Back to Basics! Recovering a Catechetical Vision that is simple and foundational

Image by PierreSelim (Own work)  Licensed under  CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Image by PierreSelim (Own work) Licensed under CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve spent the last few days putting the Parish Sunday School curriculum together. As is often the case, every three or four years, I am returning to a back to basics approach in the parish that emphasizes the fundamental kerygma and its message of sin, redemption and grace. Perhaps a little background:

About eight years ago I was speaking to sixth grade Sunday School students and I mentioned Adam and Eve. It became evident to me within a few moments that they didn’t really know who Adam and Eve were. One of the students was able to say that he thought they were in the Bible or something, but no details could be given.

It became clear to me in that moment that we could no longer do business as usual when it came to catechesis. Luckily my Director of Religious Education had similar concerns and did not resist my notions that we had to try something radically new.

That “something new” was really “something old” and amounted to a back to basics approach which taught of sin, redemption and grace, in that order.

Clearly if God’s people have lost touch with the awful disaster of Original Sin and all our personal sins, the gift of redemption and the glory of grace are under-appreciated and and even dismissed as of no value. Further, how can someone experience Jesus as their Savior if they don’t even think or know that they need to be saved?

So we have to go back to basics and tell the “old, old stories” again of mankind lost in sin, living in the dark shadows of death and ensnared in the mystery iniquity. Yes, It was time to re-read the Genesis account of Original Sin and all the old stories.

We have also developed a “whole family catechesis” approach wherein every grade level is on the same subject and are reading the same Bible stories and following the same curriculum. And while the kids are in Sunday School class, I am out in the cafeteria teaching the parents the same material.

I teach the parents both method and material. For material we use the old Classic My Catholic Faith which provides a great summary and curriculum of the faith in a kind of flyer format that is both handy and properly detailed.

But in each session we also read a Bible Story. One of the great losses in modern times is the loss of story-telling. And the Bible has great stories.

Standing instruction # 1 for the parents is “READ THE BIBLE TO YOUR CHILDREN.” Every day if possible! And I model that with the parents. In each class we spend the first 20 minutes reading a Bible story, usually from the Catholic Children’s Bible which does a good job presenting the whole Bible in story form. And, having read a story (e.g. of the tower of Babel) we discuss its teaching and I link it to the catechetical material specified in the curriculum.

In modelling this, I hope to show how they can do the same with their children at home. Bible Stories are both memorable, and teach fundamental truths in ways that reach deeper than merely the intellect. They touch the heart and draw the children into the world and mind of God.

Bible Stories don’t just teach they imbue. To “imbue” means to inspire or permeate with a feeling or quality; to saturate, suffuse, or steep one in what is taught or presented.

Thus Bible Stories are essential if we want to communicate the culture and world of the Bible to our children and help them make sense of our glorious faith.

The back to basics approach is broken into three main sections, based on the words of an old hymn:

I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in, and then a little light from heaven filled my soul!

Part 1 (Sept to January) – SIN I once was lost in sin – Here we start with the story of Original Sin and read the early chapter that show how God made all things to be very good, But in Original Sin and all the other sins committed and described in the early chapters of Genesis, both creation and man were devastated. Sin and our conniving with the devil is responsible most of the suffering in the world. Through Bible stories and about forty pages of the “My Catholic Faith” catechism we learn of sin’s devastating effects We distinguish Original Sin, Actual sin, mortal and venial sin, the seven deadly sins and so forth. In so doing we paint of picture of how we were lost in Sin.

Part 2 (From Pre-Lent through early Easter) – Redemption – but Jesus took me in. Having welcomed Jesus as savior of the world at Christmas we now look to the paschal mystery wherein Jesus undertakes to save us from our wretched condition. Here too we read Bible stories and connect to the elements of Jesus ministry to heal us, drive out demons and ultimately to take the hill of Calvary engage Satan in battle, suffer die, rise and ascend for us. The goal here is gratitude more than information. We strive to “remember,” that is, to have so present in our mind and heart what Jesus has done for us so that we are grateful and different.

