As the Bishop of the Diocese, I have the great privilege of traveling to our parishes to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. I share this joyful task with the Episcopal Vicars for each of our four counties. This is one of the contexts in which the contribution of our parish religious education programs (and Catholic schools as well) to the faith life of the young is made manifest.
When I arrive at the parish, before the ceremony, I visit with those to be confirmed (confirmandi) and pose questions to them about the Sacrament and our Catholic faith. (Grandparents and some parents, perhaps, might remember when the bishop did this during the Confirmation ceremony itself!) I do not do that, frankly, because I sometimes worry that the occasional lack of response of the confirmandi in some places will embarrass the parents, the parish priests and the religious education or (Catholic school) teachers who work very hard to prepare the children. The good news is that such lack of response is confined to only a very few parishes.
Often times, however, the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation is equated with “graduation” from religious education. Researchers tell us that five percent or less of those confirmed return to Mass on the following Sunday! Something is terribly wrong with that statistic and I don’t have to say too much to highlight what should be our concern. The life of faith is “a life” not simply a moment or an aspect. And religious education programs exist to nurture our Catholic life as it progresses, not simply an opportunity to “collect” another sacrament. If nothing else is clear, it is quite evident that we have a great deal of work ahead of us as we consider the “new evangelization” in our parishes.
My point here is not to criticize parishes or pastors or religious education teachers, no, far from it. They are to be thanked and congratulated for the help they give our Catholic parents and families! The problem, in my mind at least, is one of the “indifference” or “lack of motivation” that seems widespread throughout the Church and society.
There are 109 parishes in the Diocese of Trenton. There are 35 parish Catholic elementary schools teaching almost 12,500 students. Parish religious education programs teach almost 55,000 students. In the Catholic elementary school, religion is taught several times a week. Religious education programs offer religious instruction 45-60 minutes once a week or, in other cases, 90 minutes every two weeks.
Not every Catholic family can send its children to Catholic school for a variety of reasons. But every Catholic family should provide the opportunity for its children to learn their Catholic faith. How that happens best, the Catholic family must decide.
In 2007, Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., now deceased, gave a presentation to catechetical leaders in the Diocese of Lansing (Michigan) entitled “Models of Catechesis.” In his talk, Cardinal Dulles highlighted five models of catechetical or religious instruction. Although I cannot hope to do him justice in a brief essay, let me summarize them for your consideration:
The Doctrinal Model. This approach prevailed before the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) and relied heavily on scripture, the teachings of the Church magisterium and apologetics (explaining why the Church’s teachings are worthy of belief). The goal here was/is to acquaint learners with the basic universal tenets of the Catholic religion. This is the way (the Baltimore Catechism with its question/answer format) most grandparents and many parents were taught.
The Kerygmatic (Preaching) Model. This approach, ushered in by the Second Vatican Council, emphasized teaching the Bible as a way to elicit a personal response in faith. It presented the Catholic faith and Church’s teaching as it was/is derived from scriptures and applied to history and daily life rather than simply cataloguing a set of teachings.
The Liturgical or Sacramental Model. Often combined with the second model, this approach used Mass and the sacraments as a means to connect the scriptures and teachings of the Church with actual experiences of “the Holy” in the worship of the Church. It attempted to create a living, ongoing, personal relationship with God.
The Experiential Model. Sometimes considered more psychological or behavioral, this approach emphasized finding meaning in one’s own life and experience of God, not so much by learning doctrine or theology/religion, but rather by living in good ways. “Experience” became the teacher with the hoped-for result of intelligent, positive decision making that could be identified as Christian behavior.
The Shared Christian Praxis Model. Borrowing from but not completely adopting ‘liberation theology’ as it developed in Latin American countries, this approach attempted to consider scriptures, doctrine and experience as the basis for sharing a sense of the Christian story and Christian vision for life.
