As a daily blogger I get a lot of news feeds, updates, and publishers’ notices. I have deliberately requested most of these, with an eye toward watching for articles of particular interest for readers. I also get weekly news emails from my diocese in general, and another from our diocesan office of faith formation and family life (the department I work with.) Our Catholic diocesan newspaper is delivered to our door weekly or thereabouts. There is the church bulletin, of course, or “God’s Pennysaver” as I like to say. I think you know what I am going to say next: this is a lot of stuff.
You get these, too, I’m sure, as ministers, catechists and educators. The difference between you and me is that I have the leisure and power of judgment to filter through all this material for what I believe is particularly useful (which admittedly is not a lot) and discard all the rest. When I heard that Hillary Clinton had deleted 60,000 emails from her bathroom server, I thought to myself—small potatoes! I’ve discarded that many since I set up the blog. Some years ago I attended a meeting at the chancery, and an official complained about a pastor who had rigged his fax machine to refuse faxes from the main office. Three pastors sitting with us leaned forward and said in unison: “Can you really do that?”
Parish ministers, on the other hand, probably don’t feel quite so trigger happy with the delete button. After all, you might get something really important from the pope. I got an email today informing me that September 1 (that is, next Tuesday!) is a universal day of prayer for the environment. Now I respect the pope and his good intentions here, but in point of fact the timing and the absence of particulars make any serious parish implementation impossible. Not to be a legalist, but canonically speaking the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours for September 1 are already established for the day anyway. I checked the USCCB site and there is nothing about this. So, take your trembling hand over to the right side of the keyboard, say an Act of Contrition, and hit the delate button. You are not excommunicated, and your pastor already deleted his mail.
Now here’s a news release from the USCCB that might give you some pause along the lines of “what am I supposed to do?” This is particularly true if your pastor comes rushing breathlessly into staff meeting in say, November.
August 24, 2015
WASHINGTON—Families, parishes, schools and other Catholic groups can participate in National Bible Week, November 15-21, with resources provided in English and Spanish and available on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The theme of the observance is “The Bible: A Book for the Family/ La Biblia: Un Libro para la Familia.”
The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum will celebrate its 50th anniversary on November 18, 2015. National Bible Week logos and a variety of resources that highlight the Bible in Catholic life are available online: www.usccb.org/bible/national-bible-week/index.cfm
Before you lose any sleep, let’s look at this critically. First of all, for most parishes and Catholics in general, there is no historical background laid for such an observance. How many people know that 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the final session of Vatican II? How many have any idea of what Vatican II actually was? (This is why I introduced the Xavier Rynne narrative into the blog on Mondays and Saturdays this fall.) Are there ten people in your parish (this is sounding like the tale of Lot) who have heard of or read Dei Verbum? Or who know something of the fierce battle fought over its constitution?
I am going to assume that in your present programming you (1) place a high premium on age-appropriate study of the Sacred Scripture; (2) introduce Church history in your course schemas or study programs; and (3) do what you can to introduce observance of the Faith, including prayer and Bible reading, into the family setting. You are doing a good job. Hit the delete button and sleep well (unless you want some freebies from the USCCB to augment your existing programs.) You do not have to bake a cake on November 18.
The point I am driving home is this: it is August 26 as of this writing and you are set for this year. No one has the right to toss last minute demands, suggestions, or alterations on your desk for this year. You will get plenty of suggestions for optional holy or educational projects on a regular basis, even pressures that you do so. They will come from the diocese, USCCB, your pastor, your parishioners, and who knows who else. For the most part they will have some redeeming qualities, and you will find it difficult to say no. When I was pastor I would get all kinds of requests that the parish “do something” in response to a local or national tragedy. (I myself considered gathering up a group of parishioners in 1992 to visit the victims of Hurricane Andrew down the road till someone tactfully pointed out to me that all highway signs were gone. We sent the funds from a special collection instead.)
Have faith in the agenda you have set. Your focus should always remain on doing the basics well. Meet the spiritual and professional support needs of your present teams, and begin vigorously recruiting and preparing for 2016. Shelter your ministers and yourselves from last minute intrusions. And if it makes you feel better, unplug your email. Hillary probably wishes she had.
