Getting Ready to Teach: What You Wear to Class Matters

As the new school year approaches, I’ve been thinking about the guidelines for the teachers and assistants in the small apostolate I help run.  A topic I didn’t broach last year but will this time around: Clothes.

I’m not a fashion person.  No one looks to me for wardrobe advice, except maybe if they’re required to do a character sketch of frumpy middle-aged absent-minded housewives.  But even I know that what we wear when we teach matters.  If someone like me gives serious thought to clothing before I teach, that means it must be important.

Why Do Clothes Matter?

It is absolutely true that outward appearances can be deceptive, and that the most important parts of catechesis happen on our insides, in our hearts, minds, and souls.  But humans are both body and soul, physical beings, and we use our bodies to express ourselves, relate to others, and accomplish our work. Our clothing matters for very practical reasons, because we need to be able to move around and do our jobs. It also matters in that what we wear teaches our students something about us.  It tells our students what we value, and what kind of message we have for them.

First Things: Clothing Suited to the Job at Hand

Sometimes I joke that the cover art on my book is aspirational: Catechists have fantasies about being able to paint with preschoolers while keeping the white shirt impeccably clean.  (Tip: Put on an apron.) In order to teach confidently, we need shoes and clothing that allow us to do our work.  Comfortable shoes if you are on your feet a lot; clothing that lets you reach, bend, lift, walk, run, play; fabrics that can hold up to the rigors of teaching.  If you know you’re going to have to get on your knees and scrub glitter glue off the floor after class, don’t wear delicates.

Professional Clothing Says You are Serious about Your Class

“Professional” is a broad category.  My first job in college was at a whitewater outfitter.  A well-chosen t-shirt and hiking shorts, paired with the right brand sport sandals, communicated credibility.  “She really does this stuff.  She knows what she’s talking about.”  That was professional attire for that job.   When I worked in a state government office several years later, business attire meant something completely different — I raided the local thrift store for good business-dress skirts and blouses.

There are catechists who rock the jeans-and-t-shirt look, and the message they send is one of confidence, enthusiasm, and competence.  “I can fix your truck and your theology, too.”  Some of us, though, just end up looking like we forgot to do the laundry.  There are catechists who swear by coat-and-tie, and erring on the side of slightly overdressed is prudent in classes with older students and adults for whom the number one question is, “Is this instructor credible?”  I would hazard the majority of us fall somewhere in between, on the vast spectrum that is “business casual”.

Two questions to ask are:

1. Does this outfit make me feel serious about my work?  What I’m wearing should make me feel confident that I can get the job done.  I should feel smart, competent, and ready to teach.

2. Does this outfit communicate the right message? “Pretty” “Elegant” “Handsome” “Youthful” “Mature” “Sporty” “Modern” or “Stylish” are all fair game.  If my clothing evokes words like “Sassy” “Sexy” “Flirty” “Edgy” or “Slacker,” I need to change.

There’s nothing at all wrong with dressing fashionably, so long as the fashion is consistent with our Christian values and with our role as classroom teachers.  Our clothing should express our unique personalities; we need to make sure, however, that we’re expressing those parts of our personality that make us good Christian leaders.

Modest Clothing Teaches Children Boundaries

Modesty is the whole range of attitudes and actions that we use to communicate our respect for ourselves and for others.  How we dress is not the only aspect of modesty, but it is an important element.  In the religious education classroom, dressing modestly also plays a significant role in teaching children about appropriate physical boundaries.

In sum: If we want children to understand and internalize the line between public and private body parts, we need to consistently demonstrate that distinction in our clothing.

Your parish or diocese may have a dress code, and in that case you’ll follow it, of course.  For the rest of us, a simple rule is this:

Don’t put on display for your students any body part or undergarment that a priest should never be allowed to touch.

Your students are trying to figure out the line between appropriate and inappropriate touch.  A mother breastfeeds her baby, that’s appropriate.  The nursery staff change the baby’s diaper, the doctor has to do a physical exam, the gymnast wears form-fitting clothing so that the judges can see precise body movements.   All of these are appropriate.

The classroom, the office, the sacristy: These are times and places when there is no appropriate reason for an adult (or fellow student) to be touching or looking at a school-age child’s private body parts.

If that sounds like blunt work, well yes, it is.  Children don’t have a finely tuned sense of adult intentions, and predators take advantage of that ignorance.  Dressing modestly on a consistent basis literally creates a boundary line, a do-not-cross line, that gives the child a sense of confidence about right and wrong actions.

