Catechetical Leadership: Why Family Catechesis?

Introduction

The numbers are in, and they are not good.

According to various studies, the Church is losing a large amount of members annually – a phenomena known as disaffiliation. One report stated that 3,500 people leave the Church every day. Another concluded that “nearly one-in-five adults under age 30 (18%) say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.” What is perhaps more shocking than that disaffiliation is happening is when it is happening. About 80% are walking away from their faith by the time they reach college age. The median age, however, is 13 years old.

Let that sink in. If the fruit of apostasy is ripening in the “tween” years, its seeds started growing in childhood.

Although this problem is experienced across the full range of Christian traditions, Catholics often blame many of the Church’s woes – including this one – on poor catechesis (religious teaching / faith formation). The quality level of the Catholic Church’s various catechetical programs certainly varies from parish to parish, and it must be admitted that too often it is not what it should be. But here’s a reality check: A weekly one-hour class takes up less than 1% of a person’s waking hours. That still leaves 99% of a child’s life experience outside of parish catechesis.

 

The Classroom Catechesis Model

Most parishes today still operate on a “classroom” model of catechesis. That is, they treat faith formation as a subject to be learned rather than a faith to be modeled and lived. Parents leave their students in classrooms run by teachers using textbooks to be tested for their level of preparation. Is it any wonder that many families see the sacraments prizes to earn (contra Canon 843), attending Mass a requirement meet, and catechesis just an activity to complete?

Is it any wonder that many families see their child’s sacrament reception as a graduation ceremony?

Of course this was never the goal of parish religious education – but once the classroom model was adopted, it was nearly inevitable. The classroom model fosters a “school mentality” where supporting parents means supplanting them. It became the parish’s job to catechize its children, not their parents (who have far more influence). It becomes solely the parish’s – not the parent’s – job to catechize the children. And this fails, “poor catechesis” gets the blame.

The problem is that no matter how good a parish program is, classroom catechesis only works in the context of a faithful community. One percent of a child’s life can’t overcome the other ninety-nine. When faith formation is limited to the classroom, catechesis becomes just another hoop to jump through to get those sacraments checked off. It produces a “faith” that is easily dismissed once they have been received.

Enter Family Catechesis.

The Family Catechesis Model

Family catechesis represents a role reversal for these parents. Instead of waiting in the parking lot or running errands until pickup time, they take on the role of primary catechists to their children. This “radical” idea is nothing new:

“Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. . . . Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God.”
[CCC 2223, 2226]

“The right and duty of parents to give education is essential . . . and it is irreplaceable and incapable of being entirely delegated to others.”
[Familiaris Consortio, 36].

“Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.”
[Gravissimum Educationis, 3].

“The family’s catechetical activity has a special character, which is in a sense irreplaceable.”
[Catechesi Tradendae, 68]

“The right of parents to beget and educate their children in the bosom of the family must be safeguarded.”
[Gaudium et Spes, 52]

Expecting parents to act as catechists to their children might sound frightening to them, but it really is a simple reflection of everyday reality. Parents teach their children how to walk, talk, think, and behave – it’s just what happens in parenting. Most often these lessons are “caught” more than they are “taught” of course. Like it or not, children are going to learn from their parents simply by being around them.

The same is true of living the faith. If parents skip Mass anytime it is inconvenient, that is the lesson their children will learn about the importance of mass. If the parents pray before meals, that is the life of prayer the children will learn. If the parents spend time in Scripture and say a daily rosary, that is what the faith will look like to their children.

For better or worse, the faith that children remain in or walk away from will be the one their parents – not their parish – teach them.

What Family Catechesis does is to truly support (not supplant) parents by giving them the tools they need to succeed at being the primary catechists that they already are. For most families high level theological training is not as needed as are faithful practices, but the parish which adopts a Family Catechesis model can help with both.

Not only is such a system more in line with the Church’s philosophy of parenting, it also has numerous practical benefits for the parish.

Practical Benefits to Family Catechesis

The theoretical benefits of Family Catechesis are considerable, but there are numerous practical advantages as well.

For parishes undertaking to start up a Catechism program, going the Family Catechesis route can be run with far less staff or volunteer support (which is always a major factor). Some programs could be effectively implemented with just one overseer because that person will not be keeping role, tracking progress, dealing with behavior issues or dress code violations, handling safe environment protocols, making supply runs, etc.

For the same reasons, Family Catechesis is helpful for smaller parishes or those with limited monetary or physical resources as it does not require much of either. Children are taught at home, so facilities are freed up, classroom materials are largely unnecessary, and textbooks (i.e., Bibles, Catechisms, or curricula) do not need to be stockpiled or replenished as they wear out. The minimal costs involved can also be mitigated by enrollment fees (which themselves may be less than on a classroom model since parents are not having to finance additional staff, office supplies, utilities, building maintenance, etc.).

Finally, a huge selling point for all involved is that the Family Catechesis model means no more scheduling conflicts (for parents or the parish). Imagine no more squabbles over which day a class is held, no rush to registration, no more concerns over which students go in which class, no more conflicts with other parish activities or holidays or family vacations.

It’s basically Religious Education heaven!

Both / And

Even if a parish wishes to retain the classroom model as a matter of principle or for those who desire it, Family Catechesis makes for an excellent backup plan.

No matter how perfectly planned a parish program is, there will always be those for whom it will not work. Schedule conflicts with school, work, sports, and other extracurricular activities are impossible to fully mitigate; and these are more important than ever for children’s future success (we cannot simply brush them off because they are not of “ultimate value”). The reality is that families will find a way to work around schedule conflicts even if it means going to another parish or dropping out of Catechism for a season. Neither of these alternatives should be acceptable to a parish committed to its parishioners.

Moreover, parish models cannot always account for the needs of every family no matter how flexible their schedules are. Some children are just not mature enough to handle Catechism classes. Home school families may not wish to relinquish their kids to programs designed for the general parish population. Families with special needs children may not be able to find a good fit in a program lacking qualified volunteers or the necessary materials.

There are a multitude of legitimate reasons why a given parish family cannot be served by any single program, and offering Family Catechesis as an additional option can resolve many of them.

A Good Reason to Not Offer Family Catechesis(?)

There is one major concern that needs to be addressed by any parish considering Family Catechesis: Will parents want to be catechists?

Regardless of how many faithful families a parish might have, finding catechists is always difficult. So what will happen when the parish turns children’s catechesis over to all of them?

They’ll do what they are already doing – being the primary catechists of their children!

The usual reasons someone does not volunteer as a catechist are schedule conflicts and feeling unqualified. The parish which adopts a Family Catechesis model can help with both. The schedule obstacle is a non-factor because the parents can do catechesis whenever they wish. As for qualifications, most families (like most volunteer catechists) will not need have or need high-level theological training because they are teaching from the curriculum  (like most volunteer catechists).

As stated above, “Primary Catechist” is an unavoidable and irreplaceable role for parents. It is one that parents have by nature – not one that is awarded by experts. It is one that they take on simply by being parents. So why not help form them?

Conclusion

The numbers are in, and the number one reason teens keeps the faith as young adults are their parents.

Family Catechesis is basically the principle of subsidiarity applied to children’s catechesis. The parish’s role becomes one of equipping – not replacing – the children’s’ primary catechists at home. The focus is on giving parents tools to help them succeed at being the religious educators that they already are.

Since the Church has such a limited time to form families in the faith, why not take the1% of the time we are given to form those who influence the other 99%?

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