5 ways to take the dread out of religious ed
It was a typical Wednesday evening at the Parish Church. Gloria Jackson was preparing to meet her sixth-grade class for religious ed. This was the third class session in Gloria's short career as a volunteer catechist. Hers was a large, suburban parish and, because there were so many volunteer catechists, only those with problems received attention from the parish staff. Gloria was pretty much on her own with the sixth grade.
In the first two sessions, Gloria had managed to get through all the material in the appropriate chapter of her textbook. She also managed not to start a riot in the sixth grade. Of these two things she was proud. But she had some lingering doubts. For one thing, the kids didn't seem to enjoy her religion class. They didn't seem engaged with the material, didn't seem to care one way or the other about all these eternal truths. She thought maybe they even dreaded religious ed.
But Gloria dutifully prepared for the third class and was ready when the kids arrived. This week's chapter was on the "fall from grace" in the Garden of Eden. It was cleverly titled "How They Blew It!"
Jesse was one of Gloria's students. She was a bright student who spent a lot of time working on the Internet for her science projects. She dreamed of being a doctor when she grew up. She liked helping sick people.
Jesse's parents were raised in the 1970s and attended "CCD classes," which then consisted mainly of banner making and "youth chats." All in all, there wasn't a lot of content in their religious education. They're Catholic now but not very involved at the parish. They don't talk much about religion at home.
Jesse was paying close attention that night as Gloria marched right through the lesson, teaching that "death came into the world through sin." Gloria used the notes in the teacher's guide, which led her to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "Because of the first sin, Adam and Eve were forced to work for their food and endure pain in childbirth," she taught. "Jesus, she went on, was born to save us from this sin and lead us back to Paradise."
At this point, Jesse raised her hand. "Miss Jackson," Jesse began, "death didn't come into the world through sin. The dinosaurs died, Miss Jackson. That's where oil comes from. There's been death in the world for millions of years; humans have only lived here a little bit of that time. And, Miss Jackson, people have always worked for their food and even animals have pain during childbirth. And if Jesus saved us from this, then why do people still die?"
"Now where did you learn all that?'" Gloria asked. She had finally gotten a response from a student, but it wasn't what she had been hoping for.
"On the Internet," Jesse replied. "Everyone knows it's true."
At the back of her mind, Gloria realized that this little girl, who was lecturing her on paleontology, might know more than she did. Gloria panicked just a little and, feeling herself become warm, told Jesse that this is all a "matter of faith," not science. "Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Paradise. They really did. You have to believe that," she said. "And as for Jesus, don't you believe in Jesus?" she asked.
At which point Gloria turned the page and went on to teach about the story of Cain and Abel.
But Jesse wasn't finished. "Excuse me, Miss Jackson," she interrupted. "I don't think it's fair to use God to explain things we don't understand," she said. "Just exactly who is this God anyway?"
A new day
Everyone in this story lives in a world that is very different from anything the church has ever known before. How we pass on the faith in this new world is a challenge for all four of these players: the children, the catechists, the families, and the rest of the parish.
Today's students. For her part, Jesse has more information available to her in one day, in one visit to the Internet, than was available in an entire lifetime to an adult in the 17th century. She experiences huge diversity of cultures, foods, languages, and ideas. Her experience of religion is equally diverse. Chances are she rubs shoulders every day with people of many other faiths. This is her culture. It all forms and affects her. It isn't possible to pretend otherwise.
Today's parents. Jesse's parents probably haven't had any serious catechesis since their confirmation classes ended. They do not feel literate in their faith. And, like their daughter, they're living in a world rich in diversity and busy with many "secular" concerns. All of this is their culture, and it forms and affects them, too.
Today's catechists. And what about Gloria? She's a volunteer catechist who was most likely handed a complex, five-pound "teacher's edition" of the child's textbook, filled with a comprehensive treatment of Catholic doctrine and practice in each grade level. She probably had scant training to teach this material but is expected, nonetheless, to guide her learners through the mysteries of the faith, to witness to her own faith, and to use methods that will entrance the children! Sheesh! Who could do that?
