“We don’t teach them because THEY are Catholic; we teach them because WE are!” I have heard this quote attributed to the former Archbishop of Washington, James Cardinal Hickey. Apparently, this was the Cardinal’s response to a question of why Catholics should support a Catholic school that doesn’t have many Catholics among its student body.
Building up the Body of Christ
I think of the wisdom of Cardinal Hickey often in my ministry and his quote came to mind last week during a school Mass. Specifically, during communion, a guest in attendance noticed that several students did not approach the altar to receive the Eucharist. In fact, during communion, it is easy to observe that less than 30% of my students are Catholic. After the Mass, this person commented sarcastically saying, “I thought this was a Catholic School? Frankly, it doesn’t look too Catholic to me!”
Real Catholic Identity
I find myself often defending the Catholic identity of my school based on the percentage of Catholics enrolled. In my particular case, how does a 182 year old school, owned by a rather traditional community of habited sisters, run by a permanent deacon and that has well-attended school Masses (even when they are optional), not seem Catholic? My verbal response to this comment was more measured than my actual emotions but, I said, “I just preached to hundreds of non-Catholics about the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in our salvation. Where else does another Catholic priest, deacon or even a bishop get that opportunity?”
Go forth and teach the nations!
In the great commission, Jesus instructs us to “Go forth and teach the nations!” (Matthew 28;19-20). Non-Catholics are always invited to share our faith and can prayerfully participate in Mass without receiving communion. However, I suspect that this happens most often in an inner-city Catholic school. Now, does that mean all of my students convert to Catholicism prior to graduation? Certainly not. But, I do believe that anyone exposed to the truth will eventually be attracted to it. And, as Catholics, exposing the world to the truth of our faith is our job!
Check out this wonderful article about 19 Baptisms in a Washington, DC Catholic Parish School. St. Augustine’s Catholic School – Way to go!!!
Almost no one in the Church would claim today that we have done a good job of handing on the faith to our children. Depending on how we reckon it we have lost two or three generations to an ignorance and inability to articulate the faith. Even the most basic teachings are unknown to the young.
A few years back I was talking to Catholic sixth graders about Adam and Eve and it became clear to me that they had little idea of who Adam and Eve were except that they were “in the Bible or something.” That was it. I collected all the glossy page religion books and instituted a “back to basics” curriculum at every grade level. We started with creation and the fall of man and used the Biblical narrative along with memorized questions and answers and culminated the year with a “religion bee” wherein the children were expected to demonstrate their mastery of the material for prizes. The kids did well and they whooped their parents. The following year we instituted a parallel program for the parents. While their kids were in Sunday school class the parents were being instructed in the same material by yours truly.
I am no expert in pedagogy (educational theory) but it seems rather clear to me that we seriously lack in two major areas of catechetical instruction: discipline and content. Pretty devastating gaps it would seem! Not much is left over except self-esteem and slogans like “God loves you.”
In terms of content, it seems we have made improvements. The publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and stricter standards that our Catechetical materials conform to it, has been the single greatest reform. Our materials are more orthodox, and the content is more substantial than the darkest years of the 1970s and 80s. Several good series have been published as well which have good content and are visually pleasing as well. I will not mention them by name since this is a blog of the Archdiocese and it is not appropriate for me to single them out. (It seems to me that you are free to speak of series you like in the comments since the Archdiocese does not endorse every comment that appears here). So I think content is improving.
But content is not enough. Academic discipline is also required. All the best material and visually beautiful as well cannot alone help children master the faith. Stronger and more rigorous academic discipline must be reasserted in the catechetical process. There are a number of elements of this academic discipline that I would like to mention and perhaps you will add more.
