Why Education in the Faith Is Not Enough

It was an ordinary day.

A chance encounter.

A life changed!

That’s the scenario in last Sunday’s gospel, the “Woman at the Well” from John 4:5-42. This gospel has profound implications for catechesis and evangelization. Let’s take a look.

What exactly is the business of catechesis?

Most catechists assume catechesis is about education in the Faith. Education is important but it’s not really the goal of catechesis. It’s more like the means to the goal.

John Paul II once wrote that “the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (On Catechesis in Our Time, 5).

Doctrine is God’s revelation of himself to us. Our students must know and understand this. But it can’t end there. We need to make doctrine the starting point for encountering God. This is more like formation than simply education.

If a catechist can arrange a transformative encounter with Christ through their teaching, they’ll keep their students coming back for more. Then the learning will continue long after they leave the class.

I think this is the business of catechesis.

My encounter with Revelation

I experienced something similar to this in my own conversion. I grew up in the Catholic Faith but pretty much rejected it until I was around 30 years old. Through a series of events involving Tokyo, an Australian New Age healer/channeler gone bad and Ricardo Montalban (it’s a very long story), I was awakened to the Catholic Faith.

Soon after, I began studying and fell in love with Church teaching. It was the answer to all my questions about life. The month before this encounter with Revelation, I could not have cared less about anything Catholic. Afterwards, I couldn’t get enough!

It’s a similar experience to story of the Woman at the Well.

He told me everything I ever did

The Woman at the Well is from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. Married multiple times and currently shacking up, she’s a recognized sinner. But she’s thirsting!

She dives into theological debate with this Jewish rabbi. She knows the Scriptures and the prophesies. Is she eagerly awaiting the Messiah?

When she’s awakened by this encounter and understands the truth of who Jesus is, she becomes a very effective evangelist. She tells everyone in the village and her testimony is so good, they all go out to see him.

The most interesting part to me is after verse 40. The Samaritans of the village meet Jesus, ask him to stay for two days and believe in him “because of his word.” It continues, “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (Jn 4:42).

Catechetical Takeaway

The villagers first heard about Jesus from the Woman. Her passion and obvious change compelled them to take a look. However, they believed by hearing “his word” not hers.

The point? Jesus does the converting. It’s our job to do the introductions.

The catechist’s job is to facilitate transformative encounters with Christ. This can be done in many ways through our teaching. But we have to understand the teaching is the means and not the end. The end is the encounter.

If you can arrange that, you’ll create a student for life. They’ll hear it for themselves and know that Jesus is indeed the Savior of the world.

  • Does this fly in the face of your ideas about catechesis?
  • What problems are there in this theory?
  • What are some ways you could facilitate encounters with Christ?

Hat tip to Samantha Thomeczek for the awesome comment on my last post that inspired me to write this one.

iPad and the Power of Simple Catechesis

The iPad is a complete phenomena. It came out of nowhere to define a market that previously didn’t exist.

Much of this success can be attributed to a specific design philosophy employed by Apple. Simple is powerful!

The design philosophy behind the iPad is also one of the secrets to engaging, accessible and useful catechesis.

This philosophy of simple probably flies in the face of your ideas on catechesis. It’s definitely not intuitive but it works. Here’s how!

My parents are using a computer!

Recently I convinced my parents to buy an iPad. For the first time, they are using a computer! Notice I said using. They’ve owned a computer before, but they never used it. It was too complicated and it confused them.

The iPad is simple. With the iPad, Apple stripped computing down to it’s core. It doesn’t do everything. It does the essential things and makes them accessible. Even non-computer savvy people like my parents can use it.

For catechesis to be understandable, accessible and useable, it needs to be simple.

Simple catechesis communicates the core

When I say simple, I’m not talking about shortened or incomplete catechesis. Simple catechesis is not shallow. It still has depth–but on the right things.

Simple catechesis drills down to the core idea. It doesn’t teach everything. It teaches the essential things and makes them accessible. In this way, what you teach will be understood and remembered. It will have impact and power.

