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.
IT ALL BEGAN WHEN…
For the past several months I have had the interesting and intriguing opportunity to work with a lay group in my parish which was organized several years ago to study Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti. Buoyed by the experience and committed to continuing its adult education outreach, the group decided to engage on a study of the Vatican II documents, beginning with the 1963 Sacred Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. They decided to invite the broader parish at large. As I am a laicized former pastor, psychotherapist, college teacher, diocesan catechist trainer, and presently a catechetical blogger—and my wife was part of the Fratelli Tutti study--I was invited to join the planning circle for this second venture to assist in its planning, organization, and presentation. It has been and remains a source of inspiration, admiration, and yes, even frustration for me as we progress along our way; and it has given me new and renewed insight into the state of “adult education” and “adult faith formation” in the United States.
LEARNING IS PART OF WHO WE ARE…
If God created the heavens and the earth ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” the same is true for any cluster of dedicated parishioners today who wish to form communion with the rich fountain of two millennia of Catholic theology, “the study of God.” The idea that the Church is Western Civilization’s Great Educator is a parish’s best kept secret. If you live and worship in most any parish of the United States, you would never deduce from a sermon that baptism incorporates us into the heritage of divine wisdom from the pens of Paul the Apostle, Augustine, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Cardinal John Newman, Karl Rahner or Thomas Merton, or the collective wisdom of the Councils Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, IV Lateran, Constance, Trent, and Vatican I, to name just seven of twenty before Vatican II. Nor do we ever celebrate in our collective memories the historical reality that the Church established both the curriculums and the concrete slabs for the two hundred great universities of medieval Europe that preserved ancient classical thought in partnership with Islamic scholarship and went on to lay the intellectual groundwork for “the modern world,” all under the umbrella of God’s truth. Nor was “faith and education,” historically speaking, the reserve of only scholars. Even in medieval times, frequent holy days released serfs from their fields to come into the cities for religious formation in the form of morality plays, cathedral preaching, and solemn liturgies.
For many reasons the identity of the Catholic Church as a “studying church” and the church member as student has never blossomed as an element of pastoral life, even after the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment. It may be that with the Council of Trent’s [1545-1563] decree calling for the establishment of diocesan seminaries, a major innovation, the belief developed that routine parish life, conducted by better trained pastors, would sufficiently educate the laity to what they needed to know. History would sadly prove otherwise. The fathers of Vatican II understood that the key to holiness and the empowerment of the faithful was an educated faithful. A call for greater education permeates nearly all the Vatican II documents—including Sacrosanctum Concilium—and the Council teaches that clergy and laity alike must immerse themselves in study of the sacred scriptures and the rich body of literature we collectively refer to as lectio divina, “divine reading.” In just one of the sixteen Council documents, Sacrosanctum Concilium, there are 29 specific references to the need for the study of Scripture and Liturgical Theology.
BUT IN THE UNITED STATES….
Prior to Vatican II the one jewel of educational faith formation that an American Catholic might experience in his or her lifetime was the formative elementary and secondary Catholic school system. In the 1880’s the bishops of the United States mandated that every Catholic parish have a school. Beyond high school, though, adult formation was poor or nonexistent. In 1955 the American historian Father John Tracy Ellis caused quite a stir when he pronounced the country’s two hundred Catholic colleges to be overextended, understaffed, and intellectually barren. The same could be said of seminaries, of which virtually every diocese and religious order had at least one, and sometimes more. Academic Catholicism in the United States was a parched intellectual desert. Ellis, who desperately fought to attend a Big Ten University for his history doctoral studies instead of Catholic University, was later hired to teach by Catholic University, but he insisted that his CU credentials were so poor that he took one year to prepare at Princeton University. On his assessment of Catholic higher learning, he was mostly right. No American bishop made a significant contribution to the debates at Vatican II.
Contrast the U.S. situation to Holland. Just one year after the conclusion of the Council, the Netherlands Conference of Bishops authorized The Dutch Catechism, a work which became very popular in the United States and elsewhere in the late 1960’s. The substance, quality, and orthodoxy of catechetical programs including adult education was an immediate concern of the Vatican, particularly given the somewhat experimental twist of the Dutch Catechism. In 1971 the Vatican, at the Direction of Pope Paul VI, issued its first post-Conciliar directives on universal catechetics which included this: “Steps which are effective and indeed of the greatest importance for good results must be taken: promoting the growth of the customary forms of the ministry of the word and stimulating new ones; evangelizing and catechizing men of lower cultural levels; reaching the educated classes and taking care of their needs; improving the traditional forms of the Christian presence and finding new ways; gathering together all the practical aids of the Church and at the same time avoiding forms which are not in accord with the Gospel.” [1971 General Catechetical Directory, paragraph 9]. This was more revolutionary than generally realized at the time, for the Church was highlighting a need for catechizing “the educated classes,” a far cry from the gas-and-go Confirmation programs for 12-year-olds, so common, even today, in the U.S.
Feeling some pressure after the Council and The General Catechetical Directory the American bishops issued in 1972 a pastoral statement, “To Teach as Jesus Did.” By 1972 Catholic school attendance was declining; popular wisdom had it that the departure of many religious sisters to other ministries or to life outside the convent was the main cause, but the full reasons have never been sociologically researched. In 1972 the bishops were faced with a conundrum. One option was to double down on an existing educational system their predecessors had mandated in the 1880’s by putting forward more planning for the schools’ funding, staffing, accessibility, and—importantly—certification in Catholic theology for all employees for the next century, in tandem with a declaration that Catholic education for all the faithful was job one for the American Church, consistent with the nineteenth century vision of their predecessors. The second option was to swallow hard and say, in so many words, that CCD religious instruction and new, untested models were just as good as the Catholic school system for faith inculturation.
