Tag Archives: Catholic Church

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!


How long?

How do we prepare young people to receive the sacraments fruitfully?

How do we prepare young people to receive the sacraments fruitfully?

Here I am, still marvelling every day at where I’ve landed, right on the south coast. A lot of adjustment is going on: from the city to the seaside; from a fast-paced lifestyle to a slower one; from hundreds of young adults in church to… (let’s be honest) very few. I’m getting my head around a few things. My current experience is probably closer to every normal Catholic’s experience, but it is quite different from where I’ve come from.

So, blog readers, this is where you come in 🙂 Adjusting from a pretty rosy catechetical scene, I now find myself asking – how do we get there? How does this happen? What is the Lord calling us to do?

Here’s my first little topic for us to mull over…

I’m coming from a parish where every sacramental programme was no less than a year long. It was the system in place when I arrived four years ago, and I had never experienced anything like it, least of all in my own sacramental preparation as a child and teenager. But over time, I began to see the huge benefit of it. Gradually I became a big advocate of long programmes. Why? Here are some reasons:

  • Catechesis should be ongoing, anyway – for every single one of us (see GDC 84) – so if we can’t have permanent catechesis for all children, then their sacramental preparation needs to at least be long enough to cover the Deposit of Faith
  • Every baptised person has a right to be taught the full Deposit of Faith and you cannot do that in six sessions
  • Sacramental preparation should prepare each person’s heart to receive the sacrament fruitfully – which only happens if they have the right disposition. Creating the conditions for this disposition to be formed is a work of delicacy, prayer, and much effort, and, as with everything involving the Holy Spirit, takes time – why rush the conversion process?
  • There is a great advantage to regularity in formation – if we go to something each week, it is far more likely to become a good habit – there is more chance this will continue after the sacraments have been received
  • Regular nourishment is how God wants to form us! Not a great big feast and then starvation mode for several years. He wants to feed us with his Scriptures and teaching regularly, frequently

I admit – it is hard enough maintaining a long programme already in place. Parents see the parish next door confirming any teenager who moves, and they are resentful at what they see as the “demands” placed on them.

Every year we faced grumbles like this. During one parent’s meeting, however, one parent (previously dubious) stood up to defend the length of the programme, saying that the community and friendship which was forged as a result was remarkable and now sustained her daughter’s faith life.

In my experience, it is worth holding firm and sticking to your guns, and allowing the few who will drop off and head to the next door parish to do just that.

But, if you are starting this up somewhere, I imagine it is a whole different story. How do you suggest the new approach to parents? How do you convince young people this will be worth it? Please share your ideas!


Faith that is New and Alive

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I spent one of the most joyful weeks of my life last week in Rome, celebrating the mysteries of Holy Week with our Holy Father. We were seriously blessed. A few of our group greeted him during the Audience, and our week included many other wonderful moments: climbing the Scala Santa on Good Friday; being at the Easter Vigil in St Peter’s; a second-to-none cultural and spiritual itinerary, and being with an inspiring group of young people. 

I came back really loving the messages of Pope Francis so far. I wonder how many of us are already feeling challenged by his words? He is speaking to us constantly about the ‘newness’ of the Christian message, which, for us catechists, is our greatest challenge in handing on the faith. It means that we can never, ever allow ourselves to “get comfortable”, to allow our spiritual lives to slide into something habitual or stale. I have experienced, and I am sure we all have, the danger of becoming even a tiny bit complacent in handing on the faith.

We have a course or programme that “works fine” so we use it every year, without stopping to discern what these particular people need, what the Lord might want us to do differently. 

We’re used to structuring something in a certain way after many years, never questioning whether it produces the greatest fruit, the deepest conversions, for the Lord.

As soon as we get complacent or presumptuous, I find, we’re distanced from the Holy Spirit who is the Master evangelist and teacher, the One who teaches through us.

The Christian message, the Christian event of the Paschal Mystery, is new, fresh, every day, always able to convert and transform us more deeply, always there to make us new in our relationship with the Lord, renewed disciples, ready to go out and evangelise, catechise, again. 

Each morning we wake up, we never know when the Lord might need us to witness to Christ, to explain something to someone, to encourage, to present an alternative outlook, to evangelise, to catechise. Every day, as his disciples, we need to be spiritually “on our toes”, with hearts made new through our prayer and sacramental life, vigilant against sin that separates us from Christ. This is the way, through us, each day, Christ attracts new people to himself. How can we ever get tired of it!

Today, so many of us can see right in front of our eyes that there is an urgency within the Church to hand on the faith; we see the effects of a lack of catechesis for some decades. Precisely because of this urgency, the Church needs, first and foremost, for us to stay very close to Christ, being constantly renewed by prayer, Mass, Confession, by not losing the joy that comes from having our hearts united to Jesus. I heard a priest say recently that a Sister in his community knows when she’s sliding or coasting, because she “loses her joy”. Isn’t this so true? 

