I remember back when I was in college, one of my professors shared a joke with our class that ended up being very sad, but true. I don’t remember the content of the joke, but the point was this: there is a massive divide between social justice issues and catechesis. In the context of the joke, this division was represented by the fact that in one particular diocese, the offices for social justice and the offices for catechesis were directly across the hall from one another, but the staff members never spoke, even looked at one another with disdain when they happened to cross paths in the hallway. In the context of our university, it was represented by the fact that for the most part, the students who went to Mass every day were not the ones who were volunteering for service opportunities in the area, who were largely non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics. In the context of my current position as a director of religious education, it is represented by the fact that in most programs, catechism classes are only oriented towards educating children in matters of the faith (which is undeniably important, otherwise I wouldn’t be in the line of work that I am), and there is little or no mention of Christian service (the parish where I am employed is a definite exception to this general rule). I’d like to address each of these realities, as well as propose some solutions for how we might bridge the gap that has unfortunately been forged between catechesis and Christian service.
While my professor might have been telling a joke that day in class, the point that he made was still valid and undeniably true, at least in some dioceses. Even if the staff members of the social issues office and the catechesis office are on good terms, how much do they actually interact? In some of the worst cases, I’ve heard of social justice offices that are headed by self-proclaimed Catholics who openly oppose many central doctrines of the faith, particularly the dignity of life from conception to natural death and the sanctity of marriage as a sacramental union between a man and woman. In these cases, the divide between the two offices is understandable, albeit very depressing and in need of correction. But in most dioceses, the divorce between the offices is not so obvious. More often than not, it’s just something that has existed and has never been questioned. Staff members reason that catechesis is catechesis, while service is service, and there really doesn’t need to be interaction between the two domains. And we’ve been doing fine all these years, so why change now?
I believe that interaction between these two offices would be incredibly beneficial for everyone involved, and that this change should be encouraged. I’ll consider the practical aspects of this change later in this blog post, but for now I’d like to address some more theoretical reasons for why interaction is both necessary and incredibly fruitful. Christian service and catechesis cannot really be separated. Catechesis provides the reason for performing Christian service, while Christian service is one way to give catechesis life. In the early Church, these two dimensions of the Christian life were not separated: the people who were teaching and learning the faith were also the ones feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, clothing the naked, and nursing the ill. Catechists can’t merely tell their students that Jesus fed the hungry, cured the ill, and defended the weak; they have to feed the hungry, cure the ill (or at least comfort them), and defend the weak themselves. Part of the fundamental Christian message is that Christ has called us all to be like Him, and we can do that through service. By learning the faith, we learn that we are all called to serve, and when we serve the poor, we are living out the faith that we have been taught.
In addition to this, catechesis cannot be purely about filling the mind with knowledge about the faith. Catechesis is about meeting a Person, and coming to know Him, love Him, and serve Him. It’s about a relationship, something that involves the whole person, and not just the head. Catechesis has to engage the head, the heart, and the hands. We are all called to know God, love Him, and serve Him, and if we’re not doing all three of these things, we are not living the faith in its fullness. There have been times in our Church’s history where we have emphasized the head and knowing God, or the heart and loving Him, but now it’s time to really work on this last aspect which is so often neglected. We have to start serving Him in a radically new way.
When my professor told that joke in class, he was actually commenting on our campus, and how the faith is practiced by its students. He was referring to the undeniable divide that was present among the student body that was involved in campus ministry and in service. The former were devout Catholics (and Christians) who attended the campus Bible studies, prayer nights, and other similar activities, while the latter were largely students who were just as likely to be Catholic as atheist, academics as party-frequenters. On an institutional level, there wasn’t very much interaction between the campus ministry office and the center for social outreach, and on the level of the students, there was surprisingly little cross-over between these two groups of students (there was definitely some, but not nearly as much as I would have expected). The two offices were treated as entirely different entities, and the only connections they shared were their location on campus (they were housed in the same building, along with several other offices) and a handful of students who were equally involved in campus ministry and service (There’s also something to be said about the fact that we all have different gifts that can be exercised in different areas of the Church, and that some of us are called to become Scripture scholars, while others are meant to become champions of social justice issues). In an effort to make sure that students of all faiths (or no faith) felt invited to volunteer on and off campus, the two offices were separate, and considering the amount of non-Christian and even atheist students, one can say that they were successful. However, there was also the unforeseen result that many Catholic and Christian students, while they frequented the campus ministry office, very rarely made it as far as the center for social outreach. Don’t get me wrong- there were many that did, but there were also many who didn’t. I believe that this is the inevitable result of a religious education system that emphasizes learning the faith and loving the Lord, but not serving Him by serving our fellow-man. If we are not taught this as children, we will not know it as adults. And thus, we need to develop a system of religious education that emphasizes the entire person, and fulfills him in body, mind, and spirit. We need a program that employs the head and teaches children to know God, employs the heart and teaches them to love Him, and employs the hands and teaches them to serve Him. Which brings me to my final point: we need a system of religious education that unites faith and service.
Oftentimes, our religious education programs will only focus on one aspect of the human person: the mind. And let me just make this clear: you really can’t blame the directors of programs or the catechists. I know that I personally would love to include more service in my programs, but there just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that I’ve envisioned. Similarly, catechists only have a short amount of time with their students every week, and there is just a lot of material that needs to be covered. Because most children are not being properly catechized by their parents, who remain uncatechized themselves, educators in religious education programs have to devote valuable class time to teaching simple concepts and prayers that children ideally should be learning at home from their parents. But sadly, this is not the case today. Religious education classes should be a supplement to what the children are learning at home. Parents should be the primary catechists of their children. The home should be the first place where children meet the Lord. Unfortunately however, this seems to be the exception to the rule. The reality of the situation is this: parents aren’t introducing their children to Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith because they don’t know Him or it themselves. And consequently, catechists are doing double-duty. They are left to provide the entirety of a child’s religious education, all crammed into an hour/hour and a half session once a week. There is simply not enough time to deviate from the textbook as often as we would like.
There are some simple ways that we can expand our religious education programs to minister to the child in his or her entirety. There are ways to reach a child’s head, heart, and hands without overwhelming the director or the catechists. I’d like to highlight just a few ideas that have been employed by the programs at my parish. We actually make it mandatory for our home groups (groups of children who meet in their homes to be taught by their parents) to do some sort of service throughout the year. Because of the freedom that comes with the program’s flexible schedules, it’s easier for catechists to coordinate and carry out group projects. Some of my groups plant flowers in town, visit nursing homes, and volunteer at soup kitchens. All of our programs also feature optional service opportunities, in which many of our families choose to participate. Many of these take the form of food and clothing drives. Our most well-known service project is a yearly Christmas gift exchange, where we invite our children to choose a child for whom they are asked to buy a gift at the nearby toy store. When they return to our religious education office, they have the chance to wrap their gifts and explain to the group why they chose the gift that they did. All of the children look forward to it each year, and it’s become quite the competition to secure spots for this service project. We are created to love and to give, but this is something that we often forget. Children remind us. Our students get just as excited about the service as they do their actual classes (and sometimes more so). They have an innate desire to seek fulfillment in their entire person. They want to use their heads, their hearts, and their hands. They want to know, love, and serve God. We just have to let them.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!