Sunday, October 16, 2011

The challenges of teaching catechism in a secular world

For the past eight years I've been blessed to be a catechist at a church that offers the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) program. If you aren't familiar with the program, it is quite different from the "workbook/textbook" religion method that is commonly used by parishes today.

In a nutshell, CGS is a religious formation program that builds upon the special relationship that children naturally have with God. It starts with a specially prepared environment (called an "atrium") using materials handcrafted especially for children. This includes puzzles and pin maps of the Holy Land, a model of the city of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, miniature Mass sacramentals, dioramas of some of the parables and stories told in the Bible, and a variety of other beautiful material. CGS engages their senses and touches their heart to help them grow closer to God. It is a deep, meaningful approach to catechesis that affects not only the children, but also the catechists. I know it has been a transforming experience for my kids and I!

I've been trying to get the program into my home parish for years without success.  This year, I decided to teach regular CCD at our parish, hoping that I could incorporate some of the CGS materials and methods into my sessions.  Perhaps this will open a window so the Holy Spirit can come in and the "powers that be" can see that religious education doesn't need to be from a workbook.

My goal is to make the sessions less like a classroom, and more like a time where the kids can think deeply and explore their relationship with God. 

I knew it would be a rough road.  Sadly, many of the kids live in secular homes where God has been put on a dusty back shelf behind sports, dance, music and many other activities. I knew that Mass was not a regular part of their lives, although many probably attend on major holidays like Christmas and Easter.

I'm not expecting overnight miracles. I will take it very slowly, giving them some basic presentations on tangible topics that appeal to most kids--like Biblical geography--before we started working on the more esoteric and harder to understand subjects that fill their workbooks.  (The workbook this year is designed around the topic of the Four Marks of the Catholic Church.  A worthy topic, but perhaps not for third graders who may not yet know/understand/love the fundamentals of their faith!)  My emphasis is on building a love and understanding for their Catholic faith. 

I sympathize with the kids.  They are in school all day and then rush over to catechism class, where they are also expected to sit still and listen to a catechist lecture for 1.5 hours.  

I've decided to divide up the class time like this:  After announcements, we sit in a circle and I give a 15-25 minute CGS presentation. I might teach them a new song or prayer, too, during this time. Then they have 15-25 minutes of free time to do work related to the presentation topic. (I'll talk more about this in a future blog posting.) We then have prayer corner (with the kids organizing the prayer time and selecting the readings).  If there's time, they go outside and play on the playground. We head back to the room and say a final prayer before their parents pick them up.

It's difficult creating an atrium environment, since my class is held in the parish school's third grade classroom.  We don't have shelves for the hands-on materials and don't have a dedicated prayer corner.  Ideally, I would have the kids take their chairs and sit in a circle around me (rather than sitting in desks), but their are many desks in the room and not alot of space to move just  the chairs. So I've been trying to figure out ways to work around those challenges. I obtained permission to use the chapel for our prayer corner time, since the classroom, with its bright fluorescent lights and desks, just wasn't conducive to quiet, meditative prayer.  It also gives the kids a chance to move their bodies a bit, if only just while walking from the classroom to the chapel!

However, I've found the biggest challenge isn't the classroom environment. It isn't the children, who can be antsy but have been very attentive during presentations thus far.  It isn't the religious education office, which tries to be helpful but is required to take up a lot of class time with fire drills, diocese required child protection classes and other sessions that seem to take away from the prayerful atmosphere I'm trying to create. 

No, unfortunately, the biggest challenge is the parents.

Last week, we had a fire drill, which messed up my planned schedule and meant that we were five minutes late in returning to the classroom from the chapel. Several parents complained. "My son has football practice right after this!"  "My daughter has dance class in 10 minutes, and we have to drive across town!"   I understand; I usually have commitments after class too.  Or at the very least, I need to get home and start supper since it is already 6 p.m.

I also have several kids who need to leave early from every class because of sports and other commitments.  When you only have 1.5 hours for a class, this can be challenging.  Some of the kids stay only one hour; other kids leave 15-20 minutes before the class ends. Unfortunately, it is disruptive and distractive to have kids getting up and leaving the chapel during prayer corner, which is when all the kids should be involved in their prayers and intentions.

I wonder if parents realize this?  Most of them give their children only one time per week to learn more about their faith.  What kind of message are they sending, when they take their kids out early to attend sports practices and other activities? 

So I keep praying, asking God to touch the children's hearts so they don't want to leave early.  Maybe they can reach their parents by saying "I don't want to go until class is over!"  I know that isn't unusual in an CGS atrium environment (many of our kids don't want to leave even after 2 hours!)  But this isn't an atrium environment so I will need the special assistance of the Holy Spirit...

If you teach a catechism class, what challenges do you face?  If you have overcome some difficulties, what did you do?  I would love some advice, especially on creating a prayerful environment in a classroom situation.


  1. Hi Cheryl, I know it probably feels like you are trying to move a huge mountain, but the seeds you are planting in those kids will produce unexpected growth. Several years ago, I was at a retreat where people asked us who had had a meaningful spiritual impact on us as children/teenagers. Most of the women there spoke of other women who gave them an hour or so of their lives weekly that changed their lives. We all reflected that it wasn't the amount of time, but the quality and faithfulness of the mentors. I am praying for you and inspired by your dreams for these children!

  2. Thank you, Sheila! Your words warmed my heart. Your note reminded me that we don't always see the results of our efforts. Kind of like a gardener who plants a fruit seed. She plants the tiny seed and it might be years before the tree grows and produces fruits like apples, peaches or pears. But when it does, the fruit is often delicious!

  3. Hi Cheryl! I feel your pain! We have NO classrooms at our church, we meet in the social hall. Our parish is very small, which creates challenges in and of itself. I have 17 children who come on Sunday, ages 3 to 16 and I am the only teacher (though I have 3 parent helpers). I met a lot of push back from parents at our parish too when I started a weekly program 3 years ago. (they used to only meet once a month) We have grown so much though and the children are so receptive to coming. I even have a few children whose parents refuse to bring them (so sad!), but they ask every single week to come! I think persistence in what you know is right will pay off eventually! I was ready to quit this year, then the new enrollments started coming in! I also agree that moving the children from one space to another really helps.

  4. I'd like to echo what Sheila and Jocelyn have said to encourage you. I'm working within a different program (Godly Play) and with younger children, but like you I'm not in an ideal environment, and am praying that seeds are taking root.

    I love your idea of taking the children to the chapel for prayer. Especially for those who are not worshiping at church on a regular basis, just being in a dedicated environment like that will surely be a blessing. My understanding is that CGS, even more than GP, teaches children to "read" church symbolism and architecture, and to associate these places with the Good Shepherd's boundless love. May this be the case for your students! What a gift you are giving them with that prayer time every week.

  5. Thank you to all three of you for the encouragement! Sometimes it is so hard to know if one is reaching the kids! Jocelyn, isn't it interesting that the kids want to be there, but the parents don't want to bring them? I will say extra prayers that the Holy Spirit reaches their hearts, just like it is reaching their kids' hearts. Storyteller, I have several friends who use the Godly Play program and really like it. It also has so many wonderful works for the kids!

  6. It's sad that parents don't realize how important the Catholic Faith is and one the Church's teachings that require us as parents to provide our children with a totally Catholic education inside and out. An hour here and there just isn't going to help these kids keep their Faith. May God send them many graces to have the Catholic education that they deserve.