You have to figure out the core and build your lesson around it. Your goal? The students walk away with the core idea firmed grasped and remembered. That way, it can be put into action.

What is the core?

The core is the one thing that absolutely needs to get communicated. Not the three things. The ONE thing. If you try to build your lesson around three things, they won’t remember anything.

How do you know what that one thing is? Imagine you prepared your lesson, had everything planned and when you were ready to go into the classroom I stopped you and said, “There’s been a change of plans. You only have five minutes to do your lesson.”

What would you tell your students? What message do you really want them to get? That’s the core!

Catechetical Takeaway

The temptation in catechesis is to teach as much information as the time allows. After all, you only have your students for a short time and there’s so much to learn. You want to give them everything.

However, the reality is, by trying to give them everything you may end up giving them nothing. If you present too many ideas, what’s important gets lost.

To communicate the core, you have to weed out the interesting, but off topic, info and the tangents. They make it difficult to follow the line of the lesson, and they confuse your students.

The hard part is cutting out pieces that really are important but aren’t the most important. You one core message needs to be central.

Stripping down to the essential is difficult and counter-intuitive. However, of you communicate the core, you’ll have a simple message that your students will understand, remember and use! That is powerful!

  • What do you think?
  • What strategies to you use to find the core?
  • Do you think it’s important to keep your lessons simple?

I’d love to know!

Why Your Kids Won’t Stay Catholic

The scenario is familiar to everyone working in parish ministry–8th Grade religious education apathy.

When they’re young, they are so full of natural desire for religion. In 3rd Grade, their eyes light up when talking about God. Even by 6th Grade, you can still see that spark.

However, in 7th Grade it starts to wane, and by 8th Grade it’s almost totally gone. I’m asked all the time how to get kids to come back for the second semester of 8th Grade CCD. Attendance just drops off, and that apathy continues into High School.

Why won’t our kids stay religious? The natural aptitude is there, why does that spark die out?

Talent Is Overrated

My wife just read a book called Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. The premise is greatness doesn’t lie in natural talent or abilities. It’s the same message as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Greatness in some sport/job/skill, etc. is more about practice than natural ability. Gladwell says you need “10,000 hours” of practice to become an expert. The greats always practice more than anyone else. That’s what makes them great.

There are some other factors to consider for greatness:

  • Affinity: If they don’t like doing it, they won’t put in the hours to get great.
  • Access: They need facilities, teams, coaching–a way to actually work on the skill. If Lindsey Vonn had grown up in Louisiana, she probably wouldn’t have an Olympic medal in downhill skiing.
  • Youth: They usually started young…like very young! Tiger Woods started playing golf when he was two!

Here’s the interesting part

In every case, at some point their parents had to push them. Sometimes it was good. Other times, like in the case of Tiger Woods, not so good (his father drove him relentlessly to be great golfer). Most often it was a parent that made the difference in them sticking with it.

Don’t miss this–in their teenage years these superstars needed some help. Their natural drive couldn’t carry them and they needed outside incentive. Very often, they owed their greatness to their parents pushing, poking, prodding and sometimes forcing them to continue.

What do we do as parents to help/push our children to succeed in the practice of religion?

Parents must be the spiritual motivators

Parents are the strongest influence on their children’s spiritual formation. They must actively work to foster that formation.

All the above factors for greatness apply to religion:

  • Every child, every person, has a natural affinity for God. But it has to be nurtured in order to grow.
  • Children need access to religious formation and training in order to grow spiritually.
  • They need to start young! If religious practice doesn’t start early, it won’t have enough time to get ingrained and, consequently, it won’t survive adolescence.

Parents, your kids won’t stay Catholic because you don’t push them to practice!

Catechetical Takeaway

Let’s start thinking of religious formation as a critical life-skill. How do our kids get these skills? They must practice! They must put in their 10,000 hours! And, they must start young.

Will they always like it? No! But they don’t know what they need. They’ll want to skip religious education or youth group because they’re tired or because there friends aren’t there. They need to go!

