You can take the teacher of out of the classroom, but you can’t take the teacher out of the heart. It has been many years since I taught full-time. I still have the heart of a teacher. My work with RCIA while I was in campus ministry was one of the best ways I’ve discovered to combine my background in education, my love for Jesus Christ, and my call to serve the Church and the world. Classroom teaching and campus ministry aren’t things I’m interested in doing full-time right now. Someday, though, God willing, I hope to get married and raise up some little souls of my own. I might not be the one who teaches my children how to write a five-paragraph essay (although I absolutely still could), but I hope to be one of the ones who teaches them about Jesus.
When I was in grad school, it was impressed upon us that parents are the primary educators of their children. As Catholic school teachers, we were outsourced labor. Valuable, enthusiastic, subject-matter expert labor, but outsourced nonetheless. Ideally, parents would educate their own children in all things, and especially in the things of the Lord. It is this point that Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington stresses in his recent essays about the four big mistakes we’ve made with catechesis and how to fix them. Although, there is no cure-all solution to generations of catechetical weakness, his idea is a step in the right direction.
In identifying the four big mistakes, Msgr. Pope begins by identifying himself as part of a generation that sounds rather like my mother’s. (My father was baptized a Catholic when I was in college.) The first mistake was that religious education was something done at the parish by vowed religious: sisters, brothers, and priests. Everyone learned about Jesus from Sr. Mary So-and-So or Fr. Patrick Something-or-Other. When the numbers of religious plummeted, there was no one left to take over CCD except lay people, who lacked any training beyond what they’d received as children. This is roughly like having a doctor or lawyer who only made it through high school and might not have actually paid attention. No wonder the following generations struggled.
The second and third mistakes were the overwhelming focus on educating only the children and the reduction of pedagogy to a process of simple, rote memorization. I’ll admit to never having heard about massive parishes of the size Msgr. Pope describes, but the Q&A catechesis sounds about right. Most parishes have great programs for children. There are even new efforts in early childhood education so that you don’t bring up Jesus for the first time in kindergarten. Ask any parish worker or volunteer, though, and they’ll tell you about the struggles of adult education. Too many adults never made it past “Jesus loves you, and don’t use birth control” before they show up with intended spouses, babies, or parish school students in tow. No wonder so few people who identify as Catholics know how to live the Faith.
The final mistake seems like the most critical one: as Msgr. Pope writes, “the premise was authority, not truth itself.” People did what they did or believed as they did because the Church said so, and that was that. That was also a big problem when American culture began to shift in the 1960s and 70s.
The beautiful, docile (docile meaning teachable, not gullible) faith of many Catholics lacked the depth necessary to endure the [cultural revolution] tsunami that came in successive waves. Thus the generations raised on rote, authority-based systems in which both the questions and the answers were supplied could not withstand the questions raised by a post-revolutionary world.
It was as though the rest of the world became a teenager demanding to know why from a Church who only knew what. Less than ideal.
I do not like complaints without suggested solutions—so much so that I read Msgr. Pope’s ideas for fixing the problem first. That headline caught my eye; then I went back to read about the problem, agreed with his assessment, and continued on.
Msgr. Pope’s first suggestion is to read the Bible to your children. I’m totally on board with that. I have only been reading the Bible since college, and I hope I never have to stop because it’s amazing. There’s some good stuff in there! I have fond memories of my picture Bible, and I learned the Our Father by reciting it with my mom at home, but I have absolutely no frame of reference that includes both my parents and Scripture. We know the importance of reading to children at all, so if we think God is important, we should also read to them about God. That’s a solution every parent can put into place.
The second suggestion is to implement whole-family (intergenerational) catechesis and to focus on the kerygma, a.k.a the basic Gospel message. Teach the children, and their parents, and any adults who are interested, and teach them all the same thing. That last group of “students” is a particular focus of mine as an unmarried adult without children. I want to learn the things the parents and couples get, too! Furthermore, as I have grown in my own spiritual life, I realize how important it is to make sure that the basic message gets across. The days of “pray, pay, and obey” are over. We owe it to our children, natural and spiritual, to give them a strong foundation and to build upon it throughout their lives. We owe it to our peers to fill in the gaps of their faith education and our own. Not everyone needs a theology degree. Everyone needs Scriptural and catechetical literacy.
The takeaway is this: As a whole, we have failed to teach our children about God. We need to do something about it now. My last post highlighted the ways in which we are all teachers, even those of us who don’t have classrooms, and even those of us who don’t have children of our own. If it takes a village to raise a child in the world, certainly it takes the whole Church, however newly knowledgeable in the fullness of the Faith, to raise a child toward heaven.