9

I Don’t Need your Catechism!

A couple of years ago, a pastor asked me to provide a catechetical training day for teachers in his Catholic school and CCD program. One of my first questions to him was what issues had developed that required my assistance. The Pastor voiced to me his concern over poor doctrinal formation he suspected the children were receiving. I asked him how he finally came to this point. He said, “I knew things were off when all I saw was glue, crayons, construction paper and scissors during an eighth grade religion class.” Right there and then I realized what I had to work with.

The inevitable day arrived. As the catechists walked into the parish center, we began with prayer and introductions.  I typically begin with a short story reflecting on the catechetical formation for the day. This process helps to gauge the audience and determine when to run when they have had enough. Kidding aside, the first segment involved preparing them for the day, the aim of the instruction — its purpose and goals, their desires, and application for the classroom. A good strategy when teaching teachers is not to patronize them. They are teachers and know everything. I know; I am one of them. In reality, the heart of instruction here lies with an authentic witness of the living Gospel of Jesus Christ in a gradual loving way.

Knowing that many teachers resort to arts and crafts because of a genuine fear and ignorance in teaching the Catholic faith to students I began the training by asking the catechists for the one thing they would like to know about the faith, the one thing they still had questions on. After a subtle pause (pretty typical) hands were raised. The questions asked centered on sin, true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, confession, purgatory, Mass participation, is the Church biblical?, Mary, how to read the bible, other religions, etc. My next question to them was why they wanted to know about these particular doctrines. Their response was nothing short of amazing.  They did not know how these particular teachings came to be! Keep in mind, these catechists are supposedly teaching children the Catholic faith. Right there and then I realized we needed to start at the very beginning: Do you believe in God the Father the almighty?

If the teachers do not have a sound understanding of how their live reflect the Gospel, let alone living within the Story of Salvation, then how are they going to impart the story to their students?  Hence, the focal point of the problem we face in the catechetical field. Our catechists lack basic doctrinal formation. I charted a different course of action realizing that this group needed a systematic engaging approach to learn and apply Catholic doctrine in the classroom.

The result was a mini-RCIA course where I went through Salvation History and presented to them their role in light of Jesus Christ the Divine Teacher (Heb 11:6). In other words, they needed to see how the Church came to be, their role within the Church, and the graces given to us by Christ at Baptism to continue His work in the Church He founded. A basic outline of the curriculum for this training session looked something like this:

  1. Introduction to God’s plan for salvation in our lives.
  2. Creation and God’s love for us.
  3. Original Sin and the fall from grace because of the first sin.
  4. Proto-evangelium (First Gospel)
  5. God’s covenants with his people i.e. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses
  6. The role of our Blessed Mother as the “New Eve.”
  7. Summary on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture
  8. Summary on Apologetics
  9. Summary of the Seven Sacraments
  10. Summary of the Ten Commandments
  11. Summary of Mortal Sin and Venial Sin
  12. The Incarnation
  13. Liturgy and the Mass
  14. The Church
  15. Lives of the Saints
  16. The Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Apostles Creed.

It was important the catechists saw the biblical basis for these doctrinal pillars. In addition, they needed to become conversant with how the Catechism references the teachings of the Church through the footnotes. A short primer on how to use the Catechism of the Catholic Church and view the references, cross-references, and article numbers to find a particular teaching gave the catechists a better grasp of the information.

This experience is common. A generation of uncatechized faithful over the past thirty-years has drifted throughout their Catholic life not knowing the graces they received through their Baptism. The recitation of our Baptismal promises appears as an afterthought to many. Since we are asked within the Rite of Baptism, “Do you reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises? Do you reject sin… and refuse to be mastered by sin?” it behooves us to ask the question to these teachers whether they truly understand what sin is in order to reject it.

