A fired-up catechist shares successful lessons with a frustrated volunteer.
By Christian LeBlanc, March 14, 2014
Editor’s Note: A Patheos reader recently emailed us with a heartfelt expression of frustration: seven months into teaching the Catholic faith to third graders, and facing the disinterest of the children and the lack of parental commitment, he felt ready to quit. As his experiences are all too familiar for many catechists, we brought his missive to the attention of Christian LeBlanc, author of The Bible Tells Me So: A Year of Catechizing Directly from Scripture. Below is an excerpt of our reader’s email, and LeBlanc’s open-lettered response.
I was asked to teach CCD to third graders making their First Reconciliation and First Communion. I am not a teacher. . .but having coached CYO (10-12-year-olds), and also having children (now adults), I agreed.
I have been trying since September to “get into it.” I prepare each week, sometimes for over a few hours. There are eleven kids in the class. They mostly show up, [but] if there is a soccer game or ice hockey game, those things [take precedence.]
The parents are polite, but after seven months, I am feeling like a babysitter. The kids are much less knowledgeable and frankly much less interested that I would have thought by age eight. They are fully affected by the society we live in, and the society that I live in is fairly affluent. Instead of feeling fulfilled, I feel resentful. Three weeks after Christmas, most of them did not even know what the Nativity was.
I started giving homework at the beginning, but gave up because I realized that no one did it. I gave them a quiz to take home to do with their parents—basic questions. When I asked them the next week about it, there was basically no response.
When I made my communion so many years ago, it meant everything. To these kids, I am afraid it means a party on a Sunday.
In a few short months, I am finished for the year. [I am not a lukewarm person, but] I don’t think I can keep doing this. My question to you is, How much are we obligated as Christians to keep trying?
My heart wants this to be successful, but the rest of me says, “Screw it. Someone else can use my time and help.” If you have time, I would really appreciate your thoughts.
Frustrated in Babylon
The Catholic Channel at Patheos asked me to respond to your heartfelt letter about catechizing little 21st-century pagans. I’ve been catechizing kids for ten years, and as Viv Savage said, I “have a good time all the time.” And I think you should have a good time all the time in catechism class too.
So let’s see: the parents stink, the kids stink, the curriculum stinks, and your first year of being a catechist stinks. This reminds me of my first year, but also what Marshal Foch said at the Battle of the Marne: “Pressé fortement sur ma droite, mon centre cède, impossible de me mouvoir, situation excellente, j’attaque.” [“Pressed hard on my right; my center yields; impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent, I shall attack.”]
So everything is bad, except for you and the Holy Spirit. That’s actually liberating, because you can just forget worrying about the stuff you can’t control, such as your indolent class of kiddies marinating in a decadent culture the other 167 hours of the week. What can you and the Spirit accomplish in a mere hour a week? Plenty!
The first thing is to scrap homework, quizzes, and the textbook. It’s fine to use the book as a guide, but reading out of the book in class is a time-killer. Don’t let the kids have anything on the desk—no books, paper, pencils, nothing. If only one child shows up, say “Thank you Jesus, for this one,” and get fired-up about this great opportunity to help that kid get to heaven.
Now, you’re teaching Reconciliation (R) and Communion (C), and I bet you only have six classes to go. That gives you three hours on each subject—practically an eternity—and you’re going to catechize and evangelize at the same time.
Here’s an idea for three hours on Reconciliation:
R1: Basics of Sin and Forgiveness
Tell a couple of stories from your own life about asking for forgiveness, and granting forgiveness. Get the shame, and pride, and fear and relief into it. You know: you aren’t lukewarm! Then ask the kids about when they have hurt their parents’ feelings. Maybe like me, a child broke something valuable that he couldn’t replace. Do you want to apologize? Why not? Does your mom want you to apologize? Why? Does she already know you’ve been bad? Will she forgive you? What keeps you from saying you’re sorry? Do you fake an apology? Is your mom fooled? Will she accept something less than true repentance? Is it okay to call her on the phone, or text her that you’re sorry? Why not? Why does it have to be face-to-face? Why does she even care if you apologize? Does love have anything to with it? Once you say you’re sorry and you really mean it what does your mom say? What does she do? How do you both feel then?
