I have been doing these professional training programs for my diocese since I moved here in 1978. It is hard, especially on the road, to avoid nostalgia about catechetical outings over four decades; on the trip home yesterday, with Interstate 4 clogged with Daytona 500 fans, I had more time than usual. I have a ritual, of course; get to the hosting parish site no less than 90 minutes ahead of time, and then find a Dunkin' Donuts for a leisurely toasted bagel and a final review of my notes. The route home always begins at Race-Trac, whatever the town, which has surprisingly good coffee and cheap gas.
Yesterday I was assigned our introductory overview course on the sacraments. We are required to provide seven contact hours, which to the students, I'm sure, seems like an eternity. Given the breadth of the subject and its obvious importance, though, seven hours is a pittance, and I hope my diocese soon corrects our present curriculum arrangement. Yesterday I was probably able to deliver four good hours of content, "good" in the sense that we were able to focus on the sacraments themselves, their origins, development, and current discipline.
But yesterday's program was very typical of most of my past experiences: there are many, many masters to serve. Part of my job description is personal connectedness to the diocesan vision, or in English, reminding everybody of current diocesan enterprises and events. This year Orlando is hosting the NCEA Convention April 7-9, the biggest Catholic event this diocese has ever hosted, and there is a religious educators program appended to it. This will be my fourteenth convention, eleventh as a speaker, so I spent some time talking it up. The Catholic school teachers in my class told me that their attendance and volunteering for visitors services was a “command performance.” When I told them about the free food and goodies at the Expo Hall, they seemed to perk up considerably. (An unknown tradition of the Convention: the Target free ice cream event always takes place during my workshop.)
Then there are the questions. I have always encouraged them but that is not always without risk. Some questions are not really questions; they are assertions that sometimes are just dead wrong. Then I am in that no man’s land of maintaining professional accuracy for the students without publicly embarrassing a participant.
Another and more widespread challenge is the innocent question where students ask more than they realize. Yesterday I was talking about a sacramental practice and a student asked, simply, “Who decided that?” This was a gift and a problem; the gift was the opportunity to talk briefly about authority in the Church, how it developed, and how it is exercised today. The problem is the ticking clock. I do my very best to provide my students with internet and hardcopy resources, such as professional and up-to-date books on all of the pertinent areas of theology, usually with email follow-ups. At least the students will have direction to fall back upon after the program.
It is clear to me, too, that a lot of folks in active ministry do not get an opportunity for what I would call professional peer support. In other words, there is no opportunity for them to talk with their colleagues about their working theology and understanding of what they do. Thus a program like yesterday’s is a theological/psychological watering hole, meeting a not-insignificant need. I feel badly that I can’t give them more time on a Saturday for that; but, I do think that some local ministerial directors need to be more on the ball in making this happen in their own parishes. A good example yesterday was the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. The students seemed intense in their pastoral concern and, if I read the room correctly, worry. One actually raised a good point about legal complications for the Church. I hated to cut that discussion short. It is precisely the kind of thing we do need to be talking about.
But here it is Sunday. I’ll open my briefcase and get to my many next-day responsibilities and email follow-ups, but after the Daytona 500. It is good, though, to have these opportunities to go out among the soldiers in the trenches, and I always come back with more energy for catechetics.