5 Catechetical Tips for Reaching the Most Important Audience

St. Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

What is the most important catechetical audience and how should we reach them?

Earlier this week, my friend and colleague Andrew Sciba posted about the tendency of some parish catechetical programs to aim for later Confirmation, in the hopes of keeping children in PSR (CCD for those slightly older readers), holding the Sacrament of Confirmation over their heads. Several important points were made in the combox by intelligent and well-intentioned individuals on both sides of the argument, some arguing that we should trust in grace to do its job even at a young age, others arguing that we should wait until youth are psychologically ready for that grace. To be honest, it sounds like we’re trying to force grace and psychology into a game of leap frog, so I won’t engage in that debate here. What I would like to do, however, is point out that the “Confirmation-as-bait approach” to keeping young people in PSR wouldn’t be necessary if American young people were being raised in a faith-filled environment. “But our parish has a very active PSR program and a great youth group!” Yes, that may be, but what about after that?

Youth and young adults are growing and very keen to become just like the adults they admire. Though they may hide it, kids really do want to be a lot like their parents. It’s the natural order of things. That’s why the Church calls parents the first teachers of their children in the faith. In the Rite of Baptism, we find this all-too-forgotten exchange:

Priest (or deacon): You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

Parents: We do.

How many parents really do understand what it is they are undertaking?

In many parishes, the devil is trying to give catechists the old slight-of-hand: “Watch the children, all eyes on the children. Are they involved in PSR? How big is the youth group?” All the while, he’s snatching away every good opportunity for your parish to fulfill its fundamental catechetical mission: the catechesis of adults, especially parents..

Don’t believe me? See GDCGeneral Directory for Catechesis 59, 172-176 and Catechesi Tradendae 43 (below, my emphases):

To continue the series of receivers of catechesis, I cannot fail to emphasize now one of the most constant concerns of the synod fathers, a concern imposed with vigor and urgency by present experiences throughout the world: I am referring to the central problem of the catechesis of adults. This is the principal form of catechesis, because it is addressed to persons who have the greatest responsibilities and the capacity to live the Christian message in its fully developed form. The Christian community cannot carry out a permanent catechesis without the direct and skilled participation of adults, whether as receivers or as promoters of catechetical activity. The world, in which the young are called to live and to give witness to the faith which catechesis seeks to deepen and strengthen, is governed by adults. The faith of these adults too should continually be enlightened, stimulated and renewed, so that it may pervade the temporal realities in their charge. Thus, for catechesis to be effective, it must be permanent, and it would be quite useless if it stopped short at the threshold of maturity, since catechesis, admittedly under another form, proves no less necessary for adults.

So, you see, the Church tells us that for the sake of the young and everyone else in the Church, catechesis of adults is primary.

Here are some tips for achieving that:

  1. Adult Faith Formation – Really, this one should be obvious, but with so many youth groups and PSR programs taking the lion’s share of the catechesis budget, it’s become something of an afterthought in the typical parish.  Here are some basic forms of adult faith formation I won’t get into here, because we all know what they are: RCIA, service organizations (Knight of Columbus), Bible studies (although, parishes could learn a lot from the dynamically growing discipleship model FOCUS uses).
  2. Babysitting – It’s just assumed by plenty of folks that if adults want to get to know their faith better, they’ll join or form a Bible study.  Wrong!  Why not?  Because they have kids!  You know that room with lots of toys you offer on Sundays so parents don’t have to put up with trying to teach their kids how to behave at Mass?  Use it during the week!  If you offer to watch the kiddos so mommy and daddy can have adult conversation without getting interrupted by “mommy…MOMmy…MOMMY…MOMMMMMMYYYYYY!!!”  “WHAT?!” “Brother’s sticking his tongue out at me” …sorry, I lost my train of thought.  If you offer to watch the kids, the parents will talk about anything, including God, the Church, the Bible, and yes, even NFP.
  3. Whole Family Catechesis- Right now in America, one of the catechetical buzzwords is “whole community catechesis.”  It’s like the Catholic version of “it takes a village.” It seems to me, though, that the broader parish community is made up of families, and maybe we should try to form those into little catechetical powerhouses first.  Parents are terrified of the thought of teaching their kids the faith.  They need to learn it themselves and be taught effective methods. 

    Click here for a basic sketch of what this might look like.

