Monday, October 20, 2014

How's that Religious Ed program working out?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

A while ago you published something about some hair-brained scheme to change the nature of religious education. How did that ever work out?

Cecilia “Cee Cee” Dee

Dear Cecilia,

I have asked the crackpot clergyman who hatched the scheme to write a report. Here it is:

When I came to this parish, I found a fairly standard religious education program. The records were well kept. The ceremonies for the sacraments were well organized, things ran like clockwork and very few of the children or their parents went to Mass. The religious education schedule followed the public school schedule exactly. The public schools had a three day weekend; we had a three day weekend, and so on. I could always tell when the public schools were not in session on Monday. There were no children in church on Sunday.

I tried to visit the children in the classroom. Everyone reminded me how important that was. “It’s very important for the pastor to visit the children.” They never said why it was so important. The children couldn’t distinguish me from the tooth fairy. They just knew I was some guy who wore black. In the first few months of my tenure here, I attended a meeting of the teachers to share my vision for religious ed. I said that I wanted to include a component that stressed biblical literacy.

All the teachers said, and I quote, “NO!”

One of the teachers, who fancied himself a moral theology professor, for fifth graders said that what he was teaching was just too important to modify.

 Religion classes went from 9 am to 10:30 or 11:00 am about half the Sundays of the year. I had Mass at 8 AM and 10 AM after which I raced from room to room when I had the energy and there weren’t other things I was supposed to be doing.  When I walked in to the classrooms, I found teachers at lecterns lecturing about commandments to be memorized, assignments to be studied and tests to be taken in order to qualify for the three C’s, Confession, Communion and Confirmation.  I found children with heads on desks, hollow sunken eyes and thinly veiled anger.  

It was clear that they had neither eaten nor slept well. They had been in a classroom in the government schools where for five unrelenting days they had been subject to preparation for government tests. In our times good performance on tests guarantees government money for government employees. Test preparation passes for education and government employees masquerade as teachers. Now, these captive children were being subjected to a sixth day of the same unrelenting droning on about facts. They hated all religion and Catholicism in particular.  Thus Religious Education!

The first thing I did was to move back the time that classes would start from 9 am to 10 am. The children were delighted. The adults were peeved and tried to convince me to reconsider. My suspicion was that they had better things to do with their Sundays than spend them in church. One parent was furious with me. I quote, “How dare you decide what’s best for my family.” Her Sunday’s were rigidly scheduled to include shopping and athletic events. It was important to get religion out of the way as early as possible. As she berated me for ruining her domestic life, all I could think was, “Please don’t hit me….”  She didn’t but she, her frightened husband and her unsmiling, well-disciplined brood promptly left the parish.

After this, I waited for at least a year and then announced that I wouldn’t put up with parents dropping their kids off for religious  ed and then leaving.  It was common to see minivans pull up at the school door and a parent, dressed in flip flops and pajamas waved as their children stumbled into class.  It was a great deal, a babysitting service that promised to watch your kids for three precious hours on a Sunday morning. That left time for Starbucks, K-mart and the dry cleaners.

The children were expected to go to an hour and a half class and an hour long Mass.  This often didn’t happen. The kids sat around in the parking lot playing computer games and texting one another while Mass went on inside and their parents went to the K-Mart.

Enough was finally enough. I announced that if kids didn’t go to Mass they wouldn’t be passed on for sacraments. A furious parent called me to say, “How dare you tell me I’m not a good Catholic. I attend Mass faithfully EVERY Christmas and Easter and pray at home. Who are you to tell me what I should do?”  Angry letters were sent to the bishop.

After this debacle and a cooling off period I announced my next move. We would expand the religious education program. It would start around 9: 45 with doughnuts and other sugary snacks. Next there would be a half an hour or more of chasing around like wild savages and some semi-organized games that involved yelling a lot and running. Then the children would go to their classes around 11, finally going together to the noon Mass. I firmly believe that before there is catechesis there has to be Biblical literacy and a personal prayer life. If you don’t know Jesus, if you haven’t met Him in prayer, why learn about Him? The Bible is a story of a family (c.f. Jeff Cavins Great Adventure Bible Study.) It’s the story of MY family into which I am adopted through sacraments.  Why join a family about which you know nothing?

I planned three levels of instruction:

  1. First comes Biblical literacy, knowing the essential story of the Bible. This gives our beleaguered Catholic kids a fighting chance when they go to high school or college and meet atheists who say the Bible and the faith are just a bunch of myths, or meet anti-Catholic sects that say the Catholic Church doesn’t teach the Bible. 
  2. After the kids know the basic story of salvation they can go on to learn the truths of the faith in a more catechetical style. 
  3. The study of the lives of the saints as a vehicle to Church history and Catholic spirituality is the third essential idea of the program. To be Catholic is to be part of something great and something to be proud of as witnessed to by the saints of our history.  

First food, then fun, then instruction. At the end of the class period, they spend a few minutes preparing for Mass and then go up to the noon Mass as a group.  (The noon Mass is our more contemporary Mass. My liturgical tastes run to the Neolithic, but hey, you have to put the hay down where the goats can get it.)  My great hope was that someday a child would have a tantrum because they could NOT go to church this morning. This has actually happened.

I was told, “Father, this will never work where we are because of sports.”

To blazes with sports! Go for quality over quantity. If people prefer sporting events to their religious life and their Sunday obligation, they are committing idolatry and are probably going to hell anyway.
Start with a small fanatical group of Catholics and pretty soon, if what you’re doing is really fun, kids will prefer religion to living out the athletic fantasies of their ageing parents. If you prefer sports or shopping or anything else to the life of grace, you probably should just admit it and not try to get the three C’s (Confirmation, Confession, Communion) for your children. If you don’t believe this stuff why should they?  I suggest watching the movie “Chariots of Fire”, the only movie that has ever made me envy Presbyterians.  

Things are a bit smaller. We have about 120 kids in the program, but I see most of them in church. We just started our second confirmation class of the new system. We only have about 20 thirteen- and fourteen- year-olds in the group, but I actually know every one of the kids in the class from church on Sunday.

Our most radical move so far was to move to a home school model for First Communion preparation. We have classroom preparation for First Confession, so we are pretty much covering the material twice. Parents hated the idea until they did it.  It turned into a refresher course on the faith for the parents. It also gave them a way to share their own faith with their children. I was astonished that our First Communion Mass had almost no pictures taken. Parents were involved in the actual religious meaning of the Mass. I even caught a few parents softly crying because of the beauty of the faith they had shared with their own children.

In short it has almost worked out the way I hoped. There have had to be some concessions to practicality. There is oatmeal, not just sugary snacks for breakfast, things like that, and we still have a few parents dropping off kids and then leaving, but I think there is less of that. The church is packed with kids and the young adults and parents who teach them, so all in all I think it is working out.

I wish I could take the credit, but the real credit goes to the extremely enthused and motivated
teachers who have taken it on themselves to share their faith with the kids. It is a beautiful thing to see.

Fr. Simon


  1. Re Scriptural literacy, I teach 6th grade catechism from the Bible. You might like my book on the subject:

  2. Fantastic. My kids go to one at the parish on Saturday afternoon with other kids. They seem to enjoy it. I'm a bit scared that my 7yr old son knows more about the bible than his school teacher at his Catholic school though. I don't understand why there isn't much Catechesis happening right now. The devil is hard at work. God bless you.