Does it work? I know for a fact that when combined with all the other things that parents and teachers do to teach children personal safety and create a safe environment, yes, it does indeed work.

Bring Joy to Your Classroom

It is not necessary to spend a lot of money on new clothes for the new school year.  Figuring out what to wear this year shouldn’t be a cause of agony and dread.  Christianity is not a fashion show. Neat, clean, ready to do the job — that’s the essential.  Dig through the closet and put together something that makes you feel confident, professional, and excited about the first day of class.

Symbolon Project ?

I am seeking objective input on the Symbolon Project from anyone who has used it.

Thank you in advance!

symbolon 6 cover

 

Common Sense Book Study {Foreword}

Fr. Robert J. Hater in his awesome book Common Sense Catechesis gives catechists an instructional form to understand the “Lessons from the Past” as well as a “Road Map for the Future.”

I love that. While it’s good to know where we came from and how we got to where we are today, that’s just an echo of thoughts if the student is not given a map pointing him in the right direction. That’s so important.

Let’s get started with this book study, shall we?

commonsensecatechesis

The forward of Fr. Hater’s book is written by Sister Angela Ann Zukowski of the University of Dayton. She makes sure the reader is aware of the “shifts” in our society and culture. There have been political, psychology, sociology, methodology, and anthropology shifts. I’ll wait will you google some of those definitions. ;-)

…..

Our whole world has changed. Is changing and “secularism, relativism, consumerism, and individualism” are making us (and especially our children) think and act differently. There’s no going back, folks. I’m sorry. Just as there is no going back to the caveman era or the stone ages, there is no going back for those of us living in the technological age. Aside from the second coming, we know too much. Man has always moved forward, never backward.

Mother the Church is wise beyond her years. While God does not change, the Church does.  It is the human community on earth…ever nurturing, ever guiding.

The Popes have been guardians of the growth and changing nature of this human entity, constantly taking the rebellious, delinquent child by the neck and guiding us back, giving us a deliberate shake, and reminding us what the consequences of our actions are. And then, most importantly of all, forgiving us and embracing and welcoming us back home.

Like it or not, every home needs a disciplinarian. And every home needs a comforter. Such has always been the image of the family in the characters known as Father and Mother. This creates a balance. Life pleads for balance.

For years the family has been the unshakeable stronghold of the Church.

The domestic church linked to the ever greater Church. The “traditional Catholic family…offered balance, stability, and direction…” In many homes, it still does. I know these families. I see them in Church and CCD every week.

Yet cultural, political, environmental, global “shifts” have shifted our ways of thinking, our views, our opinions, our actions.

“The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensible contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.” — Pope Francis, from his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium

Mother Church sits there reminding us that we have been adopted by a King. We are children of God. We are loved. We have dignity. We are valuable. Procedure with caution. Listen to your Mother.

And the rebellious child spits at her and recklessly goes along with his free will, master of his senses. Many children today grow up without that fatherly influence. And without a father, there is no protection for the family.

The Church has always harbored the poor, the unwanted, the undesirables, the rejected, the homeless, the fatherless.

Numerous Popes have been the fatherly voice, fiercely reinforcing the mother’s counsel. Sometimes the Church is the only authoritative voice in a child’s life.  Popes, like fathers, tend to be blunt and authoritative. With youth we don’t see the wisdom, not until we’re old and spent (miserably so)…and wisdom has found us. It’s all quit natural. And then we wish we had listened more to that old reckoning voice.

It might help to remember that the Church is over 2000 years old. That’s pretty old by anyone’s standards. And pretty wise.

The Church has outlived emperors and plagues and generals and presidents and kings and it will outlive each of us.

Perhaps we, people of the 21st century, would be wise in listening more closely to the trail of wisdom left by a Church founded by the Voice of God.

Perhaps that is what we need to tell the children who come through our religious education doors this school year. If they desire to be open-minded, begin by listening to the Voice of God that is older and wiser than their parents and grandparents.

The questions Sister Angela mentions are:

  • Why is there such a loss of Catholic culture and identity today?
  • Why is parish participation rapidly declining?
  • Why are Catholic unable to clearly and convincingly explain their faith when confronted?

These are questions catechists in the schools needs to address and know.