    • Once a month, on a Sunday, have a “Family Picnic Day”  – make sure it’s well-advertised.
    • At the start of the day, have a picnic brunch on the green or a pancake breakfast in the social hall.  It can be potluck if you want.  It doesn’t have to cost you a darn thing.  Let the kids run wild a bit at first, hang out with their friends, and then bring them back together for something more quiet.  Give the small children crayons and paper and tell them to draw pictures of themselves with Jesus.  Give the older children Bible verses to journal about.  Give the teenagers some praise-and-worship time in the side room.  Close this session with a prayer.
    • Send the children to PSR, send the teens to Bible study or Dead Theologians Society or something like that.  Giving up a Sunday evening LifeTeen session once a month won’t kill them.
    • While the kids are away, have one teacher’s aide from each PSR classroom staff a table in the social hall, armed with packets on what the children will be learning that month.  In the packets, include: prayers for the family to say together (they don’t have to be mere text, praise and worship, chant, or other types of prayer also work!), brief descriptions of relevant doctrines (with Bible and Catechism references!), activities to help the kids put the doctrine into practice (by virtue of the Incarnation, there is always a way to put the Word into practice!), questions for reflection for each week of the coming month (the parents should ask the kids throughout the month!).
    • It wouldn’t hurt if you included a short handout for teens, too, so they can help their parents catechize their younger siblings.  This way, you’ll be training the next generation of parental catechists!
    • All throughout this time, maybe the priest(s) could be in the Confessional, helping to renew parents and children (above the age of reason) with the gift of God’s grace and sound pastoral advice.  If no one comes to the Confessional, maybe the priest could go and hover in around the parent meeting, wearing his purple stole to send a little hint.
    • After the whole group reconvenes, the pastor can lead them to the Church, where they will celebrate Mass all together, as one parish family made up of many individual families.
    • After Mass, perhaps the kids in the parish could have a game of touch-football or soccer, just to get their blood pumping again?
  4. Supercharged Marriage Prep – If you haven’t noticed, people are getting married older these days.  A lot of them have been away from the Church for several years.  Many of them are living together.  Here’s your chance to reach out to them with St. Origena Tertulliana of the Holy Scruple’s Guide to Enjoying Marriage as Little as Possible Theology of the Body!  Tell them what a wonderful thing the Church thinks sex is.  As they nod in agreement at your disarming approach, remind them that the most beautiful things in this world are also the most worthy of reverence.  Natural segway.  Will they all walk away converted?  No, but if you ignore the issue, you do no one any favors, and if you are negative about it, you’ve lost them for the future.  Also, invite them to the parish Bible study with the young marrieds.
  5. Supercharged Baptismal Prep – These days, when parents go through the required Baptismal prep, most of them are told in vague terms what the sacrament is and that – not really why – it’s required.  It’s all a bit tired.  Why aren’t parents being given the opportunity to wonder about their own Baptisms, reflect on their own salvation, and get excited about bringing their children into this?  That’s the way Baptismal prep should be!  Ask the parents when they were baptized.  Give a prize to the first person with an answer.  Teach them everything you can about Baptism.  Say things that are bound to raise questions.  Get the parents interested.  Then, tell them about the new parent group in the parish and give them a pamphlet on Christian parenting.  If they’re first-timers, they’re terrified about being parents.  They won’t admit it, but they are.  Tell them you’re there for them.  Give them a list of counselors in the parish who are always willing to give at least a little parenting advice pro bono.

Imagine the faith of the family if adults really were treated as the primary target for catechesis.  Imagine the growth of the Church and her influence in the workplace, the grocery store, and the political sphere!

Yes, we absolutely need to focus on catechizing children and youth, but the way to do that is to catechize the parents.  If we did that, it wouldn’t be necessary to force grace and psychology into a game of leap frog.  Imagine it.

What about you?  Do you have any special insights on catechizing adults?

12 Comments

  1. So agree that the parents are the primary place to start catechesis. They are hungry too. We started a book club and the ones who go are overly excited when we covered Catholicism 101. They get a refresher and new knowledge. They like what we covered so much they are willing to sit through it again in our Adult Formation class on Sunday. Just get doing it and it will make an impact.

  2. I fully agree about the parents/adults being the ones who need more opportunities for faith formation. As a wife/mom (a revert herself) whose whole family converted last Easter, we went every week to our churches’ terrific RCIA program. My young adult children (22, 20, 19 & 17) especially made the decision to learn as much as they were able, so many discussions ensued throughout the year both at church and home. I am so grateful we had the teaching we did before joining The Church.
    My one disappointment is that there has been little follow-up during this year of mystagogia that our RCIA director had said would happen. Thankfully, my family has continued to grow by getting involved in church activities & my 19 year old son is now wanting to go to seminary. I would just ask churches to PLEASE be sure to keep up with the folks who join The Church at Easter (or whatever time of the year). We can’t let people “fall through the cracks” in their faith formation.

