The Adventure of Teaching High School Catechism

It was 10 years ago, but it seems like it was just last year when I volunteered to teach a tenth grade catechism class. I had some experience teaching Math, but I was aware that teaching religion would be completely different. Formulas were my domain. A class of ten rambunctious teens filled with life’s existential questions was outside of my subset; quite outside of the comfort zone. And at 4’11, 95 lbs. my physical commanding presence was not going to get me too far. I nervously wrote on the board “God does not deceive, neither can He be deceived.” I heard some nervous and mocking laughter, I couldn’t quite figure out which. Then hiding my nervousness I faced them and asked: “So how long have you guys been Catholics?” After a few stares, a young girl piped up: “I guess like fifteen years.” Half tongue in cheek, half sarcastically I piped right back: “Oh, so you really know your faith?” The challenge was on.

We had a great semester. Some classes went better than others. I wasn’t the perfect catechist, and they weren’t the perfect students all the time, either. But, we got talking about faith, and to me that was a start. Then, just as the semester was about to end, we got some unexpected news. The DRE had quit. And by default, I was in charge. The word got out to the parishioners, and suddenly people were coming up to me after Mass, shaking my hand enthusiastically and saying things like: “You’re so brave!” “I could never do what you do!” and “God bless you.” I wasn’t sure if they were congratulating me, warning me of impending doom or pitying me. Wait, had I just joined the Marines? It felt like I had either joined the armed forces and was being deployed, or was being sent to some faraway mission country where I risked being eaten alive by natives.

There was a degree of spiritual war my soul could perceive, and in many ways teaching teens was a missionary endeavor, and most certainly a work of mercy. Every time I prayed for my students and humbly became aware of the responsibility before me, I often thought about Jesus looking at his people and feeling sorry for them; for they had no shepherd. But the Scripture that kept resurfacing in my prayer time was Romans 10:14: “How can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” Certainly I was no shepherd or preacher; in my book, I was simply living a great adventure. But when I attempted to recruit others to join me, I hit the great wall of silence. Sure, many pats on the back, many promises to pray for me – but that was it. No one would volunteer to help this lonesome catechist. The grade school catechism program and the Catholic sports program for the parish were flourishing, but the high school program was hanging by a thread; the thread of this lone ranger.

It proved to be easier to share the good news of the Gospel with the teens than to share the good news of teens with others. I started wondering, what does it take to be a high school catechist? I developed a small list of talents and qualifications which I shared with sponsors, parents and friends. Take a look at this list and consider this awesome evangelical vocation, whether for a year, a semester, as a chaperone to youth activities or even a substitute.

In the Classroom:

Follow the Curriculum. Most books are fairly organized and include activities for the classroom. You can always add your own activity depending on your style and what you want your students to remember. For example, read a Psalm every class, share a joke, tell a faith story of your personal life, or read the synopsis of a saint’s life. Whatever you add, stick to it; make it your trademark.

Be consistent. Teens need stability. Keep the same structure in class. For example: Prayer, Announcements, Class Topic, Open discussion, Journal time with music as background, Closing prayer and petitions. If you have structure, your students will know what to expect and will appreciate when you surprise them with special treats like: “class outside,” “movie time,” or “ice cream night.”

Be organized. Keep your books, papers, grade book and attendance sheet together. Looking the part is a subtle but important way in which you can let your students know that catechism class IS important. This includes dressing nicely for class – not necessarily suit and tie – but at least dressy shirt, no ripped jeans or sweats. If you are a new teacher, practicing ahead of time can settle your nerves when it counts. My first semester of teaching I took extra time to practice, review notes and foresee questions. This helped me immensely in appearing prepared, controlling the flow of class and it gave me great confidence.

Establish rules. Start the year by stating clearly your expectations and your rules for the classroom.

Common decency and common sense sometimes need to be spelled out. Simple rules like: raise your hand before speaking and wait to be called upon, or no laughing at others. Even “think before you speak” is a rule that can establish the tone of the class.

In Your Personal Life:

Be a person of prayer. The awesome thing about kids is that they’ll know if you are genuine or faking it. They sure can keep you on your spiritual toes! If you dedicate time for prayer your resolve will grow stronger and your peace will increase. I dedicate 1 hour of adoration on Saturdays for my Sunday class. I get my best ideas then. Most importantly I can raise my students in prayer.

