Monday, October 18, 2010

Concerning Religious Education - Feedback

I have posted the last two columns allowing for feedback and comments. Please feel free to do so. Fr. Chris.

Concerning Religious Education - Part 2

In the last post, I began a discussion on the whole process of religious education of children, placing the process more along the idea of formation rather than education. In this sense, children are formed in the Christian life rather than simply informed about the Christian life. When we live the life of Christ, we do so not just intellectually but also spiritually and humanly. Thus, when raising our children to be Christians we need to talk about human formation, spiritual formation, and intellectual formation.

Before I go any further, though, I need to make a very important point about religious education, one that is pretty self-evident but at times forgotten – parents are the principle educators of their children in the life of faith not the Church. They are the ones who model for their children what it means to be a Catholic. They are the ones who teach them their prayers, who bring them to Mass and lead them in ‘grace’ at mealtimes. They are the ones who teach their children right from wrong. While it is important that children attend religious education classes or Catholic schools, these classes do not replace the education of children in the ways of faith by parents but only support the parents in their efforts to do so. It is fruitless to drop children off at weekly religious ed. classes if they are not praying at home, not being formed in the faith at home or attending the weekly celebration of the Mass. It would be like dropping a child off for a weekly one hour course on “how to read” but not being encouraged to read or being read to at home or ever seeing their parents pick up a book or magazine to read for their own pleasure. What good is the course if there is no follow-up or reinforcement? None. Enough said.

Well, back to the discussion at hand. First, human formation. In the early church, when a man or a woman came forward seeking to become a Christian, an initial inquiry was made about their life at the present: Were they a good person? What did they do for a living? What was their marital status? One couldn’t become a Christian if one was living a dissolute life or living in an irregular marriage or employed as a gladiator or a servant in the pagan temples. The point of all of this was that Christian faith did not infuse a person with goodness or a good life but was built upon the foundation of a good life already present within the person. The same is true today. The Christian faith in each and every one of us is built upon the basic foundation of our human lives. While faith gives us direction and guides us in life, it does not do so in a vacuum.

This is where the human formation of children comes into play. As children grow they must be taught the basic points of right from wrong, of how to get along with others and the rules of fairness and sharing. They see in the behavior of their parents and extended families how people interact in healthy ways. The adults around them model for their children the proper way that people should treat one another. They do so through their language and the way they speak about others and through their behavior towards each other. Children need to be encouraged to treat others with kindness, to respect other people’s property, and to interact appropriately with their peers and with adults. Along with this, children are taught proper respect for their bodies, the basics of health, grooming, and hygiene and appropriate behavior as regards the bodies of others.

Now it is easy to see how upon the foundation of this good basic human formation the teachings of our faith can be clearly grasped by our children when we talk about the dignity of each and every person as created by God in His image. Since the child is already treating others with respect and kindness, it is not all that difficult for them to see what Jesus meant when he taught us that we are all brother and sisters with God as our Father. When they have already seen how their parents reach out in generosity to those who need a helping hand or give of their time and treasure to help those less fortunate, they can then understand Jesus’ teaching about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, and welcoming the stranger. Faith builds on humanity and grace builds on nature. (more to follow)

Concerning Religious Education

Religious education classes started here in the parish a couple of weeks ago. As always, there were a lot of last minute registrations and a resulting scramble to get class lists together but the staff managed to get things together and the classes up and running. As many of you know, I taught at St. John's Seminary in Brighton for a number of years. While the chief mission of the seminary is the formation of priests, St. John’s also offers a lay formation program where men and women may pursue a masters in pastoral ministry. Over the course of my time there, a number of efforts were undertaken by the faculty to develop better teaching skills and methodologies. One document that framed our discussions was an apostolic exhortation from Pope John Paul II entitled, “Pastores dabo vobis” – “I shall give you shepherds.” Addressed to both clergy and laity, the document is concerned with the formation of men for priesthood. Among many things, John Paul strives to foster a program of formation that allows the man to become a ‘bridge” to God and not a barrier. In seeking to do so, he calls for seminary programs that focus on four areas: human formation, theological formation, spiritual formation, and pastoral formation, each of which carries its own weight and merit, none of which is more important than the other.

While I do not have the space or the inclination in this column to delve into a full treatment of the document, I do think that there are elements of its teachings that can be easily applied to the education and formation of the children. Over the next few posts, I would like to look at categories of human, spiritual, theological, and pastoral formation and see how we can adapt them so as to direct and foster the life and growth of our children. For example, in the context of a seminary, theological formation has very specific and intense goals that are directed towards a man preparing for priesthood, often involving 4-6 years of studies in both philosophy and theology. Within the context of religious education in the parish, theological formation is probably better understood as catechetical formation in which families and teachers strive to educate the children in the basic tenets and doctrines of our Catholic faith.

One point of interest is worth mentioning here. While the four categories enumerated in “Pastores dabo vobis” are treated within the document as separate categories, John Paul makes it very clear that none of these categories exists as separate categories within the human person but that each of the categories blends one into the other. The person who is at one moment learning theology in the classroom is at the same moment a human being with his own prayer, worship and spiritual life. That reality impacts how he or she hears, interprets, and absorbs what is being taught. The person who is sitting in a chapel praying, in a sense “doing” spiritual formation, is the same person who has been spending time in a classroom learning theology. What he or she is learning in the classroom will obviously in someway affect the manner in which they now pray or worship. Indeed, one of the tenets of our faith is as we pray, so we believe. Now when we look at the catechetical formation of our children we can see how important it is that they not just be formed in the classroom but that they also be formed in the chapel and how what they learn in the classroom is enacted within the prayer and worship of the church.
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