Part 3  – (Early Easter through Pentecost). – Grace And then a little light from heaven filled my soul! In saving us, Jesus gives us a new mind and heart, a whole new life. The graces of the Christian life are explored: Faith, Hope, Charity, patience, joy, chastity, forgiveness, mercy, and so many other virtues and gifts. We reflect on the whole new Life Jesus has given us and encourage testimony about the transformation brought about by God’s grace working through Scripture, Sacraments, fellowship and prayer. If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.

Its a back to basics approach rooted in the basic kerygma and meant to draw people into the great drama of life: sin, redemption, grace.

Pray for our Sunday School. This evening I spend a couple of hours reviewing the first section of our curriculum with our teachers. In effect I teach the teachers.

Back to basics! Parents, are you reading bible stories to your children? How are you growing in your own faith? And don’t be anxious. The basic curriculum is not that hard. Its easily memorized in the words of the old song

I once was lost in Sin
But Jesus took me in.
And then a little light from heaven filled my soul!

Sin, redemption, grace. Keep it simple, don’t complicate it. Details can come later after the mastery of the basic elements. In two weeks I will scan the curriculum and post it on my Parish Website.

But don’t wait. Get a children’s Bible and start reading the Genesis stories to your kids (and to yourself)!

Here’s a kind of jazzed up version of the Hymn I reference. Looks like it was filmed in the 1970s so take that into consideration 🙂

52 Replies to “Back to Basics! Recovering a Catechetical Vision that is simple and foundational”

  1. I see the exact same problem in Protestant churches in America. On Facebook people in general lack basic knowledge of what constitutes evil and good, so instead of talking about repentance I am teaching what is evil and what is good and how to discern the difference between the two. People instinctively & subconciously because of the conscience God has given them still affirm good and evil but when talking conciously about something that is evil they reject calling it evil. They want to affirm moral relativism, but don’t conciously realize when they affirm moral relativism they undermine their own subconscious and instinctive conscience of what is truly objectively good or evil.

  2. A priest who had been ordained by Blessed John Paul II, after receiving his doctorate in Sacred Theology was asked what he would do next. His response, “Teach kindergarten.”

  3. Father,

    Is there an updated version of the “My Catholic Faith” or a current edition?


    1. Why would you need an updated version? The essentials of the Faith have not changed. Msgr. Pope is working with a group that lacks the very basics.

      Better to use a book that has survived the test of time. Some “updater” is just as likely to muck it up as improve it.

    2. There is an updated version titled “Our Catholic Faith” by Louis L. Morrow that includes Vatican II teachings & documents. It is out of print but used copies are available at Amazon.

  4. I like your idea conceptually. I have reservations about the book you linked. It has a copyright from the ’50s, which would mean there is probably outdated material and photos or drawings. Maybe you could write a catechism with the same concepts for the 3rd millennium.

    1. Taking into account Msgr. Pope’s recent post on modesty in modern culture, a little “outdatedness” is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people as well suggest that Jesus’ parables need updating from that “patriarchal culture”.

      1. You are assuming that I think outdatedness is bad, but I agree that it’s not necessarily bad. Rather, if one wants to teach others about the faith or about anything, it helps to know their background and life experiences. A good pedagogical principle is to begin with the know and then move to the unknown. Today’s children and even their parents have not experienced pre-Vatican II Catholic culture. The 1950’s materials have all sorts of content that no longer applies. I’m not talking about truth. That never changes. But customs, manner of expression, clothing—even modest clothing—changes.

      1. If you read my reply to Cassandra, you will understand that I am not talking about teachings of the faith when I talk about materials being outdated. It’s very true that truth is unchanging. How we express that truth from generation to generation over years, decades, and centuries changes. Just consider the English language. We might use Shakespearean language in literature classes with more mature students, but we wouldn’t use it to try to teach American history or we wouldn’t get very far.

  5. Good for you Msgr.
    I couldn’t help laughing when I read the part about “It became clear to me in that moment that we could no longer do business as usual”
    It just seems so obvious and yet something is preventing a large majority of bishops and priests from seeing this.
    I am not implying that you are blind in this way since it looks like you discovered it as soon as it presented itself to you.
    It is encouraging to see that some priests are addressing this problem.

