ADULT RELIGIOUS FORMATION [PART 2]: "WE ARE GROWN UPS. Quit CATECHETICS; LET'S DO THEOLOGY."
COMING OFF AN INTERESTING EXPERIENCE….
I mentioned in the last post in this stream that I was participating in the study of the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium in my home parish, and on Tuesday night past [May 16] we concluded the five week program with an orchestrated review of the material in group discussions followed by an evaluation of the program as we plan for the fall series from Vatican II, Dei Verbum [“The Word of God.”]. I was talking with my old seminary buddies on a Zoom call yesterday and they asked how the program went. I said, “Well, in many respects we resembled an expansion NFL football team. We’re still getting the plays down and we missed some blocks, but everybody played hard, and I expect that more season tickets will be sold next fall.” We have an evaluation meeting next week to review the submitted forms and to revisit the “playbook” where necessary if I may drag out the football analogy even further.
I just received the numerical tallies from our participants—the written reactions are being processed now—and it was most edifying to see that 75% of those in our Sacrosanctum Concilium study program found themselves satisfied with the amount of material they were requested to digest, while 25% stated that they could have handled more material. That’s good to know. We used the original Vatican II document itself and three chapters of Keys to the Council  devoted to this Vatican II Constitution, in the coursework. It was very encouraging to see that no one felt underwhelmed, and this bodes well for the future.
To assist the group and keep the fires of interest alive through the summer and beyond, I created an online library and book review page in the Catechist Café, which I hope you will enjoy as well. I also spruced up the title page of the Café to boost summer reading…you can find the new book page by clicking underneath the Tower of Pisa.
BUT WE STILL HAVE A BIG PROBLEM….
Building on the last post, I did more research on the status of continuing adult education in the United States. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, on its official national website, devotes one page to the subject, which begins promisingly enough:
“Our adult faith formation ministry must engage the particular needs and interests of the adults in each local community. To be faithful and effective it will offer, over time, a comprehensive and systematic presentation and exploration of the core elements of Catholic faith and practice—a complete initiation into a Catholic way of life. It will do so in a way that is accessible to adults and relates to their life experiences, helping them to form a Christian conscience and to live their lives in the world as faithful disciples of Jesus.”
What I liked here was a clear statement that formative programming for adults was a responsibility “in each local community.” Then my heart sank, for at the end of the page we find a notation: “For more information about Adult Faith Formation opportunities in your area, please contact your (Arch)Diocese.” Parishes, in other words, may continue business as usual, devoting educational and formative resources to youngsters and catechumens. The thoughtful adult is still left high and dry, denied the resources to study Divine Revelation and Catholic Tradition to fully integrate the faith into his or her life.
Where there are diocesan adult programs here and there around the country, most commonly they are the “certification series formats” to train catechists and Catholic school teachers, and after one to three years there is usually a graduation of sorts and a piece of paper saying that “in this diocese you may teach with your pastor’s permission.” I taught catechists and Catholic schoolteachers in such programs for the Orlando Diocese for almost four decades. For most of those years we did so in a 10-hour format, Friday evening and all-day Saturday. While this may sound like an arduous weekend, consider that the student had several years to complete 12 to 15 courses. And, in that 10-hour framework my topic might be “The Hebrew Scriptures” or “The New Testament” or “Catholic Morality.” Imagine providing a full scope orientation to the Hebrew Canon of Scripture in ten hours! Trust me, I had no fantasies I was exhausting the subject, sadly.
This program in Orlando came to an end in 2016. I am not quite sure why. From downtown I heard a variety of reasons—that the students were complaining our program was too intense and time consuming, that there were better programs available on-line, that there would be regular grand retreats at our diocesan retreat center to augment the learning, etc. I attended the meeting where I learned that I was out of a job, replaced by an expensive on-line agreement to access a training-formation program with the Archdiocese of Chicago, I believe it was. I was sorry to end my association with teacher formation. I had just begun the Catechist Café two years earlier so I could continue my personal efforts in adult faith formation, and I was offered an opportunity to work as a psychotherapist for our diocesan Catholic Charities rural medical sites from 2016 till Covid curtailed face-to-face clinical work in 2020.
