Book & Blood

Last month we finished Revelations: Alpha & Omega, New Jerusalem, Wedding Feast of the Lamb; and jumped into the Mass. I start by drawing the Synagogue and the Temple. We review what happens in each place, their history, and who is in charge. In prior years, I’d say the Synagogue is for Reading, the Temple is for Offering, and a Catholic church is for Both. It’s a good intro to the Mass, but hardly memorable.

But tonight after drawing the Temple, I impulsively added red-marker-blood out front to emphasize its sacrificial raison d’être. In doing so I careened into a pithier, catchier way of putting things:

Synagogue for Book.
Temple for Blood.
Church for Both.

Or as we’d say once the concepts were learned:

One for Book.
One for Blood.
One for Both.

I like that.  Wouldn’t have bumbled into it without using colored markers to draw.

I know this is a small thing. But small things add up over time, especially if they are written down before they can be forgotten.  That’s a little plug for having a lesson plan, and updating it.

Kids Wanna Know

Too Catechetical for Words

We had 28 class meetings on this year’s Wednesday Night Sunday School schedule. Since New Year’s we’ve lost two days to snow, plus about another 1/2 class to other events. The later in the year I lose classtime, the harder it is to compensate. I don’t talk faster because we already move at the Speed of Comprehension. What I do instead is prioritize and eliminate, like Frederick the Great.

Two evenings ago we covered the Resurrection through the Ascension.  We use a handout showing an image of the Anastasis, and a Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt. In covering the Anastasis, for reasons of time I didn’t translate a couple of Greek abbreviations in the picture, although I did explain the Greek word Anastasis, and show the kids how to pronounce the letters. Then we moved on.

After class one of the kids asks, what do these two things mean, i.e., the IC and XC.

See, what I leave out is exactly what someone wants to know. I go over the squiggies and the letters. In moments like this when a child wants to know something particular, I always want to answer the question directly, but than add a bit that points to the bigger picture. So I say a bit about words on ikons, and also write on the board similar squiggied-letters that often appear in Mary-ikons: MP and ThY, which abbreviate Μητηρ Θεού MITIR ThEOU, Mother [of] God. It was a nice little lesson.

Now, this isn’t just a chance to for a child to take away something extra; it’s also a chance to involve the parents. Next week I’ll give her a prayer card like this one:

Is has MP-ThY and also IC-XC. To the left and right are the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The Greek says O AP M  (The ARchangel Michael) and O AP G (The ARchangel Gabriel). I’ll write the translations on the back. I’ll also get her to tell me what the angels are holding, and why they matter (they’re a few of the Instruments of the Passion). I’m confident she’ll know the cross and the spear. But what’s that other thing? I blew it up for a closer look, and I think it’s the sponge on the hyssop stick. She already knows what that is, it’s just not easy to recognize. I expect to give her hints, e.g. “I thirst.” I’ll conclude by saying she oughta show her parents what she’s learned and impress the heck out of them.

In this business you never know when or where stuff will grow. Just throw the seeds, you won’t run out.

If I had all the time in the world, a whole class could be spent on this single image: its visual catechesis, Queen of Heaven, King of Heaven, Mother of God, Fully God, Fully Man, Immaculate Conception, Crucifixion, angels, the Greek words, all of which allude to Scripture and of course the Big Catholic Picture.

For those who want to know more about cryptic Greek on ikons, here’s an old post about John the Baptist.

Changing Your Course Plans to Fit Your Students

Career-in-TeachingLast fall I arrived to class with my course neatly mapped out: What we’d study, what activities we’d do, the works.  Five minutes into the first class session, I knew I’d have to scrap the whole thing.

My situation was unusual: I’d been asked by a group of parents to teach an “Apologetics for Kids” class, and it turned out the kids were so well-catechized that they could comfortably articulate all the basics I’d planned to cover as a foundation.  More often it will work the other way, and you the instructor will need slow down to review material that students should know, but don’t.  In either situation, or a combination of both in a single class, there’s no need to panic — it is for just this reason that you’ve been put on the job.

