by Gerald J. Russello
Last May, Pope Francis formally recognized the lay ministry of catechists, after a request from the Synod of Bishops. “Being a catechist is a vocation,” Francis wrote, “and is a true and genuine ministry in the Church.” This decision could not have come at a better time in the United States. As many diocesan school systems dissolve, the duty to instruct children in the faith—more so than at any other time in recent memory—has fallen to lay volunteers.
And more laymen, at least while lockdowns were instituted, had found the time to take on this duty. In my own parish, a number of us who were working from home began volunteering for the weekday religious education program, where there never were enough catechists. I had taught similar classes earlier in my life on Sundays, first in college and then again when I had small children. In the first round, I instructed mostly younger children, for whom the weekly lessons were often about being nice to others and accepting God’s love, along with some Jesus stories. The second time, when I was volunteering at my parish, I joined forces with a friend who had a graduate degree in theology. He did the main work of the teaching, and he was not afraid to explain the sacraments and the life of Christ, including Good Friday and why the authorities pursued the Lord and John the Baptist. More of an assistant catechist, I just tried to keep the kids focused.
This time around, instead of teaching second graders about the sacraments, the Church calendar, and the people in the Gospels, I was handling the oldest students in eighth grade, the year most children are confirmed. I loved it, but I soon realized that the class needed to be something different than what I had expected. Typically, in the lower grades at a grammar school, one teacher handles all the basic courses. Only a few classes, such as music, art, or foreign languages, are taught by separate teachers. But by the time a student reaches seventh or eighth grade, he often has a different teacher who specializes in his respective subject.
Unlike the usual courses taught in school, mature religious education should combine multiple disciplines in each class: history, philosophy, theology, Church doctrine, art, prayer, and literary criticism. Many of these subjects appear for the very first time in religion class. Theology, for example, is completely new to many students. And because it is not included in their secular education, they may not know why it is important. History, which they do learn, often does not cover the events that they need to know, let alone why they should remember them. The Battle of Lepanto, the Crusades, Saint Francis, how Christianity changed the cultures it entered—these were just a few milestones I needed to present. Even to begin religious education, we catechists were required to introduce, to explain, and to justify the existence of multiple disciplines before the students were ready to understand our lessons.
My fellow catechists were marvelous and to be thanked greatly for volunteering, but they struggled with the same challenges that I did. Some of the material we presented to our students resembled the facts and formulas that they memorized in school, except it was all a bit less obviously important to their lives. And we could only present our specifically religious themes, which the students weren’t likely to encounter again in school, once a week. It is hard to expect anyone to remember things that they encounter so infrequently.
Most of us were not professional teachers or academics, so we were rather handicapped. After all, a lot of Catholic families only show up for religious education when it is a so-called “sacramental” year. While I am happy for their presence, this often means they have some basic gaps in their knowledge. Other catechists report that, along with these gaps, the adults in these families are unable to give their children answers. Then the catechist’s role is doubled: he finds himself trying to lead along both the parent and the child in the latter’s religious education.
A religious education program can easily become an incomprehensible mess. It is difficult enough just to find catechists and to make good use of diocesan resources, which oftentimes have been depleted because of sexual abuse settlements during the past few decades. And anyway, volunteer catechists made more sense in a culture in which everyday life was saturated with the Church. Now teachers often find themselves starting from the very beginning, with basic lessons about Mary, the apostles, and all the saints. In the old Catholic neighborhoods, this wasn’t necessary: their names were on the street signs, their prayer cards in local stores.
In the very first class I noted one statue of Our Lady, after whom our parish is named, and another of Saint Jude in the classroom. I asked the students what I thought was an easy question: who were these two people in our classroom with us? No one knew. And so we had a good discussion about how to read identifiers in a church statute: colors, tools, clothing, or instruments of their martyrdom. We had a similar discussion about the readings from Mass that week, just in case some of the students did not understand them on Sunday. I tried—but I am no theologian—to explain the Scriptures. Both discussions were focused on the same theme: the Church is not random. Each detail in the statues has a deliberate meaning; they tell us something specific about the saints and Our Lady, on which we can reflect. Neither were readings chosen by accident; they speak to one another and show us how the Gospel is the culmination of God’s plan.
Eventually, I largely ditched the book and the lesson plan. I tried something new, beginning with an explanation of why we were here. The Church was asking the students to become milites Christi, soldiers of Christ. What did that mean? I explained that they needed weapons (prayers), tools (rosaries), and officers (the saints). They were not simply students; they were preparing to be warriors and adventurers in a world that often knows nothing of the faith, or, just as likely, may know it and be hostile to it. This seemed to perk them up. They were all good kids, but they were in need of a new approach: their faith needed to be introduced to them as an adventure, not another class in school. They needed to see it as a living guide to understanding the world, even as they may forget their eighth-grade biology.
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