The last thing I want to suggest here is that adult theological formation is “grown up confirmation formation,” a set period of tanking up the 18+ year-old population of the Church with elementary catechetics, just using bigger words. In fact, catechetics might be a misleading word, period. In practice it has come to imply a mechanical approach to a miraculous relationship, initiated by the One, True, Loving God who has freely chosen to create us and, even more, to communicate an infinite vision of life’s goodness. Catechetics often degenerates into “delivering the goods” without the time, space, and freedom to ponder and digest the offerings.
When I look back at my own diocese’s misadventures with adult formation, and my own participation in it, I suspect that the biggest problem—and it is hardly limited to Orlando—is that the “catechetical template” of so many years past has ground to a halt. Our common approach in the modern era has been a defensive and pessimistic one—education to avoid errors. We have a long history of this: back in 1910 Pope Pius X moved First Communion down to the age of seven because he wanted to protect the young from modernism. Today, at least in the United States, the Church is dug in on issues of sexual identity and gender to the exclusion of all the marvelous possibilities in the spiritual treasures we possess, wisdom that may shed new light on the contemporary pastoral worries that have become our ball and chain. We are a long way from the first and second centuries when church communities gathered weekly to joyfully celebrate the Resurrection and hope beyond the grave. As the excellent Church historian Justo Gonzalez points out, “The most remarkable characteristic of these early communion services was that they were celebrations. The tone was one of joy and gratitude rather than sorrow and repentance.” [The Story of Christianity, p. 108.]
Theology is an education to joy. How can it not be? Its destiny is God. To use the terminology of the Greeks, theology [from logos, study, and theos, God] is the best word we possess to describe the longing of the human heart to know what we can of the infinite goodness and wisdom of God. A cynic might say that if God is perfectly wise, then seeking after divine wisdom is a fool’s errand, as we will never become “like gods” as the author of Genesis would put it. True enough, but it was Jesus himself who invites us to the fool’s errand, if you will, when he declared to his listeners, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Theology is the gateway to a more profound spirituality and a deeper prayer life. When embraced intelligently, theology leads to wonder, to mystery, to experience, to self-understanding, to gratitude. Although we tend to think about theology as a broadly based curriculum [Systematic/dogmatic theology, Hebrew Scripture, New Testament, Christian Anthropology, Christology, Patristics or writings of the Fathers, Liturgy, Ecclesiology, History, Morality, Social Justice, Eschatology, Mariology, Spirituality] all the subsets are intimately connected by the thrust to hunger for God.
The Catholic who immerses himself or herself in daily communion with the wisdom of the saints and scholars will find a broadening of horizons that is, frankly, unnerving at times but in an exhilarating sort of way. Theology creates new mindsets, opens deeper possibilities of self-understanding, and gives hope for a communion with God that is far greater than the routine we usually settle for. We hear in parish talk the importance of “community,” which is often shorthand for “my Mass,” but once you step through the portal into the world of theology you begin to grasp the true nature of your being as a creation of God, as one person in an immense historical community of persons dating back to Abraham in 1800 B.C. You appreciate the heroism and the failures of the massive family we call Christianity in its history and diversity. Much of what seems divisive and distracting in church and in life dissolves into a more wholesome and hopeful outlook.
Of course, we now find ourselves in the position of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8: “Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?”
Indeed, who explains today? And where do we start? That will be the subject of the third installment of this thread, which I hope to post next week.
And it just occurs to me: in every book on Vatican II, we read that as baptized persons we are “priests, prophets, and kings.” So why not educate ourselves to the same depth as our ordained priests? I think that’s reasonable.
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