Friday, July 20, 2012

Starting Over... A reaction and response

Dear Readers,

I never know why I let that loose cannon, Fr. Simon, fill in for me when I am away. He is definitely over the top. I cringed when I read that “Catholic schools are over.” If he had said that Catholic schools as we remember them are over,” or “a certain type of Catholic school is over” that wouldn’t have been so bad. There are some fine religious schools and programs out there that are enjoying great success. Still things aren’t what they used to be. Religious education programs and Catholic schools once came from an intense sense of vocation. The schools were populated with zealous nuns who were not to be toyed with. Those nuns with their dreaded yardsticks and voluminous habits started out as 19 and 20 year old girls who had to stare down a room full of disease bearing, incontinent 6 year olds who had the attention span of fruit flies. The task was to teach them literacy, mathematics and the mysteries of the Catholic Faith, and darned if those young ladies didn’t succeed in large measure, and most of them grew old doing it. The school was their life and their calling. They were the mothers of the faith. The crisis in women’s religious life has changed all that.

Back then, we believed that if at all possible, American Catholics had a moral obligation to send their children to a Catholic school. There the little germ clouds were shuttled back and forth between church and school for this devotion, that practice, Stations of the Cross, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Rosary, litanies and on and on. I can still hear “Children get you coats in an orderly fashion. We are going over to church now...” Heaven help you if you giggled, talked, chewed gum or even breathed loudly. Sister was not to be crossed. The nun would genuflect and the 40 or so little charges following her would do the same and file into the pew and kneel down, hands folded. I can still remember practicing genuflection when I was six, trying to get down on one knee and back up again without falling over, and being left handed and only vaguely understanding the concept of right and left, it took a lot of concentration to remember “right knee down, left knee up, right knee down, left knee up.....” All this because as the nuns constantly reminded us, “Jesus is truly present in the tabernacle on the altar and the church is full of angels worshiping Him, so be quiet and close your eyes and pray.” Some of those nuns were angels themselves. I can still remember seeing them after school quietly kneeling in prayer before the tabernacle before going home to eat a silent meal, correct smudged and incoherent children’s homework and, I imagine, to fall into bed exhausted, only to get up at maybe 4 or 5 AM to start the day in prayer and do it all over again.

I remember being an altar boy at Mass in the convent. It really was like being at the heavenly court. They gave us a way of life, not a school. In our times it is replaced for most with Religious education for an hour on Sunday, Mass optional. If when I was a boy and you did not attend Mass, there would be an investigation, and you had darn better have had a fever. How did the nuns know whether or not you were at Mass? They were there with you at the children’s mass quietly taking roll. In my parish, they had already been to Sunday Mass at the convent and they were with us as part of their work as teachers. On Saturdays, they taught Religion classes to those unfortunate children who couldn’t go to a Catholic school and had to go to the public school. (We called them “Publicans.”) Now, if our folks can afford the tuition, they send their kids to a Catholic school where the same routine and the same texts are followed, the same academic system maintained as in the government schools, with perhaps a religion class and a service project thrown in to make it Catholic. The intensity of a life focused on Christ and the liturgy and calendar of the faith is now often replaced by the casual American attitude that all is optional, Faith is just part of life. Where Parents are involved, teachers have a sense of their own vocation to impart the faith, and the Catholic life is real, there I suspect religious education and Catholic schools are a raging success.  Fr. Simon should tread more carefully!

the Rev. Know it all


Dear Rev. Know It All,

Once again you are living in the past. I get so tired of hearing your reminiscences about the good old days. The days of habited nuns controlling armies of children and their parents with a well placed icy stare from beneath a dark and mysterious wimple are long gone. That canoe is definitely over the waterfall, you old curmudgeon!

I don’t want to impugn anyone’s valiant efforts nor deny anyone access to the faith and to the Sacraments, but we have to face the truth. I want to develop a religious education program that leads children and their parents into the Catholic way of life, and above all into a relationship to Christ who meets us in the Sacraments.

   I hope to develop a program that 1) is more engaging for participants 2) separates the religious education program from a classroom model 3) disassociates the reception of sacrament from a sense of graduation from church and 4) treats religious education as a preparation for Mass rather than an adjunct to it and 5) offers catechesis for parents who want it.

Here is a  basic  practical outline of the program as I envision it:
9 :45 a simple breakfast ( juice rolls etc.)
10:15 an activity ( bible drill, name that saint, tag etc. here I hope to involve our excellent youth group)
10:45 break into "teams," younger  kids still in classrooms, older kids at round tables in the parish Hall for an informational session. 

The introductory “round table” groups will learn Biblical literacy, emphasizing the great heroes of the Bible and their stories. Church history will be taught, similarly,  through lives of the saints, there will be a brief look at the Sunday readings and liturgical year and how they fit into the Bible time line. The “round table” time will end with prayer and simple examination of conscience. The goal is not simply to share information, but to share faith. The goal of the team leaders (not teachers mind you) is to apply these things to our life with Christ.                           

 At 11:55 the participants will go up together to the noon Mass. (The noon Mass is sung by the contemporary choir and seems to be more available to young people.) If a family finds that arrangement running too late for them they are free to go to the 5PM Saturday or the 8 am Sunday Masses, but the noon would be encouraged.  On 3rd Sundays there will be an afternoon event (movie, skits, presentations talent shows etc.) ending with the 5 pm youth Mass.