Be supportive and visible. If you know of games, recitals, theatre shows your students are participating in, show up. Bring the family if you want. Then mention it in class the next time. Students get a kick out of knowing that people other than their parents are supportive of their good endeavors. This will also create a new degree of respect from your students.

Don’t be afraid of the truth. Tough topics come up during high school classes. Sex, drugs, divorce, homosexuality; you name it, they want to talk about it. This is perhaps the reason many people avoid high school catechism like the plague. It’s important to remember that you don’t teach your opinion, your political stance or your ‘issues.’ You teach what the Church teaches and that makes it easy. But, then – yes – you must know what the Church teaches. Refer to the CCC often if you need to; during class, before class, when you are planning for it.

Have Total Confidence in God and His Church. Your congruency between words and actions will be a great testimony to your students. If you have total confidence in God and His Church, it will show. If you don’t, work on it; surrender to God. I can assure you it will rub off on your students. Once they know God is a loving and fair God, and His Church is a welcoming and understanding Mother, then no matter how far they stray in the future they will know where home is.

There is a great adventure going on, will you join? Ask yourself in prayer, and respond without fear: Do you have what it takes to be a high school catechist?

2009 Maria Rivera

Three Suggestions for Avoiding Burnout

It seems burnout is an inevitable side effect of catechizing. Some parishes can go through catechists every year, every four years, yet some have the same catechists for ages, despite tiredness and lack of zeal. Why the burnout? How to keep the fire of the Holy Spirit from dying?

One of the biggest frustrations among catechists is the feeling of loneliness and frustration that can sometimes strike midway through the catechism year or after a few years of catechizing. At times it feels like you are pedaling a bicycle and going nowhere. You wonder if your students are really making a connection, a meaningful deep connection that will truly change their lives. Contributing to these sentiments are the fact that most catechists teach for free, and they only meet with their students every two weeks or at most every week. Nothing compared to regular school teachers who have four or five times as much time with our same teenagers. This sets a base for potential dissatisfaction and burn out. Let’s face it, it is work to teach, it takes preparation and dedication. But, it’s the reality for many catechists, most parishes can’t afford to pay their catechists and we have to abide by an assigned curriculum and schedule. Believe me; been there, done that – I’ve taught for a little bit over ten years and in three different parishes, I know the feeling.

Besides these external issues, the classroom dynamics can add to the stress of catechizing, evangelizing and knowing whether or not we are making a difference. And although we as catechists may not be able to change external curriculum and parochial issues, we can change classroom dynamics. Here are some clues to decrease stress and frustration:

1. Accept the spiritual growth of your students. As catechists we sometimes get frustrated with our students because we see their potential for holiness. Sometimes we forget that we ourselves didn’t become active Catholics pursuing holiness overnight. Neither will our students, it’s true that sometimes they have significant conversion experiences during retreat and sometimes during class, but considering all the temptations they face daily, even those experiences can be overshadowed and their best intentions can be weakened encumbering their spiritual growth. You can help them and help yourself accept where they are at while encouraging them to grow by doing the following:

Get your teens use to journaling. Whether you ask them to journal at the start or end of every class. Asking them to rate their faith growth or to share faith experiences will make them aware that spiritual growth is a work in progress. This is something we did in our program throughout all high school grades. Later we read their journals and were able to share with one another and offer support and spiritual encouragement for the teens.

Share your own growth. It still surprises me how well teens respond to sharing stories of faith. It can be a small miracle, a big miracle, or simply a personal journal. Share an appropriate story with your teens, something that reflects your own spiritual growth. It will inspire them and make them realize that they too are a work in progress when it comes to holiness.

2. Remind yourself: this is God’s work. Considering all the work and preparation that goes into having a successful catechism program and research and planning that goes into teaching, it’s easy to forget who’s in charge.

Exchange catechists. If it’s possible, take a day off from your class by exchanging it with another class. It will give you an appreciation for your own students and (hopefully) vice versa. And, it will help remind you that God is in charge.

Surprise your students. Try something new. Hold class outside; treat them to ice cream, show a funny movie, or simply take the time to pray one on one with your students. Sometimes doing something fun midway through the year can give everyone a reprieve and put things in perspective.

