Category Archives: Methodology

Organic Catechesis

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Well, I’m back again at the seminary doing my annual “catechetics-in-three-days” with seminarians who are doing an extended placement next year.

Much of what I am teaching is guided by the understanding in Weigel’s recent book that we are – and need to promote – moving into a model of ‘evangelical Catholicism’. The key points of Sherry Weddell’s book also fit very well into theme, especially what she writes about moving from an infant paradigm of catechesis into an adult paradigm. This leads to an interesting question – To what extent is moving to an adult paradigm for catechesis essential for ‘evangelical Catholicism’? DISCUSS! (Thank the Lord I am not a full-time teacher – I would be a nightmare!)

It is amazing what we have covered in a short space of time. We began with the Pedagogy of God in Part 3 Chapter 1 of the General Directory, which then became the overarching theme of everything else. The pedagogy of God really blows your mind when you think deeply about it, and transforms your understanding of catechesis. (Why is it that so few practitioners speak/write about it?!) We have used Mgr Francis Kelly a lot – examining his five goals of catechesis, and the ecclesial method.

Yes – I know – writers I’ve mentioned on here gazillions of times…

One of the exercises we did concerned ‘organic catechesis’. (This is part of ‘Catechesis 101’ if this is all Greek to you!) By organic catechesis, I don’t mean rustic focal pieces draped with greenery. Because in catechesis we hand on the Person of Christ, not just a stack of facts about the faith, it is important that we show the interconnections between the doctrines of the Faith. They are all connected in the Person of Christ. If we are teaching someone about a person, everything about their personality, characteristics, are connected. A list of unconnected bullet points will not reveal much about them. But telling the whole story behind them will. So, any doctrine needs to be linked into the ‘big picture’.

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A big old tree is a helpful image to have. The healthiness of its leaves depends on the firmness of its trunk. The ‘trunk’ is those truths of our faith which are ‘foundational’ – without these foundational truths we would not have the rest of the Faith. These are also sometimes called the ‘golden threads’ which run through the Catechism – on every single page you will find these foundational truths. What are these foundational truths? (Can you work this out?!)

In case it’s too late in the day to do much theological pondering, here they are…

  1. The Blessed Trinity
  2. The dignity of the human person
  3. The Incarnation – the Person of Christ
  4. The Paschal Mystery
  5. The Church

Whatever we teach – whether it’s doctrine on Purgatory, or the communion of saints, or openness to life within marriage – it is good to connect this doctrine to each of these foundational truths. It guarantees that we are teaching this doctrine within the whole picture of the Faith, and especially, teaching the whole Person of Christ. This ensures a rich, organic transmission of the faith. Read more in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis.


Four Dimensions & Approaches to Catechesis

community

Time to bore you again with some of my dissertation research on this lovely sunny bank holiday weekend 😉 Haha, not really… PLEASE READ ON!

It’s good to remind ourselves every now and again of the ‘basics’ of catechesis, and to measure up our current practice against them. One of those basics (or maybe not if you’re new to this) is the four dimensions of the Christian life. Throughout the history of salvation, God has communicated himself to us not just through teaching us, but also in deeds, in giving his People liturgy, in giving them a way to live, and in forming them in prayer. This finds its culmination in the new Christian community we read about in Acts 2:42:

“These remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Therefore, all Christian formation needs to include these four dimensions in order to be “integral”, in order to be authentic Christian formation. Each catechetical session should include teaching, a liturgical dimension, experience of community, time of prayer.

What I’ve been researching is how approaches to catechesis can tend to emphasise one of these dimensions at the expense of the others. For example, a moral approach to catechesis focuses on the resulting moral action from the catechesis. We see this in the See-Judge-Act method of the Young Christian Workers movement, used by the Confirmation programme, Truth (Curtin, D. (2011) Truth – A Confirmation Course for Teenagers. Redemptorist Publications).

Another example of this approach is CAFOD, which has catechetical resources on its website in which topics are approached with regard to the resulting action, the outcome of the session: “When we make the choice to be confirmed, we are choosing to become active rather than passive members of God’s family.” These emphasise the third dimension – maybe at the expense of others – I will leave that to your analysis 😉

A further example is a doctrinal approach to catechesis. This is an interesting one. In some ways, we might say that this is ‘reactionary’ in that there has been such an emphasis on experience-based catechesis in the decades since Vatican II that some in the Church have (understandably) swung back in the opposite direction, stressing teaching of doctrine. I do not criticise this – knowing doctrine means we can build up a firm framework for understanding the whole of reality and our place within it. It means we have words to express the realities in which we believe. However, I think that some programmes emphasise this at the expense of the other three dimensions. Don’t get me wrong, they include teaching on these three dimensions (liturgy, life in Christ, prayer) but these dimensions are not included in the session themselves. There is no liturgical element to the session, or experience of community, or an opportunity for deeper prayer. You may be able to think of programmes which fall into this category.

Do you find you or your parish emphasises one approach above others in your catechesis? How can you aim at something more integral which forms the whole person?


Catechetical Methodology: Content v. Method?

teaching methods

Recently, a debate on Joe Paprocki’s blog got me thinking how important it is that catechists understand the underlying principles of the methodology they use. I don’t want to get into the debate on Joe’s blog – the concept of divine pedagogy needs to be explored more profoundly, I think, to get at the heart of what the universal Church is asking us and whether methodologies such as Groome’s fit with that (which, in my view, it does not… but more on that anon – perhaps…!) What struck me after following this debate (slightly belatedly) is that we, as catechists, must be aware that there is no ‘neutral’ methodology – the methods we use either serve revelation (cf. GDC 149) or they do not. This is why it is so important that catechists are trained in methodology.

First of all, let’s get down to basics. Everyone uses a methodology of some kind, whether they are aware of it or not, whether they have put much thought into it or not. Many parish priests will asks school teachers to be catechists because they believe they know ‘how to teach’. Which they do, of course – that is their profession. But what methodology are they using? And does it correspond to the divine pedagogy?

Remember – catechesis is not about teaching facts (although content is one important aspect). It is first and foremost about putting people in touch with Jesus Christ, so they may have union with him (cf. CT 5).

A catechist’s proficiency at allowing the Holy Spirit to do this can be the only measure of their success – not how much information those being catechised have successfully retained.

So – that’s the starting point. There is no ‘neutral’ method – it either serves revelation or it does not.

Why is this such an important point? As with just about every topic in the Church, there are extreme standpoints on this. There are those who emphasise the priority of content and seem to associate a concern for ‘method’ with something ‘experiential’ and fluffy. They fear that too much talk about ‘method’ leads to participants pooling their opinions (by which I mean their ignorance) and sharing their personal stories. Perhaps they forget than even they, who value content so highly, use a method – people are ‘experiencing’ their catechesis – either as something inspirational and life-changing, or as something dry and static.

On the other end of the spectrum are the ‘method’-banner-wavers. Sometimes they are successful in (apparently) eliminating all ‘content’ altogether. I remember once attending a workshop at a conference for representatives of national youth organisations. The workshop demonstrated a method of discussing important topics with young people. It involved people suggesting topics or questions they would like to discuss. Each topic was allocated a different area of the conference centre. The method involved going to the area that interested you, listening, contributing, and leaving whenever you wanted to go onto the next, but any conclusions or answers on the topics discussed were not permitted. Needless to say, it allowed the less-than-orthodox believers among us to air their views unheeded for several hours (I managed to sneak off for a nap). This was an example of ‘method’ being prized over content. But, undeniably, ‘content’ was being taught – just completely at odds in most cases with the teaching of the Church.

Methods such as these (which seem completely mad to those of my generation who want to escape the post-modern mentality of ‘there-are-no-answers-only-questions’) are responding to what they see as an overly didactic approach to catechesis – but in doing so, they are equally didactic, just imparting dubious content.

What we find in these examples, ultimately, is a false polemic between content and method. When we read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Directory for Catechesis closely, we discover that the whole Word to be handed on is the Person of Jesus Christ himself, who is, summed up in a Person, the entire content and the entire method. 

How deeply we need to ponder and study this to form ourselves as more effective catechists!


Need for Young Adult Catechists

Welcome to British summer!

I have to tell you, it was something of a shock to step back into this cool, rainy country, people… After a month of blistering heat it took me a while to adjust and to bid farewell to summery outfits for another year *sniff*

Since being back (and after overcoming some serious jet lag), I’ve been at the Evangelium conference in Reading, giving a couple of workshops on how to be a brilliant catechist. There were some fantastic young people there, some great keynote lectures, beautiful liturgy… all in all, a wonderfully enjoyable weekend. I loved being able to share some key catechetical principles with other young adults who are catechists in their parishes, but who have never before come across some of these methodological ideas (four dimensions of the Christian life, the goals of catechesis, the five foundational truths).

Young adults, because they are in the midst of establishing careers, making life decisions, and maintaining busy social lives, rarely have the time (or money) to dedicate to serious catechist formation. I am beginning to think that alternatives should be developed for formation of young adults as catechists. Let’s face it: these are people who we really need as catechists. They are extremely effective Confirmation catechists – teenagers will listen to them as they do not yet see them as equivalent to their parents. In the RCIA process, it is compelling to see young adults witnessing to an authentic Christian life (not living together before marriage, etc) – on the whole, I believe that age and background of catechists should more or less mirror the ages and backgrounds of enquirers and catechumens. Although, the need for older, more experienced, wiser catechists in every programme is evident, too.

So, the cogs in my mind are beginning to whir on how we can form more young adults as catechists – especially to ‘grow’ the next generation of catechetical leaders in this country. It is always important to form already existing catechists, but we need to look to the future too. I believe, because the task of catechesis in our Church over the next decades is so urgent, we need the best to become catechists – intelligent, well-formed, inspiring people who live life to the full.


