A few weeks back, I posted a blog about catechesis throughout the Church’s history, which posed the question of why religious education programs have largely failed our children over the past few decades. The answer, as it was posited at my DRE orientation, was simple: it’s failed because it’s outdated. But that’s just the beginning of the solution. If our method of doing religious education is outdated, what should it look like today? What is the best way of reaching our youth, of drawing our children into the faith, of encouraging them to be embraced by the strong arms of a God who loves them? I’ve already considered some of the more theoretical points of the proposed solution, but practically speaking, what does this solution actually look like?
I think one of the largest struggles that is faced by anyone working in religious education is that there is a great need to catechize two generations of believers rather than one. Yes, we are still tasked with the mission of evangelizing children and educating them in the tenants of their faith, but that is only one part of the situation. As always, there is a need to teach our children about the faith, but there is also a need to teach their parents. There exists an age bracket of adults that I have often heard referred to as “the lost generation.” They grew up in a time when so-called religious education consisted of a wishy-washy theology that lacked substance, that divorced the heart from the mind (and threw out the mind) and separated loving God from knowing Him. Where once religious education had consisted primarily in helping children to memorize rote prayers and the Baltimore Catechism, it later became primarily about telling children how much God loved them without actually ever really telling them who God was. A form of religious education that was heavy on the head was replaced with a form that was heavy on the heart, but neither was sufficient. And as a result, educators today are left with a rather unique situation: both parents and children are desperately in need of a form of catechism that preserves the necessity of both knowing and loving God, that establishes a proper balance between the head and the heart. In the past few decades, many religious education programs have lost sight of a very important fact: you cannot love what you do not know. And many Catholics don’t know God. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Catholics can’t love Him either.
This lost generation didn’t stand a chance when their faith was tested, when society began to challenge them on the tenants of their faith. When the world told them that God didn’t exist, the lost generation couldn’t argue because they didn’t know God. When the world told them that they didn’t need God, the lost generation accepted it hook, line, and sinker because they had never really learned how to love Him. But the lies of the world left this lost generation feeling empty and abandoned. Many members of this generation continue to wander this earth without purpose or direction. Others have found their way back to the Church, but struggle to bridge the gap that their poor religious education has left between their heads and their hearts. Many have begun to send their children to catechism classes, but cannot offer them the support at home that is necessary for the growth of their children’s faith. Parents are supposed to be the first catechists of their children; they are supposed to be the first people to introduce their children to Christ. But parents can’t be catechists when they’ve never been properly catechized. They can’t introduce their children to a Person that they hardly know themselves.
Religious education should begin in the home. Classes should only be a support to the lessons that are already being taught to children by their parents, but so often that is not the case. More often than not, catechism classes are the only religious education that children receive, and the catechists are the only people who can draw them to Christ. It’s not because parents don’t want to teach their children to know and love God; it’s mostly because they don’t know how. They don’t know Christ well enough to introduce Him to their children. They don’t know enough about the faith to teach it. So what do we do?
The answer to this question is the greatest challenge of every person involved in religious education. We have a very difficult task ahead of us. Ultimately, we need to prepare our parents to be catechists to their children; we have to give them the tools necessary for parents to teach their children to know and love God. We have to help parents to feel confident in their ability to pass their faith on to their children. The first step is to make sure that these parents actually have something to pass on, and then to help children to accept what they’ve been given. In my parish, we’ve taken a very concrete step towards making this happen. In addition to our normal “Sunday School” model of CCD, we also have a program that is called “When Families Gather.” This program works to catechize both parents and children at monthly meetings, and also provides parents with the tools that they need to teach their children the lessons between the large group sessions. By introducing the more foundational aspects of the faith to both parents and children, we help parents to step up as the primary catechists of their children as we simultaneously teach parents and children. This is just one way to attempt to bridge the gap, to reestablish the link between our heads and hearts, between knowing God and loving Him. The future of religious education lies with the family, not fundamentally with us catechists. It must fundamentally be found in the home rather than the classroom. If religious education is going to become more fruitful than it has been over the past few decades, if we’re going to raise up a Church that both knows and loves the Lord, we have to accept this fact. While the classroom model might have worked in a world where everyone was Catholic, and attending Sunday School was just another way of affirming that fact, we now live in a very different world. We are not accepted as we once were. Now we are challenged, even persecuted for our faith. The world tells us to keep our faith at home, behind closed doors, but for most people, there isn’t that much faith to hide. And for those who do have faith, they know better than anyone that even though the faith is supposed to start at home, it’s not supposed to end there. We have to bring Christ back into the home only so that we can bring Him back out into the world. The world is crying out for Him, but they are deaf to their own cries. The world is empty and desperately grasping for something to fill it, but it is clinging to all the wrong things. Jesus Christ is the truth that will set the world free; He is the answer to all the world’s problems. We’ve been given the truth, told the Good News. Are you ready to accept it, to spread it? If we all let Christ into our homes, He will prepare us to go out in the world. Are you ready to let Him in?