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Wednesday, January 16, 2013


     Teachers of religion to young people have a difficult job. I have done it--fifty years ago, true, but I have done it. I began with third and fourth graders in Island Grove, Illinois, progressed to eighth grade in Effingham, then to seventh and eighth grade in Quincy, and finally to high school in Quincy. Those were not, for me, good experiences.

     Part of the reason they were not good experiences was my own lack of experience as a young person. I had had no contact with young people on a "normal" basis, because I entered the seminary after eighth grade. Many people suffer from that kind of inexperience on one level or another. But the format we were expected to follow in teaching was also part of the problem.  It was catechism.

     Catechism. The word has been used in Christianity at least since St. Augustine. The idea is that there are truths which one wishes to communicate, and then there are tools which one uses to communicate that truth. Catechesis is the tools.

     The idea of catechesis always enthused me, but the reality always disillusioned me. It should be rewarding to communicate the wonderful beliefs of our faith, but the reality of trying to do it was, for me, frustrating.

     I think I have a new set of tools for doing it: story-telling.

     An old speech teacher of mine used to say, "people love stories." Ears always prick up when you say, "I have a story about that." TV dramas are based on stories. News reports are labeled as "stories." "The New York Times ran a story about that last week."

     Let me give an example: the seven sacraments.

     The catechism tells us that there are seven sacraments, signs instituted by God to give grace. I was asked to memorize the names of the seven. Suppose I were to say to my students, "Let me tell you the story of how we got seven sacraments."

     Trouble is on the horizon. This gets us into deep water. The Protestant Reformers said that there were fewer than seven sacraments, and the Catholic Church responded by saying that there are seven, and if you say anything different, we will burn you at the stake. That is part of the story of the seven sacraments.

     How did we get seven sacraments?

     There are people who have examined this question in great detail, and there is wide-spread agreement about the story they tell. The first part of the story is the story of Jesus. Jesus lived and taught and died and rose again. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say "there are seven sacraments, which I am now instituting, and they are the following..."  What apparently happened was that early followers of Jesus gradually developed ways of carrying on Jesus' life and message, and gradually applied his message to events of our own lives.

     Jesus did baptize, and was baptized. Paul was baptized but did not baptize. Baptism is easy, and most Protestant reformers had no problem with baptism as a sacrament.

     Penance-reconciliation-confession was a different story. Some time during the early years of the Church's life, people who did really bad things were asked to do public penance for their behavior. They might have been forbidden to enter church for a year or more, or to sit at the church door with ashes on their heads. It was not until at least the 600s that the custom of confessing one's sins to a priest on a one-to-one basis arose.

     Holy Orders. The Gospels do not say that Jesus ordained anyone at the Last Supper. Paul's letter to Timothy, which was probably not written by Paul, makes reference to the "laying on of hands," but even that is not a clear sign of ordination to a priesthood. The Greek word for priest, hierus, is not used in the New Testament except in the Letter to the Hebrews, where it is used to refer to Jesus himself. The word presbyter, which is closer to the English word "priest," really means "elder," and referred to people who were apparently not ordained in any way.

     The basic story is that the seven sacraments grew out of Christians' ways of thinking about the story of Jesus and applying it to events in ordinary people's lives, but that process took centuries.

     That is the story that I would tell, and I could go into detail about the seven sacraments. If I am not able to go into detail about them, I know where to look for more detail, and I have been taught how to evaluate the quality of what I read. This makes preparation for a religion class interesting for me, because I am always learning more.

     Part of the weakness of our religion teaching since Vatican II has been that there are only so many ways that you can teach the catechism. By the time a child has finished grade school, he or she has presumably heard most of the catechism. What is a high school religion teacher supposed to do? One strategy is to go off into social analysis of various issues of the day, but then the class has become a sociology class. You can get artistic and have students make collages, but how different is that from an art class?

     A collage might make a particular aspect of our faith come alive for a student, but you can do only so many collages.

     The stories that we can tell about our faith are almost limitless. There is no danger that we will run out of material.

     Begin with the stories in the bible. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons, including Joseph of the famous technicolor dream coat. The ten plagues and departure from Egypt, crossing the Sea, wandering in the desert. Ruth, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, the kings after Solomon, the exiles of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. All these are in the bible--we don't need to purchase special catechetical materials for them, though visuals (and audials) of various kinds can help. When we enter a class without time to prepare, we can even resort to the oldest technique of all: read the story aloud right from the bible.

     Jesus and his birth, John the Baptist, all the things that Jesus did during his public ministry, his capture, trial, and execution, and then his resurrection.

     Possibly one reason we shy away from these stories is that many of them seem incredible (Jonah in the whale for three days). But we are learning that the bible is literature, and literature is seldom to be read as if it were science. We used to think that the bible taught us all the science we needed to know. Now we recognize that we cannot go to the bible for science. We go to it for stories about God, told in creative and often metaphorical ways. The stories raise questions about what is good and what is bad in human life.

     For centuries the Church tried to guard against false interpretations of bible stories. At first they tried to keep people from learning to read. Then they tried to keep them from reading the bible in their own languages. The Protestants objected to those strategies, and we now recognize that the Protestants were right. The Church now says it is good for people to read, and to read the bible in their own languages. But the Church is still so afraid that people might get the wrong ideas that they don't want people trying to tell the stories of our faith in any but the most traditional (and boring) ways.

     My method of catechesis creates the danger of misinterpreting the bible, but these days we have many more ways of counter-acting error than by trying to keep people's mouths shut. We have, in the Christian community, our own version of Wikipedia. I can tell a story, and there are people all around me who can correct my telling, in gentle ways, ways short of theatening to burn me at the stake. These days we can afford to be daring in our telling of our story as Christians, because there are so many fellow Christians who can engage us in the conversation that our stories create.

     We cannot do this kind of thing for very long before we are into theology. Our teachers and students will begin to develop a hunger for theology. We end up with a mature faith, one that has developed beyond the catechism, and is never finished developing.

     Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement of one person with another. Sharing stories is a wonderful way of engaging in that kind of involvement. Our catechesis should be a daring, yet humble, telling of the Christian story as we understand it.

     One reason that so many people (the percentage in our country has doubled in the last twenty years or so) say "I'm spiritual but not religious," is that organized religion is stuck in the catechism, and cannot cope with people who have adult questions about faith. So the people are wandering around like sheep without a shepherd.

     Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send workers into the harvest. And tell those workers to use the magnificent heritage of stories that we have in the bible, in the "fathers of the Church," in the medievals like Thomas Aquinas, in the mystics like Teresa of Avila, and in today's mystics like Mother Teresa.

     Matthew says in his gospel that a scribe well trained for the kingdom of  heaven is like a householder who brings out of the storehouse new things and old. We Catholics have a great storehouse.