Now read line-by-line from the Prodigal Son, and once again give personal witness to the kids about how it relates your own life, and give them room to tell bits of the story as much as they can. Ask and repeat questions as the story progresses: how does the son feel now? How about the father? How about the older son? In my class I tie the story to selfishness and selflessness: the father always thinks of others even when he’s being sinned against; the older son is selfish; the young son undergoes a change of heart. See if they can add their own similar experiences.
R2: More stories
Tell/read the story of the Paralytic, and point out that people went nuts over Jesus forgiving sin, because only God can forgive sin. I make a skit out of it in my class; it keeps the kids engaged.
Cover the story of the woman at the end of Luke 7, talk about humility and pride, get the kids to give examples of both in their lives. Point out that Jesus forgave sins only in person.
Talk about the Centurion. He doesn’t confess any sins, but he sets a great example of faith and humility for us sinners. See if any kids can connect what he says to something they hear at Mass.
Jump ahead to the risen Christ in the Upper Room per John 20. Read “he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” Connect Jesus’ breathing on the apostles to God breathing life into Adam. Flesh out the Creation story a bit for those who may not know it.
Read “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Explain what “retains” means to the kids; get them to explain the passage back to you. Discuss how in a practical way this would have to work, e.g., how can an apostle forgive your sins if you don’t tell him what they are?
R3: The Sacrament
Talk about your own first Confession, how you did it then versus now as an adult—how often you go, how it works, what sort of things the priest tells you. Use personal witness. Then go back to the stories and things you’ve already talked about; connect each of them to Confession. Better yet, bring up the stories, and let the kids tell you as much as they can. Help them only as much as they need. Let them see how the sacrament is rooted in the Bible stories and also human nature.
Hand out an Act of Contrition, which the kids and their parents can take to Confession. Everyone read it, together; see how much the kids can explain what it means. Help them out with “near occasion of sin.” Discuss “Examination of Conscience”—which the Prodigal son did. Discuss “rehearsing” your confession like the Prodigal Son did.
Talk about some sins that you have trouble with, and how you aren’t perfect, and commit them over and over. But point out that Jesus loves you and will forgive you every time you tell him you are sorry. You’d like to tell Jesus in person, but he’s in Heaven these days, so you ‘fess up to one of his priests instead. Like your mom, Jesus already knows your sins anyway; it’s for your own good that he provides a priest so you can still confess out loud and in person; and then hear the words of forgiveness go right out of the priest’s mouth and into your ear.
Time permitting, pull out the Ten Commandments, and you and the kids name some typical sins. Figure out which Commandments they violate. Think of some sins that aren’t obvious. Discuss the difference between sins of Commission and Omission.
If that outline works for you, you’ll be primed for (C). I bet for Communion you can make up something similar yourself using Adam and Eve eating Sin in Eden; the death of innocent Abel; Melchizedek’s Bread and Wine; Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac; the Ram; Moses’ Manna and Quail; Moses’ Passover meal; Cana; Loaves and Fishes; Eat My Flesh, Drink My Blood; the Last Supper, aka the New Passover; and how we eat God at Mass, a kind of antidote to Adam and Eve eating Sin.
Spend leftover time on the Mass in general: what Epistles, Psalms, and Gospels are; who wrote them and why. Act out Paul going around setting up parishes, and then having to write them letters later when the people start to mess up. Talk about how the Mass is both a sacrifice and a meal. Expand on the stories so the kids have some context, and don’t forget to ask lots of questions and let the kids contribute as much as they can.
And remember, the first year is always the worst.
In Christ, I am your brother,