  3. For superior adult formation, please check out Fr. Robert Barron’s CATHOLICISM Study Program. Fr. Robert Barron created this groundbreaking program as a thematic presentation of what Catholics believe and why, so all adults can come to a deeper understanding of the Catholic Faith. Not a video lecture, Church history or scripture study, this engaging and interesting formational program uses the art, architecture, literature, music and all the treasures of the Catholic tradition to illuminate the timeless teachings of the Church. For more info, please go to http://catholicismseries.com/study-program

  4. I am part of a beautiful thing in the Church called the Neocatechumenal Way. It is truly a blessing to the Church and is a way of Catechesis that encourages immersion in the Word of God, in Community and practically living out the faith. I encourage all to look into it. Don’t believe those that claim it’s a cult…they tend to say this about anything that takes faith seriously.

  5. Last time I checked the Sacrament of Confirmation acts ex opere operato just the same as Baptism, the Eucharist and so forth.

    • Jon,

      CCC 1128 – “This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

      That’s what was being discussed in regard to Confirmation and whether or not one should wait for this or that psychological condition. Also, a person in mortal sin will receive the character of the sacrament, but not the grace of the sacrament, so it’s clear that something in the sacrament depends on the recipient, but the sacrament itself does not. A confirmed individual is truly confirmed, even if not in the state of grace.

    • Hi Micah

      It appears that the Holy Father is tending in favor of restoring the sacraments to their proper and historical order. This puts confirmation following baptism and then the first Eucharist after being confirmed (around age six or seven. There are no less than eight American Bishops who have got on board with this already. So it looks like we are starting to say goodbye to the dreaded adolescent confirmation classes. Children at a younger age are probably naturally better disposed to receive the Sacraments in that order rather than when they are adolescents. Catechizing children in the domestic church works well if we apply ourselves. Some will slip through the cracks. The problems that we have now were started when parents me included dropped our kids off at some not so good CCD programs. I think programs now are better in many respects than they were say 25 years ago. The materials available are better. As for folks deciding whose kids are properly disposed–we got along way to go on that one. There is probably a lot less angst on this subject in places like Africa and Latin America.

      • Jon, we agree! So does Andrew, whose post on that topic I referenced at the start of my post.

        Thanks for your input!

  6. I would also like to see a return to the family attending Mass together rather than a separate Mass for this group and that group. It might promote unity better.

  7. You are right on target. Over the past few years I have come to understand just what you are talking about. I have seen it in my own parish. Parents who don’t know or care to know their faith force their children to be confirmed out of a sense of obligation, or to make grandparents happy, only to have them all stop attending Mass as soon as the kids “graduate”. So many people are concerned about the loss of the faith, but unwilling to address the real problem. Lack of faith on the parents part. I have suggested to our priest just what you said about marriage and baptism prep, but it’s not the solution they are looking for. Maybe a new slickly packaged program will save the day…

    The most important part of handing on the faith is talking to them about it. Too many people that I know take their kids to Mass weekly, but never really instill in them the importance of living their faith life. And for those who don’t know how to get started, I have a surefire way to open up communication and to teach yourself and your children the faith–read the lives of the saints.

    Reading the lives of the saints will change your life. Look what it did for St. Ignatius of Loyola. We see what is possible if we trust in the Lord. But also, we will learn the faith. How can you read about Sts. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, Francis DeSales, etc… and not come to understand and believe in the Real Presence, Confession, Papal Authority, and all the rest of the doctrines of the Church.

    Many priests are not alarmed about the lack of active participation of the young. I hear all of the time, “They’ll be back once they get married and have children.” That might have been true for the last generation, but I don’t think it will be true in the future. This generation was never really a part of the Church, they don’t have an attachment to it, most will not feel a draw to return. Many were only baptized and ccd’d to make their grandparents happy, but their parents won’t push them to do the same for their children.

  8. Maxime /

    At my parish in which I lead our Faith Formation program. As the kids attend their classes, the adults meet in a room with me. We basically do a different topic each week. I suggest projects to do as a family. They really seem to enjoy it and attendance is very good every week.

  9. Your article is true.
    Adults need adult catechesis for when the “adult” problems/questions etc become reality. If we only catechize the youth, the youth grow into adults and only have the “youth” catechesis to fall back on. Combine that with what they observe and live as a lack of faith in their family (except for 1 hour a week on Sunday) and it is a grace that any children remain in the faith when they grow up.
    Your article also aims to offer a solution. The solution you described does not need to be invented. Your description exists in the Neocatechumenal Way.

    I see for myself, my spouse , and especially my children, God has reached me through the catechesis and itinerary offered through the Church in this way. If all I can do in this life is to transmit faith to my children, the faith God wills them to have, then I will die happy.