Repetition – There is an old Latin saying: Repetitio mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of studies). Learning requires a lot of repetition for it to sink in and become second nature. One of the major flaws in the current catechetical process in most parishes and Catholic Schools is the way the curriculum is divided up. In second grade we talk about Holy Communion and Confession (but never again). The fourth graders are talking about Commandments – but never again. In fifth grade we talk about the Church (history and structure) – but never again. The sixth graders are talking about the life of Jesus – but never again. And so forth. The catechetical process is compartmentalized and doesn’t always seem to build on mastery of what came before. To discuss things but once hardly seems effective, especially if the material does not build on what came before. Back in public school, at least in my day, mathematics did a great job of a kind of spiral curriculum which combines repetition with increasing mastery as new material was introduced. First we learned numbers. Then we used numbers to count. Then we used numbers and counting to go backward and forward by adding and subtracting them. Then we used numbers and counting and adding and subtracting to learn multiples and divisions. Then we used numbers and functions to realize that whole numbers can be fractioned and that numbers could have negative values and we learned how to count in fractions and to add and subtract them, multiply and divide them. And the material continued to build and the mastery of what went before was not left behind but folded into the new material and was used in an upward spiral. It is true that faith is not so simple as Math but the narrative of the faith does build in a spiral way. From God to creation to fall to promise of salvation to paschal mystery, to the life of grace by the sacraments to ultimate restoration with God forever in the paradise of heaven. These basic elements must be reviewed over and over in an ascending spiral that respects human development at its various stages. But just talking about creation and the fall in the early grades and not at all later is bound to lead to a forgetful and confused student. If the wound of original sin and the loss of a relationship with God is forgotten, how will redemption make sense? No wonder it all seems “irrelevant” to many of them.
Memorization –mastery of material is almost impossible without good old fashioned memorization. We just have to know things like the seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, the basic prayers, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Further, basic definitions like grace, redemption, Mortal and venial sin, incarnation, etc have to be memorized and understood. Answers to basic questions like why God made me, who were our first parents, what is the Church, who were the prophets etc. Answers like these need to be committed to memory. Without these basic building blocks being committed to memory very little building is going to go on. These basic memorized things are like hooks on which many other things hang. Without the hooks, everything falls flat. Early in school I memorized my ABCs and then many words and how they are spelled. So much depended upon my simply committing these basics to memory. The same was true with my multiplication tables. My parents and teachers were clear, just memorize them! Do the work now and everything else will be easier and make sense as you go. I struggled but I got it and I have never lost them. Give me any two numbers between 1 and 12 and I’ll give you their product instantly. Memorizing those tables opened a whole world for me and simplified life enormously. Why should the faith be any different? In memorizing and knowing the seven deadly sins I am greatly assisted in examining my conscience, grasping the deeper drives of sin in my life, understanding and anticipating the moves of the world, the devil and the flesh, and helping others understand the negative drives in their life. It all starts with simply memorizing and grasping basic concepts.
Time – Most people spend barely an hour a week trying to master their faith. This is not enough. Mastery of any discipline requires something more than one hour a week. We cannot expect magic. If we only ask kids to spend an hour week with no homework or expectations in between, we should not expect any mastery of the material. Another time related problem is that catechetical instructions in parishes are not year-round. Most Protestant Churches I know would never think of cancelling Sunday School for the summer. They attach the same priority to Sunday School that we attach to mass. Sunday School is every Sunday almost without fail. In the Catholic Church we call the whole thing off from May through mid September. And every single three day weekend also seems to get lumped in as well. In many parishes the children have religious instruction only half the weeks of the year when summers, holidays and snow days are subtracted out. In my parish we are gradually increasing the coverage with the goal of making Sunday School year round.
Accountability– at some point we need to expect young people to demonstrate mastery of the material. Things like tests, religion bees, presentations etc. should be used. Why should children take religious education seriously if they will never have to render an account for what they have done or failed to do? Things like religion bees can be fun and challenging. Rewards can be offered. Religious “It’s Academic, or Trivial pursuit formats can be fun but serious ways of assessing mastery of the material. Things like this and tests also impose certain deadlines for mastery of the material. Deadlines are really lifelines since they awaken urgency and discipline. In the end both student and teachers must be accountable. Accountability must be returned to the catechetical process.
Resourcefulness – In school I could not learn everything. But one of the disciplines I learned was how to find answers. I remember trooping off the school library and being taught the Dewey Decimal System and how to use a card catalogue. We were introduced to encyclopedias, journals, and later in College, to abstracts. Today things are easier with the Internet but we sill have to teach young people how to find answers. Sites like newadvent.org ; The EWTN Libraries; and the Bishops Website and many others are places where answers can be found. In the end, one of the best fruits of my education was how to be resourceful.
