Tag Archives: ecclesial method

A walk-through our Confirmation session…

Catechists love hearing about how other catechists or other parishes ‘do things’. In fact, although I’ve never done it, I would love, one day, just to sit in on another parish’s Confirmation programme as an observer.

So, I thought I’d tell you about one of the sessions we did recently. Each week follows roughly the same structure. This was the fifth session of the year (following the evangelisation retreat). The sequence of sessions so far has gone like this:

Made for God; The Dignity of the Human Person; Sin and Mercy; The Forgiveness of Sins (Baptism)

This session was the Forgiveness of Sins (Reconciliation). All of our candidates were prepared for making a good Confession on retreat; many of them had gone again since then. This session was designed to go more deeply into some of the themes. Here’s what we did…

We opened, as we always do, by creating the atmosphere of prayer with one or two songs of praise leading into a Liturgy of the Word (First Reading – Ezekiel 36, about receiving a new heart and a new spirit – followed by the Gospel – John 8, the woman caught in the act of adultery – proclaimed by the priest).

After the Liturgy of the Word, we have a proclamation (more on the proclamation can be seen here), summing up the main message of today’s session: Confession is one of the greatest graces we can receive again and again in our life. It renews the soul, completely unburdens it, and renews it with strength. God is merciful, and he wants us to claim his mercy.  (See YouCat 226). We then showed the video clip from the Passion of the Christ (don’t worry, none of the gory bits) of Jesus saving Mary Magdalene from being stoned to death and offering her new life.

Then comes the ten-minute teaching, the unpacking bit. Here (continuing from the previous week’s session on Baptism) we looked at why we continue to sin (the candidates learned the word ‘concupiscence’, the inclination to sin), seen in this woman (probably Mary Magdalene) who was caught committing adultery and brought before Jesus. To demonstrate this, we used a clean glass of water (again, this continued from the previous week’s session). This is what our soul is like after Baptism. But what happens? We sin. The candidates named some sins, and with each one, poured ketchup, tabasco sauce, and numerous other sauces into the water to make rather a disgusting concoction. This is what happens to our souls through sin – they become murky. The candidates looked up YouCat 226, which was followed by an evangelistic teaching of what happens in Confession – Jesus knows all of the mess in our souls, he knows what we’ve done. When we go to Confession, we meet him personally, tell him all of this, and tell him that we are sorry. It is like we are ‘un-nailing’ Christ from the Cross and receiving the love and mercy he wants to pour out on us.

A Crucifix in our church

Next, the candidates were invited to share with the person next to them what they thought teenagers found the hardest about going to Confession. We went through each of these one by one – telling your sins to someone is embarrassing; some sins are too bad to say; what if he recognises my voice?

This was followed by a young catechist giving his testimony about how he slipped into not going to Confession for years while he was a student, and the amazing experience of coming back to Jesus through this sacrament.

Then, we went into a practical small group activity where the candidates had to put pieces of paper into two lists: one relating to mortal sins, and one relating to venial sins. We talked about the kinds of sin which come under each category. Our emphasis here was on saying everything in Confession, even venial sins. But being aware that serious sins, knowingly and willingly committed, cut us off completely from God.

Finally, another young catechist performed a role play of Confession with the priest, giving examples of sins that a young person might confess, and demonstrating the words of the prayers that the candidates might not be too sure of.

We finished up with a time of prayer in the church: music, an examination of conscience, a Scripture reading, and an opportunity for the candidates to go to Confession.

This is a pretty typical session: we like to break it up with a variety of different activities and it takes one and a half hours.

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:


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.

The Ecclesial Method, Part 3

Having looked at the all-important preparation and proclamation (the heart of the catechesis), I want to now look at the third step:


Just as our teaching follows God’s pedagogy (this is why the proclamation is like an announcement, because this is how God reveals and teaches in Scripture), our teaching also needs to show faithfulness to our human audience. We have to know our audience well – their culture, their mindset and attitudes, the things that preoccupy them – in order to present the teaching in such a way that they can receive it. Catechesis is not really ‘complete’ until it is received into the heart, until the person’s will moves to appropriate this teaching to their life, to make a change.

This puts a big responsibility on our skills as a catechist: we have to know God and the faith well; we also have to know people well, understand them, live their culture, know how to attract them or challenge them or console or encourage them.

John Paul II said:

“We need heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who know the depths of the human heart, who can share the joys and hopes, the agonies and distress of people today, but at the same time contemplatives who have fallen in love with God.”

What a huge call! If you are a catechist, you need to an expert in humanity, and not only that, a contemplative who has fallen in love with God.

How does this relate to the Explanation part of catechesis? This is when your “expertise in humanity” come in! We need to explain the teaching in such a way that it can be understood, received and applied to life. We not only need to understand the doctrine well so that we can explain it clearly (for example, do we really believe that the Fall was a historical event? or: how do I know which of my sins are mortal and which venial? or: what exactly are angels? or: how are we saved?). We also need to answer the question: What relevance does this teaching have to these people’s lives? How is this going to increase their faith, their hope or their love? What has this got to do with their relationship with Christ? We may be able to explain a doctrine beautifully, but these questions are often the important ones.