When I posed this very question to one of the teachers in the training session, the response was a common one: “Why do we need to concentrate on sin, it is more important to focus on the works of Jesus?” Do you see where this particular catechist has quietly misaligned the purpose of Christ and His Church. Whether its ignorance, issues with the doctrine of sin, or a personal experience initiating this response, the opportunity to discuss the nature of sin was important, but difficult. Now, we must be careful when discussing the doctrine of sin from this pastoral perspective: we do not know what the person has gone through personally, where a certain sinful act may have caused negative, spiritual harm or drawn out a bad experience. It is vital that catechists or trainers of catechists be carefully aware of the audience they are instructing. However, we cannot shy away from addressing the dangers of sin itself.

Another teacher, noting her frustration in sitting through what was, in her opinion, a dreadful class said these magic words:You can keep your catechism! How do you expect me to apply it in the classroom?

This brave soul echoed the sentiments of others who had resisted on using the Catechism in the classroom. This “shot heard around the classroom,” reflected the genuine mentality of many teachers, viewing the Catechism as a useless tool probably because it  did not provide pictures for the kids to “color” and “cut-out.”  This comment troubled me because of an apparent ignorance towards the application or appreciation of the Catechism. There is legitimacy to the argument that it is not the teachers’ fault. From one perspective, this may be true; nonetheless, it does not negate the fact of what we are dealing with now. St. Augustine — the Father of Catechetics — describes catechizing the ignorant in this way:

The best method for instructing ignorant men in Christian doctrine, one that will bear much fruit is to ask questions in a friendly fashion after the explanation; from this questioning one can learn whether each one understood what he heard or whether the explanation needs repeating. In order that the learner grasp the matter, we must ascertain by questioning whether the one being catechized has understood, and in accordance with his response, we must either explain more clearly and fully or not dwell further on what is known to them etc. But if a man is very slow, he must be mercifully helped and the most necessary doctrines especially should be briefly imparted to him.

As the Catechist trainer in this situation, you cannot scold nor demean these individuals. In many ways, ignorance is rooted in their responses due to a lack of formation. Thus, a gentle but firm disposition serves us well in this type of situation because we do not want to lose them.  Our hope rests in a genuine conversion for these teachers (1 Pt 3:15). The “you can keep your catechism” statement by the teacher mentioned earlier should not detract anyone from teaching the faith. My call for this person was to help her find God. An opportunity arose to present the Gospel, reveal the importance of Christ in our lives and provide her with an open opportunity to seek Him.

It is very important that the catechist reveal the relevance of doctrine in the lives of the faithful. Our faith is naturally explicit (1 Thess 2:13) because God has made Himself visible through His Church. Man naturally seeks what is visible and revealed. For instance, when we are able to observe and recognize a moral act the exercise of the doctrinal action takes effect on our senses. We are able to witness doctrine exercised.  The liturgy — a public work — provides a visible reality of the existence of faith and the exercise of doctrine.

By the end of the day, the teachers who survived my training session realized in a small way the necessity of teaching doctrine to children. The success of the day came not by how much doctrine I could expose them to, it was helping them realize how little they knew about the faith and what to do about. Not only for their souls but also for the souls of the children they teach.

The religion instructor must be prepared to proclaim the truth of the Catholic Church. His/her responsibility is to aid the development of the person they are instructing by explaining Church teaching carefully and appropriately through a careful transmission rooted in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The opening to nourishing a soul in Catholic doctrine must be convincing so the person applies these doctrines to everyday life. The need for the Catechism of the Catholic Church is more relevant than ever if we genuinely desire to impart the Catholic faith. Our duty and responsibility is to answer the questions our students have. Clarity of truth is primary in our instruction. And the Catechism gives us clarity of truth if we just use it.


Marlon De La Torre, MA, MEd. is the Director of Catechist Formation and Children's Catechesis for the  Diocese of Fort Worth. Over the last fifteen years Marlon has served in multiple catechetical diocesan positions in Memphis and Kansas City. He is regular guest on the "Sonrise Morning Show" with Brian Patrick and Matt Swaim.  His new book is Screwtape Teaches the Faith: A Guide for Catechists based on The Screwtape Letters and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His EWTN discussion about the book with Fr. Mitch Pacwa is here


  • Fr. Fizzlewit

    Perhaps we don’t want to lose folks who have exercised the generosity to endeavor to teach, but, in the interest of our children really being taught what they need for their salvation, when a would-be teacher expresses such sentiments as expressed in the title of this article they should (albeit gently) be taken off-line until they “get it.”

    • Marlon De La Torre

      Fr. Fizzlewit,

      You make a valid point. The classroom in all respect should not be used as “the” instrument for a catechist to embrace the Catechism at the catechetical expense of the children being instructed. Hence the need for sound catechetical instruction and formation for all catechists

      In Christ the Divine Teacher,

      Marlon De La Torre

      • bonzerdad

        The only thing I would like to point out is that simply to put a question bluntly doesn’t make anyone an incompetent teacher. Nor do blunt answers.

        Case in point one of my religion teachers, Father Hennesy freshman year in high school. My smart-ass query: If God’s all powerful why can’t he make a boulder so big he can’t lift it?

        Answer: that question doesn’t make any sense at all; Break it down and you’re left with why can’t God be God and not be God at the same time.

        General laughter.

        Father Hennesy sharply: Don’t laugh! I didn’t say it was a stupid question, it’s not. I said that at bottom it doesn’t make sense. Thomas Aquinas thought it’s a good enough question to be worth answering in the Summa.

        Then , when class ended he drew me aside and said, “I see you’re reading Hemingway. You know he once said somewhere that what every writer needs is a good built-in bullshit detector. That’s where a thing called logic helps, detecting bullshit. You looked like you enjoyed my answer. You might want to think about taking a course in it in college.”

        He died the following summer in a car accident and I have missed his wisdom and personality now for about 50 years. I took his advice BTW.

  • elm

    In the group setting, I just introduce the Catechism as the “Catholic Answers” book. I’m never ashamed to answer a question with, “I don’t know. Let’s look it up in the Catechism.”

    • Marlon De La Torre

      Elm,

      Well said.

      In Christ the Divine Teacher,

      Marlon De La Torre

  • philosopher

    Thank you for the description of your teaching those who teach our children. I guess I am not shocked by what you say as I have witnesses for 30 plus years those who teach the faith, but have not a clue to what they are teaching. I have found that approaching the issues from a corrective frame of mind does not work in most cases as any correction is seen as ‘divisive’, a word that now brings nausea to my constitution. I have instead begun to realize that flooding myself with the beauty of the truth, letting is seep into my every cell and letting that same beauty flow from everything I do or say, somehow stirs more in those I try to educate in the faith. Being able to describe the truth with passion comes from being passionate, being in love with the truth myself. Yet it can not be simply intellectual, it must be deeply inbedded in my heart and somehow the Holy Spirit just brings about occasions to teach the faith. It is an awesome business, well worth the effort and the rejections that come.

    • Marlon De La Torre

      Philosopher,

      Your approach is noteworthy as it mirrors the practices of the Church Fathers. Our authentic witness of the faith is tantamount in stirring a sense of conversion in the hearts and minds of the faithful.

      In Christ the Divine Teacher,

      Marlon De La Torre

  • fatherjoseph

    I have printed this article out and will give it to every religious educator in the parish. I have said for a long time, we have unqualified teachers teaching in our religious education program and the teaching methods are truly suspect. There are many that do great work in religious teaching, but, lately, our instructions within the faith has certainly diminished.
    Thank you for the great article and as for the lady who stated she “didn’t need your catechism”; in the words of Donald Trump: Good Lady, you are fired!

    • Marlon De La Torre

      Fr, Joseph,

      Thank you for your conituned efforts to catechize the faithful and your affirmation of my article. I am glad it will be put to good use.
      If you need any further information/resources feel free to browse through my website: http://www.knowingisdoing.org I will pray for your continued catechetical mission in your parish community.

      In Christ the Divine Teacher,

      Marlon De La Torre

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