I’ve spent the last six years working closely with Catholic school teachers and I’ve observed an interesting trend. If you ask a group of educators from a typical school to tell you what’s important in a religion textbook, resources for teaching the liturgical year will inevitably top the list.
But interestingly, this request never comes from schools where the Faith permeates the atmosphere. Those schools which some would describe as having a “strong Catholic identity” seem the least interested in teaching the liturgical year.
Isn’t this backwards? Wouldn’t the schools with strongest Catholic identity be those expecting liturgical year content in their textbooks? After all, how else would they get their strong Catholic identity?
When I think about this question, my mind goes back about 15 years to Roatan, Honduras.
On a cruise, my husband and I got a chance to pursue a dream to SCUBA-dive. While becoming certified is normally a weeks-long process, this excursion offered to teach us everything we needed to know in a single day! We spent the morning in a classroom with a textbook—examining diagrams of the regulator, memorizing images of hand-signals, and reading steps on what to do in minor emergencies like losing our mouthpiece. I was an expert. You could have asked me anything. As we wrapped up and put our books away I felt pretty satisfied with myself.
But then, they made us go—wait for it—into the water. And I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. As I waited about 2 feet below the surface for my turn to demonstrate that I could flood my mask and then follow all the steps to clearing it out, I realized the utter uselessness of theory alone when faced with practical reality. I choked, literally. It was only after seeing six other people follow the steps and allowing my instructor to patiently help me that I was able to do it. And then, happily, I knew what to do. With practice, it started to come naturally and my fear evaporated. I could dive. I wondered why I had been hesitant to begin with.
This key difference between theory and practice is something we all know instinctively. After all, if we want to learn to cook, we don’t read biographies of chefs or research the chemical processes of emulsification and fermentation. We get in the kitchen and cook while an experienced person shows us how. If we want to get better at baseball, we don’t read up on velocity, friction, and vectors, or read biographies of baseball players, we practice hitting and fielding balls while a coach gives us pointers.
We even see it in our schools. If a football team is doing poorly, what will the coach immediately order up? Practice. Not theory.
Now, of course the theoretical pieces can help, but they will never be enough on their own. They cannot on their own really teach us to do anything. And worse, presenting them in isolation can fill us with a false sense of accomplishment that gets us in trouble when we are really put to the test.
Imagine two boys: One hears his father tell him how important prayer is (but never actually sees him pray) and he does a few homework pages on forms of prayer. The other boy prays with his father every day. Which boy will actually believe prayer is important? Which will grow up wondering if his father is a hypocrite?
Because there is no denying it: if you confine your teaching of the liturgical year to worksheets and theory, if you teach about the liturgical year without living it—authentically observing its penitential seasons, joyfully celebrating the feasts—you are literally telling your students “Do as I say and not as I do!”
St. Francis de Sales put it beautifully: “You learn to speak by speaking; To study by studying; to work by working; and just so, we you learn to love by loving.” Learning about the liturgical year is just the same. So how do you teach it?
You teach it by living it. This is the secret to “teaching the liturgical year.”
It is also the answer to the question of why the strong Catholic schools never seem to ask for liturgical year worksheets. They’re teaching solid doctrine every day, but they’re too busy living out the seasons and feast days to have any time to do worksheets on them. They’re learning the liturgical colors because they see Father’s vestments at Mass every day. They’re learning the seasons because their sung prayers each morning vary — Alleluia during Ordinary Time and Easter, and Parce Domine (Spare us, O Lord) during Lent. They’re making Jesse Trees for Advent, holding a treasure hunt for St. Anthony, wearing silly shoes for St. Crispin, serving sweet rolls for St. Lucy, processing for a May crowning, and participating in many more convivial celebrations that help them grow in friendship with each other, and with the Lord.
My mind goes once again to a lagoon in Roatan. Make sure your students aren’t like I was, feeling like an expert after all my classroom-learning, but utterly bewildered and ineffective in the water—the only place SCUBA matters. If your students’ only education in the liturgical year comes in the form of theory, will this truly form them to live a Christian life?
To be completely honest, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about what was in that book we read about SCUBA. What I do remember is the example of the other divers and my instructor’s patient help. I suspect if you think back on the important and beloved traditions in your own life, you will find the same thing—it’s not books, but people we remember. This makes sense and reflects the wisdom of God: He sent not a book, but His Son, who assumed a human nature to fully reveal Himself to us through relationship. Christianity is not about worksheets, but about a Communion of Persons. You may need books and lessons to teach it, but they will ever be enough on their own. The theory is important, and can help, but it can only augment.
You may be able to recite everything there is to know about diving, but you have not learned to dive unless you get in the water. And kids may be able to name all the liturgical colors and recite lists of important feast days, but they have not learned the liturgical year unless they are living it. Don’t confine your kids’ learning to classroom experiences; put out into the deep. With practice, it starts to come naturally and you wonder why you had been hesitant to begin with.