OK. That’s enough from me. How say you? You will surely have some thoughts to add to this discussion on Catechesis, particularly in terms of content and discipline. Especially helpful are things you have found to work. What further disciplines would you add to the list? We can all stipulate we’ve done a poor job in the Church of late. Content and resources are improving but what of discipline?
This video is a good commentary on the problem of content which I did not develop as fully here. Msgr. in the video does mention a Catechetical series. Again I must issue a disclaimer that posting this video does not amount to an official endorsement of the series. I am not empowered to make such endorsements on the part of the Archdiocese. But the video is a good reflection on the need for content as well as technique and discipline. (Hat tip to Patrick Madrid for the video)
Back in High School I was a very gawky teenager. I was 6 feet tall and 130 lbs. I was so thin you could not see me from sideways on except for the fact that my kneecaps and elbows stuck out. I was terribly shy around girls and considered the possibility of a date to a school dance quite remote.
But school dances up through about 10th grade were strange too. Most of the guys would stand on one side of the room and most of the girls on the other. Occasional furtive glances and giggles predominated and only a few of the guys were brave enough to ask a girl to dance. It was more common to see the girls out on the floor dancing in groups and the guys hanging tuff and looking cool on the side. It was a silly really but there was a kind of innocence. To be sure some of the kids in early High School were sexually active but most just said they were.
In 11th Grade came the prom and I actually summoned the courage to ask a girl as my date. She was blind enough to agree. But I remember the proms and how elegant they were. I wore a tux and she an elegant dress. I felt grown up for the first time, a young man with his lady. I was still gawky but I was learning for the first time the rituals of courtship. I may have had some unchaste thoughts but I knew my limits and the rules of the dance protected us both. A well chaperoned dance can help young people take the next and proper steps in courtship but guidance is critical. That was the early – mid 1970s for me.
Twenty years later I was in attendance at a middle school dance at a presumably Catholic School. I had been away in Seminary and it had been a dozen years or more since I had seen a school dance. I was shocked at the difference. Not only were the youngsters not on the margins being shy and furtive, they were emphatically out on the floor. They were not dancing as couples but in a large tangle of young people bumping and grinding in horribly immodest ways. Many of them were simulating sexual activity right out on the floor. Even more shocking, the adult “chaperons” were standing meekly on the side sipping punch and allowing this to go on. I went to one and inquired who was in charge and the woman seemed quite surprised at my shock at the dirty dancing. “Oh they’re just having fun,” she said.
I’d had enough. I went out on the floor and started pulling apart the most egregious violators and told them to cut it out to go over and sit on the side until I spoke to them. I then huddled the “chaperons” and explained that this sort of behavior had to stop and I needed their help. I told. A few of them made weak attempts to stop the gyrating teens but most just stood there. Finally I was off to the DJ to turn the music off and with his microphone in my hand I lectured the youngsters (and apparently a many of the not so young) on modesty. To the girls I spoke to them of their dignity as daughters of God and that they ought to demand respect from the boys. I to the boys I preached respect for the girls I warned them all that God was watching.
It was really the adults who angered me that night in the early 90s. We were letting our children down by not teaching them boundaries, self-respect or mutual respect. Kids who have newly explosive hormones rushing through their veins need guidance and clear rules. They need kind but firm adults who can help them to understand and master the powerful forces unleashed within them. As you may imagine I had many tense but productive meetings with the adults who were youth leaders in the months to follow.
In the video to follow is a very good interview I saw on Fox News today. Shannon Breen interviews Betsy Hart, author of “It Takes a Parent.” In a very good move more and more schools are cracking down on “Dirty Dancing”and spelling out very clearly what the teenagers may not do. It is long overdue and I well hope it will widely multiply to every school district. Hopefully most of our Catholic Schools have dealt with this phenomenon long ago (as my school did back in the early 1990s).
A dance should be a time when young people learn the delicate art of courtship. When they learn to be close physically but in a way that is respectful. Dances should teach young men to be gentlemen and girls to be ladies. Sadly, this has been untrue for years. Loud music, dark rooms, chaotic strobe lights and poor dress codes have all given way to increased immodesty and unchaste bumping and grinding. Children deserve better than to be sexualized and uninstructed in basic modesty and reverence. Enjoy this interview and pray that common sense parenting and mentoring will once again catch on.