1. Always keep the essentials in the forefront of your plans.

No matter how introductory or advanced your course is, keep the basics of the Christian faith firmly in mind.  It does no good if your students can quote Aquinas all afternoon, but don’t understand the story of salvation.  There’s a time and a place for insisting that students meet certain prerequisites for a course, but most parish catechetical programs are not going to be that time and place.  You get the students God has entrusted to you, and it’s your job to make sure they hear the Gospel preached.

2. Consult your supervisor.

If the changes you need to make are more than just a quick pause to review and refresh, you need to keep your pastor or director appraised of the situation.  Resist the urge to whine, complain, or blame.  State the problem in objective terms:

  • “My students don’t know basics like the Sign of the Cross and the Our Father.”
  • “My students memorized these exact same Bible passages last year, and they are falling asleep on me.”
  • “I’ve got three kids who are ready for confirmation this morning, five who are working more or less on grade level, seven who don’t come to Mass and don’t know what I’m talking about when I discuss the parts of the Mass like we’re supposed to study this year, and one who keeps falling asleep at his desk because he gets up a 4AM to catch his bus.”

Then propose a solution:

  • “I’d like to take six weeks to review the checklist items from the bishop’s guidelines for grade-level subject mastery.”
  • “Since the students already know this material, would it be possible for us to do a quick review, and then use this free Youcat study guide I found to go a little deeper?”
  • “I’d like to divide the class into groups, and let the advanced students work independently on some special projects while I put most of my attention on the kids who need more help.”

3. Obey.

You might get the green light to go forward with your proposed changes, or to carry them out with some minor tweaking.  Your pastor or director might propose a completely different solution that also works.  Or you might get a firm, “Teach from the course plans as written, thank you.”

It is very frustrating if you feel that you cannot teach the course you are expected to teach.  Charitably assume that there are good reasons you are being asked to teach as directed; sometimes those reasons involve a situation that your director is not at liberty to discuss.  Even if you have to limp along with a curriculum that fits poorly, your students are better off in the hands of a skilled and loving instructor than they would be with no instructor at all.  Regardless of your situation, give it your best and keep preaching the Gospel.

What to Change and How to Change It

I can’t give you a template for the perfect set of class adjustments, because every class is different.  You are going to have to observe and discern, and figure out some solutions that work within the limits of your situation.  Some options to keep in mind as possibilities:

  • Include a review session at the start of each class, during which you revisit fundamentals from previous years.
  • Use part of the class for independent work, with the possibility of grouping students so they can each work at an appropriate level.
  • Allow the few especially advanced students to read independently during class time.
  • Spend relatively  more class time on the parts of the text that best match your students’ needs, and relatively less time on the portions that are too easy or too advanced.
  • Work with another instructor to regroup students so that one of you can work with the students who need the most help.
  • Find materials at the library or online that teach the topics in your text in a way that students understand it better.

The possibilities go on.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my book, which includes a handful of chapters on teaching techniques that fit the most common problems in parish religious education.  I’d like to hear from you: What have you done that works?  What did you try that failed?  What advice would you give a struggling catechist in need of a course overhaul?

How to Turn a Webinar into an Online Retreat

Webinars are an increasingly popular tool for spreading the word about a company or product. But are they the right tool for spreading the Word of God? They certainly can be. The key is to turn a webinar into an online retreat by creating a spiritual atmosphere that reminds people that where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, he is there in the midst of them.

 Man praying at computer

What’s a Webinar?

A webinar, for those who don’t already know, is a seminar or workshop offered via the computer. People can attend live, in real-time, or they can watch the recorded session later at their convenience. Presenters need web-conferencing software and a webcam, but participants don’t need any specialist equipment — only a computer and a high-speed Internet connection.

