Throughout the year, and depending on the children you catechise, this can very quickly become a talking point. One year, a particularly difficult Confirmation group meant that Tuesday afternoons were generally filled with anticipatory dread as we faced the class in the evening. Now we can look back on our experience and laugh, but at the time, we didn’t particularly enjoy Tuesday evenings.
The Church recognises that there is a deeply rooted link between discipline and catechesis, since the word ‘discipline’ comes from the same root as ‘disciple’, and what are we doing in catechesis if not training disciples? The section in the GDC on the Pedagogy of God acknowledges this immediately: “God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7) is the opening quotation.
But, we soon find that, like the question of children in church, this can be a charged topic. Parenting is unique in every family, and for a variety of different reasons, adults have different standards about what behaviour is or is not acceptable.
I remember, as a nineteen or twenty-year-old, going back to my home parish to help out with a Confirmation class. For the entire evening, the fifty or sixty participants spoke between themselves, were evidently not listening to the catechists, did not engage with their group leaders, and, as far as I was concerned at the time, may as well not have been there. I wondered how the catechists could simply keep going without addressing this evident problem.
There is a balance that we need to create, and that needs to be in place right from the start. On the one hand, catechesis is not school, and it would be wrong to create the same kind of highly-disciplined school environment that young people have just spent all day in. We need to get the message across that catechesis is something different, a place set apart in which they have come to hear the Word of God. The relationships young people have with their catechists, therefore, will be different from ones they have with their teachers. We begin our Confirmation year of catechesis with a retreat in which to create this community which should draw each young person into a closer relationship with God – where they are loved as well as challenged, where they’re accepted as they are, but also called on to holiness.
Catechesis should awaken in children a desire for God
The other side of this delicate balance means that discipline is completely necessary. In the Confirmation session I attended as a late teen, the young people were not being disciplined and so therefore did not experience the secure environment that both accepts them and expects great things of them. This is a challenging environment to get right, especially if you or your catechists do not have teaching experience, or a great deal of experience with young people.
I would encourage every catechist to persevere in this and do not settle for second best. Insist on maintaining the good procedures and habits that you set out with. Always carry through the consequences if your young people get slack at sticking to the rules. Never tire of praising good behaviour and manners. Always show that this comes from your love and care for them. Pray, pray, and pray to St John Bosco!
We forget what it is like being a child or young person. This struck me when this year we had a group of older teenagers helping for the first time with our Confirmation class. I saw very quickly that their perceptions of the dynamics and behaviour within the group were far more perceptible and accurate than my own. They understood much more quickly what was ‘going on’. I began to see that their insights and help were invaluable, and I now regularly ask their feedback on how the sessions are going. ‘Inside’ understanding from young people themselves, I have found, is indispensable.
And, as we all know, young people are happier with clear boundaries that are insisted upon. A First Communion class which had got out of control recently needed some help. I had no idea it had got so bad when I walked in and discovered children getting up whenever they felt like it and running around the room. After a couple of sessions, we were back on track, and one of the girls, as she worked on an activity, commented, “I really love it when it’s quiet!” She had discovered the real purpose of their catechesis.
So, discipline is not an end in itself. But it’s a necessary condition for catechesis to be effective. We have perhaps lost sight of this in a society which treats little children like “gods” and where parents experience guilt for not giving them what they want. But we discover, with some common sense and perseverance, that children are happier and freer when their catechesis is not centred upon themselves, but upon God.