    But I do have one comment about the children’s bible.
    I’m not sure which version this is but I will say that I think it is important to consistently use the same ancient accurate/approved version of the bible.(Douay/rheims preferably) since the latin vulgate is the only truly authorized version of the Church, and the Douay/rheims is a slavish translation of this authorized version.

    When people see the wording changes in the reading and psalms that are constantly foisted on us in the church on sundays, it gives the impression that you can interpret the word of God any way you want and that precise language when it comes to God is not necessary. Which is not scientific or true, and becomes a stumbling block later on in life when trying to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

    1. Douay/rheims for little children? I learned the basic stories though my teachers in Catholic school (they were not reading from the Bible), We also learned through the “readers” we used to learn to read (a Catholic version of Dick & Jane with additional bible/saint stories) & Little golden books. Douay/Rheims a little hard to understand for children & beginners (my opinion).

      1. I understand your point about the original Douay/Rheims with all the old english way of spelling things like using “f” instead of “s” on many words but the Challoner version of the Douay/Rheims is very readable and is still derived from the Vulgate.
        It also depends on the age of the children like before they reach the age of reason, but even still accuracy is important in religion because it can make the difference between the true Faith and heresy. Even if they don’t understand it all, a little bit of mystery about the full meaning is not harmful, but actually helpful, since going in the opposite direction of making religion accessible to all is what has led to such a loss of faith in so many people. The reality is that we were made by God and it is understandable that we are not able to fully comprehend Him because he is much greater than us no matter what age we are.

        1. The notion that the prevention of heresy relies on a particular translation of the Bible seems a rather odd and “Catholic” version of fundamentalism. While I have sympathy for critiques of other translations – and am no big fan of the NAB – the Douay Rheims is not a silver bullet. A well formed Catholic catechist will rely on Scripture and Tradition and will pay attention to the interpretation of Scriptures that is consistent with the Catechism. Anyone who reads the Scripture independently of the apostolic tradition (no matter what translation) will undoubtedly fall into heresy. Anyone who reads Scripture in the heart of the Church, submissive to the ordained leadership of the succesor to Peter will find the truth.

  6. Your parish is so very blessed to have you Msgr. Pope.This is the way things should be done. At the neighbourhood Church of God in Christ as well in the Southern Baptist churches round here, all Sunday school lessons are the same each week from kindergarten through adulthood. On any given weekday night, there is also bible study that deals with that same lesson, but more in depth. These folks understand sin redemption and grace, however imperfectly, where many Catholics don’t.You will save even more souls through this parish Msgr. Pope. At the very least, no one there will be able to say in truth they were not properly taught. God bless and increase your ministry.

  7. Thank you for that post Monsignor. I will be teaching religious Ed. for the first time this year, 4th grade (please pray for me). Funny, over the past few days I have been thinking about those old Bible stories and how the children I will be teaching might not even know these stories (I will be looking for a show of hands on weather or not they know those stories).
    I am really nervous because my parish will be having a “Catechist Sunday” on the 15th of Sept. (where we will be installed at the 10:00 AM mass, followed by coffee and cake &we will be given the instructional materials at that time) then there will be an “Evening of Prayer” on the 19th of Sept. Classes will start on the 22nd. This does not sound like very good preparation to me, but we will see. So please post whatever you can, I will keep an eye out for your help.

  8. This is the key: Story telling! Because Exegete is needed to uncover what the mysterious Tree of Life is. Once we know what the Tree of LIfe is then we can tell our story and we can begin our new Spring Time. You see the Tree of Life is in the first book of the Bible – Genesis and it is also in the last book of the Bible – Revelation. And guess what? In the middle of salvation history there is the Tree of Life! I’m telling you there’s a story in there you just need to open your spiritual eyes. I know what this story is about, but you must wait. I promise you the Spring Time is almost at the door!

  9. @ Ruth Ann: What material would be outdated? It is a catachism which I assume has an Imprematur. The material will never be outdated. Perhaps we should go back to the Baltimore catechism. There is a lack of basic knowledge of the Catholic Faith. We are in a state where we often teach kids about the shade of the forest and its abstract nature when we have not taught them the things that make up the forest.

    1. You might like to read what I wrote to the others who responded likewise (above). Basically I am talking about “packaging” of the truths of faith. Truth will never be outdated, but how we express it changes. We talk about the faith and its teachings differently now than we did in the 50s.