Catechetics in the seminary

Last week, I spent some time at the seminary teaching on catechetics. What a fantastic few days. It was difficult to know how to pitch it, given that I’m used to speaking to adults in the parish without a great deal of theological background. But how refreshing to be able to share some catechetical principles along with concrete examples from our parish, with a wonderful group of seminarians. We discussed different experiences of catechesis – what makes good practice and what makes bad, we explored the pedagogy of God in the GDC and compared methodologies to it, we looked at the goals of catechesis outlined by Mgr FD Kelly as well as his ecclesial method, we looked at liturgical catechesis, particularly how to teach ‘from’ and ‘to’ the rite, we discussed the importance of the four dimensions of Christian life in catechetics, and the ‘symphony’ of the Catholic faith whose main themes are the five foundational truths. It was an enjoyable and inspiring three days, and I was privileged to be able to share ideas with them. For the future of catechesis in the Church, vital to her flourishing, is the solid formation of seminarians in catechetics. These few days showed me the importance of this, and I am increasing my prayers for seminarians in our country. Please increase your prayers, too!


The Ecclesial Method, Part 4

Here we are, after a very long gap, for which I apologise… The fourth step of the ecclesial method. The first three steps of the ecclesial method for catechesis (Mgr Francis D Kelly, The Mystery We Proclaim) are the preparation, the proclamation, and the explanation. Catechesis occurs through stages: it first involves preparing the ground without which nothing can really be heard or received, it then moves on to the central moment of the proclamation, the announcement of the kerygma, followed by a clear explanation adapted to the needs of those catechised. Next, comes the fourth step:

Application

20120311-194624.jpgThis is a vital moment that can easily become overlooked. Only when doctrine and real life come together does the lightbulb come on, so to speak. We all know what it is like: we allot 30 minutes for proclamation and explanation. We have key objectives for understanding we need to cover. One activity takes longer than planned, a particular point sparks imagination and the questions are endless. You don’t get through everything you wanted to. Before you know it, the explanation step has not only encroached into, but totally gazumped the application step. Here are a few points I’ve found helpful:

  •  You can’t cover everything! Hopefully you have a realistic number of learning objectives for your session (I’ve found that around three or four are realistic for an hour and a half session), but even then, even with the best will and catechetical skills in the world, it may be that you don’t get through everything. This is fine. Thankfully we’re giving catechesis, not teaching a GCSE syllabus.
  • I remember Professor James Pauley say at the Bosco conference at Steubenville last summer: every baptised Catholic has the right to be taught the full Deposit of Faith – just not in 30 minutes!
  • Because the Catholic Faith, and therefore catechesis too, are organic, the foundational truths and other central doctrines should come up again and again. Those receiving catechesis should be able to view them from many different angles. It is a bit like being on a tour of a cathedral or basilica and viewing the altar from every angle, including from above. We shouldn’t aim to exhaust any one teaching in one session.
So, what is the point of this step?

When we speak of the preparation step, we speak about “calculated disengagement” – helping those being catechised to step back from the busyness of the lives they have come from, to be ready to hear God’s Word. Now we come to the application step, we want to achieve “calculated re-engagement“. Now we have heard God’s Word and understood what this means, have thought it through and grasped it a little bit, we need to consider the reality of our lives in the light of this Word.

20120311-200908.jpgWhat does this teaching mean in our lives? Naturally, we seem to think straight away about the difficult moral implications it may mean for our lives. This is important, but even before we get there, there are simpler responses: If a teaching on God the Father is effective and powerful to those being catechised, their response may be: ‘Wow! Why do I worry so much if God is my Father?!’ If a teaching on Baptism hits home for the baptised, it may result in a response of: ‘The Three Persons of the Trinity have actually made their home in me! Which means I am never alone…’ Or an effective teaching on Grace may help a person realise, ‘I have been struggling so much with this sin. But God always gives grace, so I will ask for his help.’

I really believe that God’s Word transforms our attitudes, before it transforms our actions and behaviour. A woman who is afraid to come off the Pill needs to know the love of God for her, that her life is in safe hands, before the teaching about natural family planning can be truly received in her life.

How do we help this stage to happen? In our Catechumenate sessions, the Application stage happens in small discussion groups (answering questions for understanding and application to life) as well as afterwards during silent prayer in the church where they pray with and consider the questions further, and also at home, in between sessions. In our Confirmation sessions, the application stage happens in different ways: individual reflection in their spiritual journal, small group discussion, one-on-one chat with their mentor, or a spiritual questionnaire during the time of prayer.

This stage is so vital, because it means Christianity is real. It is not just something I assent to. This has meaning for every area of my life. If this step is squeezed out of our catechesis, the seed of the word lies on the surface of the soil without taking root. It is definitely more difficult than the explanation step, and it therefore requires us to give more time to planning and prayer: effort which is undoubtedly well-spent.