I recently read an article in First Things by Sally Thomas entitled: The Killer Instinct. The article ponders the modern aversion to the male psyche. Young boys are full of zealous energy, full of spit and vinegar, and have a a proclivity to rough and even violent play. Many modern parents and educators seem troubled by this and often attempt to soften boys, make them behave more like girls. Sadly there is even an attempt by some to diagnosis typically rough-house and energetic boys as having ADHD and they are put on medicines to suppress what is in the end a normal male energy. I do not deny that there can be a true ADHD diagnosis in some cases, but it may also be a symptom of an increasingly feminized culture that finds normal male behavior to be violent and a diagnosable “disorder.” What I have said here may here may be “controversial” but in the finest male tradition, remember, we can always “spar” in the comments section!
I’d like to present excerpts of the article here and then add some of m own comments in red. You can read the whole article by clicking on the title above.
The default mode of many parents is to be as alarmed by [the] proclivity in their sons [to shoot and stab at things and be aggressive]…..An obvious fascination with shooting things might seem like one of those warning signals we all read about…It used to be that parents waited for Johnny to start torturing the cat before they worried. My generation of parents seems to worry that owning a rubber-band shooter will make Johnny want to torture the cat.A friend of mine told me that he and his wife had decided not to give their boys guns for toys. What they discovered was that without the toy everything became a gun: sticks, brooms, scissors, their fingers. In the end, they “made peace” with the fact that boys love guns and swords and stopped worrying about latent tendencies to violence. Somehow it was in a boy’s nature and they couldn’t “nurture” it away.
As a toddler, one of my sons liked to stand behind his baby sister’s chair and pull her head back as far as it would go, to watch it spring up again like a punching bag on its stem….and then she screamed….From my son’s point of view, it was altogether a gratifying exercise. My intervention was always swift and decisive…I implored my son, “Don’t be rough. Be gentle.” …I am struck, now, by the strangeness of what I said to him. We don’t tell someone struggling with lust simply not to want sex; we don’t tell a glutton that his problem will be solved if he stops being hungry. Yet, I might as well have said, “Stop being a boy.”…. What I think I have come to understand about boys is that a desire to commit violence is not the same thing as a desire to commit evil. It’s a mistake for parents to presume that a fascination with the idea of blowing something away is, in itself, a disgusting habit, like nose-picking, that can and should be eradicated. The problem is not that the boy’s hand itches for a sword. The problem lies in not telling him what [the sword and itch] are for, that they are for something. If I had told my aggressive little son not, “Be gentle,” but, rather, “Protect your sister,” I might, I think, have had the right end of the stick.(This is a very brilliant insight. It is essential that we not try to destroy the innate gifts that God gives us in order to “control” them. We must learn to harness them and sublimate them so that they achieve the end to which they are intended).
Anne Roche Muggeridge, who reared four boys in the 1970s and 1980s, observes that
prevailing society now thoroughly regards young men as social invalids. . . . The fashion in education for the past three decades has been to try to make boys more like girls: to forbid them their toy guns and rough play, to engage them in exercises of “cooperation and sharing,” …to denounce any boyish roughness as “aggressive” and “sexist.”
Muggeridge writes of a visit to a doctor who urged on her a prescription for Ritalin, saying that a child as constantly active as her two-year-old son must be disturbed. “He’s not disturbed,” she responded. “He’s disturbing.” It is to realize, as Anne Roche Muggeridge did while watching her sons take turns throwing each other into a brick wall, that what you have in your house is not a human like you but a human unlike you. In short, as Muggeridge puts it, you are bringing up an “alien.” Yes, it has been very frustrating to be a man in the modern age let alone have to grow up under the tutelage of social scientists and education bureaucrats who scorn and suspect your very nature. Boys are aggressive. That is natural and good. They must be taught to master it and focus the energy of their aggression on the right object, but they should not be scorned for who and what they are. Such scorning has become for too many a sense that they are socially “enlightened.” It is time to see this attitude as a the type of bigotry and sexism that it too often is. To many women (and some feminized men) a boy in his raw state may in fact seem like an alien, but even aliens deserve respect 🙂
[There is an] initiation rite, devised and performed by our parish’s young priest twice a year in the church. This rite involves a series of solemn vows to be “a man of the Church,” “a man of prayer,” and so forth. It includes induction into the Order of the Brown Scapular, the bestowing of a decidedly manly red-and-black knot rosary, and the awarding of a red sash. What the boys look forward to, though, with much teasing of soon-to-be inductees about sharpened blades and close shaves…is the moment when a new boy kneels before Father and is whacked smartly on each shoulder with a large, impressive, and thoroughly real sword.Great idea. I’m going to work in my parish about initiating something like this.
