Getting Ahead of OurselvesRead Now
With my counseling offices closed due to Covid-19, I have had a little more time to read and reflect upon the way we “do catechetics” and “form faith.” Some of my reading has been published research, some theological texts, journal articles, and several blogsites devoted to the trials and tribulations of religious educators and, in one case, deacons or wanna-be deacons. I will continue researching, of course—it takes about three days of focused study to produce one post—but this year has shifted my outlook on the very nature of evangelizing and precisely what we think we are doing in our parishes and in the universal Church under the umbrella of “catechetics.”
The earliest biblical texts of the Christian experience speak of our Church as an ecstatic little group which had experienced Jesus as raised from the dead and promising to lead them into eternal glory when He returned in glory. “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” [I Corinthians 15:55] or in Peter’s Pentecostal sermon in Acts 2. For the early church and its converts—Jew and Gentile alike—the radical promise of eternal glory was psychological as much as religious. Baptism meant a destiny that no one deemed possible.
The behavioral and psychological focus of an early Christian was rescue, an experience that an intervention by God in a pouring of cleansing water and invisible grace had rescued one from at best meaninglessness and at worst an eternity of pain or nothingness. Forgiveness, salvation, redemption---think of learning that you are cancer free after years of grueling treatment. Apostolic baptism had that kind of impact upon converts that produced a new way of life and a new take on the world in which they lived.
I read a good number of blogs from religious education personnel in the field who lament that their students—and the students’ parents—“know nothing” when it comes time for pastors to assess competency for sacraments of passage, such as Confirmation. The word to underline is “know,” for the Catechism and pastoral approaches of this era seem to go overboard in defining, at the cost of experiencing. It is more accurate to say that most students—nor their parents--have ever experienced the terms of catechetical shorthand, sin, and grace. The terms become for students just another hoop of data to master before life’s next adventures. Ironically, children, adolescents, and young adults actually do have significant episodes of evil and hope in their lives, but the very limited skills and training of [mostly volunteer] religious educators has limited their catechetical scope of work to the jargon of religion, not the lived experience of it.
In my mental health practice, I have had many discussions with parents, and on occasion their offspring, over family issues of religion. One parent put it quite well: “I wish my teenaged son loved the Mass as much as I do.” I pointed out that there was at least 25 years age difference between mother and son, and I observed that they were looking at life from different points in their human development. The parent responded as I think most church ministers would: “But the Mass is the Mass, it is the same for everyone.” True enough if one is speaking from the objectivity of Scripture and Tradition. Where catechetics habitually drops the ball, though, is the mistake that everyone experiences Eucharist—or any sacrament--in the same way, regardless of age and circumstance. Or, for that matter, that everyone has a common experience of the human tragedy of sin or the euphoria of being saved.
When I was making my bones in the “family business” fifty years ago, so to speak, it was commonly held in my seminary that the conservative moralists were too pessimistic and too preoccupied with sin and hell. The progressive or post-Vatican II moralists opted for a more optimistic theory of baptism and salvation, explaining baptism as birth into the family God. I have lived more comfortably with the progressive school throughout my years as a pastor, teacher, and even therapist. But in very recent years I have come to a place where I can’t argue with the numbers—the numbers of young people who are leaving the Church, and the number-crunching of researchers who are seeking to explore the reasons why these young people leave.
Some examples: In January 2018 St. Mary’s Press and the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate [CARA] released the results of their benchmark study on the subject, “Going, Going, Gone! The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, and just this week “The State of Religion and Young People 2020: Relational Authority” from Springtide Research Institute was released and will be Primed to my front door in 48 hours. It is amazing to me that the research of the past decade never makes an appearance in Facebook sites such as “Catholic Directors of Faith Formation” or “Catholic Parish Staff,” two very interesting sites if you want a feeling for grassroots frustrations among church workers in parishes across the country. The pain of parish ministers—and many parents, to be sure—is an absence of a sense of developmental psychology—i.e., what we can reasonably expect from a youth at any particular age in his or her march to adulthood.
I have great respect for those who teach religion in Catholic schools and parishes, and equal respect for the small percentage of Catholic parents who integrate prayer, discussion, and good works into the family routine, educating and leading by example. Institutionally we are hamstringing this population by  insisting upon an almost compulsive adherence to the terminology of catechisms, beginning with the big one, and  trying to mold children and young adults into attitudes and emotions when their natural human development has not yet prepared them. Put another way, we rush to give answers to questions yet unasked, while paying little heed to the developmental dramas of the young. Religious narrative about sin and deliverance makes no sense if there is no developed sense of one’s precariousness, or what it is that you are being rescued from.
I think that our dependence upon catechisms at times serves as a buffer to keep us ministers from having to listen to the actual sufferings of young people. We have no language or training to engage with them and discover what they really fear in their lives. About two weeks ago I purchased on a whim a paperback copy of one of the twentieth century’s best selling but most controversial novels, Peyton Place  by Grace Metalious. The term “Peyton Place” has passed into the English language as a metaphor of the sin that lurks beneath the veneer of every human and, in this case, a proper New Hampshire town. The book was banned for a time for its explicit depictions of sex and cruelty. I remember how adults talked about the book when I was in third grade, and through most of my life I was always of the impression that this work was a tale of adults behaving badly.
That part is certainly true, but what struck me to the core was the incredible sufferings and injustices perpetrated upon children and minors, and now that I think of it, just about every woman in the book. Peyton Place—its individuals, families, businesses, schools, institutions—virtually screams for saving grace, the adults from their elected blindness and self-righteousness and the young from their anger, fear, and confusion as they navigate the minefield of their adults’ demons.
I do not recommend reading the book—there are plenty of other American fiction pieces that explore the same theme--but it is a secular lesson that we can hardly use the term salvation till we know the private hells.
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