Cardinal Dulles explained that each model had merits and drawbacks. For that reason, the burden falls upon those with responsibility for Catholic religious instruction to determine how to adapt the best of each “model” to the concrete situation of the catechetical formation of young people.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:
Catechesis is an education in the faith of children, young people, and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life. (CCC 5)
True catechesis, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) warned in the “Introduction” to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, cannot merely adopt the current pedagogical trends as definitive and universally applicable. “Whoever binds himself too rashly to today already looks old-fashioned tomorrow. ... As a matter of fact, the real result of this process of ever-new adaptations was an emptying-out of catechesis.” He cautioned, Cardinal Dulles reminded us, that some of the current catechesis had almost no content but simply revolved around itself. The power and beauty of the Christian message were almost lost from view.
For us in the Diocese of Trenton, the challenge of providing effective religious education is not much different than the experience throughout the country pursuing the “new evangelization.” It is a “work in progress” but it will always be that as the Diocese and its parishes struggle to make religious education vibrant, interesting, relevant and transformative in the real lives of young people in a rapidly changing world with so many distractions, interests and agendas competing for their attention, values and beliefs - in a sense, competing for their faith.
To be effective and successful, in my opinion, religious education and catechetical formation must:
Acquaint the young with the tenets of our Catholic faith and religion as truth, not simply “one of a variety of possibilities.” It must be “faith without apology for itself;”
Teach Catholic prayers as well as the importance of praying in one’s own way; the Apostles asked our Lord, “Teach us to pray.” Our children are still asking;
Involve parents and families in the process of teaching/learning the Catholic faith by word AND witness; parents must not only “take to Church”… they must “go to Church with their children;” Third graders don’t drive! Parents need to show them that they value faith and religious instruction by talking about it;
Utilize catechists that are trained in “substance and style,” in “content and pedagogy;” if teachers are not effective, children won’t learn; if teachers are all “flash” but lacking in preparation and conviction, children won’t learn; professional catechetical certification is critically important; currently, less than 30 percent of our diocesan catechists are certified; no one wants a doctor who isn’t certified to practice medicine or a lawyer who hasn’t passed the bar;
Involve parish priests who place a high value and priority on religious education by motivating catechists with their vision, support, presence and availability; in a recent survey among catechists conducted by the Diocesan Office of Catechesis, only 50 percent of those surveyed indicated that they meet periodically with their pastors or parish priests; Mass, confession and other prayer experiences with and for students in parish religious education programs deepens their sense of faith as something sacred;
Take advantage of textbooks and other instructional materials that are solid and focused on teaching the subject matter of Catholic faith and religion; the days for sole dependence upon serendipity, coloring book theology and “Kumbaya” have brought us to a time when the truths of the Catholic religion have become a foreign language;
Connect service and other good works done as service projects with Jesus Christ, the Gospel and the rich teachings of our faith as their underlying motivation. “Doing good” and “being good” have a rationale that must be pointed out and demonstrated; we cannot accept the all-too-common excuse that “we are spiritual just not that religious.”
Like Cardinal Dulles, I have spent almost my entire life involved with teaching Catholic theology at the seminary, college or university levels. At the same time, however, in each experience, I dealt with students whose knowledge of the Catholic faith was the result of their own experience of Catholic education or religious instruction. When that experience was good, their deeper, more focused learning was for them more interesting and more formative. When it was weak, their attention was minimal and disinterested.
We Catholics are all responsible for the current and the next generation. Handing on the faith and seeing it at work in “real life” cannot be left to chance or passed off as someone else’s job.
Concluding his remarks to the 2007 convocation mentioned earlier, Cardinal Dulles advanced the task of the “new evangelization” extremely well:
Catechists are called to be privileged instruments through whom God continues his saving work today. The success of their efforts will depend not on themselves alone but more crucially on the grace of God and the freely given response of the students. When the seed falls on fertile ground, a rich harvest may come forth. The evangelist may sow the seed; the catechist may water the growing plant, but only God can give the increase.