Sunday, February 9, 2014

Confessions of a Catechist (Part 1)

NOTE: I wrote this a few months ago, but it sat on my computer because I wasn't sure if it was relevant. But then a firestorm was lit over at Patheos about religious education and I got my courage. This is only a part of what I wrote and it is still long. Sorry. For a list of all of the Patheos blog posts about this subject look at this post and the links at the end of it

I hated barbies. 
But I loved baby dolls and playing school. 
I always wanted to be a teacher.

Of course, I always wanted to be a mom too, but being a teacher was more in my control. 

So, in about my second or third year at Long Beach State I set out  to be a teacher. It worked well for me because I could basically continue my eclectic choice of classes, get a degree in "general education" and then get my teaching credential. 

My first job was as a third grade teacher in a public school. One of the big truths I learned about my role as a teacher was taught to me during my first set of parent teacher conferences in that third grade classroom. Each child in my class, with their strengths and weaknesses (as well as I could see them), their attitudes towards learning and towards me, was clearly a reflection of their parents. Each kid began to make sense when I met mom and dad. I learned that I could not overcome any learning difficulties without the super involved help of mom and dad, and I was not in any real way responsible for the learning success of my students. 

The public school experience lasted three years, then I decided to follow my new found interest in my Faith and teach at a Catholic School. There I taught second grade, which meant preparation for First Holy Communion. It was the early nineties.

This is when I first encountered the situation in parish catechesis. I had to work with the DRE (didn't even know what that meant at the time--Director of Religious Education) for the Parish. My first big battles were over Communion in the hand and the song every kid in the parish sang at their First Holy Communion. 

First, I had a student, a boy, who was known by all to be, shall we say, active. His mother felt that he would struggle to receive reverently if he was to receive in the hand. She wanted him to receive on the tongue. Final "ruling": for the sake of conformity at the First Communion ceremony, he would receive in the hand. Then he "had a choice after that". I did not agree but it wasn't my decision to make. 

Second battle: The song sung at the First Communion Mass was some song about peace that never mentioned God, let alone the Eucharist. It was a nice song, I guess. But not, in my opinion, appropriate for First Holy Communion. So, I found a song that went like this: 

I love you Jesus
And I lift my voice
To Worship you,
O my Soul, Rejoice
Take Joy, My King
In What you Hear
May it be a sweet, sweet, sound
In Your ear. 

(not sure where I found it and I have never heard it outside that school or my home-my kids sing that song each night as part of their bed time prayers.)

I lobbied for it and it was changed. At least as long as I was there. 

My experience at the Catholic School showed me that the Faith was not being passed on very well and I thought that clearer, more faithful textbooks were the answer. 

So I left my teaching job and headed east to Stuebenville, Ohio to get my Master's Degree in Catholic Theology and certification in Catechetics and, so I thought, to write textbooks.

There I learned my Faith the way I probably should have before I graduated from 12 years of Catholic school. With an MA hanging on my wall, I basically had an adult level understanding of the Faith. 

My teaching experience along with my catechetics training made me a perfect candidate to teach methods courses. For a year I taught undergraduate religious education majors the methods of passing on the faith. Most of these students would go into youth ministry or some sort of parish catechesis. Some would be Catholic school teachers. I really have no idea how much my teaching helped these young people since I had very little contact with anyone after that year. But I do know (from talking to my fellow graduates) that many of them would go out into parishes and feel very isolated and alone in their adherence to the Faith.

From there I went to a job as a DRE for some small Catholic Schools in another state. I was responsible for training the teachers and for helping to integrate the Faith into the daily life of the schools. 

I know we did some really good work while I was there. We came up with a written curriculum plan (I have quite a few copies left if anyone is interested) and we designed our own plan for training the teachers as catechists. Many of the teachers had very little training in teaching the Faith, their focus and experience had been teaching all the other subjects. So we had to bring their knowledge of the Faith up to at least the grade level they were teaching, with hopes of taking it further. And we had to help them distinguish between a subject that was purely academic (math, science, etc) and one that was meant to transform the learner into a true Disciple of Christ. But so many of them, like the catchists in our parishes, had been virtually unchatechized since their own sacramental preparation as a child, and did not truly understand discipleship. They were sincere in their desire to pass on the Faith, but wholly unprepared to do so. 

Over the years between getting my M.A. and being a DRE I had also done some teacher training at the diocesan level, and there I ran into a larger number of people whose real issue was not bringing Christ to the kids in their class, but their own problems with Church teaching. I often felt myself in a hostile environment, not because of the teaching methods I was passing on to them, but because of the content of the Faith they were meant to pass on.

