carrot before the horse – sacramental preparation

In yesterday`s blog post, I expressed my belief in an inclusive approach to catechetical programs. All children should be welcomed with open arms. Obsessively policing Mass attendance or judging the lifestyle or faithfulness of a family should not be the criteria for admittance into a parish catechetical program.  My favourite gospel scenes are those where Jesus puts the Pharisees in their place, and chows down with the sinners!

But, this open and inclusive approach is challenged in the sacramental preparation years; First Communion, Reconciliation and Confirmation. I struggled with this in my years as a First Communion catechist. I hated the “carrot before the horse” mentality of sacramental preparation. A long list of requirements was given to parents at the beginning of the year. If these requirements were not met, then the child would be refused the sacraments. I was stuck in the middle of many power struggles between priest and parents.

There is one case that remains burned in my memory. A mother had refused to take the child to Sunday mass all year, and was locked in a battle of wills with the pastor. She had been told that her son could not receive the Eucharist at this time, but she defiantly dropped him off for our last class before First Communion Sunday. Her son was a wonderful, sweet boy and a good student. He knew nothing of the battle going on behind his back. I had to hide my fury and pretend all was well, while building up the excitement for the rest of the class.

The pastor was the kind that was always ready for a fight, but his stance was not unique. Friends from other parts of the world have described priests who demand to see a bulletin from a visiting parish if you do not show up in your home church on a Sunday morning! A subsequent pastor in our parish had the Catechetical Director handing out attendance tickets at the end of mass to all the students. These were to be handed to their Catechism teacher at the next class. What a sad state of affairs. What an inhospitable welcome into our worshipping community.

Catechist’s have a difficult job already. Policing a child`s church attendance shouldn`t be part of their job description. It especially embarrasses the younger children who depend on their parents to get them to church. They shouldn`t have to squirm in their seats, mumbling out some excuse or another in front of teacher and class-mates.

On the other hand, many parents do not understand the connection between catechism classes and attending mass. We must seek better ways to encourage participation in our Sunday liturgies. Threats seldom work. With the First Communion parents I tried to explain it in this way…would you send your child for swimming lessons without ever letting them set foot in a swimming pool? How can we teach them about the Eucharist if they never attend mass?

When a parent has their child baptized, they promise to raise them in the faith. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a church community to form them in the faith. But the primary responsibility lies in the domestic church of the family. Parents are number one! Not the pastor, and not the catechist. The parish catechetical program cannot be a magic dispenser of faith. God can work miracles, but God works best with our cooperation and collaboration!

teaching the faith – who`s responsible?

The family is supposed to be the primary educator of the faith. In his 1979 Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae (Catechesis in our Time), John Paul II stresses that it is within the ecclesia domestica, or domestic church, that children are formed in their faith. When I first read this, I interpreted it as a wonderful shout-out to the subsidiarity of the family unit. In a church that too often thinks in hierarchical terms, here`s an example of Mom and Dad coming out on top! Do you hear that, Father?!

Of course, all families do not accept or embrace this responsibility of primary educators; whether in secular or religious education. It’s easier to pass the buck to the ‘professional’ teachers, even if those teachers are ill-equipped or under-qualified volunteers.

Formation in the faith is more than memorizing dogma and prayers for one hour a week. It requires being immersed in your faith, allowing it to weave into your daily life. The sacramental spirituality of Catholicism encourages us to put flesh on our beliefs through meaningful routines and ritual actions.

Crucifixes on our walls and around our necks remind us that our darkest worries can be raised in hope-filled prayer. Statues and pictures of Mary and the saints remind us that we have friends standing by to pray with us and pray for us. Praying as a family answers the summons of ‘where two or more are gathered in my name’. Collecting pennies from our Lenten sacrifices connects us to social justice actions around the world, with a preferential option for the poor. And we gather as the Body of Christ to celebrate the Eucharist; the source and summit of our faith.

But what about the child who comes to the parish catechism class with little or no exposure to their faith? What about the child who seldom sets foot in a church? Where does a catechist begin? What would Jesus do?

We know what Jesus would do. He would welcome all the little ones with open arms, without judgment. And this is what a good catechist would do. If the one hour a week of parish catechism classes is all the faith formation that a child will receive, then the catechist will try to make the best of that hour. And let God do the rest.

the best and worst of times; my life as a parish catechist

When my children were young, I put my heart and soul into our parish catechetical program. I was in the midst of studies myself, and on fire with a desire to teach the Catholic faith. There were no paid positions in our rural parish, but I willingly put in many volunteer hours preparing children for Sacraments and facilitating adult faith formation sessions. I had found my calling. In many ways, it was the best of times.

Unfortunately, our parish and diocese was in the midst of a sadly dysfunctional situation with our priest and bishop of the time. Heads were rolling. Priests and laity were being dismissed, often without explanation. Lines were being drawn in the sand. Folks sucked it up, grumbled and stayed. Or, they spoke out and quickly found themselves on the other side of the church door. I was in the latter group. It truly was the worst of times.

I learned several lessons about church politics from this experience. My priest friends, who were skittishly looking over their own shoulders at the time, were not willing to stand up for me. They offered a shoulder to cry on and affirmed the injustice that had been done, but that was the extent of their help. I was left alone. But when two of their own were unceremoniously removed from the diocese, we lay folks were expected to raise our voices in loud protest and support!

I also learned that each parish has a small flock of obedient sheep that will continue to do the pastor`s bidding regardless of the extent of his nastiness. They will commiserate and grumble loudly about the injustices being committed, but never directly to the priest. Their silent acquiescence is interpreted as support, and enables the bad behaviour to continue.

Several priests have come and gone in our parish since then. I had one more `best of times` experience facilitating the RCIA program. The pastor at the time affirmed and empowered us in our work. It was a refreshing interlude, but only lasted as long as his time in the parish. His successor was another over-controlling, micro-manager and I wasn`t ready to join his ranks of minions.

What is my involvement in parish catechetics today? Zilch! Sadly, my roller coaster experience sucked all my energy and passion. I no longer feel called to parish work. It took a long time, but I`ve finally made my peace with it.

I`m sharing this story in the spirit of disclosure. Yes, my experience left me scarred and more than a little embittered. It has also given me the perspective of both an insider and outsider. Our parish catechetical programs have their shining moments, and faith-filled and committed catechists provide the brightest lights. But there are weaknesses that need to be addressed with honesty, creativity and collaboration. And so, this discussion will continue….