A reader asks anonymously:
Is it appropriate for religion teachers to ask students about their sins? In my friend’s religion class, the teacher asked him to write in his journal about one of the sins he would be confessing at his next confession. What do you think?
The answer is a big fat NO. No, no, no, and NOOOOOOOO. Just no. Not appropriate. Never appropriate. Religion class is not the place to perform a public examination conscience. No no no.
I do want to share three thoughts related to my reader’s question. The first is my own class policy on journals and sensitive topics. The second is on the limits of journal writing as a teaching tool; the third is on the proper role of catechists in sacramental preparation.
1. Journals are personal, but not private. The first time students open their journals, I explain that:
a) I will never force you to read your journal entry aloud,
b) I do read your journal entries (and pray for your prayer intentions), and that your parents have free access to your journal as well.
I don’t require reading aloud, because that’s not the goal of my class. I teach religion. Not composition, not public speaking, and not group therapy. Journals provide an opportunity for students to explore their faith and their life in writing, and that’s a legitimate part of a religious education course.
But I can’t guarantee privacy. Physically, the journals are not kept under lock and key. Professionally, it is inappropriate to set myself up as arbiter of students’ secrets. Journals are a great way to share ideas that can be difficult to express aloud — but they are, fundamentally, a tool for sharing.
2. Journals fit the learning style of some, but not all, students. I have two types of students who love journals. The first are introspective and prayerful students Often they do not want to share their entries aloud, but they relish the process of writing out their thoughts. I allow them as much time to write as they want, even after the rest of the class moves on to the next assignment.
The second group are students who learn by talking. They work through the day’s topic by jotting down a few quick notes, then expand on their ideas when it’s time to share. The big trick is to strike the balance between enough sharing and too much sharing.
But what about everyone else? I keep on hand a “back up” assignment. If you finish your journal early because, let’s be honest, you wrote two flippant words, or “I don’t know” or “I hate this dumb journal”, come to the front table and grab the alternate assignment. Students learn in different ways. Offer more than one way for students to connect to the lesson.
3. What role do catechists play in preparing students for the Sacrament of Confession?
We have three important jobs:
- We teach the mechanics of the sacrament. Sign of the cross, “Bless me Father for I have sinned,” etc.
- We answer questions about the nature of the sacrament. When must I confess? What if I forget my act of contrition? Will the priest tell the police if I confess a crime?
- We explain what is, and is not, a sin. We also answer questions about what circumstances lessen or remove culpability for a sin.
My approach should be positive, encouraging, and sincere. But we catechists aren’t the parents. We aren’t spiritual directors. The classroom setting is not the appropriate place for pastoral counseling. It certainly is not the confessional.
It is important to respect these distinctions. In setting firm boundaries, we strengthen our role as catechists. Students are often willing to ask outlandish or difficult questions of a catechist, specifically because they know it’s not personal. It’s just a question. If they ask out of mere curiosity, be thankful they are curious about the faith. If they ask out of personal need, be thankful they have a place they can get clear and honest answers to difficult questions.
But in all cases, my role as a catechist should always respect the privacy and the dignity of my students.
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