Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
One of the most influential educational theorists in the history of the world was the American John Dewey.
Living in the early 20th century, Dewey felt that children in school should not be merely passive recipients of knowledge, but had to take an active part of in the process of learning. According to Dewey, the student needed to be given learning opportunities that permitted them to link what they are learning in the classroom to what they have already experienced in their young life.
This is exhibited in the educational approach of problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning. For Dewey, experiential learning is key. The teacher, at his or her essence, is not so much to be an instructor, but to serve more as a facilitator, helping the student to become an independent learner.
It should be noted that, by and large, we did not support this theory in education by and large in our Catholic schools.
Historically, in the United States of America, religious education has been seen primarily in the sacramental preparation of children. This has been seen primarily in two ways: the first was the parochial school model. It worked in the 20th century for many reasons. One premiere reason was the workforce: simply put, you had religious and priests in the classroom. Although many did not possess things that are considered sine qua nons of the 21st century educational world, like master’s degrees, these religious and clergy possessed something essential: knowledge and practice of the Catholic faith. And these friars, nuns, religious sisters and religious brothers, and (in secondary schools mostly) priests were dedicated labor, who did what they did not for the sake of career and reimbursement but out of their unique religious charism. We are blessed with very dedicated lay Catholic educators and, sadly, we as a Church have never rewarded our lay teachers with the salary that they so richly deserve for their service. Many faithful lay Catholics teach as a true apostolate, sometimes at great personal cost.
The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) was established in Rome in 1562 and quickly established catechisms. This is the program that was used in the United States. Generally, before the Second Vatican Council, public school children would come into the Catholic schools during “release time,” usually on a Wednesday afternoon, and then the sisters or the lay faculty of the school would teach them. How did they learn? By and large, this was through the memorization of the Baltimore Catechism and by attending the Sunday morning parish children’s Mass, a Mass in which attendance would be taken.
Like many things in the Church and in the world, by the late 1960s, this approach had a radical shift. The teaching force that sustained the Catholic Schools by and large shrunk with lack of vocations and with religious and clergy resigning from their institutes, societies and dioceses. In addition, the theories of John Dewey were, perhaps unwittingly, embraced by many Catholic catechists and a change had occurred — going from content-driven learning, which by and large was reinforced by rote memorization, to drawing pictures and singing songs about Jesus. To generalize, religious education on the parish level in some places went from content without examples to examples without content. I recall as a newly ordained priest being assigned to be moderator of religious education in my parish and being told that no grades can be given and no tests or assessment can be given, because “How can you judge a person’s faith content?”
In 1992, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released. The roots of the Catechism of the Catholic Church come from the 1985 Synod of Bishops held at the Vatican to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.
As one who lived through these “wilderness years” pre- and post-Catechism, I can tell you that the world is a better place because of the Catechism! When the Catechism appeared, I was told by a theology professor in college that this was the single worst thing that has occurred to Church’s theology since the Reformation. She bemoaned that fact that the Catechism did not mention any contemporary theologians by name, instead relying only the fonts of Divine Revelation, namely Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as well as the Magisterium of the Church. I was told that my theological education would be totally stilted. I am grateful to God to say that this professor was incorrect and that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has proven to be a sure and certain tool in theological education.
The reality in many parishes today is that catechesis is, by and large, better than it was 20 and 30 years ago. But, in general, it relies on well-meaning parishioners who are not necessarily well-trained in the faith and, in general, due to administrative duties, the priest has little involvement with the program. Part of the ministry of the priest is to be a catechist. The bishop is the chief catechist of his diocese and the pastor is the chief catechist of his parish. He must be involved, even if it simply means by presence, in the formal religious education of his parishioners in all aspects — marriage preparation, baptism preparation, sacramental preparation, RCIA and the adapted RCIA for young people, and religious education for both children, young adults, and adult learners. So, how do we as busy priests do that?
First, get good catechists. As much as you may want to do it yourself, you, as the parish priest, may not have the time of energy to do it all by yourself. Yes, you are the chief catechist of your parish. However, your life will be so much easier if you have a good director of religious education. Will this cost money? Yes. If it is a full-time position, you have to pay a living wage. When hiring a good DRE, check for two things: personal practice of the faith and personal orthodoxy and knowledge of the faith.