Go on retreat or on pilgrimage. YES! take the time – make the time – to go on retreat or on pilgrimage. An outing like this can refresh the spirit, and renew the vocation of the catechist. Whether the retreat or pilgrimage is with other catechists or a personal spiritual retreat, it can bring a new vision, energize and clear up any doubts regarding your journey as a catechist. Most importantly it will make clear that God is Lord of Lords.

3. Use prayer to its fullest. Prayer is not only the responsibility of the catechist alone, it is a communal effort. Besides the usual habit of praying for your students a catechist should enlist the prayer of others. Here are some ways you can do so:

Add you student’s intentions to Mass intentions. If you make it a routine, parishioners will get use to it and soon they will be asking about the teens.

Add a request for prayer in the bulletin. Every month or every week if possible, put a prayer request for your teens in the bulletin.

Distribute a novena for families. You can select a specific time in the liturgical year. It can be a specific novena written for teens or a traditional novena such as the Christmas novena. Ask parents to pray it, ask them to make it a family tradition. Sometimes if this effort comes from the teen, parents tend to be more willing to participate.

Enlist cloister nuns. That’s their life! Prayer. Research cloister communities in your diocese and send them a letter with a list of names, if possible a picture of your class. The first year I did this my students thought it was strange, but by the third year it was common knowledge and students expected that nuns would be praying for throughout the year and specially during retreat weekend.

The vocation of a catechist is unique. Unlike teachers of scholastic subjects the catechist development and success is closely linked to his/her spiritual growth. A catechist’s work is God’s work. These simple suggestions can help a catechist remain in Him, from whom all good things come.

2009 Maria Rivera

Habits of Effective Catechists

In the popular book “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” author Stephen Covey wrote, “The way we see things is the source of the way we think and the way we act.” This is true of our teens and of us as catechists.

Before we take on the task to evangelize others let us – seriously – ask ourselves, how do we see things? How do we perceive the world? But to be able to answer these questions with any accuracy we must take stock of how we spend our time. What “things” do we expose our senses to? Because it is through the senses that we perceive the world. Many people summarize this concept with the simple question: “Are you a ‘the glass is half-full’ or ‘the glass is half-empty’ type of person?” Well, before you can even get there, you have to be honest about one thing — how do you entertain your senses? This includes the types of TV shows you watch, the music you listen too, the types of conversations you hold and the books you read. Also, how much time do you spend speaking about Christ? How do you pray and for how long?

Our senses are “eating” all the time; consuming, and absorbing. Some say “garbage in, garbage out,” others “you are what you eat.” Scripture tells it positively and clearly: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) This should be the goal of all catechists – to train our senses to see God, and thus how we think and act. Not that we live in a cloud but that we become the type of person for whom God and the Church are first and foremost.

Covey, also wrote about seven habits that can be followed in order to achieve effectiveness in business. Be proactive, Begin with an end in mind, Put first things first, Think win/win, Seek first to understand, then to be understood, Synergize, Sharpen the saw. How can those habits be transformed into Habits of Successful Catechists? Here are some ideas:

1) Prayer and Sacraments: Any degree of resourcefulness and initiative that you bring to your work as a catechist will come from prayer. Not only will you get inspiration during dedicated prayer, but prayer will open your ears and eyes to the good ideas that others can offer. How? Dedicate at least one hour a week to pray for your students, and pray for openness to God’s will. In college a 3.0 credit class – to be successful – you should spend three hours outside of class studying. Same concept here. If you teach one hour a week, pray one hour a week. The ideas, the courage, and Christ’s peace will come.

2) Have established goals: Select a theme or a set of goals you want to achieve by the end of the catechism year. Write these out and post them or have them handy; refer to them often. Share them with your students, parents and the director of religious education (DRE). During catechist’s Confirmation year, confirmation promises serve as their goals. Just like married people keep their marriage vows in mind as they live their daily lives, Confirmation promises should be kept in mind.

3) Be involved. Ask your students how they are doing. What challenges are they facing? Know when they are having finals; when the next dance is; when the next big game is. These are teen’s “holidays” of sorts. Just like you get a surge of joy when you see one of your students at Mass , they will get the same surge of joy when you show up to the big game or give them a prayer to say before their big exam.

