A couple of years ago, a pastor asked me to provide a catechetical training day for teachers in his Catholic school and CCD program. One of my first questions to him was what issues had developed that required my assistance. The Pastor voiced to me his concern over poor doctrinal formation he suspected the children were receiving. I asked him how he finally came to this point. He said, “I knew things were off when all I saw was glue, crayons, construction paper and scissors during an eighth grade religion class.” Right there and then I realized what I had to work with.
The inevitable day arrived. As the catechists walked into the parish center, we began with prayer and introductions. I typically begin with a short story reflecting on the catechetical formation for the day. This process helps to gauge the audience and determine when to run when they have had enough. Kidding aside, the first segment involved preparing them for the day, the aim of the instruction — its purpose and goals, their desires, and application for the classroom. A good strategy when teaching teachers is not to patronize them. They are teachers and know everything. I know; I am one of them. In reality, the heart of instruction here lies with an authentic witness of the living Gospel of Jesus Christ in a gradual loving way.
Knowing that many teachers resort to arts and crafts because of a genuine fear and ignorance in teaching the Catholic faith to students I began the training by asking the catechists for the one thing they would like to know about the faith, the one thing they still had questions on. After a subtle pause (pretty typical) hands were raised. The questions asked centered on sin, true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, confession, purgatory, Mass participation, is the Church biblical?, Mary, how to read the bible, other religions, etc. My next question to them was why they wanted to know about these particular doctrines. Their response was nothing short of amazing. They did not know how these particular teachings came to be! Keep in mind, these catechists are supposedly teaching children the Catholic faith. Right there and then I realized we needed to start at the very beginning: Do you believe in God the Father the almighty?
If the teachers do not have a sound understanding of how their live reflect the Gospel, let alone living within the Story of Salvation, then how are they going to impart the story to their students? Hence, the focal point of the problem we face in the catechetical field. Our catechists lack basic doctrinal formation. I charted a different course of action realizing that this group needed a systematic engaging approach to learn and apply Catholic doctrine in the classroom.
The result was a mini-RCIA course where I went through Salvation History and presented to them their role in light of Jesus Christ the Divine Teacher (Heb 11:6). In other words, they needed to see how the Church came to be, their role within the Church, and the graces given to us by Christ at Baptism to continue His work in the Church He founded. A basic outline of the curriculum for this training session looked something like this:
- Introduction to God’s plan for salvation in our lives.
- Creation and God’s love for us.
- Original Sin and the fall from grace because of the first sin.
- Proto-evangelium (First Gospel)
- God’s covenants with his people i.e. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses
- The role of our Blessed Mother as the “New Eve.”
- Summary on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture
- Summary on Apologetics
- Summary of the Seven Sacraments
- Summary of the Ten Commandments
- Summary of Mortal Sin and Venial Sin
- The Incarnation
- Liturgy and the Mass
- The Church
- Lives of the Saints
- The Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Apostles Creed.
It was important the catechists saw the biblical basis for these doctrinal pillars. In addition, they needed to become conversant with how the Catechism references the teachings of the Church through the footnotes. A short primer on how to use the Catechism of the Catholic Church and view the references, cross-references, and article numbers to find a particular teaching gave the catechists a better grasp of the information.
This experience is common. A generation of uncatechized faithful over the past thirty-years has drifted throughout their Catholic life not knowing the graces they received through their Baptism. The recitation of our Baptismal promises appears as an afterthought to many. Since we are asked within the Rite of Baptism, “Do you reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises? Do you reject sin… and refuse to be mastered by sin?” it behooves us to ask the question to these teachers whether they truly understand what sin is in order to reject it.