I remember my catechectics professor saying that anyone under the age of 50 had to be entirely re-catechized. That was 15 years ago. I doubt we have successfully recatechized any significant number. 

If I sound negative, I don't mean to be. I really try to be hopeful, especially about the Church. And I was hopeful then-- excited, in love with the idea of really transforming catechesis and lighting a fire in the heart of children and their teachers.  

But I also knew what any savvy catechist knows--if the parents are not actively supporting what you are doing, you are fighting a losing battle. 

I began to see in retrospect that the only really reliable way to pass on the Faith was through the family. We succeeded in the school a little more than the parish faith formation programs simply because of time. It was a mathematical equation. 30 hours a week (in school) could not entirely counteract 168 hours (at home). It might influence it, though. Certainly, 2 hours a week (in parish religious ed) could rarely do either. Even a great parish faith formation program or a great Catholic school is a supplement. 

After I left my job at the Catholic school to get married and have children, I still had my hand in professional catechesis (not necessarily paid, just me going out and speaking or writing because I have training that other people want to legitimately tap into). I did some talks for volunteer parish catechists and a little bit of writing. 

Wherever I went, though, I ran into catechists who struggled with feelings of uselessness and hopelessness. They knew that very few of their students had the support at home to grow in their faith, and that those that did would probably be doing just as well without the CCE class--not that they didn't enjoy it, just that the family life of some was supportive in such a way as to make a 2 hour weekly class practically unnecessary. 

By the time my kids were born I had a very strong aversion to spending my time this way. I wondered why I would want to sacrifice time with my kids to plan and deliver a talk on catechetics to an audience that was either mostly un-interested (if not hostile) OR to folks that were fighting a losing battle in the trenches of parish faith formation? I thought "Sure, I could give them some hope, but someone else without small children could do that just as easily". 

So, for the past decade I have been focused on catechizing my own children. 

And for a long time now, I have had a sinking feeling in my gut that we are fooling ourselves about the success of our programs of catechesis. Now I am trying to be realistic about this one part of the institutional Church (catechetical programs) at this point in time.  

To be clear, I am not without hope. There are many things for which we can rejoice in the Church today. For example, there is a resurgence of religious vocations in some sectors. The Sisters that run the schools that I used to work for are a perfect example. Also, more and more lay folks are producing more and more great materials to facilitate conversion and help people know and understand the teachings of the Church. Perhaps this is why it is so frustrating to watch the institutional Church…the official Catholic bureaucracy...spin their wheels with the same approaches to evangelization and catechesis. 

I have had to really examine this gut feeling of the futility of the vast majority of faith formation programs. I don't like to offend people, I don't want to make someone feel hopeless about their work as a catechist. I don't want to discourage those who so generously give of their time. For me, this is not about the people who catechize; it is not about the content or in-class methodology (though those may need tons of improvement). It is about structures, "programs", bureaucracy, policies. 

In examining my thoughts and feelings about Parish catechesis programs I began to wonder about the thoughts of my former colleagues “in the trenches”. And that led me to the book I reviewed last month. But in the process of that survey of current thoughts on the subject, I began to realize that far from being “out" of the trenches for the past decade, I have been truly IN THE TRENCHES. We, my husband and I, have been experiencing catechesis of children in the way that the Church intends its. 

In the Rite of Baptism for infants, the Church has some strong words for parents: 
You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him (her) up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him (her) is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his (her) heart.

[Parents] will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they be also the best of teachersbearing witness to the faith by what they say and do 

And so we have taken our three baptized babies and made it our constant care to bring them up in the practice of the faith, guarding and growing the divine life that we ASKED the Church to instill in their souls. 

I am not claiming we have done it all right. Our kids are not saints yet, but then again neither are we. But we are working it out, in fear and trembling. And we have learned some things about bringing children to Faith. 

We have learned that we do not APPLY faith to our children like sunscreen, it is God Who moves in them. 
Our job is to help them see that God is moving in them. 
Our job is to bring them into HIs presence as often as possible (Mass, Adoration, Confession, prayer at home, recollecting Christ throughout the day, living the liturgical year)
And our job is to help them understand Who He is, why He created them and what He wants from them. In short, how to be truly happy in this life, and the next. 

None of this takes a Master's Degree in Theology or training as a catechist to do. All that does is sometimes help to answer questions without having to look them up first...sometimes. Rather, it is done through love (no one loves our kids more than we do) and grace (no one else has the grace of a sacrament--Matrimony--to help them raise our children).

Frankly, no one else is better at training our children in the practice of the Faith. 
No one but my husband and I. 

Not the RE teacher, not the DRE, not Sister Mary Wonderful, not the Pastor. 

Not even Pope Francis. 

Not even St. Francis. 

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