After School

When I worked in a parish, one of my responsibilities was to conduct baptismal catechesis for parents of infants. Occasionally a parent would say to me: “I’ve been to a baptismal class before, do I have to come to this one?” My invariable rejoinder was, “Is it the same child?” We laughed, but they got the point.

Catechesis poses the question: How do you meet the person of Christ at this new moment of your life? How do you respond in faith, and within a community? Catechesis is not about information, though information is shared. It is about forming the Christian for the task of faithful living.

Catholic pastoral leaders have long lamented the fact that most Catholics end their formal religious education in eighth grade or at Confirmation. This concern has nothing to do with remedying defects—real or imagined—in the upbringing of a particular generation or person. It derives simply from the fact that new faith questions and challenges emerge in adulthood. No one who thinks about the question for even a minute could imagine that with the passing of adolescence the Christian has no more to learn, and the community has no more to teach. Discipleship is always a work in progress.

Catechesis, rightly understood, aids this process. Yet despite admirable documents that state adult catechesis is central to the church’s mission, such as the General Directory for Catechesis, and the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter Our Hearts Were Burning within Us, adult formation has never achieved the priority it deserves, nor commanded the resources it needs in order to flourish.

Considerable effort goes into religious education for school-age children, but adults are usually left to their own devices. Open your parish bulletin and see how many opportunities for adult catechesis are offered. If your parish is typical, you won’t find many. And think of the “formation” that occurs through a random sampling of television programs or Web sites that proclaim themselves Catholic, the most likely sources at hand for many.

Part of the problem is that adult Catholics are not generally willing partners in their continuing faith education. They either don’t see the need for it or haven’t been presented with models that attract them. While many parents feel an obligation to educate their young, they wouldn’t dream of seeking further faith formation for themselves. Add to that another problem: We Catholics seem to be in thrall to an educational model that does not honor the best of our tradition and is not well suited to the needs of adults. We assume that catechesis equals school: classrooms, courses, syllabuses, and lectures, offered from September to May. Quite a number of priests, bishops, and lay leaders share this assumption and find it hard to imagine other options. After all, most of them were trained in schools themselves.

But the Catholic tradition has much more to offer in the realm of faith formation than can be achieved in a school. Indeed, the four classic, interrelated aspects of Christian formation—hearing the message of Christ expressed through Scripture and tradition (kerygma); living out with others the new relationship wrought by our redemption (koinonia); taking an active part in the public worship of God in Christ (leitourgia); and engagement in apostolic works of service (diaconia)—thrive far better in a parish than in a school, and among groups that constitute communities rather than in classes. Adults who have no particular desire to “go back to school” respond more positively to opportunities for faith development when such opportunities are conceived in this broader, more traditional Catholic vision.

The signal success of the classic fourfold model wherever it has been tried—in the catechumenate, in RENEW, in small faith communities, in the “whole community catechesis” movement, and the like—is an encouraging sign. Yet these initiatives are frequently questioned, precisely because they do not conform to the school model. The bishops need to applaud such efforts and encourage parish leaders to pursue them. But first they need to recognize that the school model is not the only way to go. If we are serious about fostering an adult catechesis that is broad-based and lifelong—and that reaches significant numbers of adult Catholics—other models need to be developed, trusted, and promoted.

Published in the 2008-03-14 issue: 

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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