Barbara Nicolosi has written a typically frank and practical essay: Repenting of the Failure of Parish-Based Catechesis: Time for An Old Idea. Her parish priest did the same thing as ours did recently: he asked the parishioners if they could name the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. At Nicolosi's church, she was the only one who could recite them, which she did.
People gasped. Father approached our pew actually shocked. He was intrigued and, I guess, figured maybe I had gotten lucky. "Stand up and say them again. Slower." So, I did. And then our priest looked around and pointed at me and people applauded. Like I had done something extraordinary. Like I had said something brilliant. Like I was some kind of theological nerd, instead of just a fellow disciple in the pew, delineating something so catechetically pedestrian that seven-year-olds should know it before we ever think of placing the Eucharist in their little mouths.
Nicolosi says that this typical ignorance is intolerable. She says,
It's long past time for the Catholic Church in the United States to acknowledge and address the fact that in many, possibly most, dioceses, parish-based catechesis has been an abject failure. In the vaunted Year of Faith, it should sting all of our leaders and pastors that few of the ever-dwindling percentage of Catholics in the pews on a Sunday morning could pass a basic catechetical quiz. How many Gen X Catholics could name one of the precepts of the Church or recall any one set of the Mysteries of the Rosary? How many of our teenagerns could list all Ten Commandments? How many First Communicants could recite the Acts of Faith or Hope, or name the Seven Sacraments? The terrible, tragic, and fundamental truth for 21st-century Catholicism is, not many!
Some of my kids are a little behind where Nicolosi suggests should be standard for their ages, but I'm not happy about it, and we are working on getting caught up. I wholeheartedly agree with her call to "recommit to content and rigor." She has a few specific, useful ideas for how to do that. Do read her piece; it's bracing and intelligent, and practical.
Nicolosi is speaking mainly of how to restore the parish-based approach to catechism (both for kids and adults). She says,
When I have addressed this matter in public, it always evokes the response that the problem in our religious education programs is not the parishes but in the parents and families. It is certainly true that parents should be the primary educators in the faith. But they can't now, can they? Let's be real. You can't give what you don't have, and we have two or three generations of parents now who know next to nothing about their faith. A big plus of the "living room catechesis" model is that it draws the parents in. They will naturally be part of it, and they will learn along with their kids.
But there are many Catholic parents like me (thanks to my mother, who put up with a lot of eye-rolling and stony silences), who are fairly well-educated; but we're still floundering a bit when it comes to catechizing our children. We've recently discovered that our parish offers Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which is a gentle but profound Montessori-based program. I can't recommend it enough.
But, as much as we like this program, I still consider it mainly our responsibility to catechize our children at home. Readers often ask my advice for what books or programs to use. Here are the ones we keep coming back to:
The good old Baltimore Catechism. It's not, as Nicolosi says, enough on its own; but it's indispensable for making sure you have covered the basics. We like the St. Joseph editions. They chapters are short and very dense, and are full of variety: a short explanation of the concept, short scripture passages, discussion questions, fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false questions, and illustrations that stay with you. Don't be afraid of going old school! This is the stuff that works. You can't build a house without bricks and mortar, and that's what the Baltimore Catechism supplies.
Faith and Life series. These are more of a narrative, and will give more continuity and context to the facts covered in the Baltimore Catechism.
Bible stories. Don't get hung up on reading the whole Bible cover to cover, or on reading the "real" Bible to kids. Short retellings of Bible stories are fine. The idea is to make them very familiar with the prophets, kings, and apostles, with the gospel and the parables of Christ, and with the story of salvation. Yes, they hear it at Mass, but it's much more memorable when it's story time. There are a million picture Bibles to choose from, including graphic novel versions. My only suggestion is not to go cutesy, either with the illustrations or the tone. I'd rather have the kids a little alarmed about God, than to give them the impression that the whole thing is a Precious Moments fairy tale.
Stories of the saints. This is something I could use some help with! We have several Tomie de Paola books, and a rather bland Daughters of Saint Paul book of 57 Saints, and a few old-fashioned volumes of this and that, and a collection of stories of modern saints (a book whose name escapes me and I can't find it, which -- hooray! -- means one of the kids took it up to their bedroom to read). But I'd like my kids to be much more familiar with at least the basic life stories and words of the saints. Any suggestions?
Flocknote offers a free service of snippets from the YouCat, delivered to your inbox each morning. These would be fairly easy to use them as a jumping-off place for discussions with older kids (middle school age and up), and often give me something to think about, too.
And finally, it's absolutely vital to make kids understand that catechism is an everyday thing, not just something confined to weekly classes. Always be ready to talk about it; always be willing to look things up if you don't know the answer. Make it obvious to your kids that what they read in the catechism is what helps you make your decisions in life. And if you have to, practice saying the name of Jesus out loud without sounding embarrassed.
No matter how good parish catechism is, there is no substitute for raising kids in a home where it's normal to talk about the Faith. And there is no better way to deepen your faith than to teach it to someone else. In our house, the catechesis waxes and wanes. Sometimes we're really on top of things, and sometimes I realize we've gone weeks or even months without doing more than daily prayers and obligations. That's not time to despair - that's time to get going! Just pick on thing and get started, parents. It's your job.