Tag Archives: Sacramental preparation

“Let’s just stop catechising children”

classroom

Joanne McPortland over at Patheos has been causing something of a stir… She is proposing that what is wrong with the parish formation set-up is that it has, for too long, been catechising the wrong people – children, not adults. It’s true that the Church attempted to make the shift from child-centred catechesis to adult-centred catechesis certainly since the General Directory for Catechesis (GDC 258 “Adult catechesis must be given top priority” is just one reference made to the paradigm-shift in this document), if not before that. But, on the whole, this ‘paradigm-shift’ has remained in the catechetical documents of the universal Church, and the national documents of the Bishops’ Conferences, and has not been translated into reality.

Why? I think one reason is that it is far easier to focus on children’s catechesis than adults’. There’s an institutional set-up in schools and sacramental preparation which means that children are captive audiences. Catechising adults is the Mount Everest we still have not conquered because it requires evangelising people first (exceedingly hard and slow work) in order to get them there. And, if we are parents, it is so much easier to focus on our children’s faith formation than our own.

But, we can’t deny that focussing on adults is the real deal; this is where it’s really at. The fact that it is so relentlessly difficult shows us that this is precisely where our efforts, energy and resources need to go.

I think to some extent Joanne is right. I would love to see the results of a parish stopping all their sacramental programmes one year and focussing all its energy into evangelising and catechising adults. I’m fascinated by a new approach in a parish in Wales. Here, the parish priest has announced that this year he will not, as they normally do, invite the archbishop to confirm candidates after a short course. Rather, young people of Confirmation age are being invited to undertake twelve months of learning discipleship – through mentoring, attending Mass and the sacraments, service, and prayer. What a courageous move, and one that I am sure the Lord will bless, since it seems faithful to his desire for us to be his disciples, not just sacramentalised, tribal Catholics.


‘One Message’ Formation

Courtesy of Youth 2000

Courtesy of Youth 2000

Tomorrow I am going to a parish to lead a formation session with some Confirmation catechists. I think few of them have been catechists before, and probably even fewer (if any) have any kind of formation at all.

So, given our time together will be short, I figured I need to get into a nutshell the basic message about what catechesis is and who we as catechists are.

I am going to use this Scripture passage (this is my ‘go-to’ passage when I have to explain simply and easily what catechesis is about):

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

Catechesis is above all about being a witness to Christ.

If you had to transmit one message to catechists – what would it be and why?


“Sacramentalisation”

This time of year, filled with First Holy Communions and Confirmations, is full of joy. It is also a time where we risk “sacramentalising” another batch of young people or adults, perhaps without really evangelising or catechising them.

This is precisely the problem that we face in the New Evangelisation – and one which we, to some extent, inflict on ourselves.

It is a theme which occurs again and again on this blog. I am not being overdramatic when I say it breaks my heart to see us shortchanging people by bringing them to the sacraments too soon. Graces are heaped upon them, yet they don’t have the means or the maturity or the understanding to open their hearts to these graces, because they have not been through a sufficient period of formation.

This video clip from Dr Scott Hahn isn’t new, but it is worth taking just over ten minutes out of your day to watch. He speaks about the relationship between evangelising, catechising, and sacramentalising, in depth. I showed it to a group of seminarians, one of whom said it was the most inspirational thing he’d seen all year (maybe an exaggeration…) – but it is truly a good clip from Dr Hahn and a topic all of us in the Church need to wake up to, and think hard about theologically, pastorally, spiritually.


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!


He who sings prays twice

Image Edward Morton

Up until this year, I never seriously thought about including singing in catechesis. I noticed in some of the resources we use that they recommended hymns or songs for the catechetical session, but I flipped past these suggestions. Organising a catechetical session is hard work enough without finding a musician, needless to mention the impossible , awkward task of actually getting people to sing. Let’s just say, British Catholics are not known for their singing.

In the back of my mind, though, I’ve always been aware of the power of singing, especially of praise. When we praise God, we forget for a moment our troubles and problems, and praise him because he is who he is. Regardless of what we ‘get’ from him. Praise takes us out of ourselves, and I’ve found, it’s one of the best things you can do when you’re saddened, discouraged or grumpy. Try it!

So, singing in catechesis this year kind of happened by accident. We’ve introduced it in Confirmation and in one of our First Communion classes, Come Follow Me. In Confirmation, one of our catechists this year just happens to be a great musician. We got the kids singing praise songs on the retreat, and this has continued into the programme each week. We begin with a song before the Liturgy of the Word, and we always have singing during the time of prayer at the end. It really adds a deeper dimension to the catechetical process… Music raises the heart to God and can therefore be a great instrument for conversion (which is the goal of catechesis!)

In the Come Follow Me sessions, you are instructed to sing with the children as you go into the ‘Holy Place of Meeting’, as you prepare your hearts to listen to the Word of God, and during the prayer time at the end. So I really had no choice. I had to sing! I am a very average singer, so this is not exactly my comfort-zone. But actually it has worked well, and I’ve discovered that when they’re a bit hyper, singing is a great way of calming kids down. It really does help them to pray. They love singing, and they love to learn new songs.

So, if you haven’t yet introduced singing into your catechesis… I encourage you to try!

As for adult catechesis – I haven’t branched out there just yet… This could be incredibly, as our young people say, ‘awkward turtle…’ Would love to hear from anyone who has incorporated this into RCIA or any other adult catechesis.


Discipline in catechesis

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.

Catechesis needs to create the conditions for children to understandAnd, 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.


Teenagers will be teenagers

Yesterday late afternoon I was on a bus from Chelsea heading back down south over the river. It was the time of day when kids were on their way home from school and I noticed with amusement how I was seated in the front, politely silent, half of the upper deck, while the back half squawked with ear-piercing noise. Yes – wherever you go, whatever kind of teenagers they are, young people are loud.

How very old I feel saying this. But it is true. This week in our Confirmation session we had a pause from the normal catechesis. Each week the candidates have quite an intense hour-and-a-half of catechesis, so this week we felt it would be good for them to stop and reflect on how far they’ve come, what they understand better now, how they are stronger in their faith. They were great at being open about their experience so far (no mean feat for British teenagers), they shared and listened to each other courteously. Then the moment it was time for a break, the mad scramble for drinks and snacks revealed a completely different streak in them: it’s true – there’s nothing you can change about them – teenagers are teenagers.

Catechesis with young people is the hardest that there is, and yet I’ve realised parenting is much, much harder. ‘You must be relieved it’s all over,’ one parent commented to me after the Confirmation Mass last year. ‘For you it’s over,’ she added jokingly, ‘but we’re stuck with them!’ As catechists we may feel hopeless at times in the face of the enormous task of preparing teenagers for Confirmation. If we’re honest, how many of our young people are truly well-disposed to receive the sacrament? It is a problem I struggle with and can’t say I know the answer. All I know is, we must do our absolute best to win their hearts. And what I also know is that, however big the challenge feels for us, it is far greater for the faithful Catholic parent of a teen who wants to stop practising. We have a boy in our group this year who has agreed to come to classes but doesn’t want to be confirmed. I admire his honesty but am praying very much that we will win him over somehow during the course of the year. Most of all though, I admire his Dad’s perseverance and prayer, and know that really I can’t imagine what that struggle must feel like to a parent. Young people and their parents need our prayers!