I love what Pope Francis, as Cardinal Bergoglio, said to his catechists in Buenos Aires in 2012 about remaining new and alive in our faith (you can read the full letter here): 

There is nothing more opposed to the Spirit than settling down and closing oneself in.  When one does not enter through the door of faith, the door shuts, the Church closes in on herself, the heart falls behind, and fear and the evil spirit “sour” the Good News.  When the Chrism of the Faith dries up and becomes rancid, the faith of the evangelist is no longer contagious but has lost its fragrance, many times becoming a cause of scandal and estrangement for many.  

 

Let’s promise ourselves: the day we stop praying, let’s also stop giving catechesis.


Pope Francis, we love you already!

pope

People, I’M BACK!

Two exciting things happened recently… Not only did we get a new Pope in the person of Pope Francis (whom I LOVE already), I also got wifi up and running in my new, Portsmouth flat, which I’ve survived without for around three weeks now. So I can blog and tell you how much I love our new Holy Father.

The number of images and words we’ve seen about him over the last 24 hours truly boggles the mind. So, I’m giving you my favourite quote and my favourite picture.

First, the quotation:

We need to come out of ourselves and head for the periphery. We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But is the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one. (Cardinal Bergoglio 2012 – Pope Francis)

Yes yes yes! I cannot tell you how much I love this. Who will draw people in unless we do?

And the picture: he chose to travel with the other cardinals on the coach – and not even in the front seat!

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I am so excited about what the Lord wishes to teach his Church in the person of this holy, humble, evangelistic man.

And, did I mention? My bishop’s on Twitter! The first UK bishop I believe… Follow him: @bishopegan – you won’t regret it 😉


Lent, the Year of Faith, and an unusual time for the Church

Lent feels somewhat different this year, somehow more intense and real. When the Holy Father made his announcement, one thing that struck so many of us was how much more intensely we need to pray for him, for the bishops, and for the whole Church. For me, it was a bit of a wake-up call to the greater sacrifices and prayer we need to contribute to the communion of the Church. I wonder whether this has made Lent, for many of us, a more significant one this year… we have entered it at a seemingly vulnerable time for the Church, yet knowing that Christ is always victorious (as Pope Benedict said to the priests of Rome recently).

Significant, too, is that this situation arises during the Year of Faith, a year of grace during which we return to the vision of the Council, the real Council which has, as the Holy Father also said recently, had “difficulty establishing itself and taking shape”. This Year, the Church is called to recommit to implementing the vision of this real Council. And this involves each one of us renewing our own faith.

Recently I came across this wonderful quotation from a talk given by Dr Caroline Farey, who clearly calls us back to the essence of renewing our own faith:

How is the heart ever going to know what is good if we don’t use our mind to inform the heart? Don’t let anyone say to you, ‘don’t worry about all that study, all you need is to get your heart united to Christ’. Yes, we need our hearts plunged in Christ… be led by Christ but let your mind be led by Christ through the Church so that your heart can follow what is actually good, and not just what is an awful lot of opinions of what must be good… The Catechism is there to help us.”

Renewing our mind through more rigorous study will lead to strengthening our commitment and love this Lent. And this is surely what the Lord and the Church need from us at this time: greater commitment and love.


Teaching Life in Christ

man and woman

The last few months in the UK have led to numerous discussions – both challenging and fruitful – between Catholics and their family members, colleagues and friends. The Same Sex Couples Bill is in many ways a tragedy for Britain – revealing our collective lapse of memory concerning who the human person is and even the most basic notion of a natural law. Last Tuesday evening, many of us watched with sinking hearts a debate in which only a few voiced authentic reason. Hearing the emotional appeals of many others leads us to wonder whether, as a nation, we have forgotten how to “think”, how to do philosophy, how to use our minds to discern truth.

How do we speak about this issue with others? How, when we are enjoying a drink in the pub with a group of friends, and one person raises this subject, do we approach it?

This is exactly the question we addressed a couple of weeks ago in the parish in our parents’ programme. In the lead up to the evening, we put out an online survey asking parents ‘what are the challenging questions about the Faith that your children ask you?’ Of course, any question such as this is a hidden way of discovering the questions that the parents themselves are asking.

We have been blessed during this parents’ programme to have an average gathering of around 50-60 parents who, I am pleased to say, are not ‘usual suspects’, most of whom have not been to other adult formation in the parish. I was therefore really glad when someone on the night brought up the question of gay marriage, and how to discuss it with children, because 98% of children in our catechesis programmes (who are old enough to have heard about this debate) think that the Church is being ‘unfair’. All of them are from practising Catholic families, all of them go to good Catholic schools, all have weekly catechesis.

