A Response to Past Problems in Catechesis

In Friday’s post, we reflected on some of the historical problems related to catechesis and how they have negatively impacted us in the aftermath of the cultural revolution that swept through beginning in the late 1960s. Even prior to that time, some of the strategies and pedagogical philosophies common were problematic in that they tended to remove catechesis entirely from the home, and also focused almost exclusively on the education of children. This left adults (including parents) little opportunity to deepen their own understanding and move to a more mature experience of the faith.

In this second part I present a model for parishes that includes the parents—indeed the whole family—in the catechetical process. I do not propose here an entire curriculum or program. Rather, I suggest a general model that can be adapted as necessary. My proposal is not original and has been presented by others in various forms, generally termed “whole-family catechesis.” I have applied this model in two parishes where I have pastored. In terms of content, the curriculum emphasizes a “back-to-basics” approach that focuses on the fundamental kerygma and its message of sin, redemption, and grace.

Perhaps it is best to begin with a story to serve as background.

About eight years ago, when I was speaking to sixth-grade Sunday school students, I mentioned Adam and Eve. Within a few minutes, it became evident 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 couldn’t provide any details.

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 (DRE) had similar concerns and did not resist my insistence we had to try something new, something radically different.

That “something new” was really “something old” and amounted to a back-to-basics approach that 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 of all our personal sins, then the gift of redemption and the glory of grace are underappreciated—even dismissed—as being of no value. Further, how can people experience Jesus as their Savior if they don’t even think that they need to be saved?

So we have to go back to basics and tell the “old, old stories” again: the stories 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.

In order to avoid the pitfalls discussed in the first part of this article, we chose in my parishes to structure the Sunday school curriculum around the whole family. Sunday school would include the parents as well as the children and any other adults who wished to come. Frankly, the main goal was to teach the parents, who should be the chief educators of their children in the ways of faith. To that end, I drew from a number of home-school curricula such as the “Seton Program,” since they already have a curriculum and resources in place to assist parents.

At the heart of our “whole-family catechesis” approach is a structure in which every grade level is studying the same subject, reading the same Bible stories, and following the same curriculum. While the kids are in Sunday school class, I am out in the cafeteria teaching the same material to the parents.

I teach the parents both method and material. For source material I 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. I give the teachers of the children the Religion 5 for Young Catholics book (Seton Press), in order to help them review the material for each class and make it relevant to younger children. I also teach and review the curriculum with the Sunday school teachers before the beginning of each segment of study, so that they will know what and how I will be teaching the parents.

Each Sunday all the families gather in the school cafeteria for prayer. The children then go to their classrooms while I remain with the parents and other adults in the cafeteria. Once again, at every level (including the adult level), the same subject matter is taught. The only brief exception to this is that the second-grade students spend time after January focusing on preparation for First Confession and First Holy Communion.

In each session we not only cover the subject for that day (e.g., the Sacraments or the Ten Commandments) but we also read a Bible story. One of the great losses in modern times is the loss of storytelling—and the Bible has great stories!

Frankly, standing instruction # 1 for 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 or so reading a Bible story, usually from the Catholic Children’s Bible, which does a good job presenting the whole Bible in story form. Then, having read a story (e.g., the Tower of Babel, or David’s Battle with Goliath), we discuss its teaching and I link it to the catechetical material we are covering in the curriculum.

In modeling this, I hope to show the parents how they can do the same with their children at home. Bible stories are memorable and they 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 to make sense of our glorious faith.

In terms of an overall curriculum, our back-to-basics approach is broken into three main sections. The sections are based on the words of an old hymn that says,

“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 Jan.) – Sin I once was lost in sin” – We start with the story of Original Sin and read the early chapters that show how God made all things to be very good. But through 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 are responsible for 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 between Original Sin, actual sin, mortal sin, venial sin, the seven deadly sins, and so forth. In so doing, we paint of picture of how we are lost in sin. But we always begin with a review of the story of Original Sin.

In some years we then go on to review the Ten Commandments. In other years we use notes from the My Catholic Faith material that explain specific sins (e.g., Original, personal, actual, mortal, and venial).

Part 2 (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, drive out demons, and ultimately ascend the hill of Calvary to engage Satan in battle, suffer, die, rise, and ascend for us. The goal here is to instill a sense of gratitude rather than just to provide information. We strive to “remember,” that is, to have so present in our mind and heart what Jesus has done for us that we are grateful and different because of it. In this module, depending on the year, we study the Sacraments, the public ministry of Jesus, and/or the four pillars of the Christian life (Scripture, active Church life, Sacraments, and prayer) from Acts 2:42 (They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer). And thus we meditate on how the Lord Jesus takes us in and ministers to us.

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 that 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.

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

Its strength is that the entire family is asked to participate. As noted, the real goal is to equip parents to teach their children further at home. In this way the parish acts as a partner rather than seeking to replace the parents in teaching the faith to the children. As pastor I have an obligation to present the truth faith to all. This includes equipping parishioners to hand on the faith and to reach a full, adult (mature) faith. Having every age group present for Sunday school is the fundamental way I seek to accomplish this.

The drawback to this approach is clear: the program is very pastor-driven and pastor-centric. While my director of religious education is very much on board and supportive, who is to say that the next pastor will be willing or able to do the work each year of assembling a curriculum and teaching in the program each Sunday? Further, I have a parish whose size and Mass schedule permit this sort of Sunday morning approach. Not every parish has a sufficient gap between Masses to enable the pastor to be present and teach at that time or to that extent.

Thus this basic model needs to be adapted in different settings based on time and skill sets.

Also, I am unaware of a “spiral curriculum” that currently exists to meet our needs. Thus I have needed to assemble it and find resources working with my DRE.

A “spiral curriculum” refers to one that has all grades studying the same material and centers on the three themes of sin, redemption, and grace in a repeating three-year cycle.

    1. Three-year cycle for sin:
      1. the story of Original Sin and its aftermath,
      2. the Ten Commandments,
      3. and the species of sin.
    2. Three-year cycle for redemption:
      1. the paschal mystery,
      2. liturgy and sacraments,
      3. the ministry and miracles of Jesus.
    3. Three-year cycle for grace:
      1. the gifts of the Holy Spirit,
      2. the fruits of the Holy Spirit,
      3. the species of grace (sanctifying, actual, personal, the charisms, and so forth).

Perhaps another pastor would structure the program differently. But this is my approach and I have tried to teach it to other pastors and DREs. Many have been receptive and have adapted elements of it for their own use.

The key is that the whole family is educated and that parents and other adults must be assisted in their teaching of children.

So, back to basics! No more handing over catechesis to a “professional class.” Religious education must also take place in the home. 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. It’s easily memorized in the words of an 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, and grace. Keep it simple; don’t complicate it. The details may vary each year after the mastery of the basic elements.

Don’t wait for your parish to get on board. If you’re not already a homeschooler, get a children’s Bible and start reading the Genesis stories to your children (and to yourself)!

Here’s a kind of jazzed-up version of the hymn I referred to above. It looks as if it was filmed in the 1970s, so take that into consideration.

4 Replies to “A Response to Past Problems in Catechesis”

  1. Very compelling approach, and I think the story-centric approach is spot on: the Scriptural stories are memory palaces in miniature, acting as a sort of data-compression, “encoding” a lot of information in easily comprehensible narrative form that can be later drawn out and expanded upon in abstract terms. Starting with story, I suspect, is highly effective. Thank you.

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