Augustine Institute Releases ‘Word of Life’ Catechesis Series for Children, Middle-Schoolers
‘Training children of God’ to live the faith well is the goal.
Last summer, the Augustine Institute partnered with Ignatius Press to launch the “Word of Life” catechesis program. Grades K-5 are currently available, and grades 6-8 will follow next summer.
The kindergarten program launched last summer, and this summer, grades 1-5 were released. Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption, had been a guiding launch date for grades 1-5. This date signifies the founding of the Augustine Institute, as well as when the partnership alliance between Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute was formed, according to Ben Akers, the Augustine Institute’s chief content officer.
Akers said that as an educational apostolate, the Augustine Institute works to help Catholics understand, live and share their faith. The content office exists to produce material in an integrated and focused approach across all platforms.
“The pedagogy that we’re trying to use in ‘Word of Life’ is to help people know Jesus Christ and know how God has revealed himself in salvation history,” Akers said. “We’re imitating God’s pedagogy in that way. With the full revelation of the Son, we learn how we’re incorporated into God’s great story in our lives as Christians living in the Church.”
“Word of Life” offers a unique approach to catechesis because the curriculum not only forms students in and out of the classroom, but also provides formation and content to teachers and parents, Akers said.
“We have this multipronged approach where there are resources for the teachers that are communicating and teaching information, and then there’s also information for the parents,” Akers said. “While their students are going through a traditional classroom at a Catholic school or in a parish program, the parents also have information available to them.”
Christian Smith, a Catholic sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, discovered that what keeps kids Catholic into their adulthoods — and even keeps kids faith-filled — is if their parents talk about God with them on a day that isn’t Sunday, Smith said.
“We have found one of the strongest factors during the teenage years associated with youth being more committed to and practicing their faith later in their emerging adult years is having had parents who talked about religious matters during the week,” he continued.
Smith discovered this during his Notre Dame “National Study of Youth and Religion,” a project formed to deepen understanding of the spiritual lives of American youth, from adolescence to adulthood. He also has two books, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation, and Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, that delve into this topic.
“It’s that simple and basic,” Akers said. “It’s just the fact that the faith applies to me every day. So we’ve curated a journey for the parents that matches and complements what their kids are learning, so that the parents are equipped to also share the faith and have holy, spiritual conversations about the faith.”
The Four ‘Golden Threads’
In the “Word of Life” series, the curriculum is organized by four “golden threads,” or pillars, that not only provide faithful teaching but explain why the faith is relevant in modern culture.
“The [threads] mirror our great patron at the institute, Augustine,” Akers said. “Augustine talks about the ‘golden thread’ of teaching the faith and how the golden thread for reading Scripture is love. There’s God’s love for humanity, and then we are invited into this great love because God loved us first. We respond by love.”
The four threads include “Salvation History,” “Christian Anthropology,” “Heroic Virtue and Character Formation” and “Learning Through Discipleship.”
In “Salvation History,” students, parents and teachers are rooted in the narrative of sacred Scripture and learn about how God made himself present in history, became incarnate in Jesus Christ and revealed our identity, Akers said.
“We have to know our story first,” Akers said. “One of the greatest crises [in modern life] is this crisis of identity and mission, who we are and what we’re called to do.”
In “Christian Anthropology,” questions on gender, identity and personhood are answered with Christian human anthropology, revealing that we were made in the image and likeness of God.
“There is a brokenness to us, our passions are disordered, but then we learn that Christ redeemed us and his grace allows us to overcome those things,” Akers said.
In “Heroic Virtue and Character Formation,” “Word of Life” aims to teach young people how to live in a virtuous, heroic way. Akers said that saints are recognized by their heroic lives and that the virtues we receive to live heroically are a gift from God.
“If we say ‘Yes’ to God’s grace in our brokenness, which is the gift of being a son and daughter given to us in baptism, then we’re infused with the life of the Spirit,” Akers said. “That’s why we use the language of heroic virtue. We’re not only called to form the mind to make scholars or little theologians. We’re actually training children of God.”
Finally, in “Learning Through Discipleship,” the curriculum is formed to reinforce the idea that our faith is not just lived out on Sundays, Akers said. Rather, our whole life depends on our faith and living as a disciple of God.
Working With Ignatius Press
The Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press have partnered for many years, and both organizations had been reflecting on creating a catechetical series, said Mark Brumley, CEO at Ignatius Press.
“Our work goes beyond just instructing, but actually evangelizing and facilitating conversion and believing and celebrating and living out the faith,” Brumley said. “The teaching is important, but also presenting it in a way where people are challenged to undergo conversion.”
Brumley said one of the biggest challenges the Church faces is helping young people move beyond a superficial, nominal attachment to Catholicism and instead undergo true conversion of heart.
“It’s important to be part of the Catholic culture. But at the core of what it means to be part of a Catholic culture is a living, personal relationship with the Lord and a living, dynamic participation in the Church and the life of the Church,” Brumley said.
The solution, Brumley said, isn’t just to provide accessible information, but to form and evangelize people who know and believe in the faith.
“It’s not enough to know that they’re committed as Catholics,” Brumley said. “You have to know the faith, and you have to be a personal witness to the faith. That’s one of the things that ‘Word of Life’ helps with.”
Emily Williams, coordinator of religious education at Christ the King School in Atlanta, is using Word of Life for the first time this fall.
“This series felt like an answer to a prayer, honestly,” Williams said.
Many of the textbooks that Williams used in her teaching contained accurate Catholic doctrine but were disorganized and hard to follow, she said. With “Word of Life,” Williams said she is already impressed with the number of provided resources. There are pictures and diagrams in the textbooks teachers can draw on boards, and video resources are included, she said.
“Our teachers have already told us they’re just so excited to have those resources available to them,” she said.
Many parishes and schools have already signed on to make the curriculum switch to “Word of Life,” said Kevin Clemens, director of curriculum development. Clemens also said he’s excited to continue developing the catechesis for grades 6-8.
“After first Communion, [many] kids kind of fade out and drop off the map for a few years,” Clemens said. “Then, around confirmation, there’s a real opportunity, and in some ways, I think, a last opportunity, to make a strong impression of the vitality and the centrality of the faith.”
Clemens sees the middle-school curriculum as an opportunity to keep people plugged into the sacramental life as well as to address questions that will equip them for high school and beyond.
“There’s a real opportunity right now to speak to a very broken and hurting culture,” Clemens said, “to not just say, ‘Hey, we have the truth; you don’t,’ but rather, ‘Here’s the One who brought us out of slavery to freedom. Here’s the One who has brought life out of death. Let us show that to you.’”
Both Akers and Brumley emphasized how “Word of Life” is a response to Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples.”
As Brumley put it, “With God’s help, we would like to help facilitate a real revolution of catechesis in the United States, so that the next generation of young people can themselves undergo a conversion and be able to participate fully in the Church’s life, but most importantly, the Church’s mission of evangelizing the world.”