On Monday morning I enjoyed some good pastry down at the Chancery of my diocese as I was in attendance with a task group created to intensify the Catholic identity of our diocesan schools. I say “intensify” because in recent years I feel that a fair amount of progress has been made with incorporating Catholic school teachers into the evangelical mission. As a catechetical instructor of personnel in my own diocese, I remember a day not so very long ago when members of my team dreaded teaching classes of Catholic school teachers. Courses in catechetical formation were perceived as (and at times presented as) “hoops” to jump through by the teachers in attendance. To a point it was understandable, as there was no significant paradigm on our part as instructors to incorporate the large majority of school teachers who were not, strictly speaking, “religion teachers,” into the full mission of the Catholic parish/diocesan school.
I am experiencing fewer and fewer attitudinal problems in recent years. I’m sure they exist, and yes, I still have the occasional professional teacher who updates a Facebook page while I explain how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But the teachers I talk with personally and in small groups seem to have much more interest in (1) issues of faith that relate to them personally, (2) their professional competence in the areas of theology and religious education, and (3) the quality—or more often, the lack—of Catholic identity, behavior, and knowledge of the faith among the parents. It is intriguing to me to hear this third issue come up in school settings, because this used to be the main complaint of religious education volunteer instructors, as in the failure of parents to bring their children to Mass on Sundays.
I am also starting to hear from teachers that they would like high quality theological formation in places, formats, and times more conducive to learning. (Presently our courses are offered regionally on 7-hour Saturday presentation days and intensively during weekdays in June after schools close.) I am favorably disposed to this input though with a few provisos. These would include (1) cost; (2) availability of competent theological faculty to meet multiple styles of demand, and (3) the general difficulties surrounding “continuing education” in all professions.
I have sitting on my desk next to me a mailing from the Institute for Brain Potential, a brochure inviting me to a 6-hour seminar in Orlando on “Memory, Stress, and Alzheimer’s Disease.” The IBP is accredited by the Florida Department of Health to provide CE or continuing education hours toward the renewal of my state mental health license. This April 28 workshop is being held at a DoubleTree Inn in East Orlando; as workshops go, this 6-hours is a bargain at $79. Most mental health CE programs from companies like Cross Country run in the $180-$220 range. The presenter is a teaching Ph.D. psychologist from South Florida. The cost of tuition is paid by the participants; some employers might help bear the costs for staff employees as a perk but if you are a private practitioner or consultant, it’s your cost minus the tax deduction. I am not conversant with CE requirements for electricians, portfolio managers, and tax preparers, but my guess would be that continuing education is, generally speaking, a cost of doing business, a fact that has not percolated throughout the Catholic system, for reasons I will cite below.
The same cost challenges face religious continuing education in Roman Catholic institutions, in our context parish schools and religious education format. The tuition for our 7-hour programs is $15/class (and a teacher can now register on line with a VISA card). I honestly don’t know how that fee is charged, whether schools pick it up for teachers or each teacher pays his or her own way. My guess would be more of the latter. In any case, the $15 does not really cover the costs of professional religious training. The Orlando profile is probably very similar to many U.S. dioceses. We do not have a Catholic College within our boundaries, nor a library or faculty of theologians with advanced degrees. There is no diocesan owned central facility (comparable to a DoubleTree) to conduct regular courses. We are not awash in Ph.D.’s. We improvise in every one of these areas, depending upon the proffered hospitality of parishes and schools, for example, to host and feed teachers and catechists from around the region.
This segues into the second point, the availability of instructors, facilities, and formats. In my conversations with the folks downtown, I get the impression we do not have a strong bench of instructors beyond our present starting line-up. I can’t recall any discussions over the years regarding qualifications for our in-house instructors. Years ago a fair number of priests, laicized priests, and religious sisters were actively engaged. However, as the clergy retire and decrease in number, the newer priests from overseas manfully struggle with language and what I would call “the American Catholic idiom of theology,” which can make advanced teaching prohibitively difficult, though there have been remarkable exceptions. I should add here that until fairly recently religious sisters continued to maintain a high profile as DRE’s or faith formation directors, although their numbers decrease, too. Generally, the credentials today seem to be an accredited master’s degree in religious education or theology and considerable pastoral and religious educational background.
The extent of the catechetical leadership personnel problem today is brought home more clearly in two intriguing reads, When the Sisters Said Farewell (2012) and Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns (2007). While both works explain the travail of religious sisters’ communities in the United States in the twentieth century—before and after Vatican II—they also provide insight into our present day dearth of a strong cadre of “professional formers” to teach and mentor those in religious faith formation. The “Catholic presence” we seek to replicate today was not just the academic excellence of religious in the classroom, but in truth it was the religious life of the convent transposed into the school setting—prayer at particular hours, liturgical observance, silence, modesty in dress, obedience—all of the qualities of a convent writ large in, say, 1960. Moreover, given the large numbers of young sisters teaching in the schools (and the religious education programs or “released time” programs, I hasten to add) the practice of veteran teaching sisters mentoring the younger teachers was very strong in many communities.
The stipend of the religious nuns who taught me (1954-58) was $25/month, from what I have been able to learn. (I had Christian Brothers 1958-62.) I would tell anyone who asked that I received an excellent academic and religious formation in my Catholic school. And while our catechetics and theological outlook has expanded since then, when we talk about “Catholic identity” in schools and religious education programs, we are—correctly in my view—harkening back to an academic/faith standard that served us well.
On Monday night, when I kicked back with my wife to talk about the day, I harkened back to the movie that scared us to death in the summer of 1975, “Jaws.” When Sheriff Brodie laid eyes on the size of the challenge of the great white shark, the cigarette fell out of his mouth and he walked back to the irascible Captain Quint: “I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
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