I humbly confess that I made a notable error while talking about the recruitment of religious education teachers and their lack of preparedness last week. I neglected to investigate if schools were experiencing the same problems in filling their rosters. God is good, and in this morning’s New York Times I came across two excellent pieces on the shortage of qualified professional school teachers across the United States. The first, by Motoko Rich, appeared Sunday in the news section of the paper. The second comes from the editorialist Frank Bruni, and it is this one that attempts to look at the underlying currents of the problem, a good many that cross over to Catholic parishes and religious educators.
Bruni’s third paragraph cuts to the chase rather quickly. While a good many Americans profess that the quality of elementary, secondary, and college education is a sine qua non for the health of America’s economy in the new global village, and that education is one entitlement where indeed no child should be left behind, fewer young people see teaching as “the draw,” as Bruni puts it. He cites Rich’s research that between 2010 and 2014 enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped 30%, and that of teachers entering the classroom, 40% exit the profession within the first five years.
In looking for the sources of this burgeoning problem, Bruni begins with funding, though not in a “throw money at the problem” sort of way. He focuses on teacher salaries. The national average of all teacher, including those with decades of experience, is $57,000, and in many locations starting salary may be less than $30,000. The teaching profession is not seen as a way to build a rewarding lifestyle—buying a home, paying off college loans, pursuing advanced degrees, even having children—and the salary rates are hardly a rousing vote of confidence for these civil servants. I have seen and heard, of course, the chronic complaint that “you can’t fire a bad teacher,” but my wife, whose work has taken her to dozens of public school settings as an intern supervisor, has expressed to me her pleasure with the atmosphere and general quality of performance of many such settings.
Catholic parish religious educators (not administrators) who teach the after school or weekend faith formation programs are paid nothing. Moreover, on a number of Catholic blog sites there is consternation from parents about registration fees for “CCD” or sacramental preparation programs. I am not sure what troubles me more: the resistance to paying $75 or the answers from the blog masters, one of whom observed “people aren’t giving or tithing like they used to, and religious education is one of the casualties.” I observed that in many parishes the costs of such programs are absorbed by fundraising from parish groups or the Knights of Columbus. It is curious to me that the cost of religious education in toto (from textbooks to director’s salary) is not rolled into every parish’s general budget as an essential component of the parish’s priorities; if a parish cannot provide this basic ministry without undue hardship, it would seem that consolidation with another parish or parishes is a solution worth looking at.
Bruni goes on to cite a second difficulty for teachers, “lack of voice.” There are a number of considerations here that are probably more pertinent to public school settings, but I have heard for years that Catholic staffs are frequently frustrated by mandates from the diocese or their pastors or other parish administrators which they are expected to implement but in which they had no advisory input. In many cases these are not issues of faith and morals, but the idiosyncrasies of administrators who missed the memo from Vatican II about collegiality and subsidiarity. It is worth noting that there is considerable turnover of administrators; parishes I visit for workshops seem to change religious education coordinators at the same pace I change my motor oil.
Bruni moves on to career development, noting that many public school teachers worry they will be doing the same things thirty years from now as they were doing on their first day. I have been beating this drum for years that we encourage our Catholic volunteers to think ahead about future opportunities, that we help them fund college studies, for example, if a worthy candidate is inclined to such. My motto as an employer is that all of my staff be groomed for better positions when the time came to leave my parish, or to promote them within.
Bruni concludes that the teaching profession be given greater prestige in public discourse. For our purposes, a first giant step in the Catholic setting would be frequent pulpit reminders that our religious educators are in fact teachers. I checked the USCCB page for Catechetical Sunday, September 20, 2015. The keynote letter by Archbishop Leonard Blair is devoted exclusively to a particular aspect of the faith the bishops wish to emphasize this year (the dignity of human persons) and not a word to the identity and general mission of the catechist (and certainly none to their compensation, formation, and well-being.) It is time to emphasize those in religious formation as a distinct and critical ministry of the Church—with some kind of regular communal recognition and vocational invitation we extend to, say, seminarians. Because without religious educators, there won’t be many seminarians.
