Should a good religious education program include lots of memory work, or should the focus be on the student’s personal relationship with Christ? These kinds of debates can be helpful, in that they force us to step outside of catechesis-as-usual and examine what we are doing and whether it is serving our students. They can be divisive, though, unless we remember that Christian formation is not one single educational act, but an entire collection of things we do to help each other grow in our faith.
Today I’d like to look at how education, in any subject, works. This isn’t a scholarly piece, and you could take the components I’ve put here and divide them out differently. (I tackled the subject from a completely different angle last summer, when I wrote about the Four Ways of Loving God.) Think of this more as a rough framework to help you think about what you are teaching, and why it’s working as well as it is.
There’s no education happening unless the student has some desire to learn. Ideally, in a parish faith formation context, the student desires to learn more about his faith because he is pursuing an active, personal relationship with Christ. He wants to learn what he needs to know in order to become a better disciple.
Realistically, some come to class out of simple curiosity. Young children may be motivated to learn their faith simply because it’s important to Mom and Dad; they instinctively know that what the parents think is important must be important. In confirmation and RCIA, some students may have a baser motive: I need to please my parent or spouse by doing this thing, or I want to get caught up on my sacraments and this is the parish hurdle.
Great teachers in any subject have a passion for their topic. Thus the most important prerequisite for being a catechist is having that passion for Christ. In that way, students who aren’t coming to class out of their own personal desire to follow Jesus can at least hope to catch a little bit of the instructor’s passion. It might be enough to ignite a full-fledged personal conversion, or it might be just enough to open the student’s mind to at least learning a few things that will prove helpful down the road.
We can’t learn what we don’t understand. There is a valid criticism of rote-memory learning, if that instruction is strictly memorization without comprehension. When we teach, we need to teach so that students understand what we’re talking about.
There are levels of understanding, and in education it is tempting to jump straight to the “deeper meaning” before students even have a grasp of the essential facts of the situation. In religious education, first we want to make sure students understand the basics: What happened at Creation? At Christmas? At Easter? What happens when we die? What is a human soul? What is the Trinity? What are the words to the Our Father and what do they mean? And so on. Basic stuff. Bible stories, essential theology and devotions, all the working knowledge we need in order to understand how we and God fit together.
It’s tempting to be dismissive of all this “fact” stuff, but without the facts, our learning is not grounded in reality. Once we have the facts, we can go deeper in our understanding. We can ask, “Why is this true?” “How does this fit together?” “How does this apply to my personal life?” “How does this draw me into a closer relationship with God?”
If we don’t remember what we’ve learned, we won’t get far. Some types of information are best learned and remembered by using the framework of a story. We humans are wired to learn stories, and thus through telling, listening, and retelling, we can know a story without memorizing a script word for word.
Many elements of the Christian faith we can remember in a general way without having to memorize a precise definition. It’s important we know what the Immaculate Conception is, and how it differs from the Incarnation, but as long as the student can explain the two accurately, there’s no particular formula that absolutely must be memorized. (It will be helpful for teaching, though, for the teacher to provide a concise definition that the student could choose to memorize.)
Certain prayers and devotions we need to remember only well enough to follow along with a guide. If I’m fluent in using my hymnal, for example, and I’ve been given an opportunity to learn and sing the most important hymns of the faith, I can sing along at Mass without having to memorize every single one. If I’m thoroughly familiar with the overall structure of the Bible, the key stories, and the essential verses, I can flip to the precise verse I’m looking for even if I haven’t memorized it verbatim.
We do well, though, to commit to memory certain facts and prayers. Those we pray daily or weekly we’ll memorize by simple repetition. It behooves the catechist to make sure students can in fact recite an Our Father easily and fluently, because when life presses in on all sides, memorized prayers can be the very instrument of sanity and salvation. This is basic spiritual fitness.
Likewise, there are theological definitions (like God being three Persons sharing one Nature, and that a person is who we are and our nature is what we are) that students need to memorize. This is because it’s easy to get mixed up when trying to recall what we’ve studied if we don’t keep our terms straight. Questions will come at us in life from the strangest directions, and having these essentials memorized precisely equips us to answer accurately.
4. Critical Thinking
There’s a fashion in education to favor “critical thinking” but to not be too critical about what that means. “Critical thinking” does not mean “Whatever I made up because look at me I’m so creative let’s have an argument!”. Critical thinking means being able to wade through a pile of noise and sort out what’s true and what’s not.
The foundation for critical thinking is a firm understanding and recollection of the truth. When I taught Apologetics for Kids this fall, my students (ages 7-11) breezed through my first few weeks of planned class material in a couple minutes, because they happened to be extremely well-catechized. They knew the truth, understood the truth, and thus could easily explain why various false assertions were false, and why, in contrast, the Catholic faith was true.
I’ve taught other classes where the students posed many questions concerning the faith. They’d heard this or that in their regular life, but had never been given the facts about God that they needed in order to be able to think clearly on what they’d heard. In such a context, we first need to go back and help the student know what the truth is — that basic understanding of reality. Then we can help the student put together a critical response to attacks on the faith.
It is absolutely essential to the life of the soul that Christians be able to understand why their faith is true, and why false assertions are false.
Practice. Experience. I am prone to making fun of mandatory “volunteering” schemes, but the reality is that students do need practice in performing the works of mercy. It’s not a fully-formed faith if I only go feed the hungry because I want my confirmation certificate; but I’ll never get good at feeding the hungry unless I practice it a few times.
Students don’t need to just know what the Mass is, or what the Rosary is, they need to spend time praying the Mass and praying the Rosary. If I go to confession once when I’m seven and once when I’m fifteen, I’m not going to get very good at receiving that sacrament. I build confidence and comfort in my faith by trying it out. Using it. Seeing what the hard parts are, and figuring out how to work through them.
Escape from One-Size-Fits-None Discipleship
So what do your students need? I don’t know. Who are your students? What are they like? What do they know already? What are their questions? What are their struggles? Where are they in their relationship with God?
Catechism class isn’t the hour-a-week spiritual cure-all. We are limited in what we can offer. Religious education is one piece in a much bigger picture of everything families, parishes, and individuals do in order to help each other grow in the faith.
I can, however, pay attention to my students and try to make my class fill a few of their most pressing needs.