Actions have consequences, but so do inactions—and in general the bishops did little to shore up either option. In “To Teach as Jesus Did” the bishops basically asserted that both Catholic schools and after-school religious instruction programs were equally good, which in fact they were not. The statistics compiled by CARA-Georgetown over the past half century are startling in that they trace a massive decline in both categories—Catholic school attendees and religious education attendees. [The same studies, conducted annually, indicate that presently 17.1% of self-identifying Catholics attend Mass weekly. I should add here parenthetically that in Holland, the home of the Dutch Catechism, the figure for weekly Mass is 5% the last time I checked.]
In 1999 the U.S. Bishops published a better set of directives for adult education, “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us.” But Paragraph 43 makes a candid admission that adults in the church remain unserved: “Yet despite the consistency and clarity of this message, the Catholic community has not yet fully heard and embraced it. While most Catholic parishes place a high priority on the faith formation of children and youth, far fewer treat adult faith formation as a priority. This choice is made in parish staffing decisions, job descriptions, budgets, and parishioner expectations.” The popular wisdom which endures to this day is that the best goal to be hoped for in education of the young is to hang on to them till Confirmation, load them up with a lifetime of doctrine, which they immediately forget, and watch them flee the church faster than the confirming bishop. CARA’s numbers indicate that many young people are not making it even this far under a very low bar.
I have concluded that the last generation or two of ordained priests are themselves the products of the general state of poor catechetics, and consequently their grasp of their ministry as educators is not well developed. This is evident in preaching, to be sure, which is generally weak in both content and artistry, but also in the structuring of parish priorities. My guess is that pastors believe the Sunday sermon and the church bulletin suffice as “adult education.” Clearly the observation of the 1999 Bishops’ Document that “far fewer [pastors] treat adult faith formation as a priority” is spot on, but not every diocese generates much heat in this regard, either.
CARA’s numbers indicate that Catholic markers across the board have been sinking for years; one might say dramatically beginning in 1975. Kenneth Woodward, the longtime religion editor of Newsweek Magazine [whom I met at a presentation in 2018] observed that “the best indicator that a little Catholic or Presbyterian will become a big Catholic or Presbyterian is the religious commitment and energy of their parents. The problem is that, in mainline Protestantism and now in Catholicism, we've had several generations of parents who were weakly or poorly formed in their religious faith and practice.”
THE ADULT DEFICIT IN FAITH UNDERSTANDING...
Woodward could not be more correct, and there has been local movement in recent years to address this hard reality. Some parish faith formation leaders are attempting “family-formation programs,” particularly around the celebration of sacraments of initiation [Baptism, Confirmation, First Eucharist]. In these programs the parents are involved in the educational-formative process provided by the Church. Other parishes experiment with a once-a-month day of family formation where multitrack programs are provided simultaneously by age/generation accompanied by a Eucharistic celebration and common meal. I was invited to conduct the adult portion of such a program at a local parish a few years ago—on Valentine’s Day Weekend, no less—and at the very least, the positive reinforcement of the parish as a community around the Eucharist was quite evident. Some parishes actively support religious education homeschooling, whose quality of education will vary with the commitment and competence of the parent[s].
The great vacuum, unfortunately, remains adult religious education. The best way to put it is this: in my parish and elsewhere I have many friends and acquaintances of considerable post high-school education [Ph.D.’s are not uncommon] and professional achievement who live and worship with an eighth grade understanding of Catholic doctrine, wisdom, and life. Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes and many other places, reminds us that the Church must be intelligible to the men and women in a contemporary world. To wit, consider these points:
 Theology, at its heart, comes from the Greek theos logos, “the study of God.” To deny adults the assistance and opportunity to access the richness of the theos logos as it comes from its sources borders on pastoral malpractice.
 The Church has been the backbone of religious and philosophical thought for much of the past two millennia. In its long history the Church has faced most of the critical questions facing society today. Its richness, if studied and promulgated, would make a major contribution to our chaotic society. In our present situation, typical pastoral life brings precious little to the questions facing modern society. Actually, parishes avoid them like the plague.
 Study of the theos logos brings us into closer communion with God. It is no accident that the Church’s greatest thinkers—from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas to Edith Stein—are also among our greatest mystics.
 Monks—men whose lives are arranged around the liturgical hours of prayer—study from two to four hours each day, from the written word of Scriptures, the Church Doctors, the saintly scholars, and Christian history itself. Thoughtful study is the wellspring of prayer.
 Every demographic study of the Catholic Church indicates that there will be fewer and fewer priests in our future. The need for an educated laity to step forward in the work of teaching, preaching, and sanctifying will become greater than ever. Thoughtful and regular adult study of theology creates both the enthusiasm and the competence in adults to step forward in embracing these new responsibilities.
 The cultivation of healthy understanding of the Church’s tradition protects its members from drifting into dangerous extremist or one-dimensional energies that harm the Body of Christ.
There are those who would say that learning is a distraction, that humble piety is enough to please the Lord. To that, I would simply say that every hour of religious study I have invested in over the years has humbled me profoundly.
And, I would add the wisdom of my old seminary rector. Every year he would preside over the “votation” or deliberation over which seminarians to promote, and which ones to send home. The toughest cases were those of candidates who spent hours in the chapel but not enough in the library. When it came to vote, the rector would say, in Latin:
“Piety comes and goes. Stupidity remains forever.”
The next post: how my fellow parishioners and I met the challenge of theos logos. [In 2-3 days.]