Even the greats, who had an unusual desire to practice their sport, sometimes needed prodding.

Parents, you are your child’s spiritual life-coach. Don’t let their spark die out! Send them to CCD/youth group. Help them to practice their faith. In the end, they’ll thank you for helping them stay Catholic.

How to Use Personal Stories for Teaching Difficult Subjects

Open the door to your life a little and see the results!

[This is a part of the Evangelization Basics Series. Have you read the other parts?]

Telling personal stories is extremely effective for evangelization. It has a way of cutting through uncomfortable situations when discussing difficult subjects.

It’s also one of the hardest things to do! Most of us don’t like getting personal with people we hardly know.

Believe me, I understand. I had a hard time doing this at first. But I’m telling you, if you take a leap of faith and open up certain aspects of your life, it will pay huge benefits in your evangelization efforts.

Here’s a technique for telling personal stories I’ve found extremely helpful in dealing with tough issues among even tougher audiences.
[Read more…]

St. Peter Canisius and the Secret of Great Catechists

St. Peter Canisius

What does it take to be a great catechist?

You might say intimate knowledge of the Catechism, the ability to whip up craft projects for any feast day at the drop of a hat, or a command of the classroom environment that rivals a Marine Corps drill instructor.

While these are obviously impressive skills, there’s something else that turns up consistently in the lives of great catechetical Saints…devotion to prayer.

St. Peter Canisius: Catechetical Saint

In his Wednesday Audience of Feb. 9, Benedict XVI highlighted the life and work of the Jesuit St. Peter Canisius. A leader in the Catholic Reformation, he was instrumental in renewing the Catholic Faith in Germanic speaking countries just after the rise of Protestantism.

Canisius wrote three catechisms based on the Catechism of the Council of Trent between 1555 and 1558; all for different audiences. These catechisms were so popular, they were used in Germany until the 1900’s.

The Pope recalled that “still in my father’s generation, people called the catechism simply the Canisius: He is really the catechist of the centuries; he formed people’s faith for centuries” (emphasis added). Now that’s a catechetical legacy!

Fruitful Instrument United to Jesus and the Church

However, accompanying all this, there was prayer! Benedict said, “Characteristic of St. Canisius’ spirituality was a profound personal friendship with Jesus.”

Along with devotion to the Scriptures, the Eucharist and the Church Fathers, the Pope said “this friendship was clearly united to the awareness of being a continuer of the mission of the Apostles in the Church. And this reminds us that every genuine evangelizer is always a united instrument with Jesus and the Church and, because of this, fruitful.”

Canisius had a “profound conviction” that “there is no soul solicitous of its own perfection that does not practice mental prayer every day, an ordinary means that permits the disciple of Jesus to live in intimacy with the divine Master,” the Pope said (emphasis added).

Where Real Greatness Comes From

What does it take to be a great catechist? For all my writing about technique and strategy, I have to remind myself the most successful and deeply penetrating catechists in history were all great lovers of God first. Their fruitfulness flowed from their union and intimacy with Christ!

Of course, he was no slouch; he had a doctorate in theology. We have to do as much as we humanly can to prepare ourselves to be great catechists. However, our greatness and impact will not lay primarily in technique, but in devotion.

St. Peter Canisius, pray for us!

The Twitter Gang Podcast

Photo credit: Dorian Speed

Is Twitter a waste of time or a very useful tool for building online relationships? Would a full push to part-time CREs instead of full-time DRE’s be helpful or detrimental to parish catechetical programs? What are the top priorities for the U.S. Bishops in adopting social media? How do you take care of your volunteer catechists? Have you ever been “Jesus Juked”?

I discussed these issues with The Twitter Gang, aka Jonathan Sullivan, Dorian Speed and Jared Dees on the latest Catechetical Leader Podcast. This is a podcast for catechists, DREs, religion teachers, and other parish leaders. Host Jonathan Sullivan invited us to take part in a roundtable discussion on four recent articles relating to catechesis:

Please give it a listen! I think you’ll enjoy the conversation. I know we all did!

