Tag Archives: catechist training

Small Group Discussion

Recently, I met a catechist who said she wished that there was more time for small group discussion in the programme she helps out with. She felt there was barely enough time to get to know the young candidates in her group, let alone allow them to discuss anything too deeply.

And only this morning, I met a woman who was reflecting that in an adult formation programme she took part in, she felt that she couldn’t express her true thoughts, because her small group leader ‘had all the answers’.

I think these examples betray two problems we come up against with this method of handing of the faith. As a leader, sometimes we are a bit afraid of small group discussion. We’re unsure that our catechists are formed well enough, or know the subject enough, to steer the discussion in a good direction. So we limit it to a token few minutes in the session. The main teaching is a lecture given by someone who we can 100% trust.

And as a small group leader, we can panic when someone starts spouting misunderstandings about the faith; we jump in to get things back on track, then find it much safer to dominate the discussion ourselves.

Sound familiar?

In both scenarios, we are not allowing enough room for the active participation of those we catechise. We all know that people learn when they are active in the learning process. A lecture is not going to cut the mustard. Even if it’s the essence of stunning, polished orthodoxy. Young people and adults both need time to express where they are currently, so that we can take this on board, and lead them to deeper understanding.

This requires great skill. We do need well-formed catechists who not only have deep understanding, but also good people skills. Someone who will allow people to say what they think without panicking, then perhaps drawing in others to come to a clearer answer.

At our recent Confirmation retreat, I saw the benefit of small groups really clearly. In our groups, we prayed together at the beginning and the end of our sessions. At the end of each day, the candidates met together to share their high moment, low moment and ‘God’ moment from the day. (Guess where we got that from – it could only be the archdiocesan summer camp in Kansas!) Small group time gave the candidates an experience of a small, intimate Christian community where they could be completely honest. And that is totally worth it. Even if your catechist doesn’t have a Masters in apologetics.

Someone said to me recently that small groups are like Purgatory for most adults. I am sure we’ve all had such purgatorial experiences. But when they’re done well, it more than worth the initial risk we take. Small group leader training is indispensable!

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Ten Top Tips for Managing Your Class

OK, readers. These come from someone who has zero training as a teacher. But they are what I have picked up and learned (often the hard way) from giving catechesis myself. It is hard to find catechists who tick all the boxes – are good teachers, know the faith well, can manage a room full of children or teenagers – so therefore we often have to teach and learn these skills on the job. Please add any of your own tips in the comments!

1. Don’t forget you’re in charge! 😉 I know this sounds obvious – but I’ve known plenty of catechists who don’t like to assert themselves too much. I think it’s maybe a mixture of lack of confidence, not wanting to be unpopular with the kids, and perhaps also a misguided sense that Christians are ‘nice’ and a little bit timid and shouldn’t be too strict. However, we all know that young people feel secure and cared for when there are clear boundaries, and this means a catechist does need to ‘impose themselves’ a little bit on the class.

2. Have a clear, crisp beginning: If you just kind of drift into the catechesis, chances are young people won’t be engaged or won’t be clear about what’s expected of them. Routines are good: if they know what they need to do as soon as they arrive, chances are they’ll get in the habit of doing it.

3. Children fulfil the expectations you have of them: So make sure they’re clear right from the start. For older children, get them to make the ground rules themselves and remind them of them every now and again when needed. Be clear about what the consequences are and carry them through. Conversely, you can enforce a sense of low expectation simply by allowing bad behaviour: if children get away with getting up from their seat whenever they feel like it, this will start becoming the norm. Before you know it, chaos will rule!

4. Walk around as you speak: Don’t stand stationary. Moving around keeps your children on their toes a little and keeps them engaged. Don’t give them a chance to switch off.

5. Don’t start speaking until there is silence: Sounds obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve seen catechists try to keep speaking, battling against an undercurrent of noise. Again, if young people realise they can get away with even the slightest hint of this, soon this will become normal. The worst thing is having to shout to make yourself heard. Don’t do it to your voice!

