More Than Just Teaching: A Response to Barbara Nicolosi


One of the dangers of taking a break from the blog is the potential for missing something really juicy to write about. Unfortunately this reality befell me when, shortly after my self-imposed blogging hiatus, Barbara Nicolosi posted a long-form piece on Patheos about the state of parish-based catechesis in the Catholic Church. With apologies for being a month late, here are some thoughts about that essay.

In broad strokes, Ms. Nicolosi laments the number of misinformed and seemingly uncatechized Catholics in our pews. She outlines a proposed solution in three steps:

  1. A commitment to “content and rigor”
  2. Paying Catholic school teachers to staff parish-based catechetical programs
  3. Recruiting theology students as tutors

I won’t disagree with Ms. Nicolosi’s view of the situation. She’s pretty spot on about the fact that most Catholics these days couldn’t name the 10 Commandments, let alone the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the precepts of the Church. But I would propose that she is seeking to treat the symptoms and not the illness. Where she sees a deficiency in catechetical knowledge I see a lack of discipleship.

Fundamentally I think Ms. Nicolosi overemphasizes the doctrinal dimension of catechesis to the exclusion of all else. This clashes with the fullness of the Church’s understanding of catechesis. As paragraph 75 of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults reminds us, a complete catechesis consists of not only the doctrines of the Church but also an apprenticeship in prayer, participation in the liturgical life of the Church, and doing the works of mercy. No one of these is singled out as more important than the rest; the assumption seems to be that they are equal pillars of a curriculum designed to lead one to an intimate encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that sound doctrine and knowledge of the Church’s teachings aren’t important. A commitment to the Church’s full understanding of catechesis doesn’t preclude content and rigor. Indeed, I believe it assumes it. But seeking to replicate the modern school model in parish catechesis is not a recipe for discipleship. As Joe Paprocki states so well in his recent book Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox, catechesis should be more like Mass than class.

Beyond this dilution of catechesis to mere information transferal, Ms. Nicolosi dismisses the role of parents in raising young men and women as disciples of Jesus Christ. This not only flies in the face of the Church’s consistent teaching that parents are the first and primary teachers of their children, but I would also argue that a failure to integrate catechesis into family life and focusing on maintaining a once-a-week, 30-weeks-a-year model of catechesis will only perpetuate a failed system that cannot create, grow, or sustain discipleship. Helping parents to catechize their children — especially parents who were themselves the recipients of poor catechesis — may be challenging. But taking the harder path will, I believe, lead to stronger and more dedicated disciples in the long run.

Focusing on discipleship and helping Catholics to deepen their relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ will address the issues Ms. Nicolosi rightly voices. As Matthew Kelly describes in his book The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, believers who take their journey of discipleship seriously will naturally want to learn more about the Church, the saints, the Eucharist, and other aspects of our Catholic faith. They will not need to be goaded or prodded. Instead they will see life-long faith formation as a natural extension of their desire for closer union with Christ. As catechists it is our duty and privilege to guide people into that relationship and help the fire of faith grow in their lives.

The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.

Image by Michael 1952/flickrCC

3 Reasons Your Teens Are Not Engaged in Your Faith Formation Program (Guest post by John Rinaldo)

John Rinaldo is one of those people that I would probably never have met if it weren’t for the internet. In fact, I often have to remind myself that we’ve never met face-to-face! But his writing on ministry and leadership have helped me to reflect on my own work as a diocesan director and made me more effective in the work of catechesis.

Imagine this.

You are in front of a large group of teenagers facilitating a session on the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. This group of teenagers are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

You are well prepared for this topic. You have a fun opening community builder that is connected to the theme, you created a dynamic, ritual prayer experience, and you are armed with multiple strategies to engage the youth including the use of a cool video clip, small group reflection questions, and a bit of teaching from you.

You are proud of the session you have created. You delve into the topic with great enthusiasm and gusto! You pour all your energy into the session.

Then, it happens.

boredYou look out at the faces staring back at you. All they do is stare. They are not engaged. They are not excited. They look like lumps on a log.

At the end of the session, you are exhausted! You planned well and you thought that for sure the teenagers would get into the topic.

Yet, for all your planning and energy, you feel like you failed. You begin to wonder if you’re any good at this. Then you start to think that you should quit.

I don’t have enough hands and fingers to count how many times I’ve felt this way! The reality is that, for all the energy you put into any session, there are times that you don’t connect with your intended audience.

There’s a reason for that. Here are 3 reasons your audience is not ready to be engaged in your faith formation program:

  1. Their parents do not engage them in faith conversations or prayer at home. Most parents rarely have a conversation around faith at home or initiate a family prayer. For many, faith is something that happens in church and church alone. Since parents are the primary influencers, the parish needs to give them tools that will help parents. Until faith is a regular part of family life, it will often be difficult to engage your audience.
  2. They are not interested in learning about the faith. This is a readiness issue. Sherry Weddell, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, suggests that learning about faith comes after two things happen in people’s lives: 1) they have developed trusting and open relationship with other members, and 2) they have had some sort of conversion where they have experienced God in their life in a real and genuine way. These two things lead people to engage in conversations and topics of faith. Growing an Engaged Church suggests, “Belonging leads to believing.” If that is the case, which I believe it is, you and I need to spend some serious time building community. The other statement I believe to be true is, “Faith seeks understanding.” A conversion experience leads to faith. Faith leads to the desire to learn more and understand.
  3. They’re tired. It’s not a surprise to you that children and teenagers are heavily scheduled, especially on a weekday. They’ve had a really long day with school, tests, sports, and they just scarfed down dinner 2 seconds before they arrived. Finding a way to bring people out of their hectic day into a more peaceful place of prayer and focus is essential if you are to successfully engage them.

Question: What changes can you make that might help people become more engaged in the faith formation sessions you develop?

John Rinaldo ( is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, chairperson of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, and one of the hosts of the Best Youth Ministry Podcast Ever… Maybe.

Rethinking “Religious Education”

chalkboardWords are important, and the words we use to name things should signify something about the object being named.

With that in mind I’ve grown restive about the terms we use to describe our catechetical ministries, especially those aimed at children and youth. It’s no secret that the titles used for parish formational programs are many and varied; in my diocese we tend to use PSR, which is commonly understood to stand for “Parish School of Religion,” although I’ve heard other variations as well. Other places use “religious education” and I still see “CCD” used in some dioceses.

The problem as I see is with many of these terms is that they mirror terms from secular education — terms that bring some unwanted connotations to catechesis. Faith formation is more than just information delivery. It includes participation in the sacraments, prayer, integration into the Christian community, and other tasks that have no direct corollary in secular education. As a result using words like “school,” “student,” and “class” grate a bit because they don’t properly convey the totally of what catechesis is about. (To say nothing about the graduation mentality around Confirmation.)

At the same time “faith formation” seems clunky and “catechesis” is foreign to most people (not to mention hard to spell). So I’m at a loss.

Do you see a similar problem? What words or titles do you use in your parish or diocese for faith formation?

I’m interested in more generic terms, not acronyms for specific programs. Leave a comment and share your experiences!

Episode 003 – The Future Soon

003In this month’s show we ask the question: what will faith formation in our parishes look like in 2020, just 10 years from now? What are the forces shaping religious education and what are some possible scenarios for the future?

These are the questions being asked by John Roberto, the president and founder of LifelongFaith Associates. John gave a presentation at this year’s NCCL conference on his Faith Formation 2020 initiative and he was kind enough to join me by phone to talk a little more about it.

Here are links to some of the resources mentioned in the show:

This month’s closing music is “The Future Soon” by Jonathan Coulton.

Click to Play – 003 – The Future Soon