Sunday, January 13, 2013

What Would It Look Like...

This evening, over a glass of wine, one of my Jesuit brothers told me of a program being run at the parish where he assists on the weekend. The gist of it is this: religious formation, so often thought of as only for those being prepared for one of the sacraments, is offered to the whole family. That is, it's not the case of mom or dad dropping the kid off and then collecting him/her a few hours later. Indeed, it's a full-family investment into the progress of learning about the family's Catholic faith.

The mantra, playing over and again in my mind, has been "We'll get what we are." This insight, taken from Christian Smith's book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (p. 57), recalls to my mind that so many of our values are not simply learned but, rather, imitated. Just as the rituals of watching Monday Night Football or a Sunday game are something children are brought up into so, too, might we raise our children to share the family's commitment to learning about their faith.

Hence my question: What would it look like if Catholic parishes began to require that the whole family participate in religious education? I find learning about my religion endlessly interesting and suspect that, if adults were exposed to some of the riches of the Catholic tradition, that they would too. I simply cannot accept the idea that after one's confirmation in the 8th grade that the whole of the Catholic tradition has been mastered....hell, I'm 33 and totally invested in this and I'm still an apprentice! If our parishes, however, started to make it an expectation that the whole family take part in the preparation for the sacraments...what would that look like?

Listen, I'm an Irish pessimist: I've gone over the 100+ reasons already why this wouldn't work. Nevertheless, as an idea person, I think there'd be enormous value in providing a venue where the whole family could learn, both together and in age-appropriate groups, about what Catholicism has to offer. G. K. Chesterton wrote that "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried." I suspect that providing a framework wherein parents could model to their children the value of learning about their religious faith - providing a good role model while simultaneously enriching their own spiritual lives - would help our youth take religious faith and its nurturing more seriously.

I write this and acknowledge some of my own hypocrisy: every day at the Eucharist, I remember my niece and nephew in a special way (along with my whole family) in the intentions. But am I doing my best to make sure that they are learning about their faith, that their parents and the rest of my family are continuing to be nourished? Alas, I am derelict in this but I do resolve to make this a priority because, as I am increasingly convinced, the credibility of the Catholic faith will not be found in our bishops or hierarchy but, rather, in the quality of lives lived out courageously by moms and dads.

Ultimately, I'm not sure of how tenable this all is. I look back on my experience teaching CCD and realize that it is, for all intents and purposes, a glorified system of babysitting where little content is ever passed along. Yet if it were taken more seriously and real resources were put into the training of teachers and the construction of worthwhile programs for children and adults, I think asking Catholic families to commit a bit of time each week to learning about their faith and their Church would help them to come to know the Lord more intimately and enkindle within them a greater fire and joy for their faith. 


Len said...

Ryan, I think it is an interesting idea on many levels. I think it would be met with resistance in the beginning only because it would be yet another intrusion into our precious free time. But I also think that once a family is drawn in, I believe that it could be a beautiful experience. I do think there would need to be both time for the entire family to learn together as well as age appropriate classes.

naturgesetz said...

Well, I guess it is working in the parish involved. How well may be another question; and how effectively may not be answerable for years.

I've always wanted us to have religious education programs which transmittedthe content of the faith in depth (as the Baltimore Catechism did when I was in parochial school); and I still see that as a valid goal. But I'd temper it with the realization that the best program in the world cannot be successful. Only God can give the grace of faith, and we can't insure that people will accept it. Beyond that, I was recently at a talk by Fr. Soper, the Director of Planning for the Archdiocese, and he mentioned having just read a book which says that surveys show that for people to be active, faithful Catholics, they have to have a "conversion" as adults. Maybe that program of involving the whole family is one way of facilitating adult conversions.

Anonymous said...

I can imagine that this would work in some parishes. Some things that would help a lot would be flexible scheduling and available child-care. I think a voluntary program of this nature would be a good idea, but a mandatory one would be likely to have unfortunate consequences.

I should note that we are starting with different assumptions. You seem to think that Catholicism is so inherently fascinating that if only people learned a little more about it, they would become more and more interested in it. (You also assume that the more they understand it, the more they will agree with it, which I have not really found to be true.)

I, on the other hand, assume that individuals are wired very differently. Some are deeply interested in religious questions and others aren't. If you make a hundred kids take piano lessons, some of them will fall in love with the instrument and some won't. Maybe religion SHOULD be different, but I don't think it is.

So, here are my predictions:

Assuming that the classes are well-taught, a few people would love them. A larger number would tolerate them, jumping through the hoops to get to the goal. Others would simply refuse to attend, perhaps finding another parish or even another denomination.

Again, I'm less interested in what I think SHOULD happen than in what I think would happen. I know that there is a lot of ignorance of religion out there, and I'm all in favor of religious education.

But . . . you are no doubt already aware that the Catholic church in America sustains its numbers only through immigration. Many more people leave the church every year than join, and they leave for a hundred different reasons. If you put barriers in front of the sacraments, some people will get angry, and some of those will leave.

My best guess is that a great many people would put up with these classes in order to get their kids through first communion, but the number of young people being confirmed would plunge through the floor. Going to communion is a major marker of Catholic identity. Confirmation? Maybe not so much.

Those who made it through Confirmation, on the other hand, might be better prepared and have more family support than they do now. Is it worth it? I guess that gets back to the question of what kind of church you want. Do you want a smaller, more committed church? Or do you want a larger church with more variation in knowledge and commitment?

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

I appreciate your points very much. At the end of your response, you pose what I read as an either/or: either a "smaller, more committed church" OR "a larger church with more variation in knowledge and commitment." I don't know that I see this dichotomy because, simply, I don't think you can commit to something you don't know. In my experience, a great many problems with the Catholic Church would be alleviated if people (including the hierarchy) grew better in their knowledge of the Church and its history.

That is, I frequently meet people who think that because they have doubts, or struggle, or disagree that it puts them outside of the Church. They understand that to be Catholic means docile obedience. Some bishops seem to think this, too. Yet if we look to the Church's history, you see some rather ornery characters who've done a bang-up job destabilizing the establishment: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Antony of the Desert, Mother Theresa, Pedro Arrupe, Greg Boyle, and Robert Barron, just to name a few. These are women and men who stand squarely in the heart of the Church and call it, time and again, to grow further into what it could be. They love the Church they know, and they know that their love is born of truth and a desire to see the people of God flourish.

I'm of a mind that one major step we can take as a Church is to draw people together back as a community. Piano lessons are solitary affairs, football is not: I'm advocating a team approach to religious formation. Instead of thinking of each one of us as a solitary "I" I would like to recover a greater sense of the family and the community as vitally important in the ongoing formation of the human person.

I'm not after numbers...that works itself out. I'm interested in women and men who are committed to something, something that sets them on fire and makes them passionate. Not everyone will hold a deep and burning fire for Catholicism, but I think we'd see an increasing vibrancy and vitality in the Church if we started to stir the embers within its people.

Erin Pascal said...

I think that this is such a wonderful idea. Religious formation is something that is started and continuously strengthened at home. As much as children learn most by doing, they learn greatly from imitation or by watching what their parents do. When we parents display great interest and attend religious education with our children, we are sending a very concrete and strong message to them about who they are, who their family is and what their family values. It is not only the role of the church to educate and prepare our children to begin a relationship with God, it is ours too.