6. Keep a quick pace: This is more important than we can imagine. Catechists want to cover lots of points, and before they know it the young people are bored, disengaged, doodling on anything they can find. Keep things snappy! Switch activities often. Use a wide variety of teaching and learning methods. Don’t give anyone time to be bored.

7. If things get out of hand, don’t panic: Stay calm. You can’t be in control of the situation unless you’re calm. If you are someone who rarely shouts, then they will know they’ve overstepped the mark if you need to speak sternly. And it’s important you do! Just because “it’s not school”, doesn’t mean that we have to overlook bad behaviour. So, move somebody away from their friends if they are disruptive. Speak to a child one-to-one if they are rude. Do everything out of love for the children you are forming.

8. Get to know each of your young people personally: Learn their names, if you can, as soon after the first session as possible, and use them. Speak with them socially in addition to giving catechesis. When I first started giving Confirmation catechesis, the session began with a social time. The catechists would chat in one room, and the candidates would chat in the other. I felt this was bad practice, we needed to mix with them! Be interested in their lives. Show that you care about what’s going on with them. You will find that they will soon come and talk to you freely. Especially with challenging children, ensure that the contact you have with them is mostly positive, not negative.

9. Ensure opportunities for everyone to participate: Even quiet children. It’s important, for the Application stage of the catechesis, that we hear their responses, that they feel comfortable to ask questions. I remember one girl in a Confirmation class one year mentioned almost right at the end of the programme that she wasn’t sure God even existed! Something had gone wrong there – the Application part of the catechesis hadn’t worked for this girl. With quiet kids, silly games are a great way of breaking the ice, and getting people to open up a little. Recently, I played a game with a group of teenagers: they were in two teams, and each child had a sour sweet – sourest I could find – eyewateringly sour. They had to eat the sweet quickly as they could before the next person in their team could begin theirs. It’s fun to watch, it gets them to laugh, what more could you want?!

10. Pray for and know your young people: It’s obvious, but how much do we remember this? Let’s resolve to pray for each of our young people – by name – every week or every month (depending how many you have!) For catechists of small groups, it is easier to pray very specifically for each child and their needs.

When we know the children we’re catechising, we know when they’re tired and not absorbing anymore, we know when they are a bit flat and need a game to get going, we know when there is confusion or discouragement which would benefit from an open chat with the whole group. If we simply plough ahead with the catechesis we have planned, we’re not being the best catechists we can be.


First Holy Communion Preparation

The BBC is currently showing a series of three documentaries entitled, Catholics. One on seminarians (the more inspiring one so far), one on children filmed in a rural Lancashire parish and one on women (Thursday, 9pm, BBC 4). There are lots of interesting things that could be said about its portrayal of Catholic faith and life, and this particular style of documentary.

What interests me here, though, is the catechetical angle – of course… 😉

This clip from the second episode shows the preparation of some children for First Holy Communion. Firstly, I want to make clear that I know these women are doing their best, they are giving up their time, they clearly care about what they are doing. But I feel that these catechists, like many catechists up and down the country, could use a bit of catechesis themselves. “Who wants to try some holy bread and holy wine?” “Next week, it’ll be different…” without explaining how or what it will be. And even in the church: “When you come to receive the holy bread…” “It’s just like a party!” Well, if this is a party, as soon as they are a few years older they’ll be going to parties a whole lot more fun than this one, and this one will soon be forgotten about…

If there were three things I would say to all First Communion catechists (and priests whose overall responsibility it is for catechesis) if I had the chance, it would be these:

  • Children are able to grasp the concept that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ
  • So call it what it is! Our seven-year-olds can tell you that the “Eucharist” is the “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ”. They very quickly learn not to call the Eucharist “bread” and “wine”
  • Seven-year-olds can understand (and even say!) the word “transubstantiation” (I recently asked a group what it meant, and a boy blurted out – “it is something that annoys the devil!” but he also knew that it was the change of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood)
Somehow, I think it’s a different problem than catechists thinking children cannot handle it. I think actually it’s a problem of them not knowing themselves. Later on in the programme a class teacher is filmed giving an RE lesson where she emphasises that the Eucharist is a “mystery” that no one understands really, at all! Using the “mystery” card to avoid explaining any doctrine – the Eucharist, the Blessed Trinity, the Resurrection – is a cop out which misunderstands “mystery” – something that we can know truly, but not fully.