  10. Sounds like something that must be very challenging and very rewarding at the same time.

  11. Monsignor — thank you so much for sharing! Sounds splendid and I pray the teaching will be received with eager ears and open hearts.

    teomatteo: at our August 2013 family rcia, we went through the Confiteor phrase by phrase. Then I handed each family an envelope in which was the complete Confiteor that had been cut into non-sequential phrases and gave the parents & children 8 minutes to put it together. The parents told me, “Wow, it finally makes sense why we start our Mass this way!”

    If we would just use the creativity that the Holy Spirit provides — we can be basic core instructional AND embrace the joy of our Catholic traditions. It all starts with the teachers. Bless you, Monsignor, for being willing to spend time with your catechists. It is so essential.

  12. Monsignor, as a fairly new pastor I have thought the same as you. This year the priests will be instructing the parents of our 1st Communion and Confirmation students. I have thought about scrapping the entire program, buying 800 copies of the Baltimore Catechism and starting at page 1 in every class K-12. Love reading your blog.

  13. Dysdjs asks “Perhaps we should go back to the Baltimore catechism” . Now there was a catechism! There are classic pictures that will never be lost to my imagination, One great one I recall to this day was a picture of a couple standing before a judge that depicts the court judge saying “now you are divorced” and Jesus standing in the background is depicted as saying ” no you are not”. Brief, to the point, sums up Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, Learned at age 7, never forgot.
    I am not familiar with the “My Faith” series, It is probably very good, but the Baltimore Catechism was classic Literally unforgettable. I was able to quote it even when as a teenager I was not sure I believed any of it, Later as an adult I realized how much sense it made , I am sorry its gone.

  14. My daughter’s pastor, a good man who isn’t afraid to teach the faith from the pulpit, but who does not like the Baltimore Catechism since all the pictures are of white children. Our daughter does not understand his reasons.

  15. Funny story #1: My kids have started complaining that every year it’s back to Adam and Eve AGAIN. (So I guess we’re doing something right ’round here.)

    Funny story #2: My then-protestant husband agreed to be fully supportive of my teaching religious ed . . . if I promised to include the message of salvation in every class. Deal.

    Your approach sounds great all around, Fr. LOVE that you’re teaching the parents. This is so massively important.

  16. What exactly will you be teaching about Adam and Eve? Not everybody understands they were not “real” people.

      1. Of course they were real. As the Church teaches, there was a single male, and a single female, who were our parents in the sense that they were the first human animals in whom a rational soul was infused, and in the sense that all of us are descended from them. This is the teaching known as theological monogenism. It allows for the possibility that our first parents might have walked the earth millions of years ago (not a few thousand years ago as the genealogy in Genesis seems to imply.) Our first parents sinned and turned away from God despite the great gifts He had given them. Original sin thus manifested itself from the very beginning, but we all suffer from it until we are baptized (by water, fire or desire.) This state of sin, this turning away from God by the very earliest humans, and by each of us even today, was and still is the “Felix Culpa,” the “happy” or “fortunate” sin. Happy because it occasioned God’s promise to save his people. Our Risen Lord is the sign and the instrument and the continuing presence in our lives that makes this promise of salvation actual and real in each of us. That’s the basics! That’s the “fundamentals” of Christian Faith. That’s also the essential truth of the Adam and Eve story. Beautiful story. Beautiful promise from God. Even more beautiful fulfillment of the promise in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes not so pretty journey of the People of God, as they walk on towards union with God under the leadership of sinful men.

        The problem here is that we cannot simply say “They were real” and let it go at that. Little kids can certainly be taught the Adam and Eve story as an historically accurate story, and they can be taught it in all its beautiful details. For teenagers and adults the Adam and Eve business becomes much more problematic. Did our first actually existing human male ancestor call his mate “Eve,” and did she call him “Adam”? As a matter of mere history, we have no idea what our first male ancestor called our first female ancestor, and vice versa. Saint Augustine himself teaches us that the Book of Genesis has to be read as an allegory. It tells a true story, in beautifully expressive poetic language, but its details are not necessarily literally, verbally, historically accurate in every detail. Some Old Testament scholars think that the creation narratives in Genesis (there are two of them, not one) trace their origin back to an early oral creation story in poetic form. The problem with teaching our kids that every detail of Genesis I is historically accurate is that when they get to be teenagers and hear, through the grapevine, or via discussion with their peers, that not every detail of the Bible is historically accurate, they can–as many do–suffer a crisis of faith. For all too many kids in this generation this crisis has led to the abandonment of Christianity as an outdated collection of mythical stories, like the story of Adam and Eve.

