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Repenting of the Failure of Parish-Based Catechesis: Time for An Old Idea

  • BARBARA NICOLOSI

It's long past time for the Catholic Church in the United States to acknowledge and address the fact that in many, possibly most, dioceses, parish-based catechesis has been an abject failure.

"How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him?"  (1 Sam. 16)

The Problem

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Barbara Nicolosi

"Who can name the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?"  It was Pentecost, and our pastor was walking up and down the middle aisle with a goofy grin and tone that said, "Bear with me, here."  There were a few embarrassed chuckles from the congregants who hadn't already tuned out. Father pressed on, "Come on, anybody?"  Again, the people dutifully and lightly snickered.  This was supposed to be the funny set up of some point, right?  I didn't think it was funny at all.  I raised my hand.

I think our pastor was a little put out because he really hadn't intended for anyone to speak up.  He made a comical face and then said, "Really?"  The people laughed.  Still grinning but with his hands on his hips, Father nodded at me, "Okay, let's hear it."  So, I answered using the WUCKPuFF formula I had learned back in the third grade from Sr. Mary Randall, RSM. "Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Piety, Fortitude, Fear of the Lord."  (Probably because I am a child of the Sixties, I prefer the word "Reverence" to "Fear of the Lord," but WUCKPuFR just doesn't work as well as a mnemonic.)

People gasped.  Father approached our pew actually shocked.  He was intrigued and, I guess, figured maybe I had gotten lucky.  "Stand up and say them again.  Slower."  So, I did.  And then our priest looked around and pointed at me and people applauded.  Like I had done something extraordinary.  Like I had said something brilliant.  Like I was some kind of theological nerd, instead of just a fellow disciple in the pew, delineating something so catechetically pedestrian that seven-year-olds should know it before we ever think of placing the Eucharist in their little mouths.  I would have been much more impressive explaining the meaning of all the gifts but Father clearly didn't want to go that far with his little trivia moment.

At the Sign of Peace, an older woman behind me shook my hand and leaned in conspiratorially.  She said with a touch of bravado, "I knew Piety."  I had to force myself not to grimace in dismay.  "Peace be with you," I rejoined.

If I was pastor of this parish, and only one person in the pews could name the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, I would reorient my entire preaching calendar for the next seven months.  And every month for the next seven would be on one of the Gifts.  I would drill it in at every Sunday Mass until the whole parish would know in depth and forever, what God's life in us means, that is, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Looking around the church as Father moved on to whatever his point was — it certainly wasn't the scandal of religious ignorance — I thought to myself, "Was the Baltimore Catechism really so bad?  Really?"

It's long past time for the Catholic Church in the United States to acknowledge and address the fact that in many, possibly most, dioceses, parish-based catechesis has been an abject failure.  In the vaunted Year of Faith, it should sting all of our leaders and pastors that few of the ever-dwindling percentage of Catholics in the pews on a Sunday morning could pass a basic catechetical quiz.  How many Gen X Catholics could name one of the precepts of the Church or recall any one set of the Mysteries of the Rosary?  How many of our teenagers could list all Ten Commandments?  How many First Communicants could recite the Acts of Faith or Hope, or name the Seven Sacraments?  The terrible, tragic, and fundamental truth for 21st century Catholicism is, not many!

We need to suppress the impulse to defend the indefensible, because we don't want to hurt the feelings of the lovely people who have been pulled in to teach the Faith in all our parishes.

It's beyond my scope here to say how devastating and even cruel it is for the Church Militant to perpetuate Her systemic failure in this area.  Ignorance leads to suffering.  Religious ignorance leads to eternal death.

We are awash in a broader culture of banality, ugliness, and stupidity, and we have several generations of disciples who are completely incapable of coping with it because of their double ignorance of their faith.  Double ignorance, from Plato, means they don't know, and they don't know that they don't know.

I'll stipulate that there are some exceptions — parishes here and there that are handing on the faith well and forming solid little disciples.  But they are the great exception and we can't let the fact of their existence derail the urgent discussion of what we have to do about rest.

About a month ago, a convert friend called me with pained concern in her voice.  "Caitlin has been going to St. Charles' religious education program for more than a year now.  She is supposed to make First Communion, but we are worried because she doesn't know anything."  This news hit me hard.  This was a family that had been catechumens in a RCIA program that I created in Hollywood for people in the entertainment industry who were coming into the Church.  Caitlin, her mother and father and her little sister Laurie, were all accepted into the Church a few years ago, and now they were dealing with the scandal of banal catechesis.  I agreed to meet with eight-year-old Caitlin.