In the simplest type of webinars, participants watch PowerPoint slides on the computer screen and listen to an audio-only version of the speaker’s talk. (Watch an example here.) But webinar technology also offers exciting features to enhance the interactive experience, like live video of the speaker throughout the presentation, and interactive polls and chatboxes for question and answer sessions. (Watch how I used these interactive features here.)


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Webinars, like any teaching tool, have benefits and drawbacks. The main benefits of hosting a webinar rather than a live, in-person event are:

  • people can attend from the comfort of their homes or offices
  • there are no geographical limitations — people from other time zones or even countries can attend
  • you don’t have to reserve or rent a physical space
  • you don’t need to worry about how many people a room can hold — a webinar can easily accommodate anywhere from five to one hundred people
  • no need to provide refreshments!

Drawbacks of webinars include:

  • not everyone is familiar with webinar technology
  • people expect anything offered on the Internet to be free, and may be less likely to pay an admission fee or goodwill donation
  • people feel more free not to attend at the last minute, since they can watch the recorded session later
  • some people prefer the camaraderie of an in-person event
  • in-person presentations in a chapel or a church take place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, so they have a much more spiritual atmosphere


How to Create a Spiritual Atmosphere

In using a webinar for religious education, we need to keep the focus on Jesus. Otherwise, it can be a distant, clinical, and downright boring experience. So, without further ado, my top three tips for turning a webinar into an online retreat.

1.  Start and end with a prayer.

Remind people to invite Jesus into their hearts and stay close to him and his inspirations during this time. Even when we are physically apart from Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, we can express our longing for him in a prayer of spiritual communion like the one I used to start my online marriage enrichment retreat:

Online Retreat Spiritual Communion Slide

2.  Illustrate with religious artwork

Great artists throughout the centuries have turned to the Bible for inspiration. Practically all of Scripture is depicted in painting and sculpture with timeless elegance and nearly universal appeal. Best of all, you can use religious artwork that is more than 100 years old with very little fear of infringing someone’s copyright. For one of the illustrations in my online marriage enrichment retreat, I selected this dramatic portrayal of the Return of the Prodigal Son, available from Wikimedia Commons. A notice from Wikimedia explained: “This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. … Its copyright has expired.”

Online Retreat Prodigal Son slide

3.  Incorporate time for meditation with sacred music

An in-person retreat usually offers time for meditation and personal prayer to consider deeply the topic of the retreat and to ask what action God might be calling us to take. An online retreat can offer the same. After each PowerPoint presentation in my online retreat, participants were invited to take ten or fifteen minutes to think and pray about the questions for discussion and type their answers into chatboxes online. During the meditation period, we piped in Gregorian chant from youtube. You can find many great clips of sacred music on Youtube. Some clips, like the one below, last for an hour or more, so you don’t have to worry about splicing more than one clip together.

Go Forth and Evangelize!

So, go ahead and consider incorporating webinars into your ministry, if you haven’t already. This amazing technology is a great tool to advance the New Evangelization and spread the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. And if you use this technology already, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Photo Credit for man praying at computer: Anirudh Koul via Compfight cc

You Are What You Eat

I heard this story at Mass this week:

The serpent said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden…” 4* But the serpent said to the woman, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So..the woman…took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate…The LORD God said, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman…gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13* Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.”

A Whole Lotta Eating going on. And I was thinking how Adam & Eve weren’t forbidden from looking at something, or holding something, or wearing something, or using something; but eating something. Which makes sense because what you eat becomes part of you, whether it’s nutritious or poisonous. And sin is as much a part of me as say, the DNA I also inherited from my parents.

But here’s another Whole Lotta Eating episode:

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever… The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56* He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58* This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”

Another nice OT-NT couplet. Humans freely ingest the poison of sin; but they can also freely ingest the antidote.
This is a concept the kids will grasp immediately. But John 6 doesn’t show how. The how comes at the Last Supper. This year we’ve already covered Genesis and John 6.  So during tomorrow night’s Last Supper class, I’ll start with a quick backtrack to the eating in Genesis. Then when we get to “this is my body, this is my blood” we’ll recall John 6 and eating the fruit, the kids will figure out how they combine to say something significant about Mass. Then in our Mass classes at the end of April, I expect I will be able to ask, “What does eating the fruit in Genesis have to do with Communion,” and hear back something like, “Adam and Eve ate the bad food but now we eat the good food.” In 6th grade that’s an A.