The most fascinating thing about this group is that we all met on Twitter, hence the name “The Twitter Gang.” I met Jonathan in person once but the rest of us have never met face to face. Yet, as we talked I felt I already knew them pretty well. It’s funny how much personality can come out on 140 characters at at time. I knew Dorian would say something funny and Jared would have insightful comments. And, I knew their perspectives on things from reading and interacting on their blogs. I really think there’s value in these online relationships for forming bonds between like minded people. I honestly don’t think any of us believe this is a substitute for face to face friendships. Nevertheless, these are friendships and would never would have formed if not for our social media interactions. It’s definitely a new world!

And please, follow us on Twitter @sullijo, @DorianSpeed@jareddees and I’m @MCardaronella.

Could Your Time Problem Be a Prayer Problem?

Do you lack the time to get things done because you don’t take time to pray?  Doesn’t sound logical does it? Peter Kreeft once wrote, “Lack of prayer is the cause of lack of time.” Could it actually be possible that taking more time to pray will give you more time in the day? It sounds like one of those science fiction time distortion deals. I don’t think that’s what it’s about though.

The Time Benefits of Prayer

I read an post by Matthew Warner yesterday on the benefits of taking time for prayer. It’s a powerful post for what it says and for what it does not say. Keying off the above quote from Kreeft, Warner comments:

“I had to read this one a few times to make sure I was understanding it properly. At first I was thinking, “Yep, my lack of time leads to lack of prayer. I just don’t make enough time for prayer in my life.”

But upon proper reading, Kreeft is actually saying the exact opposite – which is far more profound.”

What the post says is a healthy prayer life helps you prioritize your work to accomplish what matters and gives you peace about the things you don’t have time to finish. What it doesn’t say, at least explicitly, is, “Why aren’t you praying more, goofball!” At least, that’s what it says to me.

Fulton Sheen and the Challenge of Prayer

I really love Fulton Sheen. He had this engaging, over-the-top flamboyancy that really worked. He explained Catholic doctrine on national television and beat Milton Berle one year! My hero! I’ve thought a lot about Sheen lately because the Diocese of Peoria where I live is promoting his cause for sainthood. As part of that, they released a prescreening of the film on his life to show at select places in the diocese.

The thing that challenges me about Sheen is his “Hour of Power.” Fulton Sheen did an hour of adoration every day despite a heavy workload! He attributed all his success in writing and speaking to his time before the Blessed Sacrament. He would prepare his talks in adoration! Once someone told Sheen she was too busy for an hour of adoration a day and Sheen said she was probably right…she should do two hours instead!

Now I have tried hard to do an holy “hour of power” a day, and I’ve never quite been able to make it work. I’ve gone stints of doing holy half-hours. Sometimes I get more but often it’s less or I miss all together. I did find out that Sheen also worked incredibly long hours and only got four hours of sleep a night. I don’t have that luxury or that kind of health. So, that made me feel a little bit better. But still, I struggle with having enough time to do everything and with success in my work. Perhaps I should take a lesson from Fulton Sheen and pray more?

Eucharistic Power

Everyone involved in catechetical ministry, including bloggers and podcasters, should take up Sheen’s challenge and make an effort to put prayer at a higher priority. There’s a great quote from The Soul of the Apostolate on Eucharistic spirituality that fits with this idea and sure was true for Fulton Sheen:

“The efficacy of an apostolate almost invariably corresponds to the degree of Eucharistic life acquired by a soul. Indeed, the sure sign of a successful apostolate is when it makes souls thirst for frequent and fruitful participation in the divine Banquet. And this result will never be obtained except in proportion as the apostle himself really makes Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament the source and center of his life (p. 186).”

Opening up your schedule to spend time with God is the first step in telling him that you love him and want to receive more of him. If you can’t get in a full “hour of power,” try a half hour, but make time for God in your schedule. Then, God will make time for you in his schedule! Now that’s a huge return on investment! I’m going to recommit myself today. What about you?