4) Be positive. Nobody likes a grumpy Christian. There are no grumpy saints. Having a positive outlook is crucial to evangelizing and it serves as an example to our teens. Although sometimes one has to scold or correct in class, this can be done positively, explaining why the behavior is wrong, being clear about the consequence and following through with those consequences. Include praise as part of your instruction, especially if you have guests in class. Teens like to know you notice their good habits and awesome personalities.

5) Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This one I have to leave the same, after all, St. Francis said it first. And, it is very good advice when dealing with teens and their parents. Parents are a very important key to the work of evangelization. Be on their side; seek to understand the pressures they face. Be a good listener. Dedicate time in class to pray for teens and their parents. The relationship between teen and parent determines a lot of how they relate to God and anyone in authority. Find something positive about each student and half way through the year call parents and share an uplifting message about their teen.

6) Teach what the Church teaches. The Church gives us direction. As long as you teach what the church teaches, you’ll never go wrong. The church has dealt with every issue in history. A copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a must for any catechist, and if you don’t have one, get one and read it. If you’re serious about evangelizing then you have to know the Church.

7) Learn, renew, and stay informed. Many dioceses have classes or talks for catechists. Parishes have parish missions, bible studies, and speakers. Know your faith. Read Catholic news daily. You don’t need to know everything, but being a resource for others is a means of evangelizing. Good parents always want to know how to be better parents. Good spouses always seek to be better persons for the sake of their spouse. It’s no different when you’re a catechist. At least once a year, if you can, go on pilgrimage or on a weekend retreat. It will provide you renewal and the stamina for yet another year. Being a catechist takes personal commitment. And if that is your call, whether for one year or twenty, you’ll have some degree of success if you follow these habits.

2010 Maria Rivera

Silly Questions Serious Answers

You think you are ready to teach teenagers? Then answer the following questions: “Are there homosexual extraterrestrials?”, “Is everyone in heaven good looking?”, “Can a person see their soul?” and my favorite: “Why DID the chicken cross the road?”

When teaching teenagers one has to be ready for all sorts of questions. We, as catechists may want those questions to be deeper, or demonstrate a high degree of contemplation. But teenagers will say what’s on their mind. And we as catechist must be ready to use any inquiry – let me repeat that – ANY inquiry, silly or not, as an opportunity to catechize, to bring them closer to the truth of the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Our job is to plant the seed, to take them deeper, to tickle their intellect, to allow them self discovery in the eyes of God.

In short, provide serious answers to silly questions. Doing this continuously, will provide the discipline of keeping Christ, and the Church ‘front and center’. And eventually the serious questions will come.
How to do this?

In the start of the year select a few themes you want reinforce. When those ‘silly’ questions pop up, concentrate on your basic themes and provide the type of serious answers that will eventually teach your teens to refocus their minds back to the faith.

Keep your chosen themes on your mind, and post them somewhere as a reminder. If you make it the year’s theme, and you have the funds you can have them printed on pencils, pens, bracelets, something that will remind you and your students.
Real Life Example:

Why DID the chicken cross the road? – This question came out of a conversation about animals and their place in creation. The conversation de-evolved into a conversation about which animals are smarter, which in turn de-evolved into how stupid chickens are which then lead to “Why DID the chicken cross the road?”

One of my main themes that year We belong to God, so the answer went something along the lines of this: “I bet you the chicken was hungry, it found no corn on this side of the road so of course it crossed. When an animal is hungry they would do anything, they act on instinct. But people will do almost anything too for food. Humans of course act on more than instinct they possess a higher type of hunger, A spiritual hunger. People do all sorts of things to satisfy that spiritual hunger. Every person, deep down wants to know their place in this world. And that hunger doesn’t go away until we realize We belong to God.”

It is important, as a catechist to turn silly questions inside out by providing a deep answer. Eventually the deeper questions come.

2010 Maria Rivera

Spiritual Retreat: A Must for the Catechist

Every catechist has planned, attended or chaperoned a retreat or two, or even more. Personally, I’ve lost count. At least twice during the school year the DRE and I are making calls, collecting money, begging for chaperones, packing teens in a bus or giving directions to get to that remote place where teens can have a unique experience of God. Away from their routine, with iPods and phones off, a little praying and some meditating time, the teens always manage to easily open their hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit. They always tell the parish priest, retreat was the best experience of their Confirmation year. And I always tell them they should do this on their own, pack a few friends in a car and go on pilgrimage whenever the feel thirst for God.