        We need to be taught that the story of Adam and Eve has to be read by the Analogy of Faith, as part of a story of God’s love and redemption for humans, who’ve shown their unworthiness from the very start in Original Sin, but who are nonetheless redeemed by Jesus’s Atonement. The Analogy of Faith sees the Adam and Eve story as a true but not historically completely accurate part of the larger Bible story of Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Redemption. Seeing Adam and Eve as representatives of all of us–regardless of when or where they lived or what actual names they gave each other–allows questioning teens, and questioning adults too, to ask the right questions, and find the right answers, in Jesus. Jesus actually lived, he actually accepted Yeshua (“God saves,” or “Save, O God”) as his name, he actually walked the streets of Jerusalem, he actually ran afoul of the Romans and died on a Cross. And he actually, in historical fact, “left” his tomb and appeared to numerous people, eating and drinking with them and then ascended from the earth. These are historical facts, and kids, as well as many adults, need to understand their facticity, their actual historical reality. It does no good to insist that there was an historically existing “Adam” and an historical “Eve.” Insisting on easily misunderstood and readily questionable “truths” compromises our credibility when we try to defend the real truths, the valid ones, the ones that comprise the Truth.

        1. Thank you for this description. My son has challenged me on this exact issue and has really questioned the faith just as you said. I think your analysis has helped me understand the points I need to raise in a discussion with him about original sin. Thank you. And Msgr Pope, thank you for all the writing and preaching that you do. I know that the spirit is with you and saving souls in the process. God bless.

      2. I don’t think Fr Robert Barron agrees with you Msgr Pope.

        In his YouTube video Misreading Genesis Fr Barron says:
        .” Adam – don’t read it literally, we’re not talking about a literal figure we’re talking about theological poetry.”

        The Adam explanation starts at 5:53

        Fr Barron is the Rector of a seminary and his explanation of Adam left me very confused. Does his explanation contradict Humanae Generis?

        1. I think you mistake allegory for myth. Fr. Barron speaks of Adam’s allegorical status but still calls him the first man, created by God. Analogously Mary, the Mother of Jesus is an historical figure but also an allegory for Israel and the Church, also the Ark of the Covenant. Saying she has allegorical significance does not deny her historical existence. Rather, it enriches it.

  17. Parents reading the Bible to their children? Teaching the Baltimore Catechism? I first did this using the Seton Home Study School program. You can order the religion course separately or use the whole curriculum. I learned about the faith along with my children. My students, now in their twenties, are still strong in the faith, practicing, Mass-going Catholics. Thank you, Lord!

    1. I’m using Seton Home Study School with my 7th grader. We love it! It’s our 3rd year using it. I learn so much!

  18. “redemption” or “repentance”

    Aren’t redemption and grace largely overlapping?

    Should the 2nd movement be repentance instead?…the encounter with righteousness, the move toward metanoia and repentance and emptying and the seeking of forgiveness?

  19. This is really great. Many Catholic Church CCD programs don’t want to teach what is necessary for salvation for various reasons. I think it’s because it isn’t into the “I’m okay, you’re okay” hippie style.

  20. It’s a terrific approach to one year’s curriculum. But it saddens me that it ignores the bigger problem: the “elephant in the room” so to speak. Sunday school does not work. Sunday school, a.k.a. CCD, a.k.a. religious education for children in public schools does not produce Catholics. Statistically speaking (and these stats have been around for decades) the Sunday School produces ex-catholics who do not attend Mass and who do not follow the teachings of the magisterium. Most of our Catholic children cannot attend Catholic Schools and are not home schooled. Most are catechized in Sunday Schools. Therefore, the Church is shrinking in a reverse-geometric rate.