It was shocking what she didn't know, especially because St. Charles was going to let her receive First Communion in this state of unknowing.  She didn't know what Original Sin is.  She didn't know the difference between a mortal and venial sin or of what an examination of conscience should consist.  She didn't know what grace is, or what the Trinity is, or what we mean by the Holy Eucharist.  As a result of all this unknowing, Caitlin hated going to Church and thought the religious education classes she associated with the Church were boring and stupid.

So I told Caitlin's mother that I would meet with her and her daughter for an hour every Saturday for the next three months.  We started with, "Who made you?"  and "What can we know about God from the world?"  and then, "Why did God make you?"  and "How does God talk to you?"  and we'll be moving on according to the brilliant and sturdy structure of the Baltimore Catechism.  Lord knows, by the time we're done, this could probably earn the little girl an honorary doctorate from the sorry, intellectual vacuum that is catechesis in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

I got into teaching RCIA because I had two converts who were in graduate programs in engineering and I couldn't find a parish program that wasn't insultingly banal.  I didn't want us to lose them because what they found in the Church was so much dumber than what they found at UCLA.

We have a problem in the Church in the U.S.  We need to suppress the impulse to defend the indefensible, because we don't want to hurt the feelings of the lovely people who have been pulled in to teach the Faith in all our parishes.  They are lovely, and God will bless them for their sacrifices.  But, in my experience, nice doesn't mean good teaching and we urgently need some good teaching.

Teaching is an art.  It is a craft.  It can be a profession.  It is something people go to universities to learn how to do.  There are two key aspects to being an effective teacher.  The first is to know your subject.  The second is to know how to communicate, translate, and "make enthralling," your subject.

Most parish DREs find their religious education teachers from the rolls of the parents who have kids in the programs.  Over and over through my years in the "corporate Church," I encountered people teaching the Faith who had no pedagogical training and little if any theology.  The various dioceses count heavily on their one- or two-day religious education congresses to get their catechists up to speed, but it is an absurd expectation.  You can't make theologians and educators out of people in a day.  Typically, the highlight of these conferences for the attendees is the exhibit hall where they swoop all over booths of Catholic publishers and purveyors of holy hardware, looking frantically for tools that they can use in their classes.  Talk about setting people up for failure!

The sad reality of parish-based catechesis in most places is that it's boring, lightweight, irrelevant drivel for the kids, and frustration and embarrassment for the catechists.


First Proposal: Recommit to Content and Rigor

I got into teaching RCIA because I had two converts who were in graduate programs in engineering and I couldn't find a parish program that wasn't insultingly banal.  I didn't want us to lose them because what they found in the Church was so much dumber than what they found at UCLA.  I sat in on RCIA classes at three different local parishes before I despaired of finding a good program and decided to teach them myself.

You think I'm kidding about how dumb these parish programs are?  I have seen sessions that SNL would reject as being too ridiculous.  Oh, the humanity!

Not long ago, my husband and I attended a mandatory two-hour session at a local parish, for parents with new babies and their corresponding godparents-to-be.  There were about fifty of us in the hall and the main miracle of the evening was that none of us left the Church for another religion during the course of the evening.  It was dreadful!  Instead of helping us understand and value the glorious baptismal ritual, the three "team leaders" wasted our time asking us to decorate little white cloth dresses with colors and pictures that made us think of God.  They told stupid stories about when their babies were born and embarrassing moments they had seen at baptisms.  There was a long, awful period in which every pregnant couple got to explain the name they had for their baby.  Almost none had chosen a patron saint's name.  And why would they?  No one on the "team" suggested it as a good idea!

The evening was a well-intentioned, dumbed down, idiotic mess that was a waste for everyone who had crawled out of their offices and homes and missed dinner.  I hated how the much-needed opportunity to prepare these parents and god-parents was squandered.  We don't have time for this!

This tutorial model works very well with the catechumens and candidates, and always draws in twice as many people because they start to bring their spouses and friends and co-workers to sit in.  And, of course, it has been great for my soul.

I get that the Baltimore Catechism by itself isn't enough.  But it doesn't follow that it isn't very good.  Because it is — especially for children who need to be sponging up and storing as many concepts as we can give them as resources for their future lives.  What is infuriating in so many of these terribly banal parish programs is that they may say little truths, but their whole subtext is a giant lie.  The lie is that the Catholic Faith, that Christianity, is a boring, irrelevant unreasoned cacophony of old dogmas and rituals.  No!  Our Faith is smart!  There's more to it than any of us can ever fully learn morally, spiritually, intellectually, and liturgically.  There's a ton that we need to memorize so as to ruminate over — psalms and lists and parables and turns of phrase and principles.

The reason our parish programs are boring to kids is not because they are too difficult, but because they are too dumb!  We need to ask a lot more of our candidates, catechumens, and students.  And they will respond to this demand because the truth they find will be worth it.