But, as a catechist, I find little time to follow my own advice. Making a personal retreat in the midst of a busy schedule seems an impossible task. You all know what I’m talking about. And, before we know it, our fountain of devotion starts to trickle, what once was a heart full of zeal becomes dry land. We drag our feet to class, our minds run out of ideas. We need a drink of God. After an exhortation from my own sister, who after listening to my woes raised her eyebrows and whispered “You need to go on retreat!”

I made up my mind. I took 4 days off from work – a luxury reserved for beach vacations – packed a small suitcase and took a plane to Ohio to retreat in the cloister of the Sisters of the Visitation, for a silent retreat. No iPods, no phone, no t.v., no radio. There in the middle of that embrace between Mary and Elizabeth I found my spirit again, not as a catechist, not thinking ‘oh, I’m going to add this to one of my lessons’, but as a child of God, desiring to rest against His chest to listen to His living heart.

Sure, I took an afternoon to pray for all my written intentions, but the rest of the time was for me. I prayed for myself. I was selfish, just Jesus and me. None of this Martha stuff. I was Mary listening to his every word; Magdalene wiping His tired feet; John leaning his head on His shoulder; a leper extending my hand; Peter crying of sorrow for my sins; a grieved follower in a listening walk to Emmaus. The joy of the Holy Spirit resurrected, subtle and strong.

Maybe a silent retreat is not for everyone, but the point is this: Go on a spiritual retreat!! You and the Holy Trinity. Do it for yourself, leave the world behind and take a drink of God, drink his living water once more. You will not regret it. If you want to be an effective catechist, and have your faith confirmed in Christ, I’ve got 4 words for you: Spiritual Retreat. Do it!

2009 Maria Rivera

When They Come Back

“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed,

turned back praising God with a loud voice,

and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

– Luke 17:15

We are catechists because we know Christ, and we can’t keep the joy to ourselves. In some ways we were lepers, who once cleaned turned back to fall on our faces giving thanks.

As catechists we know well the Scripture of the sower; we know despite our sowing some of our students will be swallowed by the thorns of the world, others despite their intentions will not take root. Yet, we sow, why? Because once in a while there is that ONE that comes back, with the joy of the leper, the same joy we’ve known.

I’ll call her Kay. From the time I had her in 9th grade I saw the potential. You know how there are those infamous old ladies who can pick a kid from a crowd and say ‘that one is going to be a priest’? Well, I could see it – ‘that one is going to be a catechist.’ I called it… twelve years ago.

She got Confirmed, finished high school and went to college thousands of miles away. Her mother and I would talk on the phone sporadically. She would fill me in, letting me know how Kay was doing. Every Christmas I would send Kay a Christmas card, she would send me one. If I happened to run into her when she was in town from college, we would hug hello, exchange meaningless conversation and go about the usual pleasantries. This went on for years. Then last year Kay’s brother died. He was only 12. It was an unexpected death, the kind of death that gets you on the gut, and turns you inside out. Like finding out you have leprosy.

I saw Kay at the funeral. Later, I heard she moved back home. A few weeks after I saw her at the parish. She was with her parents, still grieving – you could tell. Of course, to hide my own grief for them I talked about my Confirmation students, the plans for the year. Kay looked at me and said “Don’t even think of recruiting me.” I smiled and changed the subject.

Three months later one of our catechists announced she wouldn’t be coming back. The DRE put a note on the bulletin. For 3 weeks the note stood. We were only 1 week away from the start of the year. I sat with the DRE preparing materials for the upcoming week, going on faith – we still had no takers. The DRE shared with me, “This morning I prayed the Rosary. I told Mary she better find us a catechist.” Just as she finished saying this my cell phone rang. I picked up. It was Kay.

“Are you still looking for a 9th grade catechists?” My heart jumped to my throat. I squeaked out a ‘yes.’ “Sign me up,” Kay said. I tried to sound cool, we went on to exchange our usual pleasantries.

“We got a catechist!” I announced after hanging up. I told the DRE who it was. She got goose bumps. I giggled like a teenager.

That night I fell on my face and gave thanks to God. Because, oh yes! – They do come back!

2010 Maria Rivera