When I posed this very question to one of the teachers in the training session, the response was a common one: “Why do we need to concentrate on sin, it is more important to focus on the works of Jesus?” Do you see where this particular catechist has quietly misaligned the purpose of Christ and His Church. Whether its ignorance, issues with the doctrine of sin, or a personal experience initiating this response, the opportunity to discuss the nature of sin was important, but difficult. Now, we must be careful when discussing the doctrine of sin from this pastoral perspective: we do not know what the person has gone through personally, where a certain sinful act may have caused negative, spiritual harm or drawn out a bad experience. It is vital that catechists or trainers of catechists be carefully aware of the audience they are instructing. However, we cannot shy away from addressing the dangers of sin itself.
Another teacher, noting her frustration in sitting through what was, in her opinion, a dreadful class said these magic words: “You can keep your catechism! How do you expect me to apply it in the classroom?”
This brave soul echoed the sentiments of others who had resisted on using the Catechism in the classroom. This “shot heard around the classroom,” reflected the genuine mentality of many teachers, viewing the Catechism as a useless tool probably because it did not provide pictures for the kids to “color” and “cut-out.” This comment troubled me because of an apparent ignorance towards the application or appreciation of the Catechism. There is legitimacy to the argument that it is not the teachers’ fault. From one perspective, this may be true; nonetheless, it does not negate the fact of what we are dealing with now. St. Augustine — the Father of Catechetics — describes catechizing the ignorant in this way:
The best method for instructing ignorant men in Christian doctrine, one that will bear much fruit is to ask questions in a friendly fashion after the explanation; from this questioning one can learn whether each one understood what he heard or whether the explanation needs repeating. In order that the learner grasp the matter, we must ascertain by questioning whether the one being catechized has understood, and in accordance with his response, we must either explain more clearly and fully or not dwell further on what is known to them etc. But if a man is very slow, he must be mercifully helped and the most necessary doctrines especially should be briefly imparted to him.
As the Catechist trainer in this situation, you cannot scold nor demean these individuals. In many ways, ignorance is rooted in their responses due to a lack of formation. Thus, a gentle but firm disposition serves us well in this type of situation because we do not want to lose them. Our hope rests in a genuine conversion for these teachers (1 Pt 3:15). The “you can keep your catechism” statement by the teacher mentioned earlier should not detract anyone from teaching the faith. My call for this person was to help her find God. An opportunity arose to present the Gospel, reveal the importance of Christ in our lives and provide her with an open opportunity to seek Him.
It is very important that the catechist reveal the relevance of doctrine in the lives of the faithful. Our faith is naturally explicit (1 Thess 2:13) because God has made Himself visible through His Church. Man naturally seeks what is visible and revealed. For instance, when we are able to observe and recognize a moral act the exercise of the doctrinal action takes effect on our senses. We are able to witness doctrine exercised. The liturgy – a public work – provides a visible reality of the existence of faith and the exercise of doctrine.
By the end of the day, the teachers who survived my training session realized in a small way the necessity of teaching doctrine to children. The success of the day came not by how much doctrine I could expose them to, it was helping them realize how little they knew about the faith and what to do about. Not only for their souls but also for the souls of the children they teach.
The religion instructor must be prepared to proclaim the truth of the Catholic Church. His/her responsibility is to aid the development of the person they are instructing by explaining Church teaching carefully and appropriately through a careful transmission rooted in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The opening to nourishing a soul in Catholic doctrine must be convincing so the person applies these doctrines to everyday life. The need for the Catechism of the Catholic Church is more relevant than ever if we genuinely desire to impart the Catholic faith. Our duty and responsibility is to answer the questions our students have. Clarity of truth is primary in our instruction. And the Catechism gives us clarity of truth if we just use it. CatholicLane.com
Marlon De La Torre, MA, MEd. is the Director of Catechist Formation and Children's Catechesis for the Diocese of Fort Worth. Over the last fifteen years Marlon has served in multiple catechetical diocesan positions in Memphis and Kansas City. He is regular guest on the "Sonrise Morning Show" with Brian Patrick and Matt Swaim. His new book is Screwtape Teaches the Faith: A Guide for Catechists based on The Screwtape Letters and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His EWTN discussion about the book with Fr. Mitch Pacwa is here.