Pope Francis challenges catechists: “The catechist, then, is a Christian who is mindful of God, who is guided by the memory of God in his or her entire life and who is able to awaken that memory in the hearts of others. That is not easy! It engages our entire existence! What is the Catechism itself, if not the memory of God, the memory his works in history and his drawing near to us in Christ present in his word, in the sacraments, in his Church, in his love?

“Dear catechists, I ask you: Are you in fact the memory of God?” (September 29, 2013)

In order to be the memory of God, wouldn’t it make sense to have a “historical catechetical perspective”? To “learn from the past in order to re-imagine the future”?

Fr. Hater, in this book, helps us to follow the Church’s vision and mission in evangelizing and disciplining the Church and why it will take new approaches and methodology for catechesis in today’s ever-changing world.

Don’t Let Self-Doubt Stop You

Woman blogger with computer screenAlthough Catholic blogs play an important role in catechesis and evangelization, I’m sure that every Catholic blogger has asked themselves at least once why they do it. Is it really worth the time spent away from work, from family, from prayer? Is anybody listening? Does anybody care? One of my friends recently shut down his personal blog altogether, saying “While I have a lot of respect for many bloggers, I feel the blogosphere to be a net negative to the Catholic Faith.  … It is the epitome of Francis’ ‘self-referential Church.’  Far from leading to a deepening of the faith, it has led to a corrosion of it.” Could this be true?

My friend’s words certainly don’t describe the work of Catholic bloggers I work with. But I’ve seen the corner of the Catholic blogosphere he describes — the place where people attack one another viciously over minute points of doctrine or liturgical practices that baffle non-Catholics and fail to bring anyone to a holier and more peaceful frame of mind. I regularly engage in verbal fisticuffs with Catholics on LinkedIn who insist that if the majority of lay Catholics reject the Church’s doctrine on artificial birth control, then the lay Catholics must be right and the Popes must be wrong. I have to ask myself if I’m really helping when I enter the fray.

And my answer has to be yes. Every blogger, like every Christian, is a witness to the strength of God’s love alive in the world. Every one of us has a story of struggles, joys, heartaches, and glimmers of the salvation that awaits us. We follow Christ for deeply personal reasons that uniquely showcase the majesty of God’s creation and the depths of his mercy.

As the beloved disciple John said in writing his Gospel, “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” When we bloggers share the difference that Jesus has made in our lives, we are drawing on an infinite store of spiritual power and wisdom that could more than fill all the books in the world. When we blog from a place of prayer and compassion, keeping the ultimate goal of salavation of souls in mind, we are fulfilling our Baptismal mission to spread the Good News.

We don’t, or shouldn’t, blog to show that we’re better Catholics than anyone else. Our blog should not be a trophy case displaying our own intelligence or faithfulness, because in our heart of hearts we know that we’ve all done stupid and faithless things. Our blog should feature installments in the story of our on-going love affair with God. Because no matter how mixed our motivations, if we weren’t in love with God we wouldn’t be blogging or commenting or arguing online in the first place.

Some readers have called me arrogant and judgmental, and I have to accept those accusations as true since my husband and my spiritual director have echoed them on occasion. But those accusations need to lead me to greater warmth, greater compassion, and greater understanding. They can’t sink me into self-doubt and despair. The solution for me and maybe for many of us is to give more, not to give up. Even from within a prison of our own inadequacies and sinfulness, we can still preach the Word of God.

St. Paul shows us how to continue our work of evangelization no matter what the shape or size of our prison. While St. Paul was in house arrest in Rome, he welcomed all who came to him and boldly taught them about Jesus Christ (Acts 28: 16-31). Under this same incarceration, he also wrote the great prison epistles of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians — back when people wrote in ink rather than in bits and bytes. So, following the great missionary example of St. Paul, I will continue to pray, to write, and to share with others my love of God even from behind my own internal and often invisible prison walls.

Photo Credit: bhollar via Compfight cc

Catholic Lesson Plan Contest – Deadline September 1, 2014

Heads up courtesy of Christian LeBlanc, Sophia Institute Press is hosting a Catholic Lesson Plan Contest:

Join Sophia Institute for Teachers in New Hampshire this fall as we sip mulled cider, enjoy bright autumn leaves, and write supplemental lesson plans for Catholic school teachers.

Selected teachers will earn an all-expenses paid trip to the Greater Boston Area and a$500 honorarium for contributing an original lesson for our next Teacher’s Guide. In addition, 5 teachers will win $100 honorable mentions for lessons in the following subject areas: English/Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Religion.

Entering is easy!

