Is Jesus God? If you are Catholic, the answer should be obvious. But what would your children’s response be? I assume most people who bother to read a Catholic website have managed to pass that teaching onto their children. But you might be surprised how many Catholic children — even into the junior high years, do not know the correct answer.
An Unfortunate Surprise
As a religious education teacher on and off for seven years, I stumbled upon something very shocking: many Catholic children do not know that Jesus is God. One afternoon, I was trying to impress upon my fourth grade class how much God loves us. I told them that even though Jesus was God, He still allowed himself to be nailed to a cross out of love for us. A boy blurted out in surprised: “Jesus is…God?” There were the unfortunate chuckles around the room that every kid dreads.
Naturally, I gave the teacher spiel that everyone should feel free to ask me whatever questions they want because this was the place to do it. Then, I directed my response to the class and explained the Incarnation — Jesus already existed as one of the three persons in God — the Trinity — but became man by being born of Mary. I told them that we believe that Jesus, the Son of God, is our Savior Who became man, died for our sins, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. For at least one boy that day, this was news.
That experience stayed with me. I realized that it was possible to go through religious education classes and miss some very important lessons — lessons that are the core of our faith.
What happened subsequently should send shock waves to Catholics everywhere. Over the years, I kept asking classes this same question. Typically, half the kids raised their hands. One time, a girl’s hand shot up confidently but then she second-guessed herself. Looking around the room and seeing half the kids had not raised their hands, she said, “Oh wait,” as if in contemplation and pulled her hand back down. I asked the question again. Looking into the faces of the kids with their hands up, I could see they were confident in their answer. The other kids looked confused or worried that this was a trick question. So granted, maybe many of them thought Jesus was God, but feared there was a catch to my question.
The Surprise Gets Bigger
After I began writing this article, I was administered another jolt. I mentioned to my fourteen-year old-daughter what I was writing about. She is an eighth grader who just received the sacrament of Confirmation. “There were kids in our class who did not know what the Trinity is,” she informed me. “One person guessed it was Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” Then, she related a list of other seemingly obvious things that they did not know. “They don’t care,” she stated.
I asked my friend, who is the head of the Confirmation program, if the kids were really all that bad and “don’t care” as my daughter stated. Her answer was “Yes and no.” Many of the kids come from very difficult family situations. Sometimes spouses argue over whether the kids should be attending CCD and many never even go to Mass. Given the lack of example and religious upbringing in some homes, it is no surprise that many of the kids are not well catechized. For such families, it is a surprise they are bothering with CCD at all. At least it’s a start.
Regardless of the various family situations, there are many Catholic children who are not getting it. We adults often assume too much. When something seems so clear to us, we often fail to teach it. When it comes to children, however, we must assume nothing and explain everything.
If we consider just the students who attend after-school CCD classes, realize how easy it is to miss a lesson — any lesson. The classes meet once a week for eight or nine months. There are many weeks when class does not meet for one reason or another. Then, kids sometimes miss for sickness or other reasons. Also consider that not all CCD teachers are created equal so lessons and effectiveness will vary. Add to the mix that kids were in school all day already so their attention span is compromised. Now, with all these variables, how much of the Catholic faith is sinking in? If someone is absent when the Trinity, Holy Week, or any other lesson is taught, then typically they completely missed learning about it — at least for that year.
The Mission Field
I know that the CCD teachers in my church’s confirmation program are top notch, dedicated Catholics with a true desire to pass on the Catholic faith. But with all the variables in the classroom, it just ain’t easy. We should liken religious education classes to the mission field. Imagine how devoid of meaning the Gospels are if the kids do not have a clue who Jesus actually is.
The good news is that if they are attending CCD classes, there is at least one parent who thinks learning the Catholic faith is important on some level. The kids are showing up to some degree so even if it’s just a shred of faith, there’s something to start with.
I’m hesitant to preach but because I think this is so important, I’m going to get on the pulpit. Knowing how important it is to pass on the treasures of our Catholic faith, anyone who teaches the Catholic faith needs to start before the Blessed Sacrament before class and plead for the Holy Spirit to guide the teachings and open the hearts and minds of students. If you have children in your class that means you have a connection to their parents. Think of ways to draw them in. One year, I had little bottles of holy water from Lourdes for the kids. But to get it, they had to borrow my videos on Lourdes and Fatima at some time during the year and watch it at home. If any family members happened to be present and watch along, I would be killing two birds with one stone so to speak. I occasionally sent very brief letters home telling the parents what we were doing. At Christmas, I gave copies of my book Catholic Truths for Our Children to the parents to help them know and hand down their faith. Of course there are a number of good books that could be given to help encourage a parent in their job as primary educator of their children. For the kids’ Christmas presents, I enrolled them in a year of Masses and gave Miraculous medals on chains after teaching them the story behind it and the prayer to go with it.
I’m not so naïve to think the parents were all reading my books and watching the videos or that the kids all still wear my medals. Nor do I think I’m any better than many of the other CCD teachers I know. The point is that we have to depend on the Holy Spirit and also try to find creative ways to reach children and their families regardless of where they are on their faith journey. In many ways, teaching after-school religious education classes is similar to working in the mission field.
But this not just for CCD teachers; it’s for all of us. We are one body, so there is no getting away from the responsibility. It’s wonderful if we excel at passing down the faith to our own children, but our Catholic family is much bigger than that. We all must do our part to build up the Church. As St. Francis of Assisi said: “Preach always and if necessary, use words.”
This is our church — the Catholic Church — and there are a lot of children in it who need to learn their faith. How can we help them? Teaching is the obvious one. But what about sharing our faith with Godchildren, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, friends and neighbors? There are many ways to do this without cornering kids into a religion lesson at your house. St. John Bosco used to treat kids to a juggling and acrobatic show with the admission being a prayer or listening to him teach something on the Catholic faith. Books, videos and music can be given as gifts. When a child wants to know what you want for your birthday or Christmas, consider asking them to watch a video or read a book with you or on their own in your honor. Invite any friends of your children to Mass with you if you know they do not always attend.
Then there’s always prayer. If you don’t feel called to teach, how about spending time before the Blessed Sacrament and praying for students and teachers? How about a rosary a week or a month for faith and understanding to grow in our Church?
Of course the responsibility of handing down the Catholic Church falls on the shoulders of parents but it’s a responsibility we all share. The children are the future of our Church. If they are sitting at Mass on Sunday (yes, we all know not everyone shows up) and do not know that Jesus is God, imagine how little they are getting out of the Gospel readings. Not much. If Jesus is not God, then the Gospels lose their power.
When we volunteer ourselves to be in God’s army, He always puts us to work. We should all make a specific request to God to use us to invest in His Church. The Church is the people not the buildings. Our young Catholics represent the Church of tomorrow so they are a valuable investment indeed.