My home/office library is now so jammed up and disorganized that I cannot find my copy of To Teach As Jesus Did.  I know I once owned the book, because I reviewed it for Amazon in 2014 where one solitary human being has acknowledged it. [Thanks, mom.] More surprising is the fact that on Amazon I am the only person who reviewed the book, period, the first post-Vatican II directive from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Catholic education and faith formation. I had wanted an exact citation or two from the document so that you could check my veracity on several points. Policies and decisions in this text are in large part responsible for what most would agree has been a significant decline in knowledge of the Catholic faith, which now extends just to our youth today but to their parents and grandparents as well. The old bromide that “parents could be doing more to teach their kids” is no longer universally true.
To Teach As Jesus Did is the acknowledgement of the bishops that while they preferred Catholic school for all [and this was U.S. Catholic policy from the 1880’s] the time had come to accept the closing of many Catholic schools as an inevitability [which it was not] and pump money and planning into religious education programs down the road. As I wrote then, the document is long on generic plans and promises and short on detail, though the picture that emerges is a kind of “twin-track” religious education focus on the parish campus, resource centers for public school students and the parish at large, coupled with the surviving Catholic schools. There is little doubt in my mind that an outside assessment from a firm like KPMG or Booz, Allen, and Hamilton would have questioned the capacity of parishes to operate two institutional centers of learning of equal quality when individual bishops were lamenting their troubles operating one per parish.
There is a curious entry late in the document about the difficulty in maintaining Catholic school faculties, and the blame seems to fall upon those religious sisters who left the teaching profession (and in many cases, religious life in toto.) Father Andrew Greeley, the colorful priest-sociologist-novelist, wrote frequently that it was the pastors who lost faith in the schools, in large part because they were too much work to maintain. TTAJD adds that the American Church needed to resign itself to the reality that in the future much of school faculty would be laypersons. It was a popular belief of the time that parents would stop sending their children to Catholic schools if religious sisters were no longer present. The post-Vatican II years were high on conjecture and low on hard data, the exceptions being the work of Father Greeley and Notre Dame University. See Daniel Callahan’s intriguing essay on Catholic schools from 1967 which highlights the available data of the time.
So here we are nearly a half-century later, still living with the fallout of TTAJD, most notably the assumption that a quality Catholic faith formation can be provided by volunteers, commensurate with that offered in Catholic schools by college educated and state licensed professionals. It is one of the amazements of my old age that in the popular mind the CCD program—oops, faith formation—still enjoys confidence as a vehicle for twenty-first century faith formation. I should qualify that—if you privately ask pastors or administrators, as I regularly do, you will never find a pastor who is really happy with his religious education program in terms of the numbers reached or the effectiveness of instruction. The problem is that they don’t know what to do about that.
I have been teaching volunteer catechists for forty years, and I always tell my students to take the historical long view—today’s lay catechists are recruited to undertake the same role that Catholic religious sisters filled decades ago, sisters who had the advantages of daily contact with students, in a structured setting, usually with years of professional experience and college training behind them. Today’s lay catechists work under significant disadvantages, not least of which is that most of their students never go to Mass, which is a regular staple of the Catholic school rhythm.
When I operated my practice, I participated in a number of EAP or employee assistance programs, including my own diocese’s. I found that burned out professionals (and parish volunteers, I should add) were very sound people, for the most part. The problem was institutional illness, dysfunctional systems. Part of the counseling process involved helping the patient employee understand that the root problem was not them. Parish catechists are people of considerable faith and good will who suffer through the indifference of their clientele, the irregularities of their individual parishes, and limited training. On that last point, my pastor remarked from the pulpit last Saturday night that the parish was in the process of assessing whether it needs more catechists for our programs, which begin momentarily. This is a common scenario of Catholic parish life: the late August desperation calls that become increasingly intense by Labor Day.
If this is happening in your parish, you have the right to say no to a public appeal or, more stressfully, to a personal pleading from a pastor. There are, from time to time, aspects of unfair coercion in recruiting. Patients and lay persons in general have told me that their pastors have said, in effect, “if you don’t volunteer, there will be no third-grade instruction in the parish this year.” Not your problem. Let the parish explain to the congregation its absence of long range planning. If you feel the call to embrace the catechetical ministry, talk to your parish about teaching next year and give yourself time to prepare. Take the catechetical theology courses for certification offered by your diocese, read, observe classes, and prepare yourself spiritually. Faith formation is too critical to begin cold.