The contest is open to all Catholic educators, including catechists and homeschooling parents.  Take a look, pick one of your favorite lesson plans, and enter to win!

 

See?

When discussing sacraments with 6th graders, I always emphasize that the physical part of a sacrament is more than a symbol. And by the time we even get to a sacrament (Baptism), they are already familiar with God’s grace and power moving through physical media such as Moses’ staff, Elijah’s cloak, Elisha’s bones, and Jesus’ tassel. Later on when we get to Acts, they can figure out on their own how handkerchiefs and shadows can transmit healing to the afflicted. Catechism class is alive with God flowing through his Creation.

Ah yes, Creation- the stuff that God made in six days and all of it was good. As I say in class, “It was all good, morally good, even dead stuff like rocks. God makes only good things, that’s just his nature.” But then Adam sinned, messed up not just himself but all of Creation, and the rest is history. Now we struggle against the consequences of sin, not just spiritually, but physically: we get hungry, sick, injured, we hurt, we age, we die. Now you’ll recall that if we graph the 6 days of creation, as days pass, the things created tend to be more and more like God. And at the top of the graph is Adam- well, no, Eve is at the top- well, no, something higher still…sorry for digressing. Anyway, before the Fall, everything was good. But in the case of a rock, only as good a rock can be. A plant would have more goodness in than a rock; a bug more goodness than a plant, etc. More like God = more goodness. By no small coincidence that also means: more like Adam = more goodness. But the downside is that because Adam’s sin cursed the Earth (and by implication the rest of Creation) the things closest to Adam took the biggest fall from grace. Let’s say Adam fell 50%. And the things farthest from Adam, such as inanimate rocks and water, lost the least of their goodness- maybe 5%. So when God works miraculously through sticks, water, oil, shadows and rags, I see it as a reproach: God chooses those things on the low-end of Creation because they may retain nearly all of their original grace-goodness conductivity. Stuff near the top is more flawed, more unstable.

Now here’s another consequence of the Fall: we need faith because we can’t perceive all kinds of stuff that affects our existence here and elsewhere. Think about folks in Eden: did they need faith? Sin hadn’t yet pried Creation into parts, so I doubt it. Or those in Heaven? No. But now, yeah, sin truncates our perception. We see only dimly, or not at all. And stuff I think I see clearly, like a tree or my wife- I bet they look way different, more tree, more wife, to a saint peering down from heaven. Sin makes it harder for us to see the Good that’s woven into the fabric of the Universe. Sin’s effects make us divide reality into what’s “visible and invisible”; but it’s actually one big continuity. Just because we see it partially doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand it as a single unified entity.

But how nice of Jesus to institute sacraments to bridge that gap. You know what a sacrament is, right? “A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” That’s a good Western definition. It points to the part we can see. Sacramentum is a practical word the Latin Church uses in place of the Greek word mysterion, μυστήριον. It makes perfect sense especially if you consider sacra-mentum is fundamentally a tool or means of making something holy, set apart. Like instru-mentum, a tool to construct something.

Too bad the Church doesn’t yet again breathe with both of her lungs at the same time, because I’m fonder of that Greek word mysterion. Here’s a good definition: “A mysterion is that to which signs refer; a reality laced with the unseen presence of God.” I like this concept better because it directly addresses the bigness of the invisible reality, which extends far beyond the grasp of our sin-stunted senses. Beyond the normal…right?

Wrong. This may sound dumb: Eden was normal. Sin is not normal. Its consequences are not normal. The problem is that we wrongly assume what’s normal is what we’re used to; and all that stuff that’s supposed to lie beyond our senses, well, it may be real in some detached way. But not as real as my fingers or my keyboard. Or at least the bits of them that I perceive. Who knows what aspects of my fingers and keyboard exist on the other side of my personal sin-constricted event horizon? And in spite of sin, reality remains “laced with the unseen presence of God.” Laced? More like soaking wet with God.

So let’s look at a sacrament: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery (megas mysterion).”  It sure is a mystery, because when my wife and I become one flesh, I know there is more it to than my senses can tell me. I mean physically more to it, not just spiritually. I don’t think ‘becoming one flesh’ is symbolic or figurative. I think we physically become one flesh in a way that would be perfectly obvious to a saint. And that torrent of transcendent fusing while everything still looks the same to this sinner…well, that’s the mystery. The merge, the one-fleshing is real. I just…can’t…see it.