Two thoughts came to me after watching this programme:

1. It would be great to build up a pool of video clips showing good catechetical practice as well as bad – it’s fine learning it in theory, but seeing it happen in practice really helps catechists understand catechetical principles concretely;

2. All Catholic teachers and catechists really should study at Maryvale…


Getting catechesis right

One of the suggestions for the Year of Faith is for dioceses to review the catechetical resources they currently use:

It is hoped that local catechisms and various catechetical supplements in use in the particular Churches would be examined to ensure their complete conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Should a catechism or supplement be found to be not totally in accord with the Catechism, or should some lacunae be discovered, new ones should be developed, following the example of those Conferences which have already done so.

And:

It would be appropriate for each particular Church to review the reception of Vatican Council II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its own life and mission, particularly in the realm of catechesis. This would provide the opportunity for a renewal of commitment on the part of the catechetical offices of the Dioceses which – supported by the Commissions for Catechesis of the Episcopal Conferences – have the duty to care for the theological formation of catechists.

One of the activities students do in the Maryvale Certificate in Catechesis is evaluate some commonly used parish catechetical resources. As I’ve been marking these papers, I’ve been amazed at the heresy in these very common resources: such as this First Communion resource. The problem is, parish priests and catechists see an attractive resource, lots of colouring in, easy for catechists to use, very child-friendly and happily ‘add to cart’ – it ticks all the boxes!

But, when you look more closely, like the Maryvale catechists are being trained to do, there are some serious deficiencies. How, as a catechist, can you identify if the resources your parish uses are catechetically sound?

A helpful list of ten deficiencies found in many catechetical resources was drawn together by the US Bishops at an ad hoc committee to oversee the use of the Catechism, in June 1997.

Placing this list against the First Communion resource identified above makes for some interesting discoveries. This is a resource which might tick all your ‘easy-use’ requirements, but it also successfully ticks many of the ‘spot-the-heresy’ boxes, too:

Here’s just one example:

“Jesus was a good person and spent a lot of his time talking about God.”

Two mistakes in one (insufficient attention to the Trinity and insufficient emphasis on Christ’s divinity): the ten deficiencies list explains these two problems:

“A recognised reluctance to use “Father” for the First Person of the Trinity…There are times where the word ‘God’ is placed in a sentence where one would expect to find ‘Father’ or ‘God the Father'”

“Jesus as Saviour is often overshadowed by Jesus as teacher, model, friend, or brother.”

20120211-221648.jpgMany would say that this reluctance to use the word “Father” in a resource is not going to make too much difference to a seven-year-old. But, I would disagree – a seven-year-old is capable of entering into a living relationship with God who is their Father – not some monolithic being. A young child is also awakening to their own sense of sin, and to their corresponding need for a Saviour. Jesus as “model” simply puts a great moralistic burden on a child, rather than inviting them to know the One who, because He is God, saves them.

I hope many parishes and even dioceses will take the opportunity of the Year of Faith to review what resources are being used in their catechesis, to acknowledge the subtle but real harm they can do, and train their catechists in the use of authentic resources.


Top Ten RCIA Traps

The Association of Catechumenal Miinistry is the best for RCIA - click on the image

Recently a number of conversations with different people have highlighted for me that in many parish RCIA processes there are still some fairly dismal practices going on. RCIA, in my view, is one of the most important works of the Church – it is crucial in determining the depth of a person’s conversion, and whether they continue to practise after their classes finish. 

Firstly, a disclaimer: I am aware that RCIA catechesis can be difficult work and that most catechists are volunteers or overstretched priests. I think that sometimes, though, there is little investment made into training RCIA catechists (Maryvale Institute runs an excellent one-year RCIA training certificate) so that they are even aware of the liturgical, catechetical and pastoral principles of the RCIA. 