Next year this idea will run from the first class to the last class: Genesis/ Passover/ John 6/ Last Supper/ Mass. 

Seeking a Relationship

In Melanie Bettinelli’s new posting series Seeking Curriculum for First Communion Preparation and Religious Education? she addresses (what I believe) to be the ultimate problem in our Catholic religious education programs:

 “I don’t think books are the mainstay of my religious education program. And actually, to drive this point home, I want to eschew the phrase ‘religious education’ because I think what I do is much more formation than education. What we are doing is living a Catholic life. Our faith is not merely an academic subject to be studied like math or history or literature, it’s a relationship to be lived in our daily life.”

I write more as a Catholic wife/mother than I do as a Catholic D.R.E.

Books are necessary tools. Books are wonderful. Books give us information, wisdom, truth, thoughts, ideas, and a peek inside the minds of great men, women, and saints. They are necessary.

But religious training in a faith we hold near and dear is more about formation than education.

Children will not desire to learn more about something they do not love.

Children will not care about something they do not live.

And, while religion might indeed be something we can teach the youth, a life of faith ultimately begins with a relationship between a child and his Creator.

It must!

Yet so many children enter our hallways and classrooms without that primal introduction and relationship already established.

Instead, they are led into our hallways and classrooms for one hour a week (a day if in Catholic schools) and handed a book.

Most of the time there is a teacher and a book standing in the way of the Teacher and the Book.

Perhaps if we could only make ourselves step out of the way and allow the child to meet and get to know this Creator on a personal level; we’d have more success with our religious education training.

I’m anxious to hear what more Melanie tells us in her series: Seeking Curriculum for First Communion and Religious Education.

First Part: Bible Stories

Lenten Warm-up for Catechists & Other Christians

Last summer I wrote a short column here that you might think of as “A Faith Formation Examination of Conscience.”  In it we surveyed the four ways of loving God mentioned in the Great Commandment, and looked at how each might make its appearance in your religious education class.

In preparation for a retreat being held today — the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle — I put together a retreat workbook that develops those themes in much greater detail.  There are options within the workbook for using the retreat for personal discernment, for evaluating the condition of any ministry or apostolate, or for using the retreat to think about how your religious education program is coming along.

I’ve put a link to this little homegrown retreat up on my personal website, and you’re welcome to take a look, and pass it along.

Here’s the page with the link:

And here’s the direct link to the PDF file itself:


Not the Fist, the Fingers

  This article is at best indirectly catechetical. I post it to encourage catechists not to be limited by the existing Religious Ed system in which they find themselves. This book may graciously remind us that substantial catechesis-evangelization is not primarily achieved via the textbook, the syllabus, room layouts, games, crafts, movies, or teaching methods. It comes from the personal, individual witness of the catechist.