Likewise, we’re literally part of Christ’s body. Can you see it? Me neither. But it’s not figurative, it’s real.

I want to get to baptism in a second, but first let’s consider this flag:


It’s a symbol of America. But that’s all it is. There’s no metaphysical connection between the flag and the country. Burning the flag doesn’t cause a fire in America. We could swap it out for another flag tomorrow.

But sacraments are different from a flag, and I am not content in class with calling the part of a sacrament that we can see a symbol, and leaving it at that. It’s just the visible part of a bigger reality. Consider my wife. If I have a picture of her, that’s a symbol. Burning the photo doesn’t set my wife on fire. But if I’m looking at my wife- is she a symbol of herself? Oooh. Interesting. Living in the world I’d say no indeed, she is my wife, she is herself, not a symbol. But in the context of an unseen and larger reality, then yes, this bit of her I can sense is a symbol of the aspects of her being I can’t sense. Or only sense fleetingly and dimly. If we both wind up in the New Jerusalem, of course there’ll be nothing symbolic about her there: it would be The Total Babe for all eternity.

My point is that there are different levels of symbol; and Christians tend to regard the symbolic aspects of sacraments as being like the flag, when they are more like my wife. For example, we use water for Baptism. Some Baptists will tell you Baptism’s nothing more than a symbol; doesn’t do a thing. The Catholic Church teaches it’s a symbol (an outward sign) that signifies what truly happens: sin is washed away. That’s consistent with Acts: “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins.” Pretty clear- but did Luke mean it literally? Does the water actually wash away sin; or does God intervene when the water is poured? That is, on the spirit side, does the water do anything? Dumb old water? I think it does. That is, if the “cloud of witnesses” attends a baptism (and they probably attend them all), they see water wash sin clean off of the person, as plainly as I see dirt washed off of my hands. The wonder of that miracle (and sacraments are miraculous though not dramatic) isn’t that it happens at all: it’s no big deal for God. The wonder is that the unseen world pokes into the seen one for a few seconds. It’s miraculous to us, yes. But it’s also normal. It’s normal for water to bear this Christ-infused goodness. Human beings, comprising a unity, a continuity, of body and soul, physical and spiritual, can be washed, body and soul, by water. Because like everything else, there are aspects of water we can’t see. One may then ask, why doesn’t water wash my sins away every time I bathe? Because Baptism effects a permanent spiritual change. Like an egg: one sperm, one time. It’s normal. OK…but why don’t people get their sins washed away the first time water flows over their heads? Because God leaves it us to intentionally bring a person into his family, and also to assume some responsibility. He does this with making babies; and with making Christians. Water always has the potential to wash away sin, but it happens only through our physical and spiritual cooperation with God’s grace.

So think about sacraments as actual, physical, literal conduits of God’s power that’s not remote, but moves in us and around us. Think comprehensively- like the Catholic Church.

Common Sense Book Study

I read this book in less than a week. It’s that good. That easy. That sensible. That practical. That informative.

It’s simply full of good common sense.

commonsensecatechesis

It’s so good I’m getting my catechists started with it this school year.

I think an online book study is probably the easiest, most common sense way for us all to discuss this book, share ideas and thoughts regarding the past while supplying a roadmap to the future, and starting off a great catechetical year of learning.

This topic concerns all catechists and Catholic parents. The world has changed. The Church has changed.

God has not.

What have we lost? What have we gained? How has that changed our identity as Catholic people? What is our responsibility to our children? Why don’t people care anymore?

Order the book here: Common Sense Catechesis by Fr. Robert J. Hater

Each week we’ll read and discuss a chapter and I will have a chapter summary posted here to help you see the important points Fr. Robert J. Hater makes in his book. Questions (as a post-Vatican II youth being raised by pre-Vatican II parents) I’ve wondered about. Areas I’ve surfed aimlessly. Concerns I’ve struggled with. A faith that I continue to love.

Join book study discussion here: CRET: Catholic Religious Education Teachers (comments in the combox here are always welcome for discussion)

Additional Related Article:

On Catechesis: Love and Common Sense by Jennifer Fitz

Concise Book Review by Sean Ater

Evangelizing Teens

Jared Dees at The Religion Teacher tells us simply how to evangelize teens.