Second Proposal: Let's Get Teachers to Teach the Faith

The Church in the U.S. grew and thrived largely due to the efforts of religious brothers and sisters who ran and taught in the parish school system.  We don't have enough nuns anymore, but many areas still have Catholic schools.  Let's drop the Sunday school model and instead have the government school students brought over to the Catholic schools one afternoon a week.  Let's pay the Catholic school teachers to stay an extra two hours one day a week to teach religion.  They will know how to teach, and they will know much better what to teach.  It would be a thousand percent improvement on what the kids are getting now.


Third Proposal: Recruit Theology and Scripture Majors as Tutors

Let's pretend that each child is failing religion the way some kids fail math.  What do we do for the kids who are failing?  Well, good parents find a tutor.

There is a wonderful resource sitting right there in the pews every Sunday that we need to tap.  Lots and lots of people have studied theology and Scripture.  They are probably right there sitting two rows away, heads down while suffering through some ditty from "Glory and Praise."  I suggest all pastors invite these people to come forward and take on one or two students from the program.  We can take some of the money we are blowing on religious ed programs and give it as a small stipend to these folks.

This one-on-one or one-to-two approach will be especially effective with older kids and RCIA students.  The parish's role should move from teaching the kids to coordinating the tutors.  The parish can vet the tutors and set the standards for what the students need to know.  The tutors can meet with the kids at whatever time is best for all and when the students are ready, the mentors can present them to the pastor for scrutiny.  This method will allow the students and tutors to cover a lot more material in a much more powerful way.  Their interactions will be more sharings than classes, and the student will be constantly engaged in relating the truths being discussed to their own lives.

Hurt feelings are not the worst thing that can happen to a religion.

Also, the truth is, learning the Faith is different than learning algebra.  It is a more personal kind of learning that is ill-suited to classroom rote.  Some candidates learn faster.  Some catechumens can take in more abstract concepts.  Some are going to respond better to exhortation and others to parables.  All are going to need to share what they are hearing and what it means to them.  The tutorial model is better at this than the group of unruly government school kids in a classroom model.

Some of the people out there in the pews will be experts in Scripture.  Some will know a lot about moral theology and ethics.  Some will have more to say about liturgy or ecclesial history.  The new job of the DRE will be to coordinate these tutors and utilize them with a couple of students several months every year or so.

How about that, for asking people to be real disciples?  This will create lasting bonds of friendship and discipleship in the parish.  Those who are taught will feel gratitude and will move on to becoming tutors themselves.  It would be a great, great thing for a parish.

I am speaking from personal experience here.  Our Hollywood RCIA program is very rigorous and demanding.  We not only require an hour or two of catechism study every week, but we usually stipulate two Catholic novels be read a month during the program.  We read directly from the documents of Vatican II, and regularly work in other texts on moral theology, history, and Scripture.  It's almost too much for the learners but the powerful subtext they absorb is that the Catholic faith is rich and deep and much, much smarter than you are.  This tutorial model works very well with the catechumens and candidates, and always draws in twice as many people because they start to bring their spouses and friends and co-workers to sit in.  And, of course, it has been great for my soul.

When I have addressed this matter in public, it always evokes the response that the problem in our religious education programs is not the parishes but in the parents and families.  It is certainly true that parents should be the primary educators in the faith.  But they can't now, can they?  Let's be real.  You can't give what you don't have, and we have two or three generations of parents now who know next to nothing about their faith.  A big plus of the "living room catechesis" model is that it draws the parents in.  They will naturally be part of it, and they will learn along with their kids.

We have to stop the madness.  We have to stop lying about how bad this problem is because we don't want to cause a stir and hurt feelings.  The Church in the 21st century is dying of a malaise that comes from ignorance.  People aren't praying because they don't know anything about God.  They aren't evangelizing because they don't know what they have to share.  Hurt feelings are not the worst thing that can happen to a religion.

"But when the Son of Man comes, will there be any faith left on earth?"

dividertop

Acknowledgement

Barbara Nicolosi. "Repenting of the Failure of Parish-Based Catechesis: Time for An Old Idea." Patheos (May 29, 2013).

Reprinted with permission of Patheos.

Founded in 2008, Patheos.com is the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world's beliefs. Patheos is unlike any other online religious and spiritual site and is designed to serve as a resource for those looking to learn more about different belief systems, as well as participate in productive, moderated discussions on some of today's most talked about and debated topics.

The Author

Barbara Nicolosi is the Executive Director of The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University and an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Azusa Pacific University and at Pepperdine University. She blogs at The Church of the Masses.

Copyright © 2013 Patheos
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