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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Christian LeBlanc says
If we need to talk about sins in my class, we talk about mine.
Jennifer Fitz says
Ditto. I have a whole treasure-trove to offer. And what with my being especially childish, the kids can usually relate pretty well. Good thing we have saints for when we need a good example.
When we are preparing to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we also talk about the sins of omission that kids and adults may not realize. I encourage them to share their worries, regrets and questions within their journals. The journal becomes a place for them to work out those feelings and ponder those questions about the nature of sin. It is a private and personal time of reflection for them. I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you.
Jennifer Fitz says
Kelly, that’s a great point about sins of omission. Among my 5th graders, the big question along those lines is “What do I do if no one will take me to Sunday Mass?” (Obviously the students can’t be guilty for transportation problems beyond their control — we discuss what realistic options they have, and at what point they have done what they reasonably can.)
Because our journals are stored in the classroom (sometimes unlocked, shared with other classes, etc.), I don’t encourage students to write truly private reflections. If students themselves maintain control over their journal, it’s another matter. And certainly we all have feelings — even about guilt and sin — that we are willing to share — and for that, a journal is great, because it can become a way to make it easier to share what we aren’t sure how to say. I think the word “encourage” is the key one — giving students the chance to explore their feelings, but without forcing it.
Jennifer Fitz says
I wanted to add, in a general way, because I know to a high school catechist, 10-year-olds obsessing about mass attendance can seem a tad shallow: Keep in mind that 5th graders are still thinking much more concretely than high school students will. They are focused on specific actions and understanding the basic to-do’s of the faith.
In contrast, older students will be able to think through more abstract sins — and will have typically dealt with much more serious life situations. One of the big challenges in catechesis with teens is that they are feeling guilt with a new intensity, and recognizing potentially serious sinful thoughts, but can easily mistake the intensity of their feelings for the seriousness of the sin. And many of the topics that you simply cannot mention in the classroom in 5th or 6th grade, by 8th grade are suddenly a major part of life — just when kids may be spending less and less time around parents and other adults who could guide them through all the new stuff.
Suzanne Gonsalves says
I have had a problem with students wanting to share too much with me. My students are in High School and seem to enjoy being in a constant state of confession. Appropriate boundaries and how to draw them is a lesson that I need to teach them. Anyone else out there experiencing this with High Schoolers?
Jennifer Fitz says
Suzanne, that’s an important point. We live in a tell-all society, and students do need to be taught to draw a line between their private and public life. Would it make sense to maybe start the year with a discussion on that topic? I’m thinking of maybe putting some categories on the board — “Internet” “everyone at school” “close friends” “parents” “confessional” “nobody’s business” etc, and letting students decide what kind of information belongs in each category?
And then lead them through specific ways they can maintain their privacy, such as learning to say, “that’s not something I’m going to discuss right now.” And in the case of your class, you might want to set down some guidelines on how to ask questions without revealing personal details. Something students could do if they don’t know how to ask the question discreetly is write it down for you, and then you translate it into appropriate terms before answering to the class.
[In my work with teens (which is more one-on-one and small group as part of special events), when vocabulary or subjects come up that aren’t appropriate, I just say, “That’s not appropriate for this setting,” and move on. But I’m not getting the same level of tell-all as you are, nor with the whole class watching. I have had to privately explain to a teen why certain topics can’t be discussed with younger students. He got the message and we remained on excellent terms — great kid, just too immersed in our popular culture to know where to draw lines.]
I’m mostly brainstorming here. Anyone else have ideas?