Today's parish. As for the parish, it probably approved yet another large religious education budget at this time last year. Its two largest lines were no doubt textbooks for the children and salaries for the staff who manage the program. The staff is probably overworked and underpaid and spends a lot of time recruiting volunteers, coordinating schedules, and making exceptions for kids who have soccer practice or dance recitals. At the same time, even though this parish knows how necessary it is, little or no time or attention or money is paid to adult education.
A new approach
In 1998, Pope John Paul II and his advisors published the General Directory for Catechesis. It's the international guide for catechesis in the entire world. The GDC is meant to be adapted to each local culture. That process is now underway within the United States, but already certain clear themes have emerged as diocesan leaders, catechists, pastors, and publishers have pored over the GDC looking for clues about how to proceed in this new environment.
Among other things, this document asks the catechetical enterprise of the church to make a historic shift. The GDC calls loudly for a shift away from children's-only religious education to cate-chesis for the entire parish. Catechesis should be provided for children, the GDC says, but "catechesis for adults . . . must be considered the chief form of catechesis."
The General Directory says explicitly that parishes should distribute catechists among the various groups of the parish, more suitably balancing the need for adult catechesis with that of children.
The U.S. bishops, responding in part to this new direction in catechesis, in 1999 published their own pastoral plan for adult catechesis under the title Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us. They, too, see the necessity of making adult formation a more vital aspect for all members of the church. They write: "We, as the Catholic bishops of the United States, call the church in our country to a renewed commitment to adult faith formation, positioning it at the heart of our catechetical vision and practice."
What the U.S. bishops, the pope and his advisors, and all the rest of us finally understand is that a children's religious education program that isn't situated within a community of well-informed adults won't work. One really can't expect a child with an hour of religious education per week for 24 weeks each year to grow in faith if the adults in that child's life aren't steeped in the faith, too.
Religious education, in other words, isn't just for kids anymore. It's for all of us! It's a lifelong process. It fits into everyday life and is not separate from the joys and sorrows, the griefs and anxieties we all face. It flows from our shared worship for which we assemble every Sunday. And it is the key to human happiness. It's the Good News we believe. Rather than being seen as a burden, a well-fashioned religious education program that encompasses the entire parish will lead to true peace and happiness.
What all of this means is that we are entering a new day in catechesis and religious education. Parish and school budgets will soon reflect this new direction. Parish and school personnel will soon shift to "more suitably balance the need for adult cate-chesis with that of children." Bold experiments are already taking place in parishes across the nation, and leaders in adult formation circles are encouraging more.
"New ideas are emerging," says Brian Lemoi, a member of the National Advisory Committee on Adult Religious Education and director of the Office of Religious Education in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida. "People from coast to coast are waking up to the wisdom of the bishop's pastoral plan," he says.
And what are some of these new ideas? How can we move from a children's-only approach to a more total parish approach?
1. Call them disciples
It would help, for starters, to stop referring to people in our catechetical programs as "students." Instead, why not call them "disciples"? A disciple is one who is learning how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, one who is learning a way of life. It suggests a never-ending, nonacademic process of growing to live as Jesus taught us to. It's a biblical word; anyone who refers to him or herself as a disciple is making a serious commitment to growth. A disciple is one who comes to encounter Christ not merely to know about him.
The word "student" in our culture suggests academic learning. It suggests a "school year" period of study, ending in graduation. That "ending" is a key problem. Learning to follow the way of Christ never ends, as the bishops tell us.
Using the word disciple will help reshape your program overnight for adults as well as young people.
2. Have a sponsor for everyone
What if every person in catechesis and religious education, adults as well as children, had a sponsor, as they do in the catechumenate? Just imagine if everyone in religious education had a sponsor, in addition to a "religion teacher." It could change the face of catechesis within a month.
