An Examination-of-Christian-Formation Using the Great Commandment

My first year teaching religious education, our textbook emphasized the “Great Commandment”.  It’s a term that refers to this passage of the Gospel:

One of the scribes heard their dispute, and, finding that he answered to the purpose, came up and asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? 29 Jesus answered him, The first commandment of all is, Listen, Israel; there is no God but the Lord thy God; 30 and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole mind, and thy whole strength.[a] This is the first commandment, 31 and the second, its like, is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.[b] There is no other commandment greater than these.

Mark 12:28-31

It’s been a formative verse for me.  As a fan off all things theology-for-laypeople, what struck me most was, “Love the Lord your God with . . .  all your mind.” Needless to say, I wrote a long-winded “Hurrah!” when I saw this post from William O’Leary at Catechesis in the Third Millenium, on the importance of studying theology.

When we say, “Christian Formation”, though, we’re talking about forming the whole Christian.  Theology is an essential part of that — there can be no saying, “Well, if we just teach them to love Jesus (heart), that’s all they need.”  Christ says otherwise.  If we say, “They’re learning the theology of service (strength) by doing their volunteer hours,” again we’ve got an incomplete picture.

When I consider what I, or my children, or my students need next, in order to become more like Christ, I can use the Great Commandment as a four-part examination.

Heart:  What will help this person grow in their love of God? 

A few possibilities:

  • Being treated with kindness and respect by others in the parish and at home.
  • Learning to cultivate thankfulness for God — including the very hard and painful lesson of thankfulness during times of suffering and loss.
  • Developing a love for Jesus, by meditating on His life, death, and resurrection.
  • Learning, by practice, how to pray informally to God, and how to talk about God to others — a topic many Catholics are uncomfortable with.  Doesn’t it grow your love when you can tell others something good done by the person you love?  Or have a heart-to-heart talk with that person?
  • Learning songs, prayers, devotions, and Bible verses that focus on Christ’s love for us.

Many youth programs today have a strong “heart” focus — and that’s great.  It’s a strength we need to preserve and cultivate.

Soul:  What will help this person worship God more fully?

It’s tempting to wrap up heart & soul into one package, and I imagine Christ intentionally asks us to take the two apart, and cultivate  the work of each.  I can build up the life of the soul by:

  • Learning more about the Mass,  and all the rituals and practices of the Church, so that I can worship with greater understanding, and a better ability to follow along and participate.
  • Studying traditional devotions such as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and Eucharistic Adoration (I’m running out of space — can’t list them all).
  • Practicing those devotions! We learn to pray by praying.
  • Learning and practicing the various forms of meditative prayer, including lectio divina, and written prayer.
  • Singing — even memorizing — hymns that have their focus on the worship of God.  We have many inspirational songs in our Catholic tradition that treat other themes.  There’s nothing wrong with those songs!  But we must set apart for study and the liturgy music that is God-centered, because the human soul needs to worship God.
  • Expanding our ability to worship by studying chant, Latin prayers and music, and other traditional modes of worship that are lesser-known in many contemporary parishes, but that have much to offer the soul in search of beauty and reverence.
  • Developing an understanding of Catholic spiritual thinking: That is, training the soul to come to Christ.

The human soul is capable of tremendous depth and breadth.  We needn’t be afraid of faithfully-Catholic devotions that aren’t familiar to us, or aren’t commonly practiced in our local parish.

Mind: To Know You Is to Love You

The mind is the traditional province of the catechist, though as we’ve seen, Christian formation is something much bigger.  Still, it’s essential that we Christians learn to use our minds in the service of God, and in understanding the things of God, by:

  • Memorizing essential prayers, hymns, Bible verses, and teachings of the Church, so that we have them at the ready in the time of need.  (Want to get that annoying refrain of “Louie Louie” out of your head? Sing a different song you’ve memorized.)
  • Studying the Scriptures at an age-appropriate level, according to our intellectual capacity.  How many students read Twilight, but never the Song of Songs?  How many adults have a college degree in _____________, but insist the Bible is just . . . too . . . haaaaard.  Nonsense!
  • Learning theology, with the same seriousness we devote to any other subject. We’d never settle for a 2nd-grade math education, or a third-grade reading level.  The mind needs to know God — that’s what theology is — as thoroughly as it knows any other subject, or the intellectual vacuum will be filled some other way.
  • Understanding the reasons for the Church’s moral teachings, the reality of Church history, and how to mount a proper defense of the Faith via apologetics.
  • Meeting our models in the faith by studying the lives of the saints.  If you’re not sure how much an adult wants or needs to know about the saints, use a copy of People Magazine as a reference.  Turns out people really do want to know about the lives of other people.

Strength: Serving God in the Context of Our Vocations

How do I spend my time and energy? If I’m married, I owe the bulk of my time to providing for my family, overseeing the education of my children, and cultivating the relationship of love within the family.   Priests, religious, and single persons have different responsibilities.  All of us owe our “extra” to God, performing whichever spiritual and corporal works of mercy we can.  A properly ordered life is built by:

  • Learning what the works of mercy are, so we know them when we see them.
  • Identifying ways we can perform good works, according to our state in life and our God-given talents and resources.
  • Practicing! There’s a hump to be overcome, a ball to get rolling . . . jump in and try one.
  • Cultivating a lifestyle that enables works of mercy.  Good discipleship includes helping each other discern whether we have our priorities in order, and what we might change to make more room for service to God.
  • Maturing.  Mandatory “volunteering” sometimes has a place, in helping those young-in-the-faith get physical practice at acts of service.  But let’s not confuse indentured servitude with freely-given service. (As any kid made to wash the dishes will tell you, the purpose of having children is to breed a household full of slaves, right?) What we want to nurture is the desire to give of ourselves generously, from the . . . heart.

In all of these, I’ve focused on the positives.  But of course we must also learn how to identify and flee the sins that would destroy each of our four pillars of Christian life. Sins that destroy the . . .

  1. Heart: Envy, bitterness, jealousy.
  2. Soul: Despair, pride, indifference.
  3. Mind: Apathy, willful ignorance, intellectual laziness.
  4. Strength: Unchastity, gluttony, greed.

Christian formation means forming Christians.  That’s us — people who are prone to do what is wrong, and must be taught how to do what is right.

Catechism Class Cannot Do the Job Alone

That little four-part examination makes a huge list!  My biggest weakness as an instructor — yours may lie elsewhere — is the temptation to try to do everything.  That’s not my job.  I can’t possibly offer Total Christian Formation in an hour a week.  What is my job?  To figure out which needs are best met by my class.

That means talking to parents and students.  It means consulting my DRE and pastor.  It means obeying the directives of my bishop.  I can figure out what kind of class I’m good at teaching, and offer that class.  I can look for ways my class isn’t helping students, and try to improve.  And as I see needs around the parish, I ask: What would help most here?

I use the Great Commandment to help me identify those needs — in the people I’m called to serve, and above all, in myself.  The more I grow in the four ways of loving God, the more I can succeed at Command #2, loving my neighbor as myself.

  • Lisa Mladinich

    Excellent post, Jennifer! This should be a book (hint, hint)!

    • Jennifer Fitz

      I’m thinking about it, Lisa. Maybe a *little* book. I tell myself every time.