    The answer is to be found with the home-school movement. If parishes asked their home-schooling families (most of which produce Catholics with the possibility of salvation) how to improve catechesis, they would solve the problem. I expect that they would use the parish facilities as a meeting place to teach and help parents teach parish children. I expect that they would create a curriculum that would involve life-long learning about the faith – not 1 hour on Sunday for a few months for a year or two before First Communion and then for a few months before Confirmation.

    The Sunday School rake cannot hold back the ocean of secularism washing over our children.

  21. Msgr,

    I don’t see why this is needed. The spirit of Vatican II clearly teaches that God is too merciful to allow anyone to go to hell. If someone has a good heart and is trying to follow God, who are we to judge? The idea of sin is a creation of the paternalistic Church run by men to scare women and homosexuals into a medieval mindset of obedience. Teaching dogmas like original sin closes the mind; we need to open the windows and let the fresh air of renewal blow more freely.

    Also, you neglected to mention the salvific nature of guitars. We need more guitar music, for everyone knows that children will not be able to understand ANYTHING spiritual or Christian unless the words are accompanied by guitar music; folk guitar for grades 1-8, and electric guitar (including bass) for the older kids. Guitar music is how the apostles spread the faith in the early Church, and we need to reconnect with those first Christians while we tear down the structures of medieval accretions and re-imagine the Church that God really intended.

    I fear we may not be able to realize this until we elect the first female pope, and that won’t happen until we are allowed to elect our bishops. Without the voice of the people, the Church will continue to be controlling and unresponsive to the needs and desires of modern men and women and trans-gendered.

    And clowns. We should have more clown masses. Clowns make people feel good, and when we feel good we are in a state of grace and therefore we cannot sin no matter what we do, because as long as we follow our consciences, everything we do is ok as long as we are kind, smile a lot, and don’t offend anyone else’s feelings or beliefs.

    These, I believe is what is what needs to be emphasized in children’s catechesis, not outdated pre-Vatican II definitions of sin and obedience to God, or the notion that we need to wage a great battle against the world because the world hates Christ and all follow him. If that were true, Jesus would have said so. We need to be more like the world so that the world will admire us and approve of us, because, in the end, that is what is really important, that we all feel accepted.

    1. Well I’m not sure the snarky cynicism is all that helpful either. Laughing at people with scorn and derision is not usually a fruitful thing. Sometimes people don’t appreciate fine french wines until they meet a gracious soul who can introduce them in stages and with mutual respect.

  22. There is a serious caveat to the simplistic approach. Catholic Christianity necessarily requires the Church and the sacraments. When the apostles were preaching it could probably be assumed that conversion and joining the church were pretty much one and the same. In this era, Protestantism and “Sola Scriptura” thinking make it necessary in handing on the faith to make clear the connection between following Jesus and living with the Church.

    1. Yeah its the Alpha of alpha et Omega. But the problem of modern catechesis is the lack of the alpha, the lack of a foundation, the lack of any personal relationship to Christ and the lack of any inculcating of a felt need for faith, sacraments, salvation or God. This approach is not ultimate, only penultimate.

  23. Please see on YouTube “Our Cross – Venerable Fulton Sheen” He talks on teaching young people religion, by types; the Old Testament fact, the New Testament fact as fulfilled by Our Lord. Many thanks.

  24. I used to teach catechetics to Catholic primary (elementary ) school children who attend non-Catholic schools.

    While I would use My Catholic Faith as my reference book because, as many have said; the teachings haven’t changed. I would not use it directly for either the children or their parents because the concepts as they are presented would be too difficult , I think, for under catechised children and/or adults to profit from and it’s older style of language could be off putting for both parents and children. The foundations have to be put into place using appropriate language and later more colour can be added to the tapestry of the Faith.

    I used to use the series To Know Worship and Love, mandated by the Archdiocese in which I live, and supplement this rather thin gruel with the Faith and Life series published by Ignatius Press.

    I would also bear in mind that it may be possible that I would be accused of giving their children nightmares, making them scrupulous etc etc. Children who are allowed to watch violent news broadcasts and dubious TV programmes are remarkably sensitive when it comes to the teaching of the Faith and some of the parents are likewise.

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