One parish director told me recently that these two ideas taken together (calling them disciples and asking each to have a sponsor) were the sole method she used to help her whole parish understand that catechesis is the responsibility of the entire community. Let's face it: The language we use creates the reality we seek.
3. Get rid of the classrooms
It might also help if the format we follow in our children's programs was changed. Classrooms, like the word student, suggest a narrow understanding of catechesis and religious education.
One parent told me in a focus group this year that what worried her most about the religious ed program at their parish wasn't the content, but that her kids dread going every week. "They beg not to go," she said. "I can't blame them. They spend all day in school and then get sent to a cold parish classroom with a strange teacher who drags them through the entire lesson in the textbook as though the goal of catechesis is to get to the end of the damn chapter! It's pretty grim," she said. She's right. How did catechesis get to be so grim? In many programs, you'd never know we were announcing the Good News.
One very large suburban parish changed all this. They moved to using a large room with round tables (paid for by the Knights of Columbus). The "disciples" sat at these tables accompanied by as many of their parents as possible. A lead catechist who was paid a stipend, had the gift of teaching, and was very well prepared each week led the catechetical process. The catechist called for times of faith-sharing, times of learning the doctrine, and activities to make it all real. They mixed excellent catechesis with fine group prayer and music.
Suddenly and overnight, religious education was no longer dreaded by parents, kids, and catechists alike. Instead, it was an exciting weekly "event" in the parish to which everyone was invited and to which most looked forward-not to mention that recruiting volunteers for every classroom was no longer needed, to everyone's delight!
4. Have people speak in their own words
Encourage those in catechesis (the disciples) to express the truths of our faith in their own words. In his opening speech at the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII urged Catholics to understand that the "substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another."
Had Gloria read the full section of the Catechism in which she found that one paragraph, for example, she would have known that the story of the fall from grace in Eden is told in figurative language. It's perfectly acceptable and good for Jesse to search for a new language in which to talk about these ancient truths-one that doesn't violate her young paleontological sensitivities.
5. Raise the status of Baptism
In the early years of the church, Baptism was a major sacrament that, along with Eucharist, initiated the Christian into a life of faith. But today, Baptism holds a much more minor place in most parishes. Vatican II tried to correct this, but we still teach about Baptism as though it's "just one of the seven sacraments." In fact, Baptism is on a par with the Eucharist, and we should raise its status to reflect that.
I was sitting with a group of parents one evening at a parish, asking them what they thought would be the best way to teach their third-grade children about Baptism. "How do you do it now?" one mom asked. I explained our textbook, that we had a chapter that treated the history of Baptism, the meaning of the symbols, and the words of the rites.
"Well," she said with a shrug in her voice, "that's your problem. You're doing it all wrong. How do you teach about birthdays?" she asked me. "You don't teach about the history of birthdays and the meaning of the symbols," she said. "No, you bake a cake and buy some presents. By the second year, the kid gets it. And they have it for life. They never lose it. You must have Baptisms." Of course, she's right.
The bottom line
Try to imagine how different things would have gone in that Wednesday evening religious education class with Gloria and Jesse if some of these new ideas had been in place. What if all this had happened in a larger room with other disciples and more shared energy? What if Jesse's parents had been there as her sponsors or fellow disciples? What if a well-trained and gifted lead catechist had been facilitating this session? What if one of the exercises of the night was to find a way of speaking about these eternal truths in a language that fits our culture? What if Jesse and her parents all saw themselves as "disciples" of Jesus, growing to understand but also to encounter Christ along the way? What if celebrating and commemorating Baptism on a par with the Eucharist had helped everyone involved see themselves as full members of the church growing in their faith? What if all this catechetical activity were seen in that parish as a chiefly adult activity shared with the children, rather than the other way around?
The bottom line is that we hold the secret to the reign of God. It's been entrusted to us by Christ himself, guarded by the Holy Spirit working through the faithful people of the church, and now it's ours to share with one another and hand on to the next generation. The General Directory is right: Religious education isn't just for kids. It's for all of us.