Teens Need Healing

“Teenagers today are struggling. They are wounded. Some have big wounds caused by abuse, both physical and emotional. They have big, challenging issues with sexual abuse, physical abuse, drugs, and alcohol. So many of them–even the popular kids–feel like outcasts. They feel unwelcome and not accepted for who they are. This isn’t a Catholic problem or a Christian problem, it is a human problem. Kids need healing.”

leaves

Until we give people (especially teens) the healing they are seeking, all other attempts to evangelize falls on rocky soil.

The ground must be tilled, built up, fertilized, watered and tended. Tended well.

In five years of DRE-ship, I’ve felt, more than I’ve seen, the hurt in the teens who are reluctantly dropped off in our church religious education building. The pressure is upon DREs and catechetical teachers alike to “teach” the faith to these teens. How does one “teach” a child who no longer “feels”?

The elementary groups are easy enough. We sing, we craft, we play, we act, we listen. They are happy. Then the hormonal teen years hit. Memorization/Q and A means nothing to hurting teens.

This is what Pope Francis and the creators (Pastors John Baker and Rick Warren) of Celebrate Recovery (Catholic connections are available nationwide) know very well. The program’s recovery principles are a Christ-based approach to the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous whose original 12-steps will be familiar to those who practice the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

The memorization of the Baltimore Catechism must be done in the elementary years.

For junior high/high school students, something new needs to be prayed upon.

To take liberal use of Jared Dees’ article:

“God loves them but they don’t know it yet. We can’t teach it. We can’t even preach it. We have to show it. We have to show them that they are loved and they are lovable through our own love for them. It’s hard to do. It takes courage. We have to listen and feel their pain. We have to empathize and feel compassion. We can’t run or hide from these conversations. We can’t avoid it. If we do, we validate their fears. We have to enter into their wounds and share with them the fact that we are wounded too. We aren’t immune to pain or the fear of rejection even today. As Christians we certainly don’t avoid the pain. This is the path to healing. The reassurance that they are not alone.”

Then the kicker…

“Most people don’t realize it, but this is the first and most essential step to doing evangelization. It doesn’t seem like evangelization because we’re not really talking about God or Jesus or the Church quite yet. We’re just listening and offering to be there for them.”

My concern is that we, representatives of the Catholic community, are having to be there and listen to them in place of/in spite of the family members who should be the first examples of Christian life to the children. And, in a number of cases, the hurt is coming from within those family units.

Teens are not in-tune enough to the dynamics of life to understand that they should “never let a Catholic spoil their Catholicism.”  (ht to Catholic Channel)

For that matter, many adults haven’t reach that peace level in their relationship with Jesus Christ to understand it either.

And we are the adults teaching the youth in an approach and lifestyle that should be led by example and by the hand of God.

It’s definitely something to think about as we plan for this new school year.

A Sacramental Worldview

I was reading Michael Gormley’s post, Teaching the Sacraments, felt compelled to pontificate on the subject, and decided to do it here and then link.

I used to teach sacraments to adults in RCIA, and to kids in Catechism class. With my current curriculum I don’t have specific lesson plans for sacraments. But even when sacramental content is woven into the wider lessons, over the year a sacrament will get treated in 4 ways:

1. Each bit of OT scripture that we cover which is relevant to one or more sacraments is connected to that sacrament on the spot: anointing, washing, sprinkling, miracle bread, miracle flesh, Passover, laying hands, etc. are discussed at least briefly in terms of foreshadowing one or more sacraments. Typically I make the kids figure out which ones (I rarely hand out answers).

2. In the NT, every miraculous thing Jesus or an Apostle does is connected to a sacrament, even it’s nothing more than observing that once again, a physical encounter is required with Jesus or an authorized agent in order to obtain particular graces or healing.

3. Time allowing, I also do something physical: run a skit, draw a picture, lay hands on a head, rub mud on eyes, grab a passing tassel, anything to put a visual stamp on the idea. By the time we get to Acts, an 11-year-old can tell me when I should lay hands on somebody.

4. I keep a stash of props in my bag. Hitting the rock with Moses’ rod, smacking the Jordan with my coat, or pressing a rag to a kid’s forehead reinforces the physical, mediating nature of sacraments, even if I don’t explicitly say so every time. Again, by the time we get to Acts, the kids tell me about it.

One thing I like about teaching sacraments on the fly is that it’s virtually impossible for the children to not have a big picture of sacraments as a group of what, phenomena, that are integral to the warp and weft of Bible history.

How Do We Learn the Catholic Faith?

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.

1. Interest

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.

2. Understanding

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?”

3. Memorization

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.

5. Skill

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.