I’m writing this post exactly 24 hours before my sons will receive their first communion.
The entire population of celestial souls in heaven is excited.
But there’s a sense of discontent in the air.
You see, I’ve been an elementary teacher for almost 20 years now and, as a professional educator, I feel like I know a thing or two about helping children learn. I’ve been trained by systems and experience to recognize holes in academic development, to fill those holes, and to allow the outpouring of knowledge from the world (and the heavens) to fill their minds until it spills over into their achievements.
But this year, at this moment, I don’t feel like we have achieved anything.
Sure, they know a few more prayers, a few more stories of a few more Saints, and a few things about what (or who) the Eucharist actually is.
But I don’t believe the children fully comprehend the source and summit of the Christian life.
I don’t think anyone does.
It’s a proverbial sting of catechists everywhere that, no matter how well we think we have taught our students the love of God, it fails in comparison to the actual love of God.
So, how do you teach that? How do you take the bland textbook that your diocese requires you to use for instruction and from those dead pages spark a fire of life and love in the hearts of your students?
Here are five suggestions for anyone who is looking to overhaul their current catechetical system.
Teaching is a complex act of charity. At any given time, a teacher’s mind is making hundreds, perhaps even thousands of micro-decisions. These can range from what tone of voice they take while delivering a lesson to which curriculum to adopt for instruction. The decision-making process for teachers, especially first year teachers, can be so mind-bending that they opt to leave the profession altogether (sad fact: most do within the first 5 years). The main brain-breaker? Classroom management.
The single greatest way to make catechism class better is by training catechists on how to properly manage a classroom. They need to know how to reward effort, maintain a positive and safe learning space, and nip potential negative behaviors in the bud before they happen. I know for a fact that not all catechism students are the angels we wish they’d be and, as a catechist, you need to know how to establish a positive relationship with students so they can learn how to open their hearts to the teacher par excellence, Jesus.
That starts with classroom management.
Make it Less Subject-y, More Spiritual Direction-y
There is a big difference between learning facts about our religion and learning how to actually live it. We’ve fallen into the trap of turning catechism into a class and not a lifestyle. Too much of what we do is based on curriculum and textbooks, so much so that our students associate their Faith journey with the school system structure – if I pass this class I’ll get my “graduate” and get my First Communion or Confirmation.
Marriage prep doesn’t do this (at least, I hope it doesn’t!). On the contrary, most marriage prep programs join an experienced couple with the soon-to-be-wed to guide them through what to expect. It is a much more personable process that focuses more on spiritual direction than mere learned facts. It goes beyond the basic and into the mystical. That’s how all catechism should be.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the Church teaches that there are three forms of prayer: vocal prayer meditative prayer, and contemplative prayer. At every level of catechism, there should be an intense focus on helping the learner develop a strong prayer life. This should be done strategically so as to ensure that students progress from one method to the next as their maturity (and God’s grace) allows them. While we deliver lessons in hopes that our students learn how to live their faith well, it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately opens their minds and hearts to receive such knowledge and wisdom. We are simply educational conduits through which God’s grace can enter their souls. Prayer unifies our instruction with God’s will for not only our mission but ultimately our students’ (and our!) salvation.
Provide Avenues for Intrinsic Action
One of the catch-22s of teaching is that, while most teachers are motivated to teach, not all learners are motivated to learn. Required classes, projects, exams, etc. tend to land on the lower end of the motivation totem pole. Want to make anything less desirable? Make it a requirement.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do understand (and appreciate) the teaching of necessary skills to attain higher ones. When I played basketball, I didn’t like the required pre-season sprinting, or distance running, or weightlifting. I did like how those made me a better basketball player, though.
When it comes to teaching catechism, the necessary requirements of teaching children their prayers, the ten commandments, and how to read a Bible are all great requirements. But, unfortunately, most catechism programs simply stop there. There’s no continuity into the transformative aspect of catechetics. It’s simply a required class where students (who are required to attend) read out of required texts do as to attain required academic expectations.
If we want to build masterful catechetical programs, it’d be wise to focus on the students’ desires as well as the necessary tenets of our faith. Talk to them one-on-one. Disciple them. Find out what burns within their hearts and help guide them toward what God is calling them to be. Once discerned, there’ll be no stopping them– they’ll be motivated.
Allow the Confirmed to Blaze their Own Path
If your parish is like mine, once a young man or woman is confirmed, they rarely ever get involved in anything else the Church has to offer. In fact, sometimes they fly the coop completely and leave the religion all together.
This can’t happen.
That’s like a soldier who completes his training only to leave the force before entering the war he trained for.
There needs to be a post-Confirmation program that focuses on the recently confirmed abilities to help serve the communities in which they live. It should be based on the Works of Mercy, and allow these young members of our Church to reap the benefits of their spiritual gifts so as to give them away in perfect charity.
Granted, we do have already-existing programs in most parishes in which the recently confirmed can take part – readers at Mass, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, ushers, choir members, sacristans, altar servers, youth group members, nursery helpers etc.
But there can be so much more.
Not all young people are attracted to those things. Some are attracted to missionary work. Others are attracted to monastic living. Still others are attracted to contemplative lifestyles and more intense study of the faith. There are even some daring young men and women who are into fund development!
We need to go beyond the “regular” opportunities for service within a parish and allow the recently confirmed to tell us what they would like to do with all that God has given them. It is with great hope that Confirmation will no longer be seen as a “graduation” from catechism class, but a first step into the real world where “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Mat. 9:37).
As you can see, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the catechetical front. If you are a catechist, or if you know someone who is, take these five recommendations to your DRE and decide how you might take your current system and integrate these five suggestions to make a stronger, more powerful program.