So, with this in mind, here is a list of the Top Ten Traps that some RCIAs – wittingly or unwittingly – seem to fall into: 

Conversion takes time

1. A nine-month journey, one-size-fits-all, to the sacraments of initiation
You know how it goes – someone rocks up at a class in October and by May they’re a fully-fledged Catholic. But are they? It is rare that a person’s full conversion process – which involves mind, heart, will, entire life – can take place in such a short space of time. Give God chance! Each person has an individual story and needs an RCIA process which meets their needs.

2. Lack of faithfulness to Church teaching
In my naivety I thought this had mostly died out in our Church today – until I was speaking recently to someone who is a catechist in an RCIA process where the catechumens are told they don’t need to worry about going to Confession… Uh-oh. Let’s not create even more Catholics in the image of those who don’t practise. We are seriously short-changing people by not telling them the truth they are hungry for.

3. Emphasis on experience over doctrine
This is another model of catechesis I thought had died out… but little did I know, it is apparently still alive and kicking. The “Twigs and Tealights” approach: The starting point is to ask people what a Scripture passage means to them before they have received any teaching. I presume people come to RCIA for answers – they already know what they think! A girl I met for catechesis last week summed it up when she said that the doctrine she was learning was “satisfying” – it nourishes the mind with truth.

4. No reference to experience – failure to help catechumens apply doctrine to life
This is at the opposite end of the spectrum: The doctrine presented is very orthodox… but completely dry. Catechumens are left wondering what on earth this has to do with their everyday life. They can explain to you perfectly what the hypostatic union is, but they have not been helped to see how doctrine impacts their daily life. We need to model the principle of “unity of life”: what we believe and how we live are intricately connected.

Disgruntled Catholics do not help the Catechumenate

5. Opening the doors of RCIA to Catholics who want answers to their questions
We’ve all been there: Mrs. Why-Can’t-Women-Be-Priests shows up at RCIA because it’s been presented to the parish as open to everyone – a “journey in faith” together. Catholics with gripes about their faith really do much more harm than good to the fragile faith of those in the early stages of conversion. This problem points to a much greater need – adult Catholics need ongoing formation which sadly, in most places, they are not getting. The answer is not to lump them in with the catechumens: these are two groups of people with different “statuses” within the Church and with very different needs. 

6. No period of evangelisation (or precatechumenate)
An easy trap to fall into. Curious enquirers come in off the street slap bang into the middle of a heady presentation on “The Proofs for the Existence of God” – the standard first class of the RCIA. Are they likely to want to come back? Probably not. There’s a need to be sensitive to the beginnings of faith – which tend to be delicate and shaky. The first step of the RCIA must be a gentle and inviting enquiry period. Apologetics should be up front and centre: Answer the immediate questions that people have to remove their stumbling blocks. Evangelise through a welcoming experience of community; an initial and attractive proclamation of the Faith; an introduction to the life of prayer. A thorough and systematic catechesis comes later when faith is stronger and the mind needs to be nourished. 

7. No celebration of the liturgical rites throughout the process
It can easily be forgotten that RCIA is a liturgical process: R stands for Rite. It is the Liturgy that initiates us into God’s life, and catechesis always leads to the Liturgy. The Church has instituted Rites along the way of the RCIA process to give grace that is needed to aid conversion, to strengthen faith. This allows the process truly to be God’s process of drawing people to himself – not something we do through our nine-month programme. 

8. Overlooking irregular marriages / living arrangements
This is a tricky one – it’s a difficult moment when you look through someone’s initial enquiry form and realise that there’s likely to be a problem: maybe they have been married previously or maybe their partner has. These delicate issues need to be tackled with great pastoral sensitivity and support – before the Rite of Acceptance (that is, before they begin their Catechumenate). The role of the sponsor here is vital to ensure that the person is encouraged to persevere. A less serious, but still crucial problem to be faced, is cohabitation. Again, we are not doing people any favours in failing to speak the truth to them in love. Sponsors again are key here – someone who has a good, trusting relationship with the person concerned – and can speak openly and honestly about their situation. Another common moral situation to be faced is contraception. We need courage, sensitivity and wisdom to tackle these problems (not immediately, but gradually) – and tackle them we must, to be faithful to God.

