Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Atmosphere of Faith

For the past two years I have been in charge of the Religious Education and Sacramental preparation programs at my parish. Everybody knows of the dire state of Catholic religious education in this country (and presumably around the world) - kids making their First Communion with no idea as to what the Eucharist is, coming to Confirmation interviews without the slightest idea as to the identity of the Holy Spirit, parents showing up to get their kids baptized who have only been to Church once or twice in the past twelve months, and in general ignorance and laziness in the religious upbringing of the children. Parents seem to come with a "checklist" mentality: "Okay, got my kid's First Communion (check), Confirmation (check) and now we can wash our hands of religious education altogether." I think we all know that this is the case, and I'm not going to spend anymore time trying to convince anybody of this obvious fact.

I just got done with another round of such interviews, and while the kids at our parish were a lot better prepared than kids I have heard about at other parishes, there were still some unpleasant interviews with kids that could have been a lot better prepared. And those that were ill prepared were told so by our pastor. But what is especially interesting to me is how my attitude towards this phenomenon has changed in the past two years.

When I first arrived here, I thought that the reason kids were coming through ignorant was because of very pragmatic reasons: the text-books were not orthodox enough, the catechists themselves were spotty on their practice and knowledge of the faith, there was not enough testing and feedback, etc. Over the past two years, I made the changes in these areas that I thought were best for the program. I staffed my Religious Ed program with people who were solid in their faith and who zealously prayed for their kids. We went to the Ignatius Press Faith & Life series, which is what most homeschool families around here use, and implemented weekly quizzes to gauge the comprehension of the kids. I personally went into the classes many times to answer questions and give talks on important subjects. Interviews for admission to sacraments were made into real interviews in which kids actually had to demonstrate retained knowledge. Everything that was possible to improve from a practical standpoint was improved, under myself and under Anselm (who preceded me at this post).

And yet after now four years of tweeking the program (under first Anselm then myself), nothing has changed. They are still coming through ignorant. Still coming to Confirmation not knowing who the Holy Spirit is. Still saying Holy Communion is a symbol. Still looking at the floor ignorantly during their meetings and still having parents admitting that they don't go to Mass. Still in the same spot they were before, as if very little at all had changed. The only real change is that less people have signed up for our program, perhaps content to go to the more wishy-washy one at a nearby parish that doesn't ask as much. But as for positive improvement, there has been but little. What did I do wrong?

I have come to conclusion that Anselm, myself and our pastor have been doing everything right, and that the solution to this problem is not in better textbooks or catechists, as I once thought. It is in the families, pure and simple. My pastor and I have both noticed how time and again the homeschool candidates for sacraments do excellent on their interviews. They can name all seven Gifts of the Spirit. They can tell you what Transubstantiation is. They know what sanctifying grace is. They earnestly desire to know and love God better. They have a regular Mass attendance and devotional life. The division between the poor religious ed student and the well-prepared one falls evenly along the division between public school and homeschool. Without much qualification, I can say that public schoolers almost uniformally do poorly on their interviews for sacraments and homeschoolers do exceedingly well. This is despite the fact that in many cases, the public schoolers have been through four years of orthodox, solid Catholic catechesis in the parish religious education classes.

But as all homeschoolers know, the home is the domestic Church, where faith is first taught, and it is parents who are responsible for the religious upbringing of their children. The simple fact is this: public school students tend to do poorly in religious ed because, despite the fact that they may get good catechesis for the one hour a week of class, religious vocabulary is not part of their life at public school and consequently religious topics always seem foreign and strange to them. Most public-school parents who enroll their kids in CCD do so by way of abdication, that is, hire us to teach their kids so they don't have to. So there is very little discussion of faith at home and very little modeling of its practice.

Therefore, as I am coming to see, despite sound catechesis at the parochial level (which is of course necessary), a child cannot come to a full sense of the faith without being immersed in an atmosphere of faith at the familial and social level. Why do we expect kids to know what the Holy Spirit is when religion is never talked about either at home or at school? If CCD class is the only place they hear about the faith, it will always seem like a strange topic to them - all the talk about getting closer to God, growing in faith, prayer and so forth will be superficial because they have never seen it modeled. As I have said before, it really does take a village to raise a child, and this is true in matters of faith as well as morals. It takes a whole Catholic community, where faith is the norm and not the exception, to inculcate in a child the reality that faith and trust in God is the normative way to live. How can that seem normative if it is restricted to what a stranger tells them one hour a week on Sunday? And especially when what the stranger tells them is contradicted by the lifestyle of their parents and peers, who often live as if God did not exist?

Is there a solution? Not withint the current diocesan framework in this country, which encourages admitting as many people to the sacraments as possible for the purpose of (a) not offending anybody and causing them to leave the Church, and (b) to make their numbers look as high as possible. I think the best thing would be perhaps to abandon altogether any kind of parish run religious education programs (which were instituted in a vastly different time and culture and have outstayed their usefulness) and replace them with a type of guided home preparation, in which any parent who want their kids admitted to the sacraments would have to do the footwork themself, receiving guidance and encouragement from the parish while not being allowed to simply cede this duty to the parish entirely.

Furthermore, the spiritual good of the child has to take precedent at the diocesan level over statistical and demographical concerns. This statistical and demographic focus is a real problem in the philosophical outlook of many diocesan bureaucracies. Until this changes, parishes will not be permitted to implement the kinds of changes that are necessary to get kids truly prepared for the sacraments.

Great public school families are out there as well; I personally know a few of them and can say that this generalization doesn't apply universally, so don't be offended if you are the thankful exception to the rule. I am just calling it like I see it.


bgeorge77 said...


CCD is a symptom of failure. I say this as a 7-year teacher of CCD at a strong parish with good teachers.

The failure: as you point out, the parents.

Every year I send home a letter with the kids informing them that I am basically an assistant to the true catechists: the parents. I doubt anyone reads it.

I would like to read a history of the catechesis of children.

Anselm said...

For what it's worth, I couldn't agree more with your assessment. But don't give up. Keep teaching them.

Mr S said...

As per Fr. Corapi.......

A woman went to see Padre Pio for confession. As she entered the confessional and began, the saintly priest looked at her, got up and walked out.

The lady followed him, imploring him to stop and asking what was so wrong?

He replied that he turned away from her because "I saw the souls of your 3 dead children in hell. And they are there because of your permissiveness."

I could not imagine having to face judgment and finding out that my children were in hell because and directly because, of my failure.

If parents only knew how serious it is that they are the PRIME educators of their children.


Baron Korf said...

Couldn't agree more. The only reason I ended up half-decent is my parents took the time to teach my family. Between the Rosary, local pilgrimages, watching Jesus of Nazareth all the way through every Easter and Christmas, and so on, I actually learned a thing or two along the way.

Anonymous said...

Excellent observations. Actually, I'm of the opinion that *the* single most important factor is the home situation. All of my friends and I went to public schools all the way through, but that didn't seem to have that much impact on our religiosity. What *did* was what happened once we went home. Those of us who had religious families took it seriously and have subsequently remained believers. Those who did not didn't then and still don't. We knew that the school was a "hostile environment," as it were, so we weren't expecting others to believe as we did.
What the biggest problem is now on the societal level is what happens at home. Even "nice families" are very likely a-religious. --Not precisely irreligious; they simply don't care much one way or the other. It isn't a part of the normal daily lives of themselves or their kids. Until we get the family situation greatly improved, there is little that anyone will be able to do about this, short of divine intervention.


Unknown said...

You are right Boniface - I went to public schools, had a Baptist mom and a Catholic dad that dropped us off for Mass every Sunday. Our home was not Catholic at all - no art, statues - we did pray before meals because us kids wanted to. We were baptized, confirmed and had first confession and holy communion and that was that. End result - I left the Church for 30 years, and my 2 brothers and sister left and have not yet returned. Contrast that with my cousins - all went to Catholic school - all but 2 of 10 have remained Catholic - 1 cousin is a Capuchin brother. Family is the difference for sure.

Nick said...

This is a sad but true analysis.

The typical public school kid doesn't give a dang about the faith precisely because their parents don't have any passion for it. If even ONE parent is non-Catholic or worse yet a wishy washy Catholic, then the child's religious development is in grave danger. This is the problem with mixed marriages and nominal Catholic marriages.

Adrienne said...

The exact reasons that made me quit teaching RE to the 7th - 12th graders after nine years. It was like beating my head against a wall.

The parents didn't care, the priest didn't care, the Bishop didn't care, so finally I quit caring. The stress just got to be too much.

The only kids that did well were the ones taught, beginning at a young age, at home and usually using the Baltimore Catechism.

Anonymous said...

So whatever happened to the old requirement for each parish to have a parochial school?
What happened to that? Did we just give up?

Alexander said...

Is it true that catechetics (meaning parents as the teachers as well as the parish) went to hell in the 1950s or did that start in the 1960s?

Boniface said...


The parents didn't care, the priest didn't care, the Bishop didn't care, so finally I quit caring. The stress just got to be too much.I think that is the saddest statment in this whole sad commentary!

Anonymous, you said:

So whatever happened to the old requirement for each parish to have a parochial school?
What happened to that? Did we just give up?
This went down the drain once all the nuns left the convent...they used to staff these schools for free or for very little as part of their religious vocation. Once they left, the parishes had to bring in laymen; i.e., paid personnel.

This in turn drive the cost of tuition up - whereas before even poorer kids could usually go to Catholic parochial school if their parents wanted them to, now it became out of reach for many. The new "lay Catholic teacher" class arose, bringing forth from the diocese new criteria for "certification," causing these formation training programs to crop up everywhere, grossly expanding the diocesan bureaucracy.

Adding to the problem is the diocese's (in many cases) insistence that parochial school teachers have the same credentials and certification as public school teachers but at the same time they only afford to give them 60% of the pay, which means there is a brain drain.

I don't think this system will get any better unless the schools are again staffed by loyal nuns who do not require a huge paycheck or insurance.

Anonymous said...

Anselm, I do believe you are right. A home catechesis program would be great because then the parents are learning along with the children. Perhaps the parents would wake up to their responsibility and faith.

Baron Korf said...

This goes for public schooling as well. I have friends who are public school teachers and they will tell you the number 1 factor on children succeeding is not income, or parent's level of education, or teachers or school funding, but the environment at home. If school and learning are emphasized then the child will generally do well, if not they will fail (or would if they let people fail).

katie said...

The challenge you are describing here - which is ubiquitous throughout religious education - is the necessity of the New Evangelization which John Paull II called for and Benedict reiterates. We have a large number of "cultural Catholics" who have little notion of the riches of their inheritance - and who have not themselves had Christ adequately proposed to them. It is the challenge of our time to embark upon a New Evangelization of both our Catholic school and Religious Ed parents, families and children - and it has occurred to me that we as religious educators should be thinking of our programs much as the missionaries have thought of the schools they built. The families may come for education - but we must offer them MORE than they are expecting - the MORE being the source of life - Jesus. We have a daunting and exciting task ahead - but we MUST stop thinking that CATECHESIS is the answer - without evangelization and conversion, catechesis is empty and abstract. Words, words, words - disconnected from real life.

Sam Danziger said...

When my wife (then fiance) was going through RCIA, I sat through the classes with her as a show of support. This had two results:

1) I was astonished by how much I knew, even though I could have sworn to you that I learned nothing during CCD.

2) I was astonished by how much great stuff there was that I didn't know.

I think I can propose an alternative to scrapping the whole system and trying to educate the children by first educating the parents. However, this will require even more work for you...

Require parents who enroll their children in CCD to attend parallel classes. If done correctly this can have multiple good effects:

1) It will encourage parents to discuss aspects of the faith with their children.

2) It will educate the parents about the Church. This may alienate some, but will undoubtedly energize others.

3) It will help build up the Catholic community through shared experience.


Our Church suffers the most when people don't ask questions but rather assume that there are no good answers...

spraffmeister said...

I couldn't agree more. My parents are of different faiths (mother the fulness of the Faith, father not) and unfortunately, my father is the one more likely to do any chatting about it, so at home there was no true basis of prayer, catechesis, etc. Going to a "Catholic" school didn't help much, as Catholic schools here in Britain are different from the rest of the world (I think) in that they are still state schools. Combine this with a RE teacher who wanted to take my RE class to a Buddhist monastery (luckily, it fell through) and well, you get the picture. I credit my awakening to the faith to my gran, who would chat a lot about it with me, and also she still had a missal from 1923! Fascinating!
We've a priest here who makes the parents come to mass every Sunday for six months before he administers sacraments to their children. They have to sign a book to prove they were there. I think this is a start but I'm not sure it works...

Unknown said...

Here In Brazil I feel that it is the Church that has abandoned me and my family!In São Paulo every Sunday I would go from Church to Church to find a priest that was minimally respectful. The priests in the majority are gay:all preach socialism;the music is awful;young girls dancing on the altar. It is a travesty!
Eventually, I found a Church run by a Polish priest that was bearable. Then I moved to Salvador and I had 10 years of the same thing.My younger daughter hasn't had her Eirst communion because I dreaded that the instruction she received would be heretical.
Thank God ,I have found a church which offers the traditional Mass but it is only on Sunday morning and it is an hours drive to get there. My elder daughter goes with me but the younger is at that age where she is that interested. I pray every day that she will become agood Catholic.. The Pope needs to do something about the Church in Brazil. The bishops and priests teach heresy. What about all the millions of souls that will be lost because laxity of the Pope?