are you doing? Maybe it's not that classes are bad; maybe it's that your class is bad.
- Parents might reasonably want this. Parents often decide that it's important for their child to study some topic, and that they'd like to avail themselves of an instructor to teach that topic. Either you think parents get to make educational decisions for their kids or you don't; if you do, that means you respect the judgment of the very many parents who discern that this is the best thing for their child.