9. Little or no discernment about whether a person is ready for the sacraments of initiation
Perhaps someone’s attendance hasn’t been strong, perhaps they are still not attending Mass every Sunday, perhaps we have a sense they just haven’t quite “got” it. It is recommended that the parish priest meet with the catechumens and candidates for a “discernment interview” before the Rite of Acceptance, and then again before the Rite of Election. The work of discernment needs to be taken seriously: otherwise, we are simply perpetuating the problem of being a Church of lapsed Catholics. The sponsor and the main catechist can offer their view as to whether the person is ready, but at the end of the day, the final decision lies with the priest.

10. Lectionary-based catechesis
Again – I didn’t know this still happened, but apparently, it does…! Catechesis that is based on the Sunday Gospel each week may be Scriptural, but it is not systematic. Systematic means that one doctrine builds upon another – there is an organic connection between all doctrines – with Christ at the centre. There is no guarantee that, if you base your catechesis on the lectionary, your catechumens will have any idea of the teaching on the Holy Spirit, for example, or how this links to the Church. Probably they will be of the impression that Christianity is a moralistic code about being good and nice to people… because, sadly, this is what people seem to take away from the Gospels without deeper teaching. 

The beginning of a new life

A final note – every time I am at our Catechumenate either teaching or just being there, I feel time and again how inadequate my knowledge is, how weak my faith is – every week, it makes me pray to the Lord to make me a better catechist and a better Christian. The truth is, we will always be inadequate to the enormous task that is before us. Only the Holy Spirit is up to this task. As well as taking the steps to form our RCIA process more in the mind of the Church, the greatest need is to increasingly surrender ourselves to the Holy Spirit – who is the One Converter of hearts and minds.


The Ecclesial Method

Mgr. Kelly's excellent book - a must-read for all catechists!

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.

How to form teenagers who love Christ and the Church?

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:

1. Preparation 

2. Proclamation

3. Explanation

4. Application

5. Celebration

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.

Preparation

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?

Does your catechetical session kick off with an embarrassing icebreaker or two?!

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.

Journalling

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?!
Reply with your thoughts in the comments!

St John Bosco Conference 2011

Franciscan University, Steubie! 🙂

Wow – I really don’t know where to begin. The St John Bosco Conference was, in short, AWESOME! Absolutely amazing. For me, it was perfect training for the job that I do – combining professional expertise, intellectual rigor, an abundance of insight and wisdom based on years of experience, and always, most importantly, an emphasis on HOLINESS which must be at the centre of ANY role within the Church. As a woman who taught one of the workshops I attended said: “This is the way God has chosen to make you a saint.” It was a huge joy to be there – superb teaching, beautiful times of prayer, and an anointed sense of community. *Sigh*…It was sad to leave.

So who loves their job as much as this catechist?!


Around 400 people participated in the conference in total – all of them parish DREs (Director of Religious Education), catechists, youth ministers. What struck me most was the seriousness with which everyone took the vocation of catechesis. Many of them give up a week out of the summer for five years in a row in order to follow training for their particular ministry. My guess would be that the catechists who have completed this training are highly skilled and competent, having covered a vast range of extremely relevant, practical and rigorous training. As you can tell, I was very impressed.

It was a far cry from the attitude towards catechesis we face so often: that anyone willing can do it: as long as they have the ‘right resource’ or have some experience in teaching, or are vaguely keen, they fit the bill. Everything at John Bosco pointed in the other direction: catechists need to be set on becoming saints, they need to be deeply knowledgeable of Scripture and doctrine as found in the Catechism, they need excellent knowledge of their audience – how to perceive the signs and stages of conversion, how to win people for Christ and evangelise hearts. As I have said before, if catechising is one of the most important works we do – why do it with less than excellence? God deserves the BEST.

So, there are many, many things I have taken away from the conference – I have deepened in understanding, been inspired with practical ideas, and been generally encouraged and enthused for this wonderful mission. I hope to share some of this in the coming posts! In particular, I want to share about: the ecclesial method of catechesis; how we can ensure Christ is at the centre of our Catechumenate; and teaching Jesus through typology to young people.

Anyone who was at the Conference – would be great to hear from you in the comments! What was your best part?