Over the last fifteen years I have heard numerous individuals share about their experiences as the “last real Baltimore Catechism Generation.” Some express that the formal catechism recitation, comprised of a question and answer dialogue, was a positive influence on their faith life and provided them sound doctrinal formation. Others have a somewhat negative view of their experience and felt that the catechism recitation monopolized their classroom experience. Interestingly though, they do have one positive thing to say about the use of recitation: “I will never forget what I learned.” The famous example being:
The Catechist: Why did God make you?
The Class: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”
This dialogue recitation was not only found in Catholic catechetical classrooms but also is a hallmark of the Classical Education Movement that has been seeking to restore the essence of an authentic education. The name for this dialogue or echo between teacher and class has also been called “Catechism.” For now, let us remain with the title “recitation.”
I seek to suggest that it would be in our best interest as Amazing Catechists, either at home or in a classroom, to carry out the restoration project of bringing back the Catholic recitation. I am not suggesting that this be done as the sole means of educating youth but that the use of recitation should once again become part of our catechetical process. The question and answers of recitation can easily be integrated into the opening of class or the closing of class. The reason for its restoration is that it works.
The traditional characteristic of the younger grades, what we call Grammar School or Elementary School, was the emphasis on memory work. The emphasis on memory work was aimed at cultivating a child’s memory capacity and at the same time teaching them something. Small children can do it, and the last couple thousand years have demonstrated that it fits well with the developmental stages of small children. They like to repeat and imitate. They are a sponge and can handle unusual amounts of information if it begins simple and grows in complexity. Recitation for a small child is like exercise. The more a person exercises, the easier it becomes and the more complicated routines can then be adopted.
Within a few short minutes I have seen 1st communicants be able to answer questions like:
- Who is God?
- What are the two parts of Scripture?
- Name the four Gospels.
- Who is Jesus?
- What are the Old Testament types of Baptism?
- What does John 3:5 say about Baptism?
- What does Romans 6 say about Baptism?
- How does Confirmation complete Baptism?
- How does Confirmation help with the reception of Holy Communion?
- What is the Manna in Exodus 16?
- How does the Lord’s Prayer connect with Manna?
- What does Jesus say about the Eucharist in John 6?
The benefits for the child are beyond this article and deserve an entire book to do them justice. I have chosen to simplify and provide the nine most common fruits when recitation is done well and consistently:
- Recitation teaches children to organize a body of knowledge in a systematic way.
- Recitation demonstrates to a child how the new lesson of a given class fits within the greater body of knowledge of the Catholic Faith.
- Recitation teaches children new and proper vocabulary to help them formulate the concepts they will learn in class.
- Recitation provides students the opportunity to grow in confidence for speaking in front of others.
- Recitation provides all students in a classroom the same base knowledge to build from in the catechetical lesson.
- Recitation motivates the child to develop their memory capacity and their speed and ability for recall.
- Recitation provides a body of knowledge that will be ingrained in their long-term memory for the years and possibly decades to come.
- Recitation encourages teamwork when done in a classroom setting since the class answers together.
- Recitation develops a sense of confidence through the year’s mastery of recitation.
Besides being a time-tested approach to learning for smaller children, especially within a Catholic environment, recitation also provides many helps for the Catechists. Classroom recitation provides the most immediate assessment of a student’s or students’ abilities and their current status in the process of formation. Unlike True and False questions or multiple-choice questions, recitation does not allow for guessing. You either know it or you do not. A catechist does not need to wait until the end of the unit quiz to know if a student grasps the content. They will know immediately. The process of conducting recitation will be discussed in my next article.
The importance of recitation, and the fact that it should not monopolize the classroom experience, is best expressed by turning to L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables. The orphan, Anne, has arrived at her new home at Green Gables. Marilla asks Anne if she knows who God is. Anne responds, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” The narrator explains that Anne’s answer was prompt.
Anne then explains that she learned it at Sunday school before being adopted. “They made us learn the whole catechism,” likely referring to a sort of recitation, “There’s something splendid about some of the words.” The role of this catechism recitation had a big impact on her vocabulary, her memory, her recall, and her worldview. However, Anne does not yet know how to be a person who prays to God and follows God. For this reason, Marilla immediately seeks Anne’s religious instruction.
Just as in the example of Anne of Green Gables, catechism recitation can have many benefits but must be accompanied by something more within the classroom. The catechetical recitation and catechetical lesson work together to create something grand: a child formed in the way of Jesus Christ. Anyone would be hard pressed, once they know the different approaches to conducting recitation, to find a good reason to not restore catechetical recitation to its proper place.