The holidays continue! In this week between returning from Germany and heading off for Madrid, I am still reflecting on the many, many things I learnt and received at the St John Bosco Conference. I want to write a bit about the Ecclesial Method for catechesis. I first learnt about it in Methodology as part of my MA. It is a method developed by Mgr Francis D. Kelly and explained in his excellent book.
Every catechist should know the Ecclesial Method
How do you plan and structure your catechetical session? Because of a lack of solid, readily-usable and attractive sacramental programmes, I’ve heard of many hard-working catechists and parishes who, each year, cobble together their own programmes. That this is done well, is crucial. How do we go about it?
I agree that sound doctrine is indispensable – but how do you present this? Giving teenagers a long talk – however orthodox in its teaching – is not exactly going to float their boat on a week night after school. How the catechesis is received and applied is its whole purpose. If the content of the teaching is beyond reproach, and yet the young people have taken nothing away, we might ask what the point is.
Mgr. Kelly addresses these questions in his book. In the challenge of finding a methodology that is faithful to God and also faithful to the needs and make-up of the human person, this method is an excellent framework to use as your starting-point.
Before the summer, we had training sessions for our new First Communion and Confirmation catechists for next year. In these sessions, we looked at why the Ecclesial Method is an effective method – that is, how it best achieves our goals of understanding and conversion for the young people in our sacramental programmes.
In summary, the Ecclesial Method is very simple. Here are the five steps:
What I want to do is outline each step, giving practical examples from catechesis we have given in the parish, to illustrate how this method is an excellent framework for all catechesis we give.
The question of how you open your session is paramount. Do you put everyone off with a dodgy icebreaker? Do you leave teenagers standing around awkwardly with some well-intentioned Coke and crisps? Do you open your teaching on the Trinity by asking what your participants ‘think about’ this doctrine of the Church?
Mgr. Kelly suggests that our guiding principle should be “calculated disengagement”. When people arrive at catechesis, they come from a full range of different situations. We need to help create the conditions in which people can open their heart and mind to God’s Word. How do we do this?
I think the first part of the preparation is with the catechists. If catechists can arrive 15 minutes early to pray together for the participants, this already lays the foundation for the session.
Prayer – opening the heart to God
“Calculated disengagement” can be different for different groups. Teenagers may need a deliberately-created calm, prayerful atmosphere to begin the session with prayer, to encourage them to open their hearts to God, to prepare for their encounter with Him. For example, quiet music, candles, maybe beginning the session in a beautiful setting, like the church. This environment is deliberately different from the environments they have come from: busy homes and timetables, constant noise and numerous demands. It implicitly states: Catechesis is something different – it is not just more learning like the rest of your day – here you are coming to listen to what God wants to tell you. Somehow, we need to encourage them to be still and silent before the Lord. This may take a whole year to achieve, but it is possible: I know of a very successful fortnightly prayer group for teenagers run by a young priest, where they spend an hour together in prayer, much of it in silence. This isn’t possible straight away – we need to work up to it. But with prayer, patience, perseverance, I think it is mostly possible.
A high school teacher at the Bosco conference said that she often started her classes with a “journal prompt”, which is another idea for “calculated disengagement” for teenagers. As soon as they arrive, they write down their personal response to a question which invites them to look at God’s work in their lives. We use a similar method in our Confirmation sessions, where the candidates have a notebook called their “Spiritual Plan of Life” and where they write their personal responses to questions during sessions or times of prayer, e.g. What one practical thing can I do to give God first place in my life this week?
“Calculated disengagement” for adults
What does “calculated disengagement” look like for adults? I would suggest it always involves prayer, but it is important to get this right. I have been involved in too many prayer sessions or “liturgies” for adults where we have been invited to engage in methods of prayer more suited to children… or not even children. If intelligent, professional adults are attending catechesis, the last thing we want is for them to be cringing as soon as they step through the door.
In RCIA sessions, we begin with a Liturgy of the Word. We begin by praying to the Holy Spirit (and explain why – the Holy Spirit is the Teacher, who teaches them interiorly), some silence, followed by a first reading, Psalm and Gospel (proclaimed by the priest if he is present) which prepare for the teaching to follow. In a mysterious way, this is very powerful: even if not yet fully understood, proclaiming the Scriptures allows God’s Word to speak unadulterated into people’s hearts.
These are just a few ideas for preparing people to hear the proclamation of God’s Word in catechesis. I’m sure there are many more and would love to hear your views:
- How do we get teenagers ready to hear what God wants to tell them?
- What experiences have you had? What do you think does or does not work?
- How can we help adults temporarily “disengage” from their preoccupations and hear God’s Word?
- Icebreakers – do you LOVE or LOATHE them?!