   The big question: When will my child get First Communion? (or Confirmation) the answer: When they are ready. Will there be a class for first communion and confirmation?  Yes! And you will teach it Mom and Dad. When Parents and children feel they are ready for the sacrament of Communion or Confirmation, they will receive the material for study and, along with that child's "team coach" they will prepare for the sacrament in a more specific way.  Children will receive Communion at the Sunday Mass as they are ready for it, but at the end of the year there will be a shared Mass and celebration for those who have received 1st Communion during the year. Confirmation would follow the same system using the texts we currently use. The difference would be that if we have enough people asking for Confirmation we will invite the bishop to St. Lambert's. If there aren't enough,  those to be confirmed will go to the vicariate confirmation. Especially for Confirmation, there will be a “Confirmation group” that will meet together for retreats and prayers.

   Our goal is to give the participant a sense of the history salvation from Adam to Mother Theresa, a sense of the relation between the scriptures  and the liturgy, a sense of entering into rather than graduating from the life of prayer, study and service, and above all, a relationship to Christ and His bride the Church.  It will be expected that when young people ask for Confirmation they will have a sense of what service they want to offer in the church (reader? Mass server? Greeter? Choir member?) and how they want to serve in the world ( hospital visitor? Visitor to shut ins? Worker at pantry, soup kitchen?)

   By departing from the classroom model I think we will be able to accommodate many more children in the long run than we do now.  NO CHILD WILL BE TURNED AWAY, even if their parents don't participate in the liturgy and no child will be denied a sacrament if they are prepared and seriously want to receive the sacrament.  In addition, we will charge no tuition for the program and those who can't afford the texts will be subsidized.  My purpose is not to exclude those who don't meet my expectations. It is to separate the sacraments from the concept of graduation, to make them what they are supposed to be, initiations into the life of Grace.

Fr. Simon

PS. Thanks to the incomparable Fr. Z for the coffee mug. “Do what’s in the red, Say what’s in the black!”


  1. Sign me up Father! That's a program I could work in.

    (As a look-out, if nothing else.)

  2. I liked your piece on Catholic Schools, but then again my wife and I are wierd and our poor 4.5 year-old and 3 year-old will likely stand out for it.

    The problem is we have a lost generation of Catholics in this country. Too many parents are not engaged in the sacraments, not attending mass each week, so how can they (or why would they look like hypocrites and try) impart the faith to their kids?

    I told one of my co-workers of our plan to send our kids to Catholic Schools and which particular school and he replied enthusiastically, "Oh yeah, we are registered there". I presume they registered to have their child baptized to satisfy his family, but in 18 months of attending mass every week I have never seen him once.

    But to turn this around, we have to start somewhere. If we get a kid in Catholic School, we can get them to mass. If we can get them to mass, we can teach them about the mass. We can also get them to reconciliation. Do not despair Father!

    Perhaps the best rationale is still avoiding what happens in public schools. I was once a lost sheep (actually an Epsicopalian, which is much, much worse these days) and am a convert to the faith. I went to public schools growing up.

    All of these Catholic parents who say, "town X has great schools" (which statistically is 80% of parents nationally - brilliant brainwashing by the government, if you have no choice your only choice is to believe that what you've got is great) have no idea what their child will be exposed to in a public school.

    I grew up in a very nice suburban district that produced wonderful graduates with great test scores. I could go on for days about what I was exposed from teachers, in the library, from the crazy lady in 8th grade who talked to us about sex and put a condom over her arm (8th grade).

    But yes, like other parts of the church, where we have lost our Catholic identity, where we have not embraced what truly makes unique, we are losing ground. A Catholic School that behaves like a public school with tuition will not stand.

    But let's turn this thing around. The stakes are too high and we have everything we need, the full revelation of God's word.

  3. "Fr. Simon" presents a compelling case for a reformed model of parochial education. But for the love of all the saints, can the "contemporary choir." The dreck that such groups palm off on the faithful as sacred music is not "more available to young people." By pretending that it is, we fall right back into the infantilising pit from which the entire exercise purports to try and escape.

    By pretending that "contemporary music is for children," we do not teach our children the liturgical elements of the faith: we teach them a distorted rendition of our own invention. Even if it were desirable to have "liturgical praxis for children" and then "liturgical praxis for adults," we never throw the switch. I have never seen someone say "you are old enough for long trousers now, Timmy; come learn Gregorian chant and leave aside the guitar Mass." No, we string along the "contemporary choir" until the children are grown up without any understanding of the Roman Rite.

    So good luck and Godspeed with the educational reform, Father. But see to it that the drum set suffers an accident before the school year starts.

  4. Father,
    While much of what you write is entertaining, I find it an odd necessity to debate with yourself as your alter ego. That being said, why would your reformed "Youth Church" require feeding the children? Or a game of tag? Why the push for contemporary music for the children? Isn't that the happy, gushy, hand-clapping music? I thought after luring all of the daft pretend Catholics in with water balloons and donuts, you had a serious program planned. How is the program coming? Are all of those parents ready to be taught by their children because their own religious education was so poorly handled?
    I agree that a Catholic School "acting" like a public school with tuition is a disgrace. However, I was under the impression from one of these articles that with the rarest of exceptions, Catholic Schools were just private schools for the middle class. I find that insulting, and a sweeping over-the-top statement. As if every Catholic sending their child to a Catholic School is simply attempting an escape from government funded schools. In your attempt to make a point, Father, you have insulted many dedicated, and yes, learned teachers of the faith, followers of the faith, and probably others who are now having flashbacks to bad 1970s church music. I'm not too sure I like your carrot-on the-stick approach to luring people in. Tongue in cheek it may be, but it makes almost everyone on the Catholic Bell Curve seem simple-minded. People don't have to be "reel smart" to know that bait and switch only works if your catch of the day likes what they find after they are lured in. If American Catholics are so lazy and only attracted by food and fun, what makes you think they'll stay when they figure out your Master Plan?