How do we do the Explanation step? For adults, this may be a short talk. In our RCIA classes, we break it down and don’t have any talks which last longer than 20 minutes. We know that teenagers have a short attention span, but on a weekday evening after a long day at work, adults too are tired, and I think it can help to break things up, and keep the elements of the session moving. Audio-visual aids are also extremely helpful. In the last two weeks, we have started using Fr Robert Barron’s excellent Catholicism series DVDs in our RCIA classes. You need to pick the right section, and we never show more than 15 minutes at a time, but I think this is a resource which will be indispensable within adult catechesis for years and years to come. (Thank you Word on Fire!)

It is also useful to work through handouts, use powerpoint, film clips, personal stories, analogy, examples…making it as real and concrete as possible. There are some great tips on adult education within the Association for Catechumenal Ministry material.

What about with teenagers? The above can also be used, but often, the more active young people are, the better: as long as the activity has a defined purpose and is focussed. In our Confirmation catechesis, we often begin the Explanation step with a quick activity to engage the candidates initially so they are active from the start, not passive. For example, we have used a “Gospel Demo” for teenage catechesis before, which involves young people representing different characters – first in the Fall, and then through to the redemption. It is a presentation of the kerygma, the Gospel message, but the young people themselves participate in it. Use memorable props related to the topic. Use games with deeper meanings (the Theology of the Body for Teens resource from Ascension Press is excellent for ideas of games that are relevant for all catechesis – not just Theology of the Body).

How does the teaching help a teenager grow in relationship with Christ?

There are other very simple ideas which you can sprinkle through your teaching to liven up a normal catechesis: If you have passages from Scripture in your presentation, give them out with numbers on, and the young person reads their passage when you ask for that number. When you ask for more thoughtful answers from the group ask them to share their thoughts first with the person next to them. And I’m sure we all know this: but moving around is better than standing still – keep them engaged, focussed and on their toes 🙂

In the Explanation stage for children, catechesis takes on quite a different character. We use the Faith & Life series for our children’s catechesis, so each session combines different elements: reading together, discussing, activities, role play and use of different items. All of the above can come into the Explanation step – there are some great scripts in the resource and in other places online which can make the teaching come alive.

As always, see Mgr Francis Kelly’s The Mystery We Proclaim for a full account of the ecclesial method.

So over to you: What else would you include in the Explanation step?

The Ecclesial Method, Part 2

I want to continue looking at the Ecclesial Method for catechesis by considering the second step:


This step is the most important step of the whole catechesis. It is an announcement. “This is something so important and amazing, I just have to tell you…” “This is something you just have to know!” This is the kind of attitude we give the proclamation with.

Sometimes we have moments, in prayer, or while we’re studying, or when we are receiving formation, when we’re overawed: WOW! And then as soon as we see friends, we have to tell them about what we’ve learnt. Or sometimes we hear something in our own formation and think: Wow – so-and-so really need to hear this. Our joy isn’t complete until we share this with those we love.

When we catechise we’re telling with joy the truths we have received from the Church and which have transformed our lives. We know they can transform the lives of the people we catechise too, so we want them to know the whole truth. But first, we tell the core message. “This is what you just have to know…” Not so that you can pass the test next week, or so that you can answer others’ questions (although this is an important reason) – you need to know this because it is the truth about who you are and what you’re made for – this will change your life!

This idea of the Proclamation is summed up well by Fr Cantalamessa:

“The runner arriving breathlessly in the town square from the battlefield doesn’t begin by giving an orderly account of the development of event and neither does he waste time on details. He goes straight to the point and in a few words gives the most vital piece of news which everyone is waiting to hear. Explanations can come later. If a battle has been won, he shouts: ‘Victory!’ and if peace has been made, he shouts: ‘Peace!'”
Life in the Lordship of Christ, p. 1

We can all think of times when we have experienced catechesis which has not been delivered with passion and joy. I remember sitting through a PowerPoint presentation on the Trinity where someone might have been forgiven for thinking that the Trinity was not Almighty God himself, but rather some “gadget” with lots of technical components that needed explaining. We do need to explain doctrine – but understanding should have some impact on our lives, it should move hearts, it should initiate change.

Here are some practical examples of proclamations that I have written for my own catechesis. Remember that we personally proclaim something – we teach something as one who knows this – and therefore we teach in a unique way, with our own human qualities and personalities.

Proclamation on the Trinity:
God alone can reveal to us who he is. He has revealed himself as a communion of Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the central mystery of our Christian faith and Christian life.

Proclamation on the Church:
It is in the Church that Christ accomplishes the Father’s plan: to unite human beings to God. The Church is united to Christ as a Bride to her Bridegroom.

Before people worry that I’m proposing that there be no more content to the catechesis… Do not fear! Like the messenger example given by Fr Cantalamessa, everyone wants to sit down and hear all the details. This is the third step: where everything is explained.

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.


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.


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!