I am gradually filling out my fall schedule of teaching and workshops, and it is a curious lot: topics like “Ministry and Catechesis;” “Catechesis and Sacraments;” “Church History;” “Teaching the Crusades” and “The Resurrection Narratives.” I find that a good trick for pushing your catechetical acumen is committing yourself to teach a subject you have never presented before. At the present moment for me that would be the “Crusades.” My proposal for the Orlando Diocese Day of Faith was accepted, so I will be charging off in my medieval armor to teach the Crusades late in September for my home diocese. I have not yet heard from the NCEA about whether San Diego and the Left Coast are ready next spring for Bohemond, Robert the Weasel, Dandolo, and the entire range of Crusading characters who make this era so interesting. (Actually, the Weasel died before the First Crusade, and a notable chronicler of the times, the Islamic Anna Comnena, met him and does not remark upon such an appearance.)
The most rewarding courses I teach are the catechist training courses in my own diocese. While I think we squeeze too much into one day’s program, at least there is “meat” in the official curriculum. I am intrigued by comparing the evaluation sheets of religious education presentations with those of medical continuing education days. From time to time I will get one from a catechist who says I was too far over the catechist’s head. To tell you the truth, I am not bothered by that, because religious education must have an element of challenge to it to be of any good. Catechists should be pushing the outer limits with their students, too. By contrast, medical providers attend courses precisely to find out what they don’t know, or what they have not had time to research. The worst insult on a form would be to say that “I learned nothing” from a speaker or presenter. Of course, the fact that mental health providers might pay as much as $200/day (not counting lost office revenue) has a lot to do with high expectations, too.
Given that the school season is upon us and parish programs are gearing up, our successes and failures will soon be staring us in the face. Maybe they already are. Perhaps you are a religious education director, faith formation director, youth ministry coordinator, or an administrator of other formative programs; for starters, do you presently have an adequate staff of volunteers or professionals for opening day? This will soon be upon us. I have written earlier that recruiting and training, at least a year in advance, is a first step in strengthening the faith formation process of a parish.
Last week I remarked that my own parish had posted its first panic announcement, being short of catechists for this fall’s programming. The announcement ran this week as well. I know this problem is not unique to my parish, so today I googled the church bulletins from last Sunday for other churches in my own diocese, and this is what I came up with in ten searches:
(1) The Office of Faith Formation is seeking volunteers 16 years and above to assist in our children faith formation programs. We are in need of Catechists and Classroom Assistants. We offer training and support for anyone who is able to assist.
(2) We encourage you to learn about teaching in the Religious Education Program. This fall over 300 children from Pre-K through 8th Grade, will sign up to learn more about Jesus and the Catholic faith. You can help them learn and grow in faith by becoming a catechist or volunteer for Faith Formation. For more Information call the Faith Formation Coordinator:
(3) WE NEED YOUR HELP… Catechists, Co-catechist and Classroom Aides are needed to start classes. If they are not filled, classes cannot start… SO PLEASE PRAYERULLY CONSIDER THIS MINISTRY! So far, we still are looking for commitments from people to fill the following grades: Pre-K and Kindergarten, 2nd Grade and 5th Grade. 6 PEOPLE IN ALL ARE NEEDED. TRAINING AND SUPPORT IS A GIVEN. E-mail or call me if you want to chat about it…
(4) The Parish Religious Education Program is in need of catechists for the upcoming school year. If you are interested in this ministry, please call
(5) There will be a Catechist meeting on….Everyone who wants to help our Children in their Faith Journey is invited to join us. We are looking for people who have some time or a lot of time to share and love working with children. Call….
+ + + +
Something is wrong here. It may be bad planning, shortage of personnel, or a parish morale problem. Whatever, such announcements at this late date make a very poor impression on the Catholic public. What a reader takes away is the message that the handing on of the Catholic Tradition, which is what religious education is by definition, can be absorbed with a little quick cramming and passed along with no serious training. Religious education can be taught by individuals relatively unknown to the parish staff and community. It conveys that a parish’s religious education program is in no way equal to that of a Catholic school, and that a two-tiered caste of faith formation is tolerated.
Job one for this year: a new commitment to just how serious this faith formation business really is.