which is worse; a bad catechist or no catechist?

Which is worse; a bad catechist, or no catechist? It`s a question I frequently ask myself. And, yes, I`ve pondered this question with regard to parish priests. And, on both counts, I`ve come to the conclusion that it`s much worse to have a bad catechist (or priest) than no catechist (or priest)!

In our part of the world,(especially in rural parishes) there is a shortage of catechists. As with any job placement, a shortage of candidates doesn`t bode well for the quality pool. The standards are low, or non-existent. Any willing soul is welcomed to fill the position.

Thankfully, we are blessed with some gifted, compassionate women and men who generously give of their time and talents to help with the faith formation of the young people in our parish. But, we also have some who are dragged into the job just to fill the void.

What makes a good or a bad catechist? Being well-formed in the faith should be a basic criterion. But, the reality in some parts of the world finds few adult women and men who have had a formal faith formation themselves. We need to step back and form the adults first, before we can expect them to form the children. On the other hand, many catechetical programs come with well-written catechist manuals. A good catechist will avail herself of the resources so she is well prepared for the class she is to teach. And most dioceses will offer training programs and work-shops for ongoing catechist formation.

So, good formation is important but still does not guarantee a good catechist. Some have the gift and some don`t. It`s sometimes difficult to put your finger on that certain quality that makes some teachers shine, and others fall to the bottom of the barrel. Here are some qualities that I think are important,

  • KINDNESS – You cannot teach young children about the love of God by shouting and barking to them.
  • PERSONAL PRAYER – We come to know God through a personal relationship in prayer. A catechist who is grounded in prayer, will know how to speak naturally about God and the role of God in her life.
  • PERSONAL WITNESS – A catechist needs to be a person of integrity and generous service. This doesn`t mean that `only saints need apply`. Far from it! We need women and men who understand struggling to live the gospel faithfully, and who remain faithful to the struggle.
  • JOYFUL SPIRIT – We cannot be happy all the time, but we must show to children the true joy that God offers to each and every one of them. This is not a shallow joy, but a promise grounded in the deep hope that no matter what, eventually all will be well in God`s loving, providential plan for each of us.
  • CREATIVITY – As with any profession, creativity is a valued gift. It gives a person an openness of mind and heart to discern the needs of those in their care. A creative soul will take the time to ponder the best methods and means to present the message for each place and time.

A friend once shared with me that her young son dreaded going to the weekly catechism class because he was scared of the teacher! She was a zealous soul, constantly correcting the smallest detail of a genuflection or sign of the cross. Catechism classes are not a boot camp. Children come to learn of the love of God not through the mind alone, but by experiencing that same love in action.

the trad-lib pendulum in catechetics

My generation of baby-boomers was raised in the heady days after the Second Vatican Council. I am just old enough to remember Latin masses. And, I have a very clear recollection of the Baltimore-style Catechism in my early school years. Our religion classes consisted of memorizing, verbatim, responses to questions. I still remember the first two questions,

Who is God?

God is a Supreme Being. 

Why did God make you?

God made me to love Him and serve Him, in this world and the next. 

This is heady stuff for a six year old! Yup, back in St. Werburgh`s in Chester, England, we began the long journey through the Catechism as soon as we started school. The words SUPREME BEING, for some reason, terrified me. Is this what the fear of God is all about? And `the next world` sounded so eery!

We came to Canada when I was eight years old. The more liberal approach to catechetics was making its way into the parishes. Ours was named after good Pope John XXIII. For a couple of years we used more traditional text-books. Being a voracious reader, I loved these books; especially the ones on the lives of saints and Church history.

Slowly, the books were put aside and the art supplies came out. We were now taught that God was butterflies, and encouraged to express our faith through collages and drawings. We listened to Simon and Garfunkel and discussed the deeper message in their words.

As with most pendulum swings, going to extremes might have its strengths. But it almost always results in weakness for what is left behind and thrown away. We need a good grounding in the teachings of the Church. But, we need to ground it in a faith of the heart otherwise it becomes merely an intellectual activity. We need to tap into our emotions, for our emotions help our souls to soar! But love that is based solely on emotional feelings is bound to fail. We need deeply formed roots; a mind and will to remind us of the roots of our faith and why we believe.

And what about Simon and Garfunkel? I still love the lads. They taught me to seek the wisdom and truth in art and culture; whether it is a top 40`s hit, a symphony, a T.V. show, a witty ad, or a brilliantly done graphic design. God can, and does speaks through all. And, isn`t it good to seek God in the world around us?

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!