How to Catechize Like a Saint

What’s more important for effective catechesis, great methodology or deep spirituality? Both really or perhaps a correct synthesis of the two. I was reflecting on how well the Saints transmit the Faith and found a striking characteristic that I think is important for making an impact as a catechist.

My friend William O’Leary at Catechesis in the Third Millennium had a great post on the often overlooked fact that contemplation is the basis of catechesis, not teaching methodology or praxis. He said:

“So often catechists and even directors of religious education programs (as well as other people in various ministries of the Church) focus excessively on the “practical application” tools and see the theology to be merely for theologians.  This causes one to lose focus I believe.  All the practical tools at our disposal are good at assisting us in helping make relevant the faith but it is not the heart of our work in catechesis.  On the other hand mere theory or theology about this doctrine or that doctrine is not the answer either. Our catechesis must come from a knowledge and love for Christ and His Church.”

I’ve often thought about how the Saints were such effective catechists. Conversions just follow them wherever they go. That’s because what they teach flows from their union with Christ and their love for him. Saints have this sort of lived experience of the doctrines of the Church–a “lived theology” where Church teaching becomes reality in their lives. That has catechetical power because what they’re saying is no longer simply words they’re reading from a page or lists of facts. Truth is, in a sense, incarnated in them. It’s real! Sometimes it’s so real, it manifests in miracles!

This makes me think about how we teach and how we make applications in our teaching. I think we can learn something from the Saints here. What are we after when we catechize? We’re not merely the passing on information. We want our students to understand what we teach but then be affected by it in some way. The information should become a vehicle for increased faith and that faith must lead to change in life and behaviors.

Catechists need a “lived theology.” One that is not purely theoretical. One also that is not devoid of practical tools but not centered on them either. It is a theology where the doctrines of the Church are reflected upon through prayer, internalized and then put into practice. This can be channeled into a teaching that lives and breathes. It has power because it’s no longer merely on the page, but a reality in the life of the catechist!

William also said, “Contemplation of the divine mysteries is essential in catechesis.  When we seek to echo a message and most especially a person we must do so out of a heart overflowing with God’s life.  Prayer and reflection cannot be underestimated in the work of catechesis.” I agree!

Next time you prepare to teach a topic, take it to prayer first. Reflect on what this topic means in your own life and how it has affected you. Then, think about the one thing your students need to walk away with. That is the core of your message to them. Find that and build your lesson around it. That is effective catechesis!

Image credit: Prakhar Amba

Passion Makes the Difference

In the end, what is most the most important element of your teaching? Hands down, it has to be passion!

Two nights ago I went to an explanatory Mass given by an awesome priest. He was a little overweight, had a bit of a speech impediment and thick glasses. At first glance, he wasn’t that impressive, but that’s not what was important. His presentation was excellent and he held the audience of around 100 in rapt attention. What made the difference was his passion. I already knew most of the stuff he said (although I did learn a few things), but his enthusiasm was infectious. The whole time, his love for the Lord and for the Mass spilled out and that made him interesting. It gave credibility to what he was saying. People listened and learned. Not only that, I was left with a sense of hope and possibility. He increased my faith. It was powerful!

It’s often said that you can’t give what you don’t have. It’s said so often because it’s true! If you want your students to take hold of what you tell them and run with it in their lives, you have to be running ahead of them. Know the doctrines you teach, but more importantly, live them! Tell your students how they impact your life. Internalize these truths and you will deliver them with passion and power! It makes all the difference.

A Revolution in Learning

This TED talk by Chris Anderson titled “How Web Video Powers Global Innovation” has profound implications for catechesis in our social media influenced society. We’re on the verge of a revolution in learning that catechists and catechetical leaders need to embrace. Anderson speaks about something called “Crowd Accelerated Innovation.” This takes place when a group, or crowd, of people with a common interest and a desire for improvement share their best ideas and spur each other to innovation and change.

This has always happened, pre-internet, on the local level but now web video is driving this innovation at a new velocity. Anderson uses the example of dancers on a street corner. When they get together, they push each other to try new things. