I recently had the great joy of attending a three-day orientation as part of my new job. It was overwhelming in many ways, but it was also extremely thought-provoking. One of the most poignant pieces had to do with catechesis throughout the Church’s history. The speaker asked a very curious question, and proposed an incredibly remarkable answer. His question was this: Why have our methods of religious education failed so miserably over the past few generations, and what can we do to fix it?
His answer was fairly simple. We need a change of method to cope with the changing world around us and its demands on Christians. Catechesis needs to develop as the Church develops, since it needs to evolve according to the needs of the Church, the surrounding culture, and the Church’s relationship with that culture. For instance, prior to the rise of Constantine, religious education took a very particular form to deal with the Church’s illegal status, and the dangers that this posed to Christians. To be Christian meant to be a criminal, guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. Religious education during this period largely revolved around the Sacraments of Initiation, since students were learning the faith so that they could be formally brought into the Church through their Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. Catechesis was necessary for the reception of the sacraments, though Christians’ education continued after they had been initiated into the Church. The students, called catechumens (the words ‘catechumen,’ ‘catechesis,’ ‘catechist’, etc. come from the Greek word katechein, meaning ‘to teach’ or ‘to instruct’), were of all ages, and the methods of their education were very closely linked with the Church’s precarious existence as a persecuted entity embraced by a minority of the population. Entire families were drawn to the Church, and desired to be educated in the tenants of her faith and to share a deeper relationship with her God, which was done through the reception of the sacraments, and through the education that was provided both before and after newly baptized Christians were welcomed into the Church.
Adults and children came not because they were being forced, or because it was the cool thing to do, or because it was what everyone else did, but because they wanted to meet Christ, they wanted to enter into an even deeper relationship with the God of the universe, which was established through catechesis, and ultimately, the reception of the sacraments. Through Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, men and women, adults and children, became part of the Body of Christ, both physically and spiritually. Becoming a Christian was a risk, and those who entered the Church did so because they wanted that relationship with Christ and His Church, because they needed it. Catechumens understood that by saying yes to God, they were placing their lives on the line- they could be killed for their fiat- but they did it anyway because they knew that they were placing their lives in God’s hands. They trusted Him. They loved Him. They believed Him. Faith was the foundation for catechesis, and for the reception of the sacraments. Men and women received their religious education because they believed; they received their sacraments because they believed. That was the reality of the Church, and that was the form that catechesis took for the first few centuries of her existence.
Then Constantine made Christianity legal, and not long after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The transformation that occurred as a result of this new acceptance of Christianity by the populace was enormous, and its effects on religious education were many. By this time, infant baptisms had become much more prevalent among Christians who desired to raise their children according to the faith, and consequently the appearance of religious education was altered. While adult catechumens, looking to become members of the Church, still went through a period of intense catechesis before receiving the Sacraments of Initiation, infants could receive the first of these sacraments without any prior religious education. What was the expectation then? That parents would raise their children to be believers, to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ as they grew. From the very beginning, parents were recognized as the primary teachers responsible for their children’s religious education. This was a role that parents were expected to take very seriously, and they were not given a “free pass” when religious education took on a more standardized approach in a more classroom-like atmosphere. Educators were intended to cooperate with the catechesis that was already occurring in the home, and the lessons that were provided in the classroom were meant to deepen and widen the faith that was already developing at home through the encouragement of Christian parents.
Over the centuries, the world had changed immensely, and so methods of religious education changed with it. No longer a minority group of outlaws, Catholics comprised the majority of many countries’ populations and played an active role in the culture. Christianity permeated every facet of culture, and education was no exception. Religious education was essential, and even valued, as a key component of the maturing child. Children went to school not only to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also to learn their religion. Christ was present in the schools. He was present in the homes. He was present on the streets of town, in the stores, and even in the government buildings. Christians brought Him everywhere they went, and Christians were everywhere. Even with the rise of Protestantism, the Catholic Church remained strong, leaning on Christ, her Divine Spouse, and His presence on earth. And thus, religious education in its “classroom form” flourished, encouraged by devout Catholic parents who sought to educate their children in the faith and help them to know and love Christ, as well as by a culture that continued to be sympathetic to Catholicism. Unfortunately, this reality did not last forever.
Recently, the relationship between the Church and the world has radically changed. While the number of self-proclaimed Catholics is still high, the number of practicing Catholics is unquestionably lower. While Catholics today might not be the tiny minority that they once were, our numbers are nonetheless decreasing around the world. Why is this? The reasons are many, so I’ll just mention a few. Religion has largely become irrelevant in our society, a personal preference devoid of any ultimate truth, a subjective relationship with a Being who may or may not exist. Our society is increasingly skeptical of what cannot be seen, and thus we are taught to question everything that we are told, everything that we believe. We’re living in a world that no longer takes the existence of God as an undeniable truth, that is confident in its place in the all-embracing arms of God. We’re living in a world that is precariously close to the edge of a cliff, driven there by its own relativism, subjectivism, and skepticism. It’s a world that has sought to kill God, but has only managed to kill itself. But as the world has suffered, so too has the Church. She’s struggled against the attacks of what Blessed John Paul II called a “culture of death,” and while professing the Catholic faith might not be punishable by death (in most places), it can certainly be looked down upon. Catholics, and Christians in general, are often mocked for their faith, for their morals, for their relationship with Christ. While we are not condemned to physical death, it is still a form of condemnation that we endure at the hands our fellow-man, by our classmates, our co-workers, even our relatives. But in condemning us, they are condemning themselves. There is no life in the philosophy that they preach. Only Christ has the words that give life.
And that is why religious education is needed in a way that it has not been needed in a very long time. For centuries, the world embraced Christ, it accepted His presence and even placed incredible value on it. But no more. The world has tirelessly sought to kill Christ, and to kill His Spirit in this world. And being the tabernacles of the Holy Spirit that we are, Christians have been attacked again and again. While there might not be anyone trying to physically kill us, there is an overwhelming desire to kill our spirits, to crush our faith in Christ. But love conquers all, and God’s love for us is certainly stronger than death. Society will not be able to destroy our spirit, not if we trust in God. We must run to Him, and we must encourage our children to run to Him too. The age of the classroom approach to religious education is over. Society wants to push Christ out of our homes, out of our businesses, out of our schools. Religious education has become something that children do for an hour or so a week, between their “regular” classes, sports practices, music and dance recitals, and all the other activities that fill the hours of their days. It has become something that is tolerated, that needs to be done because “that’s the way it’s always been,” that really means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Yes, we still have religious education, but when the world is telling children that there is no need for God at all hours of the day, the one hour that Christian educators have with them is not enough to show them otherwise. We need help.
We need catechists who are passionate about their faith, and about their task of educating these children. We need religious educators who view their jobs not as merely as work, but as ministry and the opportunity to evangelize. It is work, yes, but our work is the salvation of souls. We’re bringing Christ to people, and bringing people to Christ. We’re bringing them to the sacraments, to the saving waters of Baptism, the purifying flames of Confirmation, the life-giving bread that is the Eucharist. We need to view our work in the light of those first teachers of the faith, who recognized that they were saving souls, even as they were asking their students to risk their lives. These first educators understood that Christianity is so much more than learning the faith, but living it. Catechesis is so much more than learning about Jesus, but meeting Him. Yes, religious education still takes place in a classroom, but that’s only part of it. Children need to be guided in the development of their faith so that they can leave the classroom and take Christ with them. Yes, Christ has been pushed out of our homes, out of our businesses, and out of our schools, but He will not remain on the streets forever. We need to prepare children for the battle that they will face, because the impending task is not easy. It is time for Christ to return to our homes, to our businesses, to our schools, and that is a challenge to which all Christians are called to respond. How will you answer the call?
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!