Tag Archives: methodology

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!

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Forming young catechetical leaders

An issue that is very close to my heart is forming catechetical leaders for the next generation. I feel that we especially need young catechetical leaders who are able to catechise their peers as only they can. We need leaders who are doctrinally-formed, understand methodological principles, and yet are able to engage naturally and attractively with their generation. Catechetical formation is hard to come by for young people, who, on the whole, move around a lot and have little money. I often meet young adults who would love to work in a similar role to mine, but opportunities are few and far between.

I am organising a formation week for young catechetical leaders in the new Vocations Centre in Southwark Archdiocese during October half-term (29 Oct-2 Nov). (I was very tempted by a lovely holiday in the sun with friends, then decided this was more important… :)) The week will include doctrinal formation as well as an introduction to methodological principles, as well as a full day of teaching from Dr Caroline Farey of Maryvale Institute, one of the leading experts in catechetics in this country.

I would like to ask you for three things, dear blog-readers:

1. Please keep this initiative in your prayers. That the Lord will use it as only he knows how…

2. If you know of a young person (under 40) with a passion for catechesis and a gift of leadership, please tell them about this week. We are limited to about 10 places.

3. The cost of this week will be about £170-200 a person. Participants are generally university students or young adults with little income. Could you sponsor one of them? Please email me (h.vaughan.spruce@gmail.com) if you can help. Thank you.


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.


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:

Explanation

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?