Today I was torn between two topics—observances, actually—that seem apropos to the discussion of professional development: today is the feast of the “Angelic Doctor,” St. Thomas Aquinas, and this week is the observance in the United States of Catholic Schools week.
Aquinas is the thirteenth century Dominican friar/philosopher/ theologian whose writings and teachings have shaped Catholic teaching and thinking more than any other non-Biblical writer. (Many would argue the same could be said of St. Augustine, but we’ll debate that on his feast day.) For our purposes here, it is helpful to look at his academic world, the high Middle Ages. This was the golden age of the university: Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Cambridge, Salamanca, Padua, Siena, and Pisa among others. The key point about medieval universities in these times before the Reformation is the curriculum. European universities were the seat of Catholic thought; popes, bishops and kings turned to universities for answers to thorny matters of faith and morals.
What is remarkable about Aquinas, aside from his personal holiness (and battle with weight), is his creation of the “ultimate curriculum” or Church lesson plan. His most famous work is his Summa Theologica, an outstanding attempt to both organize and identify what we would call today natural and divine truth. The inspiration for this type of synthesis came, surprisingly, from Aristotle, a fact that caused Aquinas considerable grief in his own day. It was not bad enough that Aristotle was a pagan philosopher several centuries before Christ; the very copies of Aristotle, Plato and the other pagan Greek philosophers were preserved and passed to Aquinas and his peers by Islamic scholars. Double trouble for St. Thomas!
But within a few decades of his death St. Thomas’s structure and content of natural and revealed knowledge was the acknowledged structure of Catholic education and research. In fact, in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris Pope Leo XIII designated St. Thomas Aquinas’s thought and works as the “official” philosophy and theology of The Church. Aquinas and the medieval universities he invigorated are the model of every interdisciplinary Catholic teaching institution today—university, high school, elementary school. What is precious about Catholic schools is not just the quality of faith formation, indispensible as this is. The added component is the integration of all the arts and sciences into the creation and plan of God. Catholic schools do not exist to turn out good little engineers; they exist to turn out engineers with the Gospel vision of enhancing the quality of human life, the alleviation of suffering, and wonder at the mechanical world of God’s ordering.
Having said all this, we are faced with the catechetical challenge that in the U.S., according to the NCEA, only 2,000,000 minors are in Catholic schools and learn their faith in Aquinas’s interdisciplinary setting. While I have no hard data, my impression is that most post-secondary school Catholics study in state colleges or private non-Catholic institutions, nor do I know what percentage of adult Catholics participate in college-level adult faith formation programs in their home parishes or dioceses.
I know from experience that Catholic Schools Week can grate on the nerves of parish faith formation staff, who rightly and wrongly feel like the ugly ducklings in the parish formational thrust. The relationship between parish school and religious education program is complex, and trust me, will be discussed time and time again here. But one principle will endure down the road: the need for strong interdisciplinary academic excellence in all formative ventures. It is interesting to me that barely twenty years after Christ’s death the Church was in desperate need of a thinker who could interpret the Jesus experience—thank God for St. Paul, and later the evangelists. With the death of the Apostle John and the end of the Revelation Era, the Spirit has given birth to great minds—the Augustines and the Aquinases—and the institutions to perpetuate them: monasteries, universities, seminaries, parish schools, CCD and its successors. Aquinas, were he alive today, would hold all institutions of faith formation to the same standard of excellence and the same project: faith seeking understanding.
A Housekeeping note: I have awakened my webmaster to add more pages to this site so that I can install “Uncle Tom’s Book Nook” as a guided summary for your personal reading and development.
The question of professional development of catechists and parish personnel is a complicated one and at times somewhat hotly debated. Speaking from recent American history, although we all have our own definitions of what was "recent", one of these starting points has to be the coexistence of two separate catechetical tracks in the United States Catholic Church for a good part of the 20th century, at least, and probably before that. I am speaking here of the typical parish arrangement of church and school, in which the catechesis of youth was divided into two different templates: daily education in the Faith by professional teachers, primarily religious; and the second, the faith formation of Catholic children in public schools.
I began my Catholic education in a parochial school in 1954, and I can recall with perfect clarity that for the entire eight years I spent in St. Mary Magdalene School in Buffalo, we brought a snack for midmorning on Monday, and then we were released for the day at 12:30 PM. The reason for this was a program called "released time." Evidently Catholic children in Buffalo's public schools were released from their classes early so that they could come over to St. Mary Magdalene. Our parish’s Sisters of St. Joseph and the Christian Brother conducted Monday afternoon catechism classes for these children. We were advised before dismissal on Mondays to make sure all of our goods were secured or taken home, because they might be stolen by the public school Catholic children. Obviously, not an optimum state of affairs. Recall, though, that the Plenary Council of Baltimore's teachings that every parish should have a school was still in effect, and parents who did not send their children to Catholic schools carried something of a taint.
