Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Let's Just Stop Catechizing Children!"

In Part 1 of my series of rants and ramblings on the state of religious education in the Catholic Church in America, I confessed where I was coming from and tried to explain my negative attitude while at the same time not making people in the official trenches feel hopeless. I hope I accomplished that. I also noted that I WAS in the trenches myself, and that my husband and I are catechizing our little corner of the parish the way the Church meant them to be catechized. In the home. 

So now I want to turn to what I think is actually happening in the parishes, based on my reading and observation, and maybe get to some ideas of what we might do better…or stop doing…or do over. We’ll see…

For the past 30 years at least, the way faith formation appears to work in the average parish is that we spend most of our time and resources on gathering children, as early as possible, into groups and catechizing them according to the general developmental state of that age group. Most parishes in this country use the model of the average American school, plugging in the Sacraments to the general age level that the diocese suggests: baptism = infant; Confession and Eucharist = Second Grade; Confirmation = all over the map but usually high school. Add to these programs Youth Ministry (which may be more catechetical than social, or not). 

If you look at an average Sunday bulletin, the majority of information, especially in the fall and spring, are about faith formation of children and School news. Next, we usually have all the parish ministries: lectoring, choir, social justice, pro-life ministries (which isn't always grouped in with social justice) and fellowship (I am sure there are others I am forgetting). 

We happen to be a part of a parish that has lots of opportunities for Adult faith formation, but for many parishes the least amount of time and resources appears to go to Adult education in the form of RCIA, marriage preparation, other marriage help (marriage encounter, Retrovaile). 

I decided to search out some statistics to see how this structure is working for the Church. According to statistics I found (which seem to ring true with my experience in parishes) more than half of the parishioners are not involved in any of these activities and this particular survey says that 14% are involved in "education or evangelism". I am assuming that this statistic applies mostly to people who are doing the educating and evaligizing, not receiving it. 

I also found a study quoted in this article which says that in the space of ten years there has been a 42% drop in infant baptisms, a 51% drop in adult baptism and a 45% drop in Catholic marriages. Other studies confirmed that somewhere between First Communion Preparation and Confirmation Preparation there is some drop off in attendance. And by the time those Confirmed kids get to college 85% of them have stopped going to Sunday Mass (according to the FOCUS website)

The book I reviewed last month confirmed this grim picture and especially focused on the fact that only a small percentage of those people involved in their parish life are what the author called “intentional disciples”. 

So why is this? I am sure much of it is due to the surrounding culture. Not only do we encounter immorality on TV, in popular movies and music, but we also encounter an attitude that denies objective truth and transcendent realities. The modern mind believes nothing really MEANS anything so you are free to make your own meaning. 

You could also argue that the content of our catechesis is anemic. That was certainly the case when I was growing up (though my elementary school was an exception). But, I think we have greatly improved that situation over the past 20 years. It’s not perfect, but textbooks and catechist training has greatly improved from the hippie peace, love and macramé days. 

So why are things so much worse? I would argue that the real problem is in THE WAY WE CATECHIZE. I mean the STRUCTURES used at the parish level (and driven by the diocese) to pass the Faith on to each generation. 

To begin with, we think too linearly (is that even a word?). We think we need to start with the youngest and move through the ages up to adult. If we get them when they are young, as the adage goes, we will make faithful grownups. Kinda like school. 
In a nutshell, the current model looks something like this (for the moment, I will leave aside the Catholic school aspect): 
Step 1: A child is brought for baptism and parents take a brief course/rehearsal 
Step 2: A certain percentage of those parents bring the child back at about age 6 or 7 and child is put in grade level class. They pass through a class or two and receive Eucharist and Confession. Some continue for awhile after that if there is time in the child's schedule and parent doesn't have to fight too hard to get them there.
Step 3: A certain percent of the parents who went through step 2 bring their child back in time to get Confirmation. A small percentage of those kids get involved in some youth program until High School gets too busy. 
Step 4: A HUGE percentage of the kids confirmed go to college and stop practicing their faith. 
Step 5: A fraction come back and want to get married in the church. 
Step 6: A smaller fraction of that group begin step 1 again. 

This is what the numbers show. We are no longer spinning our wheels. We are sliding backwards. 

This structure is based on the assumption that the best place to catechize the next generation is in the parish hall. And if we only had better textbooks, and thoroughly trained catechists we could transform the parish. 

And parents get this idea that it’s the job of the experts in the parish office to catechize their kids and get them ready for the sacraments. They treat the parish Faith Formation office like a school. “I hand my kids over to you and you educate them. It is my job to get them there and help them with their homework and support the school as much as I can. It is your job to do the rest.”

The problem is that the Faith is not passed on this way. Especially not to children. You don’t become an intentional disciple of Jesus Christ without a personal connection to someone who loves Him and has earned your respect. For children that is primarily their parents. 

So, I propose we need to look at the this completely differently. Parents are so crucial to the faith of the child, but we practically ignore them, especially for those early years when they are meant to be laying the foundation of faith for their young children. 

Here are my ideas: 

Focus on the core, what Blessed John Paul II called “the primordial sacrament”, marriage. The family. The parish is made up of families (not just parents with kids, but marriages without children, and adults in post-marriage (widowed), pre-marriage (single looking to marriage), broken marriage (divorced separated), or those called minister to all the others (discerning vocations, single for life, etc.). If the sacrament of marriage, as foundation of the family, is at the center then everything radiates out from there. 

One way to do this is to take advantage of threshold moments by making personal connections and providing support, social contexts and educational opportunities. 

Threshold moment #1 is the Sacrament of Matrimony. Getting married in the Catholic Church is like making a public declaration of faith in God and the intention to follow Him and His Church.* Lets take them at their word and help them make real connections to their parish. I am thinking of mentoring families (many parishes use this idea for marriage prep, so how can that carry over to the first years of marriage as well), retreats meant for newlyweds, learning opportunities, personal invitations to Mass and other liturgical events. 

Threshold moment #2 is the Sacrament of Baptism. When a couple bring their baby for baptism they are making a commitment, again, to the Catholic Faith. Lets take them at their word and begin immediately to prepare them to bring their baby to Faith. I am thinking connecting them again with mentor families, helping them to form personal, long lasting relationships with other families. Maybe classes in child development from a faith perspective. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd comes to mind as well. 

Threshold moment #3 First Sacraments. If we have done a good job with the first two thresholds, we should have many more families ready to take this on. Those that haven’t been tuned in for the first years of their child’s life will get the idea quickly that it is their job to pass the Faith on to their child. We just need to help THEM do it. 

I know that most parishes really strive to make the parish a “family friendly” place, but I think they often miss the mark. Imagine if more parishes had frequent celebrations of the feasts and seasons of the year that were both liturgical and social, but less about entertaining kids or raising money for the school. What if every parish had a big celebration on the feast of their name saint that included a liturgy (Mass, processions, singing and decorations) as well as lots of great food (with fun connections to the saint or his life) and some entertainment for all ages (music, a play about the life of the saint)? What if other major feasts were treated in the same way—again, less about raising money and kiddie fun and more about real interaction between the grownups in the parish. 

As you can tell, I am in agreement with Joann McPortland over at Patheos when she said "Let's stop catechizing children." Of course I am in favor of children BEING catechized (as is Joann), but the current school-like format that completely absorbs all the parish funds and energies is NOT working. We need to focus on the grown-ups. 

* I have a mental blog post about this. It is tentatively called What if Getting Married in the Catholic Church was Like Joining the Marines. 

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