Last week I enjoyed a great conversation with TL Putnam on the Outside the Wall show. We bounced around a number of topics concerning catechesis and how to form better disciples in the Church today. Listen below:
Last fall I had the pleasure of submitting an article to Catechist magazine exploring the pros and cons of the movement to restore the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for Catholic youth. The article is now online:
At the same time, moving the sacrament of Confirmation to an earlier age is not a panacea for the Church’s evangelization of young people. Simply moving up the age of Confirmation doesn’t address the need to evangelize young people — to proclaim the kerygma, mentor them in a life of faith, and accompany them in their growing relationship with Jesus.
On May 2 our diocesan Office of Catechesis hosted our biannual Parish Catechetical Leaders meeting. We host these gatherings twice a year as an opportunity for fellowship and ongoing formation for DREs, youth ministers, RCIA coordinators, and other parish leaders.
This spring the theme of our meeting was “Education, Formation, and Catechesis.” I gave a presentation on the tasks of catechesis (as found in the General Directory for Catechesis); I’m happy to share the audio and slides of that presentation here:
A few years back I received a question about the appropriateness of students in catechetical programs signing one another on the forehead with holy water at the start of class. The catechist had been told that blessings can only be given by someone who has authority over the person receiving the blessing (e.g., a parent to a child or a bishop to a member of his flock) and wanted to know if this was true.
We need to make a distinction between liturgical blessings and devotional blessings. The former are defined by the Church and set out in ritual texts (such as the Roman Missal or Book of Blessings); the latter are not defined, but should support and and extend the liturgical practices of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1675).
The Catechism says of blessings:
Sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood: every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless. Hence lay people may preside at certain blessings; the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1669)
There is nothing in that explanation that supports a hierarchical notion of blessings of persons over persons; the principle regards the nature of the blessing itself.
So the question then becomes: how concerned with “ecclesial and sacramental life” is a non-liturgical blessing on the forehead with holy water?
The Book of Blessings gives us some guidance. Generally, liturgical blessings over people (“Blessing of the Sick,” “Blessing of a Mother Before Childbirth, “Blessing of Students”) give the option of allowing a lay person to preside if no clergy are present. The text states that
[L]aymen and laywomen, in virtue of the universal priesthood, a dignity they posses because of their baptism and confirmation, may celebrate certain blessings… Such laypersons exercise this ministry in virtue of their office (for example, parents on behalf of their children) or by reason of some special liturgical ministry or in fulfillment of a particular charge in the Church, as is the case in many places with religious or catechists appointed by decision of the local Ordinary. (Book of Blessings, no. 18; emphasis in the original)
Students signing one another with holy water seems in line with the “Blessing of Students.” Given the principles of the Book of Blessings, the ideal would be for the catechist to do the blessings. (And in fact, I think it would be a powerful ritual symbol for a catechist to sign the foreheads of students as they came into the classroom.) But since the signing in question isn’t a liturgical action, but a devotional one, I don’t think there’s anything stopping a catechist from delegating the act of signing to a student. (If it were a liturgical action, such as celebrating the “Blessing of Students” from the Book of Blessings, I’d say the catechist must preside, unless a member of the clergy is present, in which case he would be the proper minister.)
Jared Dees’ new book, Christ in the Classroom: Lesson Planning for the Heart and Mind, beings with a simple premise: long lectures, busywork, and the “read and review” model of religious education are failing to pass on the faith in a meaningful way.
Dees advocates a different approach, beginning with the actual goal of catechesis. While much of modern religious education seeks to transmit theological information, Dees (citing Matthew 28) puts the focus squarely on “making disciples,” a very different task.
To facilitate this goal, Dees utilizes the steps of lectio divina — lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio — and adepts them to catechetical lesson planning. In preparing each lesson catechists are encouraged to lead students towards an encounter with Jesus through a multifaceted learning approach:
- Learn: What does this teaching mean?
- Meditate: What is Christ saying to me?
- Pray: What can I say to Christ in response?
- Contemplate: What conversion of mind, heart, and life is Christ asking of me?
- Act: How will I make my life a gift for others?
The main body of the book is guidance for each of these steps, with specific strategies and lesson ideas outlined. For instance, the contemplatio step suggests using the Jesus Prayer, icons, and Eucharistic Adoration, and music to help students experience a conversion of heart connected to the subject of the lesson.
Jared Dees continues to be one of the most innovative and practical catechetical leaders working today and, like his previous books, Christ in the Classroom is a treasury of advice for new and veteran religion teachers. I highly recommend it for catechists, religion teachers, and catechetical leaders.
NB: I received a free review copy of this book from Ave Maria Press.
Last week I did another short Facebook Live video on our diocesan Office of Catechesis page:
An apprentice is a novice student who learns under the tutelage of a master of an art or craft such as painting, carpentry, or baking. The novice works closely with the master over long periods of time to learn the techniques, skills, and knowledge needed to become a craftsman. In medieval times the novice might even live with the master in order to soak in his lifestyle and daily routine.
Like medieval craftsmen, catechists are called to be formed in their craft. But instead of buildings, bread, or paintings, catechists are crafting disciples of Jesus Christ! Even so, the Church recognizes the links between faith formation and an apprenticeship model.
The Catholic Church in America recently celebrated Catechetical Sunday, an annual celebration of the faithful catechists in our parishes who witness to the faith and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With that in mind, here are five things that all catechists might reflect on about their role:
You are an indispensable tool in passing on the faith. While we are grateful for the variety of excellent textbooks, videos, activities, and other resources at our disposal, ultimately it is disciples that form new disciples. Catechesis occurs person-to-person as catechists model and witness faith in Jesus Christ. As such, the role of the catechist can never be reduced to “reading the book” or “pressing play on the video.”
You help parents in their role as primary evangelizers. While the catechist is indispensable, our mission is first and foremost to assist parents in passing on the faith they promised to share at their children’s baptism. Parents should never feel that they are outsourcing their child’s religious education to the parish or Catholic school. Conversely, we must see the formation of domestic Churches as an integral part of catechesis by giving families concrete resources and practical ways for living the faith in the home.
If your students see Christ’s love in you, you’re doing your job. The personal witness of a catechist is a powerful formation in the faith. Even more than a systematic knowledge of Church teaching (although that is important too!) catechists must pass on a faith that is lived and practiced in the day-to-day routine of our lives. Let Christ’s love shine through you and your students will learn to love and follow Christ.
You and your students are part of the story of salvation. This is one reason catechists must learn to love Sacred Scripture: not only does it reveal the history of salvation, culminating in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but it reminds us that we, too, continue that same history in our own lives. Knowing the stories of biblical figures, the saints, and our families helps us find our place in God’s Kingdom.
The life of a catechist must be rooted in prayer. It is a truism that you cannot give what you do not have. As such, catechists must have a deep, abiding, and joy-filled relationship with Jesus if we hope to pass the same to the young people in our charge. This relationship begins with prayer – especially through the Church’s liturgy – but also in the Rosary, lectio divina, novenas, and other means of fostering an ongoing conversation and living relationship with God.
This column originally appeared in the October 8, 2017, edition of The Catholic Moment.
In an old joke, a visitor to New York City asks someone on the street if they know how to get to Carnegie Hall. After a moment’s thought comes the reply: “Practice, practice, practice.”
We might well give the same response when asked how we get to heaven. While we do not believe that we are saved by our works but by Jesus’ work on the Cross, we are also not Gnostics who believe that knowledge saves. Rather, the life of the disciple is one in which faith is not only known, but lived. Jesus does not call us to a life of isolated study, but to live in community with other disciples, as demonstrated by the early Christians: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
And yet many of our catechetical efforts stress knowledge of the faith over practice of the faith. I suspect that this is one reason during our recent parish visits so many DREs and principals told us, anecdotally, that only around 50% of participants in faith formation and students in Catholic schools are attending Sunday Mass on a regular basis.
In his book Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox, author Joe Paprocki gives the great advice that catechesis and faith formation “should be more like Mass than class.” By that he means the process of forming young people (and adults!) involves more than just reading a book or listening to a lecture. Instead, catechesis involves the whole person and should draw upon familiar rituals, prayers, gestures, the Works of Mercy, hymns, and stories so that connections are made between the content of the faith and the way in which we live the faith, especially in the Sunday Eucharist.
As you catechize this year, consider how your efforts are fostering specific and concrete practices in the life of the faithful. Some questions you might ask:
- Are we simply teaching about faith practices, or are we giving children and adults the tools they need and encouraging them to enact those practices once they are off the parish grounds?
- How are we helping families practice the faith in the home, especially through prayer?
- How can we help members of our community encounter the person of Jesus Christ — to know him and not just know about him?
In January of 2013 I created a video showing a couple of my favorite sites for finding free images to use in presentations, worships aids, and printed materials — without violating copyright laws. The video quickly became one of my most popular on YouTube. Four and a half years later, I’ve created an updated version of the video with more resources to share!