These Holy Crusaders are, after all, ordinary boys—sweaty and goofy and physical. For them to take the Cross seriously requires something like a sword. For them to take the sword, knowing what it’s for, requires the Cross. …A boy’s natural drive to stab and shoot and smash can be shaped, in his imagination, to the image of sacrifice, of laying down his life for his friends. In the meantime, this is the key to what brings these boys to church. It’s not their mothers’ church or their sisters’ church; it is theirs, to serve and defend.Yes, yes! Amen. Greater love hath no man that to lay down his life for his friends. Christian manhood needs to be rediscovered in some segments of the Church. Too many men stay away from Church because it seems feminine to them. Sermons about duty, courage and fighting the good fight have given way to a steady diet of compassion, kindness, being nice, getting along, self actualizing and, did I mention being nice? These are not wrong virtues but they must be balanced by virtues that call us to stand up and speak out with courage, accepting our duties and fighting the good fight of faith, if necessary unto death. Men respond to the call when it is given in a way that respects their manhood. Balance is needed in the preaching and teaching of the Church and it seems that in recent decades we may have lost this in many settings, IMHO. If you think I’m crazy, remember this is a conversation. Hit the comment button and have it.
Sally Thomas, a contributing writer for FIRST THINGS, is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.
Yesterday just over 2000 people gathered at a rally for School choice. As you may be aware, the Congress recently voted to suspend the Opportunity Scholarship Program in the District of Columbia. The program allowed students who qualified to receive up $7,500 to attend the private school of their parent’s choice. I have blogged on it before HERE and HERE. It is a very sad loss of opportunity for District of Columbia school students whose only option now may be a seriously deficient public school system. Students currently in the Opportunity Scholarship Program can stay but no new students can be admitted.
In this issue, if the focus is on Children and what is best for them, then the Opportunity Scholarship Program should continue. If the focus shifts to politicians and teachers unions and what they want, the children suffer. And before anyone says that the Archdiocese is just out for money, the fact is we have lost money on the program since the scholarships do not cover the total cost of educating these children in our schools.
But we will continue to fight for what is best for children and we are willing to make scarifices for providing what is best for them. Our own resources are linited and the Opportunity Scholarships helped us provide a quality education to many more than our own scholarship funds could assist. We will continue to work with others to build a pluralistic coalition that will act to have the Opportunity Scholarship Program reinstated. The children deserve options.
The following video was shot by Susan Gibbs at the Rally for School Choice yesterday. The video features Ryan Washington, an 8th Grader at St. Augustine School here in the District.
Today I welcome our guest blogger Alice Culbreth, Director of Christian Formation at St. Peter Church in Waldorf, to share her WYD experience.
Rome. Toronto. Cologne. Sydney. It’s hard to believe that I’m starting to prepare for my (and our parish’s) 5th World Youth Day Pilgrimage (to Madrid, Spain in 2011). After Rome in 2000, I really wanted to believe myself when I said “never again”:). It is, by all worldly, physical and even emotional standards, a difficult journey to undertake. While the spiritual benefits are amazing, far-reaching and life-changing, could any pilgrimage top the mountain-top experience of being in Rome during the new millennium and jubilee year? Was it possible to embrace my faith at any deeper level then when I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica through the Jubilee Door for the very first time or kneeled at the tomb of the one whom Jesus handed the Keys of the Kingdom to? And even if my spiritual life was nourished and nurtured beyond expectations , would it be worth the hardships endured?
Almost 10 years and 4 World Youth Days later, I answer with a resounding “YES”. Whatever struggles, sacrifices and significant occurrences of sleep deprivation have been offered up in prayerful humility, I would do it all again. While there have been many lessons learned along the way, I wouldn’t change the dynamics of these incredible walks with the Lord. I have been witness to emerging vocations, friendships formed beyond the language barrier, deepened prayer lives, embracing of the sacramental life of the Church, defining moments when our youth have come to the recognition that not only is it “cool to be Catholic”, but an honor and privilege as well. What a blessing
it has been for me to be part of this!