  I was given a review copy of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church: Living Out Your Lay Vocation by Russell Shaw. I looked at the cover: a blob of faceless people dressed the same, doing no-skill-no-brains heavy lifting, participating serf-like in yet another Hidebound Church Ritual. As my mother-in-law says: Oh Dear. I anticipated the usual disembodied dull platitudes and tiresome restatements of the obvious. Fortunately I read the book anyway, and was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was the opposite of the cover. It’s about each lay person as a uniquely-gifted individual, not all of us en masse.
  The book kicks off with a history of the laity, the clergy, and their relationship, from Acts of the Apostles to the end of the 19th century. Huh- I didn’t even know the laity had a history. Turns out we do, and it bears directly on what our roles may be today. Moving on to the 20th century, you’ll be familiar with Catholic Action, the Catholic Worker movement, and Opus Dei. They’re included not so much to explain what they are, but to show how they fit into a 2000-year-old stream of non-clergy doing their own thing. I like that.
  Vatican 2 is treated at length, both in its specific attention to encouraging the laity to Get Out There Without Waitin’ for Faddah an’ Sistah t’Tell Ya What t’Do; and the difference between what V2 asked the laity to do, and what the laity’s actually done so far. Apparently lay Catholics are still too much beholden to the clergy, which I understand completely, having been born in 1957. It wasn’t that the Church didn’t say, “Y’all lay folks got your own charisms, go use ‘em.” It did. But the people were thinking in terms of doing stuff within the established system, and following the initiatives of that system; and the Church didn’t argue. Even today the typical Catholic has yet to jump on the chance to figure out his or her unique gifts, and then act on them without necessarily seeking the Church’s approval, guidance, or control. But that was still V2′s message.
  So what’s the problem? We could rattle off a few, but I would not have included clericalism among them. You know, what Pope Francis talks about every Tuesday. Shaw writes: “Clericalism….assumes that clerics not only are, but are meant to be the active, dominant elite in the Church, and lay people the passive, subservient mass.” Careful attention is given to clericalism; how it curbs the laity’s initiative and sense of responsibility; and how to minimize its effects. (Shaw wrote this book in 2005. Francis must have read it.)
  That’s the first half of the book, thematically if not physically. The second half discusses how the laity can get on with it:
1. Taking the idea of lay vocation seriously. That is, every lay person is called by God to Do Something, no less than Faddah or Sistah. God called you. Yes, you. Get on with it.
2. Figuring out your vocation and the charisms you received at Confirmation. So you can get on with it.
3. Taking responsibility for the Church.
4. Evangelizing the World wherever you find yourself. Get on with it. You could die tomorrow. OK, that’s me talking, not the book, but a sense of urgency is a good thing.
  If you’re already on the New Evangelization Express, doing the Intentional Disciple Thing, you probably don’t need to read this book. But you’ll profit from its broad and deep scope if you do read it. If you’re on the fence, or behind the fence, then yes, you need to read this book.
  Get fired up about Jesus and His Church.

Marriage Only Has Meaning if It’s a Lifelong Commitment

Adriana Cohen at the Boston Herald surveys all the heartbreak in the world, and proposes that marriage licenses be issued for ten years, renewable.  This is my reply.  Prayers for a blessed Valentine’s Day, Adriana.


Dear Adriana,

This past weekend my husband and I lay in bed together, the lights dim, the room quiet, his head against my side. And he was crying. We were in the emergency room observation ward. He’d stopped in to check on me in between getting groceries, cleaning the house, and taking care of the kids. Like most men, when there’s a task in front of him, he’s good at setting aside his emotions and doing what needs to be done. But like any decent man, he also loves his wife dearly.

He’d die for me, I’m sure of it.

Are we extraordinary? No. We’re not. We’re a man and a woman who really liked each other, and so we got married.

If we’d gotten married under your ten-year-plan, I’m sure we’d have been married ten years and called it quits. We went through some difficult times at about the four-year mark, and if we hadn’t both been committed to lifelong marriage, we would have given it up then. I recall year twelve wasn’t so easy either. Frankly year seventeen or so is when we finally worked through a few of those problems that would have been the end of our marriage if only we’d believed in ending marriages.

The very fact that we knew we had to stay together is the reason our marriage is so beautiful and intimate. It’s the reason our children have happy parents who love one another, and do their best to create a joyful, peaceful home.

This is what marriage is. It’s not a hobby that you take up for a bit and then leave off when it gets old. It’s not a business partnership, or even an ordinary friendship. And even though we did a bunch of dumb stuff when we were young, the very fact that we both knew marriage ought to be lifelong meant that we worked pretty hard at choosing a spouse we’d want to be with lifelong.