Second, know your parish. What are its needs? Would they benefit from a complex theological study group in adult faith formation? Or perhaps, would it be better to offer them something more basic like a class on the Synoptic Gospels? Know the needs of your people and their abilities. It’s not about you and me and our own interests. It’s about serving them. Remember, we can never assume that our people know even the basics. Give them a firm foundation and then build on it.
Third, create a program in your parish that goes beyond merely getting the children ready to receive the sacraments. It has to be more than the carrot on the stick, getting them in for a year, teaching them, and then not seeing them again until Confirmation. Create real rules, and, unless it is a pastoral impossibility, stick to them. Have a minimum of two years of catechesis before a child can receive First Communion. Make sure that they attend Mass each Sunday for these two years. Then get the children and families involved right away, perhaps as altar servers and choir members, to keep them going.
Fourth, your catechesis needs to extend to teenagers, even beyond Confirmation. A fine program, even it is within the context of a youth group, will include an age-appropriate catechesis.
Fifth, as I mentioned before, have an adult religious education program. However, if you have Bible study and other discussion groups, try to attend when you can so it doesn’t become random ruminations of one or two well-intentioned yet uninformed people.
Sixth, and finally, I reiterate something that the General Directory on Catechesis teaches:
The Second Vatican Council gave much importance to the proclamation and transmission of the Gospel in the episcopal ministry. “Among the principal duties of Bishops, that of preaching the Gospel excels.” (Lumen Gentium 25; cf. Christus Dominus 12a; Evangelii Nuntiandi 68c) In carrying out this task, Bishops are, above all, “heralds of the faith,” (Lumen Gentium 25) seeking new disciples for Jesus Christ, and “authentic teachers,” (Lumen Gentium 25) transmitting the faith to be professed and lived to those entrusted to their care. Missionary proclamation and catechesis are two closely united aspects of the prophetic ministry of Bishops. To perform this duty Bishops receive “the charism of truth.” (Dei Verbum 8) The Bishops are “beyond all others the ones primarily responsible for catechesis and catechists par excellence.” (Catechesi Tradendae 63b) In the Church’s history the preponderant role of great and saintly Bishops is evident. Their writings and initiatives mark the richest period of the catechumenate. They regarded catechesis as one of the most fundamental tasks of their ministry. (Cf. Catechesi Tradendae 12a)
223. This concern for catechetical activity will lead the Bishop to assume “the overall direction of catechesis” (Catechesi Tradendae 63c) in the particular Church, which implies among other things:
– that he ensure effective priority for an active and fruitful catechesis in his Church “putting into operation the necessary personnel, means and equipment, and also financial resources”; (Catechesi Tradendae 63c; canon law 775 § 1)
– that he exercise solicitude for catechesis by direct intervention in the transmission of the Gospel to the faithful, and that he be vigilant with regard to the authencity of the faith as well as with regard to the quality of texts and instruments being used in catechesis; (Cf. Catechesi Tradendae 63c; canon law 823 § 1)
– “that he bring about and maintain… a real passion for catechesis, a passion embodied in a pertinent and effective organization,” (Catechesi Tradendae 63c) out of a profound conviction of the importance of catechesis for the Christian life of the diocese;
– that he ensure “that catechists are adequately prepared for their task, being well instructed in the doctrine of the Church and possessing both a practical and theoretical knowledge of the laws of psychology and educational method”; (Christus Dominus 14b; canon law 780)
– that he establish an articulated, coherent and global programme in the Diocese in order to respond to the true needs of the faithful: it should be integrated into the diocesan pastoral plan and coordinated with the programmes of the Episcopal Conference.
You, Dear Future Father, by your share in Holy Orders, share in the teaching ministry of your bishop. Listen to the words of Fr. John Courtney Murray on this topic:
...theology presents itself as an essentially ecclesiastical science, whose function must be regarded primarily in social perspectives. Theology must exist in the Church; it must also exist for the Church, to serve her needs—fundamentally her need to teach the word of God. For this reason, as Petavius pointed out, "it must properly reside in those who are the overseers and directors of the Church and of ecclesiastical teaching, and whose office it is to pass sentence in matters of Christian and Catholic faith in solemn councils, lawfully convoked, and to set for others the norms of belief. These are the bishops and hierarchs." The conclusion would be that the simple priest is under the necessity of being trained as a theologian because of his association in the magisterial office of the bishop.