National attendant in Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s for many reasons, some financial and some philosophical. It is true that large numbers of religious sisters turned to ministries of social justice in the atmosphere of Vatican II. In 1972 the American bishops issued the famous “To Teach as Jesus Did”, a pastoral directive on the future state of religious education. Reading it again last year, I noted that the bishops somewhat neatly sidestepped the question of obligatory Catholic school attendance; at the same time, their vision including a massive development of new models and structures for religious education for entire parishes, including the youth, to receive a highly competent formation in the Faith. If memory serves me correctly, the bishops even talked about parish buildings, libraries and academies for catechetics and religious formation. It occurred to me then that the bishops were in essence saying that if there would be fewer religious and fewer Catholic schools, that all young people would still receive the same professional measure of religious education.
The state of religious education since 1972 is worthy of careful study, and I am still looking for historians and other competent academics to examine the unfolding of the catechetical state of affairs over the past 40 years. I think we could learn a lot from that. However, the critical intentions of the bishops in 1972 are worthy of great merit: that the catechist enjoy the same academic/professional preparation and standing in the diocesan and parish structures as the former generation of Catholic school teachers who did the same thing.
You may be wondering to yourselves, is this possible? I would say that it is not only possible, it is imperative. One of the best but most depressing religious books of 2014 is a captivating study entitled Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. Its authors/researchers, in evaluating their statistical and interview results, observe that whether a child attended Catholic school or religious formation programs, their faith identity is so weak that the vast majority simply mesh into the predominant American culture. The commentators note, too, that this current 18-23 population is the offspring of parents who also have lost a sense of Catholic identity as they entered adulthood in the 1990’s.
The disconnect between the last several generations and the full life of the Church is a massive problem in our country, and it must be addressed, in Luther’s famous phrase, in capite et membris, at the top and among all the members. The religious educator will be a major player in bringing the vision of Pope Francis and the splendid academic excellence of our past into future renewal. Will you be prepared to lead the effort?
Take a minute and ask yourself: am I fully competent in the religious ministry I now hold? If you answered yes, you are in big trouble, not to mention the problems for the people you presently serve. Of course, if you answered yes, you probably don’t read blog sites dedicated to ministerial enrichment, either. So my assumption is that you, like me, are always frustrated by the limits of our understanding of things sacred.
Even the best intentioned catechist with years of field experience is often shocked by how, in all that time, he or she has barely scratched the surface of theological understanding. Let me give a personal example. I am currently reading the second volume of Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew, a masterful study of what we can know about the historical Jesus and the heart of his teaching. I read the first volume some years ago; it ran to 1,000 pages. The current volume in my hands is near 1,100 pages. And there are three volumes to follow!! My Scriptural competence, next to that, is peanuts. Here is terrific medicine to combat the sins of complacency and pride, at least for my exalted and erroneous sense of my religious competence.
I had a catechist under my own supervision many years ago who told me point blank she would not teach above the first grade because she had no interest in continuing education beyond what she needed for her weekly class. I found this unacceptable for a number of reasons. In the first instance, teaching the faith to even the youngest of children involves—of law and necessity—involvement with their parents and guardians, who will bring adult questions to the table. Secondly, I am wary of teachers at any level who lack a passion for their disciplines, even when it is not religion. We’ve all had courses in our educational histories where the gym teacher taught Shakespeare of necessity, and we know how well that works.
But most significantly, the professional development of the religious minister, teacher, or catechist is an act of faith. The term “theology” (loosely translated) is the study of God. The catechist who develops passion for the sacred science is in fact growing closer to God. Enthusiasm for religious study is a public manifestation of faith, a self-energized engagement in the New Evangelization.
I am not unaware of the many difficulties that face catechists who wish to grow in theological competence. I will cite one at length, the contrast between seminary preparation and catechetical preparation. In my day (sounding here like Abe Lincoln) priestly training could extend up to twelve years. Today it is in the neighborhood of 6-8 years and a good priest will tell you that this is not really enough. The catechist, by contrast, gets thrown to the wolves from day one, often in response to a late August desperate appeal in the church bulletin.
If I were a bishop, I would set policy that pastors actively recruit candidates for catechetical positions at least one year in advance, and provide these individuals with a substantive groundwork for their upcoming ministry. In addition to a foundational immersion in Catholic study, I would add pedagogy—how one manages a classroom, prepares a lesson plan, etc. I would also have the parish pay for this training.
One of the key outcomes from an intensive orientation is the skill to teach one’s self. Professional formation organizes our thinking about theology and catechetics, acquaints us with the giants of the field, and educates us in the direction of the books and other resources we will seek out ourselves in the future for our own professional development. Naturally, dioceses augment the continuing education of teachers in the field every year with speakers, events, celebrations and the like, but at the end of the day we are the captains of our ships.
I will address difficulties and possible solutions to the question of professional development on subsequent Wednesdays. If you would like to share your initiation and preparedness for your ministry—successes and horror stories, or you have questions and observations, let’s hear from you.