Can you know the future? No, you can’t. Can you be utterly deceived by a sociopath in courtly disguise? Yes, you can. Bad things, terrible things, can happen when you live dangerously. Marriage is not about living cautiously. It’s about discerning carefully, and then throwing yourself in whole heartedly.

You hold hands and jump over the ledge together, and there’s no going back. It’s not a vacation, it’s a lifelong quest.

I’m sorry that you are so afraid of marriage. I’m sorry that someone’s given you the idea that all you can have is a very nice boyfriend. I’m sorry you don’t think it’s possible that a man could love you so much that he’d give anything – anything – to have just one more day with you.

But you really are that lovable.

Don’t sell yourself short.



Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius


Each year in Wednesday Night Sunday School we spend a few minutes on the fun parts of Isaiah 22. I play the role of King Hezekiah and two volunteers play Shebna and Eliakim. When we get to Matthew 16 a couple of months later, we recall Isaiah 22. Then when we discuss the Mass in April, the kids learn that Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius were some of the popes that succeeded Peter. But I have never connected those guys to either Isaiah 22 or Matthew 16. I want all learning to be integrated with other learning, and this was a weak point in that respect. But this year is different, and better.

This year we did our Eliakim skit as usual in November. Then last Wednesday I treated Matt 16 like so:

I got two volunteers to come up and be Shebna and Eliakim. We did a quick refresher on Is 22. The kids remember only Eliakim’s name, but that’s fine. I care about the story and why it matters. They remember it just fine. We quickly re-enact it. Corrupt Shebna sits down. Now we cover Matt 16. I read bits from the chapter, and the kids figure out I’m now Jesus and the other actor is now Peter. We act out the keys again, and draw parallels between the two Kings and their Prime Ministers. The rest of the class play the 11 other apostles. They figure out the significance of Jesus borrowing from Isaiah.

Then I get five more boys to come up and stand in a row next to Peter. I stand behind them with my invisible keys. Peter dies and falls to the floor. The kids tell me to pass the keys to the next boy, he’ll be the next pope. As each pope dies and falls to the floor, the King of Heaven gives the keys to the next boy. At the end they’re all dead. I get them all to stand back up.

“Y’all tell me who these people are. Umm…they’re the first popes! Yes! Who’s the first one? Peter! Yes, that was easy. Who’s next? No guesses, that’s OK, he’s Linus. Linus, your name is...Linus! Yes, ya too smart, Linus! And these other popes are Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, and Cornelius. Do those names sound familiar to anyone? Yes! Where do you know Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, and Cornelius from? Umm….I don’t remember. That’s OK, we’ll find out in April.”

“Who’s the pope now? Francis! Yes. He’s the 266th pope. Who was before him? B…Benedict! Yes, good. Is Benedict dead? No, I think he just stopped being pope. Yes. That’s very unusual, for a pope to retire. Trick question: in the Isaiah story, who picked Eliakim, the new prime minister? The King! Yes, Heze…Hezekiah! Yes. And who picked Peter? Jesus! Yes. Who is...the King! Yes. Did Benedict pick Francis to succeed him? No the other people did. Who exactly? Bishops? Well, sort of. They all wear red…like a bird…that is red...cardinals! Yes, a small group of bishops called cardinals. The bird is named after the men. Cardinal means hinge in Latin. Y’all remember we talked about hinges in December. For example, doors hang on, depend on, hinges. So to say something is cardinal, like a cardinal rule, means it’s important like a hinge because other things depend on it, hang on it. But the cardinals don’t just pick who they like for pope…remind me who picked the first pope. Jesus. Yes, so who still picks them? Umm…Jesus? Yes, good job! The King still has the power to pick his key-man. But Jesus put the cardinals in charge of making his pick. That’s why the cardinals all pray for the Holy Spirit to guide them in making the right choice.”

It only takes a few minutes to knit this together. And it prepares the children to jump all over Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, and Cornelius when those names pop up in our Mass classes in April.