Well, another year of parish religious education began today. In many ways it was more of the same: kid's in religious ed for years not knowing the most basic elements of the faith, parents wanting sacraments for their kids but indignant that they are expected to go to Mass every Sunday, and homeschooler's skeptically aloof from the institutional parish religious education program. I stopped in on the Confirmation class today and the catechist told me that none of the kids (class of eight, I think) knew what a sacrament was. They had all been in parish religious education classes for K-8. In those nine years did they never get told what a sacrament was!? I guess part of the blame comes on the previous administration, but not all of it: heck, I've been overseeing these programs for almost a year and a half and a lot of this is going on under my watch!
What is the problem with these kids? When my pastor first arrived in this parish several years ago, I am told the religious ed program was a mess. Kids being taught nothing other than that "God loves them," spending their classes doing plays and coloring pictures, being whisked through CCD and on to sacramental prep with no understanding whatsoever (but, interestingly enough, the program was very large, well over 100 kids). It is better now, but some are still wary of this idea of actually "teaching" young people: A mother asked me last week, "What is this I hear about an interview before First Communion?" I said, "This is just a ten minute talk with your child to make sure they understand what they are about to receive when they make their First Communion." She balked and said, "Well at this age, do you really expect them to understand anything?" Another piece of evidence to support my thesis that the biggest problem with our youth is that adults think they are too dumb to catch on to anything. But that is another rant.
But, when my pastor took over, he hired a reliable and faithful DRE (our own Anselm, actually) who made several changes in the program. He chucked the worthless Pflaum lessons that had been in use and put the program on the Ignatius Press Faith and Life series. Then, when he had the chance, he replaced a lot of the old catechists with orthodox catechists who were eager to teach the Faith. Immediately a lot of parents pulled their kids from the program, shocked that they were actually being expected to learn information, take quizzes, read homework, etc. Yet still Anselm related to me that he had kids in eighth grade who honestly told him that the Holy Trinity consisted of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!
When I took over the program, I made further revisions. I was able to bring in even more trustworthy catechists, and I had my catechists come to catechist formation classes that I began offering here and there. I pulled down the Ligouri Press cartoony looking posters that had decorated the rooms and replaced them with posters of Raphael's works, Da Vinci's Annunciation and many other such classically themed pieces of art. I instituted regular meeting with all of the catechists to go over specifics of the program and get feedback (and encourage comraderie), and yet still class after class of ignorant kids is churned out. What more can be done? And of course, as the quality of the program gets better, the numbers registered decrease, because parents actually begin to view religious ed as a commitment. One family that was in the program last year decided not to re-register because their kids played hockey too much and didn't have time.
Well, the simple fact of the matter is this: you can have the best books and the best catechists and the most aesthetically appealing rooms, but if the parents don't do their part, you are beating your hands against a wall. That's right. It is not for nothing that parents are called the primary educators of their children. It is true that it is their job to do religious education, but it is also negatively true that if they abdicate their role, nobody else can really fill it. Did you buy some great books for religious ed? Try getting the parents to make their kids read them or read it with them! Did you tell the kids all about how wonderous the Mass is? Try getting the parents to go regularly! Trying to instill a love of the spiritual in the children? Good luck, when by their parents' leave they are innundated in the values and styles of the world 24/7, until the stuff you talk about in your one hour with them per week seems bizarre and strange.
Yes, it is the case that nothing can substitute for parental involvement in a child's religious upbringing, and it is the one common denominator in all the ignorant children I have seen: no parental involvement and poor (or no) Mass attendance.
This brought to my mind (by a fellow DRE actually) an interesting point. Homeschoolers abstain from our religious ed program, not because they don't trust it, but because they rightfully point out that their kids don't need it, and that Sunday school detracts from their family time on that day. Diocesan policy is to try to get the homeschoolers involved in CCD, but personally I believe that they are right to abstain: they don't need it, for their parents have done their job, and the best and brightest on First Communion interview day are always the homeschoolers. But the interesting thing, I realized, is this:
If parents all did their job, my job as a DRE would be superfluous.
That's right! The reason I exist as a DRE is to pick up the slack of what parents don't do. If everybody was educated at home and had no need for religious ed, there would be no religious ed program, and hence no DRE to run it, get catechists, etc. If we had more priests, then probably a priest (or religious) would run RCIA, another thing I would not be doing. And, furthermore, if all Catholics were raising their kids to be godly and only have godly associations (that is, if the youth culture was a lot more Christian friendly), they might not need a special Youth Group to go to once a week to have fun at. Thus, I find myself thinking that if the Church and the world were as I would wish it to be, my job would be superfluous and not exist.
Ought I to yearn for this reality or, like some at the Diocesan level in many places, enthusiastically embrace the current situation as an excuse to get more lay people involved? Obviously, I value the good of the Church above my own. Let everybody homeschool, and let me say my job is no longer needed! That would mean that every parent was doing their part, every child being educated, and nobody slipping through the cracks. That is greater than my own job.
It is utopian, I know. It will never happen. Until the Second Coming there will always be lax Catholics showing up once a year to ask for sacraments with no concept of what they are. But fortunately I know God is interested not in the numbers of who comes and asks for what, but in what we do with the people who do come to us, and it is with this vision that I have thus far undertaken all my "ministry" work at this parish and will continue to do so. Take each one as they come, take them where they are, and help nudge them, however slightly, however little you may see the fruit now, closer to the reward of the Heavenly bliss with the Trinity.