So, when our speaker came to offer an answer (and thanks be to God, it was none other than the can’t-help-but-always-agree-with-him apologist, Father Stephen Wang), it was like there was an enormous drumroll in the room and complete silence as we listened to his response.

Now, I am not going to do justice to it, because it was a really excellent response, and is summed up on Fr Stephen’s blog here. I have used this approach since when the topic has come up with cynical friends. It goes something like this:

Mostly, this question is broached as a question of fairness. If marriage is a ‘good thing’, which we are all agreeing it is, why shouldn’t gay couples have it open to them? The Church is discriminatory, unfair, cruel for not agreeing with this. However, the whole question needs to be turned around. The real question we should be asking is: what is marriage? At the heart of marriage has always been an understanding of sexual difference and complementarity. Saying that gay couples can get married is like saying a circle can be a square.

marriage

As I listened to the debate last week, it became strikingly clear that because we no longer accept a given reality in human nature, we can manipulate language to the reality we contrive.

All these arguments have been aired frequently and far more articulately than I have done here. My concern is catechesis: how do we teach people, and help them to accept, the reality of natural law, of human nature and dignity? In RCIA, we find that people often require a full 180 degree turn in their mindsets. They come from the mindset that demands, unreflectingly, fairness and equality at all costs. Gradually, with careful reasoning, clear teaching, and friendship, we need to help them to think more deeply. This is all part of the ‘third dimension’ of formation and the trickiest one, life in Christ. Life in Christ begins with a relationship with him, so unless that is there, we shouldn’t even begin on gay marriage. Don’t go there, whatever you do! I have seen this done in RCIA and it is not pretty. Only when someone falls in love with Him, will they have enough trust and enough grace (and hopefully sound reasoning too) to discern authentic truth in this area.


Courageous Leadership

I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now. Leadership is a topic that is close to my heart, as I’ve written about here and here. The last few months, my Tube-reading has been this wonderful book: Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels. Even if I wasn’t a slow reader (which I am) I would read this slowly as it is outstanding. In my view, it should be required reading for every leader in the Church: seminarians, lay leaders, teachers, priests and bishops! It is that good.

As a young lay person working in the Catholic Church, my impression is that awareness of ‘leadership mentoring’ or ‘identifying emerging young leaders’ is not on the radar of most leaders in the Church. Bill Hybels talks about the many different ways we may come to leadership – someone may take us under their wing and disciple us; we might shadow someone in their role and be coached to develop our skills; or, we might be thrown in at the deep end. In my case, my parish priest took an enormous gamble in putting me in a position that I was not really qualified for. I remember at the time someone telling him that I should not be put in this role. It freaked me out, I knew they were right. But he replied that he would be the judge of that. Looking back, I am tremendously grateful at this huge risk that he took with me. It is not the right introduction to leadership for everyone, but for me, God knew I needed to be put in a ‘sink or swim’ situation and be forced to work things out pretty quickly.

What never fails to frustrate me is that young leaders within the Catholic Church in this country need to go outside the Church’s walls for leadership formation. Hybels’ book is an example. I don’t know of a Catholic equivalent. Last year, a big group of us went to the HTB Leadership Conference at the Royal Albert Hall. I can honestly say they were two of the most inspiring and well-spent days of my year. The faith and passion were immense. HTB is providing the Catholic Church a beautiful service in building up and impassioning her young leaders. But why is she not building up and impassioning her own?

I am going to hazard an answer to this question. I know it is a complex question with varied responses, but I think it is worth pointing out the elephant in the room. My eyes were opened to it through the honest, direct faith of Hybels’ book: we have a crisis of leadership in our Church. Hybels repeats the same simple truths again and again: vision and passion are inextricably bound in the life of a leader. If a leader does not have vision that is crystal-clear and passion that is white-hot, and if he is not able to communicate these to others, he is not fully alive, he is not fully living out his vocation (Hybels says it much better – read the book!)

Vision. Passion. I asked a priest recently what his vision was for the adult formation in his parish. He fumbled around for an answer but couldn’t really tell me. Something is wrong with that. So many of us have gone off the boil. And when everyone goes off the boil, it becomes normal. We start checking that our parish is pretty much in line with what the next-door parish is doing… and that’s as far as our vision extends. How terribly sad! We need to turn up the heat, wake up, listen to younger Catholics with vision and passion, itching and ready to take the baton, who right now can only dream of being led by the quality of leadership Hybels talks about in his book.

There is a lot in Courageous Leadership, and some particular themes I’d like to explore in future posts: vision and leadership; creating your dream team; discovering your own leadership style. I really encourage you to get a copy.