I am so honored to have been called to help guide this young Church in their formation and lead them to friendship with Jesus Christ. Being part of World Youth Day over the years has inspired me tremendously as I have seen the hope of our faith in the faces and shared prayers of these young people. Being part of their enthusiasm, deep faith and commitment to the Gospel recharges my own spiritual batteries and reaffirms my own commitment to ministry in the Church. If I had time (and the space in this blog, LOL) I would write about each one of these journeys and share the experience with you! But this needs to ‘come to an end’ at least for now.
We’re just about two years away from Madrid in 2011 and on behalf of the Office of Youth Ministry, your parish is invited to join us on this exciting spiritual adventure. The office is already accepting deposits and we’re incredibly enthusiastic about the amount of time we will have to do fundraising before the actual trip. The pilgrimage begins in Fatima, Portugal and ends in Lourdes, France, with many stops at holy sites and shrines in cities throughout Spain. If you’re interested in learning more about this opportunity, contact the Office of Youth Ministry at 202-281-2466. Additionally, if you would like a team of adults/youth who have lived the WYD experience to come and talk to your parish about the why and how of participating, let the office know when you call.
Praying that you will continue to be open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in your
lives, hearts and ministries.
Grace and Peace,
Director of Christian Formation
St. Peter Church – Waldorf
The times in which we live are often described as “secular.” This word comes from the Latin “saecula” meaning “world.” Hence our modern age is quite worldly. We may think it has always been so but such is not the case. To be sure, it IS the human condition to be a little preoccupied with ourselves. But previous times have featured a much more religious focus than our own. The Middle Ages were especially known for way in which faith permeated the culture and daily experience. The Rose window to the right presents a typically Medieval Notion: Christ (the Lamb of God) at the center and everything surrounding Him. In those days the holidays were the HOLYdays and one’s understanding of the calendar and the time of year centered around the Church’s calendar of saints and feasts. It wasn’t Winter it was advent, and then Christmastide. Even the word Christmas was ChristMASS. Halloween was the “Een (evening before) all Hallows (All Saints Day). Three times every day the Church bells rang the “Angelus” calling Catholics to a moment of prayer in honor of the incarnation. The Bells also rang summoning Catholics to Mass and vespers. In a previous article in this blog (By Their Buildings You Will Know Them) it was noted that even the architecture of the Middle Ages placed a large church at the center of every town: Those days were not perfect days but they were more spiritual and the Christians everywhere were constantly reminded of the presence of God by the culture in which they lived. Seldom so today. Many people today almost never hear of God on a day to day basis.
But the truth is, God is everywhere. He indwells his creation and sustains every aspect of it. The Scriptures say that Jesus hold all creation together in himself (Col 1:17). Most people think of creation as a sort of machine or closed system in which we live. But that is not the case. Creation is a revelation of and experience of God’s love and providence. Not one leaf falls to the ground without God leading it there. Not one hair of our head is unknown and provided for by God. We are enveloped by God, caught up into his presence.
It is especially sad for young people today. Some of us who are a bit older remember a time when God was more recognized. I remember that we prayed every day in my PUBLIC school until I was in 6th grade. I remember my 4th grade teacher often reminding me when I got out of line: “God is Watching!” I remember when Christmas (not “winter holidays”) in School was actually celebrated and that we sang religious songs even in public school well into my High School years. I remember our public high school choir singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and many songs with religious subjects. Can you imagine a public school choir singing today “O let us adore Him, Christ the Lord” ? Gone are the days.
But we need to teach and help our young people get in touch with God’s presence. The culture today will seldom help them. Deacon Curtis in the post below has encouraged us to return to “public displays of affection” for God along with other things such as grace at meals. It is essential, as our world becomes even more secular, to intentionally “put” God in our day. There is a website LIFE AFTER SUNDAY that is dedicated to assisting in this very thing. I recommend it to your attention.
Here too is a video for young people reminding them that God is near, not far. It’s a toe-tapper with a message: