Repenting of the Failure of Parish-Based Catechesis: Time for An Old Idea
Nice doesn’t mean good teaching and we urgently need some good teaching.
By Barbara R. Nicolosi, May 29, 2013
[Republished with author’s permission. Original source: Patheos Catholic]
“How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him?” (1 Sam 16)
“Who can name the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?” It was Pentecost, and our pastor was walking up and down the middle aisle with a goofy grin and tone that said, “Bear with me, here.” There were a few embarrassed chuckles from the congregants who hadn’t already tuned out. Father pressed on, “Come on, anybody?” Again, the people dutifully and lightly snickered. This was supposed to be the funny set up of some point, right? I didn’t think it was funny at all. I raised my hand.
I think our pastor was a little put out because he really hadn’t intended for anyone to speak up. He made a comical face and then said, “Really?” The people laughed. Still grinning but with his hands on his hips, Father nodded at me, “Okay, let’s hear it.” So, I answered using the WUCKPuFF formula I had learned back in the third grade from Sr. Mary Randall, RSM. “Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Piety, Fortitude, Fear of the Lord.” (Probably because I am a child of the Sixties, I prefer the word “Reverence” to “Fear of the Lord,” but WUCKPuFR just doesn’t work as well as a mnemonic.)
People gasped. Father approached our pew actually shocked. He was intrigued and, I guess, figured maybe I had gotten lucky. “Stand up and say them again. Slower.” So, I did. And then our priest looked around and pointed at me and people applauded. Like I had done something extraordinary. Like I had said something brilliant. Like I was some kind of theological nerd, instead of just a fellow disciple in the pew, delineating something so catechetically pedestrian that seven-year-olds should know it before we ever think of placing the Eucharist in their little mouths. I would have been much more impressive explaining the meaning of all the gifts but Father clearly didn’t want to go that far with his little trivia moment.
At the Sign of Peace, an older woman behind me shook my hand and leaned in conspiratorially. She said with a touch of bravado, “I knew Piety.” I had to force myself not to grimace in dismay. “Peace be with you,” I rejoined.
If I was pastor of this parish, and only one person in the pews could name the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, I would reorient my entire preaching calendar for the next seven months. And every month for the next seven would be on one of the Gifts. I would drill it in at every Sunday Mass until the whole parish would know in depth and forever, what God’s life in us means, that is, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Looking around the church as Father moved on to whatever his point was—it certainly wasn’t the scandal of religious ignorance—I thought to myself, “Was the Baltimore Catechism really so bad? Really?”
It’s long past time for the Catholic Church in the United States to acknowledge and address the fact that in many, possibly most, dioceses, parish-based catechesis has been an abject failure. In the vaunted Year of Faith, it should sting all of our leaders and pastors that few of the ever-dwindling percentage of Catholics in the pews on a Sunday morning could pass a basic catechetical quiz. How many Gen X Catholics could name one of the precepts of the Church or recall any one set of the Mysteries of the Rosary? How many of our teenagers could list all Ten Commandments? How many First Communicants could recite the Acts of Faith or Hope, or name the Seven Sacraments? The terrible, tragic, and fundamental truth for 21st-century Catholicism is, not many!
It’s beyond my scope here to say how devastating and even cruel it is for the Church Militant to perpetuate Her systemic failure in this area. Ignorance leads to suffering. Religious ignorance leads to eternal death.
We are awash in a broader culture of banality, ugliness, and stupidity, and we have several generations of disciples who are completely incapable of coping with it because of their double ignorance of their faith. Double ignorance, from Plato, means they don’t know, and they don’t know that they don’t know.
I’ll stipulate that there are some exceptions—parishes here and there that are handing on the faith well and forming solid little disciples. But they are the great exception and we can’t let the fact of their existence derail the urgent discussion of what we have to do about rest.
About a month ago, a convert friend called me with pained concern in her voice. “Caitlin has been going to St. Charles’ religious education program for more than a year now. She is supposed to make First Communion, but we are worried because she doesn’t know anything.” This news hit me hard. This was a family that had been catechumens in a RCIA program that I created in Hollywood for people in the entertainment industry who were coming into the Church. Caitlin, her mother and father and her little sister Laurie, were all accepted into the Church a few years ago, and now they were dealing with the scandal of banal catechesis. I agreed to meet with eight-year-old Caitlin.
It was shocking what she didn’t know, especially because St. Charles was going to let her receive First Communion in this state of unknowing. She didn’t know what Original Sin is. She didn’t know the difference between a mortal and venial sin or of what an examination of conscience should consist. She didn’t know what grace is, or what the Trinity is, or what we mean by the Holy Eucharist. As a result of all this unknowing, Caitlin hated going to Church and thought the religious education classes she associated with the Church were boring and stupid.
So I told Caitlin’s mother that I would meet with her and her daughter for an hour every Saturday for the next three months. We started with, “Who made you?” and “What can we know about God from the world?” and then, “Why did God make you?” and “How does God talk to you?” and we’ll be moving on according to the brilliant and sturdy structure of the Baltimore Catechism. Lord knows, by the time we’re done, this could probably earn the little girl an honorary doctorate from the sorry, intellectual vacuum that is catechesis in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
We have a problem in the Church in the U.S. We need to suppress the impulse to defend the indefensible, because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the lovely people who have been pulled in to teach the Faith in all our parishes. They are lovely, and God will bless them for their sacrifices. But, in my experience, nice doesn’t mean good teaching and we urgently need some good teaching.
Teaching is an art. It is a craft. It can be a profession. It is something people go to universities to learn how to do. There are two key aspects to being an effective teacher. The first is to know your subject. The second is to know how to communicate, translate, and “make enthralling,” your subject.
Most parish DREs find their religious education teachers from the rolls of the parents who have kids in the programs. Over and over through my years in the “corporate Church,” I encountered people teaching the Faith who had no pedagogical training and little if any theology. The various dioceses count heavily on their one- or two-day religious education congresses to get their catechists up to speed, but it is an absurd expectation. You can’t make theologians and educators out of people in a day. Typically, the highlight of these conferences for the attendees is the exhibit hall where they swoop all over booths of Catholic publishers and purveyors of holy hardware, looking frantically for tools that they can use in their classes. Talk about setting people up for failure!
The sad reality of parish-based catechesis in most places is that it’s boring, lightweight, irrelevant drivel for the kids, and frustration and embarrassment for the catechists.
First Proposal: Recommit to Content and Rigor
I got into teaching RCIA because I had two converts who were in graduate programs in engineering and I couldn’t find a parish program that wasn’t insultingly banal. I didn’t want us to lose them because what they found in the Church was so much dumber than what they found at UCLA. I sat in on RCIA classes at three different local parishes before I despaired of finding a good program and decided to teach them myself.
You think I’m kidding about how dumb these parish programs are? I have seen sessions that SNL would reject as being too ridiculous. Oh, the humanity!
Not long ago, my husband and I attended a mandatory two-hour session at a local parish, for parents with new babies and their corresponding godparents-to-be. There were about fifty of us in the hall and the main miracle of the evening was that none of us left the Church for another religion during the course of the evening. It was dreadful! Instead of helping us understand and value the glorious baptismal ritual, the three “team leaders” wasted our time asking us to decorate little white cloth dresses with colors and pictures that made us think of God. They told stupid stories about when their babies were born and embarrassing moments they had seen at baptisms. There was a long, awful period in which every pregnant couple got to explain the name they had for their baby. Almost none had chosen a patron saint’s name. And why would they? No one on the “team” suggested it as a good idea!
The evening was a well-intentioned, dumbed down, idiotic mess that was a waste for everyone who had crawled out of their offices and homes and missed dinner. I hated how the much-needed opportunity to prepare these parents and god-parents was squandered. We don’t have time for this!
I get that the Baltimore Catechism by itself isn’t enough. But it doesn’t follow that it isn’t very good. Because it is — especially for children who need to be sponging up and storing as many concepts as we can give them as resources for their future lives. What is infuriating in so many of these terribly banal parish programs is that they may say little truths, but their whole subtext is a giant lie. The lie is that the Catholic Faith, that Christianity, is a boring, irrelevant unreasoned cacophony of old dogmas and rituals. No! Our Faith is smart! There’s more to it than any of us can ever fully learn morally, spiritually, intellectually, and liturgically. There’s a ton that we need to memorize so as to ruminate over—psalms and lists and parables and turns of phrase and principles.
The reason our parish programs are boring to kids is not because they are too difficult, but because they are too dumb! We need to ask a lot more of our candidates, catechumens, and students. And they will respond to this demand because the truth they find will be worth it.
Second Proposal: Let’s Get Teachers to Teach the Faith
The Church in the U.S. grew and thrived largely due to the efforts of religious brothers and sisters who ran and taught in the parish school system. We don’t have enough nuns anymore, but many areas still have Catholic schools. Let’s drop the Sunday school model and instead have the government school students brought over to the Catholic schools one afternoon a week. Let’s pay the Catholic school teachers to stay an extra two hours one day a week to teach religion. They will know how to teach, and they will know much better what to teach. It would be a thousand percent improvement on what the kids are getting now.
Third Proposal: Recruit Theology and Scripture Majors as Tutors
Let’s pretend that each child is failing religion the way some kids fail math. What do we do for the kids who are failing? Well, good parents find a tutor.
There is a wonderful resource sitting right there in the pews every Sunday that we need to tap. Lots and lots of people have studied theology and Scripture. They are probably right there sitting two rows away, heads down while suffering through some ditty from “Glory and Praise.” I suggest all pastors invite these people to come forward and take on one or two students from the program. We can take some of the money we are blowing on religious ed programs and give it as a small stipend to these folks.
This one-on-one or one-to-two approach will be especially effective with older kids and RCIA students. The parish’s role should move from teaching the kids to coordinating the tutors. The parish can vet the tutors and set the standards for what the students need to know. The tutors can meet with the kids at whatever time is best for all and when the students are ready, the mentors can present them to the pastor for scrutiny. This method will allow the students and tutors to cover a lot more material in a much more powerful way. Their interactions will be more sharings than classes, and the student will be constantly engaged in relating the truths being discussed to their own lives.
Also, the truth is, learning the Faith is different than learning algebra. It is a more personal kind of learning that is ill-suited to classroom rote. Some candidates learn faster. Some catechumens can take in more abstract concepts. Some are going to respond better to exhortation and others to parables. All are going to need to share what they are hearing and what it means to them. The tutorial model is better at this than the group of unruly government school kids in a classroom model.
Some of the people out there in the pews will be experts in Scripture. Some will know a lot about moral theology and ethics. Some will have more to say about liturgy or ecclesial history. The new job of the DRE will be to coordinate these tutors and utilize them with a couple of students several months every year or so.
How about that, for asking people to be real disciples? This will create lasting bonds of friendship and discipleship in the parish. Those who are taught will feel gratitude and will move on to becoming tutors themselves. It would be a great, great thing for a parish.
I am speaking from personal experience here. Our Hollywood RCIA program is very rigorous and demanding. We not only require an hour or two of catechism study every week, but we usually stipulate two Catholic novels be read a month during the program. We read directly from the documents of Vatican II, and regularly work in other texts on moral theology, history, and Scripture. It’s almost too much for the learners but the powerful subtext they absorb is that the Catholic faith is rich and deep and much, much smarter than you are. This tutorial model works very well with the catechumens and candidates, and always draws in twice as many people because they start to bring their spouses and friends and co-workers to sit in. And, of course, it has been great for my soul.
When I have addressed this matter in public, it always evokes the response that the problem in our religious education programs is not the parishes but in the parents and families. It is certainly true that parents should be the primary educators in the faith. But they can’t now, can they? Let’s be real. You can’t give what you don’t have, and we have two or three generations of parents now who know next to nothing about their faith. A big plus of the “living room catechesis” model is that it draws the parents in. They will naturally be part of it, and they will learn along with their kids.
We have to stop the madness. We have to stop lying about how bad this problem is because we don’t want to cause a stir and hurt feelings. The Church in the 21st-century is dying of a malaise that comes from ignorance. People aren’t praying because they don’t know anything about God. They aren’t evangelizing because they don’t know what they have to share. Hurt feelings are not the worst thing that can happen to a religion.
“But when the Son of Man comes, will there be any faith left on earth?”
Barbara Nicolosi is the Executive Director of The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University and an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Azusa Pacific University and at Pepperdine University. She blogs at The Church of the Masses.
Becoming Catholic in 34 Weeks… When You Really Mean It
By Barbara R. Nicolosi, July 10, 2013
[Republished with author’s permission. Original source: Patheos Catholic]
It’s actually encouraging and discouraging both at the same time. Ever since I wrote this, I have been getting a steady stream of inquiries about the contents of the RCIA program that we use with our Hollywood converts. It’s encouraging how many people want to find a smarter, more cohesive and rigorous program of introduction to Catholicism. It’s discouraging how many people find the offerings at their local parish pathetic, banal and disappointing. For posterity’s sake – and in hopes that it will cut down on the emails – I am posting the curriculum here.
It’s probably obvious that this program is both rigorous and demanding of the candidates/catechumens and the instructors. We tell the students to plan on an hour or two of reading every week and sometimes more. We count on the students feeling over-whelmed as that seems to make for a better preparation for prayer than the way a banal program would leave them feeling superior.
There are a whole bunch of sub-texts to this kind of program which the students hopefully absorb and generally start saying out loud by week three.
– “Wow, the Catholic faith is a lot smarter than I am.”
– “I could spend my whole life and not get to the bottom of the Church’s moral theology, or Her spirituality, or Her liturgy, or Her Biblical hermeneutics, or Her ecclesiology, or Her Christology or Her epistemology, etc. etc. etc.”
– “There isn’t anything I could wrestle with that the Church doesn’t have a lot to say about in Her ordinary or extraordinary Magisterium, or in the writings of Her saints and scholars.”
– “Who knew there were great storytellers who were Catholic?”
– “Everything Jesus gave us is saving. And none of it is superfluous.”
– “Catholic prayer is brilliant.”
One lovely gent from the UK wrote me to ask for the syllabus. After I sent it, he wrote me back and said, “Could you please send the instructor along with the syllabus?” It’s a good point. This program requires a teacher who has studied theology, philosophy and Scripture, and who knows and loves the great literature written by Catholics. The reading is more of a survey, but the lessons absolutely need to drill down into making dogma matter in the lives of the students.
It looks imposing, but it really is a blast, in the best possible sense of that. The students tend to love the classes and, by the end of the program, there is always a deep bond between everyone who has sat in the room all year. I can’t conceive of anyone going through this exercise without discovering a whole new life. A better one.
Hollywood RCIA Program
Created by Barbara R. Nicolosi, M.A.
Program Goals: A presentation of the basic theology and spirituality of the Catholic Church using classic texts and literature. To set the seeker on the journey of faith with humility through awareness of the richness of thought with which the Catholic Church protects the deposit of faith.
– The Catholic Study Bible, ed. John Senior
– The Catechism of the Catholic Church – (CCC) – Get the big green version
– Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Declarations, Decrees, ed. Flannery, (VCII)
– Triumph: The History and Glory of the Catholic Church, by Crocker
– The Christian Idea of Man, by Josef Pieper
– Brideshead Revisited, by Eveyln Waugh
– The Lord, by Roman Guardini
– Introduction to the Devout Life, by Francis De Sales
– The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
– The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
– The Inferno, by Dante
– Silence, by Shusaku Endo
– The Reed of God, Caryll Houslander
– Handouts will include: “The Grand Inquisitor,” (by Dostoevsky, from The Bros Karamazov) “A Temple of the Holy Spirit” and “Revelation” (Two short stories by Flannery O’Connor), “The Four Ways to God” (by Benedict Groeschel from Spiritual Passages)
#1 – ORIENTATION/INTRODUCTION – THE BEATITUDES
Reading: Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5:1-12
#2 – FAITH and PRAYER IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Reading: CCC 27-49, 142-175, 2558-2565, 2626-2643, 2697-2745
To learn: The Glory Be, The Morning Offering
#3 – “THAT CATHOLIC THING”
Reading: Brideshead Revisited
#4 – THE NATURE AND SPIRITUAL CONDITION OF THE HUMAN PERSON
Reading: CCC 355-379, 1700-1709, 1730-1742; Handout: Revelation by Flannery O’ Connor
For journal: “Why do I do the things I hate?”
#5 – THE NATURE OF THE HUMAN PERSON, PT. II
Reading: The Christian Idea of Man
For journal: What is a human person? How is a human person distinct from animals?
#6 – SCRIPTURE IN CATHOLIC LIFE
Reading: Vatican II, “Dei Verbum, CCC 50-141
For journal: How has God spoken to me personally through His Word?
#7 – THE TRINITY / GOD THE FATHER
Reading: CCC 238-256 (for memorization: #266); Handouts: from Fr. Groeschel’s Psychology
and Spirituality; The Book of Job
#8 – GOD AS REVEALED IN THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES; COMMANDMENTS 1-3
Reading: Bible, Wisdom, Song of Solomon; CCC 2083-2188
For journal: What is the name that God gives me?
#9 – JESUS CHRIST – Part I
Reading: CCC 430-463; The Lord, Chapters 1-12
For journal: “And you, who do you say that I am?”
#10 – JESUS CHRIST – Part II
Reading: CCC 464-560, The Lord, Chapters 13-17
#11 – JESUS CHRIST – Part III
Reading: CCC 561-679, The Lord, Chapter 17 – end
For journal: Which metaphor of Christ (ie. Good Shepherd, Light of the World, Sheepgate, Bread of Life, The Vine, Divine Physician, Way, Truth, Life) speaks the most to me and why?
#12 – THE HOLY SPIRIT AND GRACE
Reading: CCC 687-741, 1830-1832; “Temple of the Holy Spirit” by Flannery O’Connor
To learn: The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit
#13 – THE CHURCH, PT. I
Reading: Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – Vatican II);
To Learn: The Precepts of the Church
#14 – CHURCH, PT. II: HIERARCHY, APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION, INFALLIBILE
Reading: CCC 748-870, 1996-2005, 2041-2043
#15 – THE SACRAMENTS OF BAPTISM AND CONFIRMATION
Reading: CCC 1210-1216, 1229-1274, 1285-1314;
For journal: What can confirmation mean in your life? What will make the difference in what it
could mean, and what it will mean?
#16 – MAN AND THE NATURAL LAW
Reading: The Abolition of Man, by CS Lewis
#17 – THE CLASSICAL AND THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES
Reading: CCC 1803-1829; Handout from Pieper “The Four Virtues”
#18 – CONSCIENCE, EVIL AND SIN
Reading: CCC 309-314, 385-412, 1846-1869; Man’s Search for Meaning
To commit to memory: types of sin and conditions necessary for serious (mortal) sin
For journal: What kind of a person would I have become as a prisoner in Auschwitz?
#19 – TEMPTATION
Reading: “The Grand Inquisitor,” from The Brothers Karamazov
#20 – COMMANDMENTS 4, 5, 7 and 8 / ON RESPECT FOR AUTHORITY, MURDERING, STEALING AND LYING
Instructor: Barbara Nicolosi Harrington
Reading: CCC 2197-2246, 2258-2317, 2401-2449, 2464-2503
#21 – HOLY MASS AND EUCHARIST, PT. I
Reading: Vatican II “Sacrosanctum Concilium;”
#22 – HOLY MASS, PT II
Reading: CCC 1322-1405; Handout from Spirit of the Liturgy
#23 – SACRAMENTS OF VOCATION I: MATRIMONY AND HUMAN SEXUALITY (COMMANDMENTS 6, 9, 10)
#24 – SACRAMENTS OF HEALING: PENANCE AND ANOINTING OF THE SICK
Reading: CCC 1434-1439; CCC 1422-1424, 1440-1470, 1499, 1511-1525;
To learn: The Act of Contrition (see p. 191 in the Compendium)
For journal: What is it that tempts you? How do you respond to temptation? How do I
understand the sacrament of reconciliation?
#25 – SACRAMENTS OF VOCATION II: PRIESTHOOD / RELIGIOUS LIFE
Reading: CCC 1536, 1572-1584; The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
For journal: Is God calling me to priesthood or religious life? Why or why not? (If you are
married, how can you help others who might be discerning a religious or priestly vocation?)
#26 – SUFFERING
Reading: Silence, by Endo
#27 – The Last Things: DEATH, JUDGMENT, HEAVEN, HELL / PURGATORY Reading: CCC 988-1014, 1020-1050; “The Inferno” from The Divine Comedy by Dante
#28 – CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING I (Bioethics / Life Issues)
Reading: CCC 1877-1948; Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church – Vatican II)- Preface, Introduction, Part I, Part II (chapters 1 and 2)
#29 – CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING II (Economic/Political Systems, Environmental
Stewardship, Nuclear Weapons, etc.)
Reading: Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church – Vatican II)
– Part II, chapters 3-5; Conclusion
#30 – THE LAY APOSTOLATE
Reading: Vatican II, “Apostolicam Actuositatem”
#31 – INTRODUCTION TO THE DEVOUT LIFE
Reading: Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis De Sales
#32 – BEAUTY AND STORY IN THE LIFE OF THE DISCIPLE
Reading: Handouts from Maritain and Pieper
#33 – CHURCH HISTORY: The “Dark Ages,” the Orthodox Split, Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo Incident, and Reformation
#34 – SAINTS AND THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Reading: The Reed of God; CCC 954-975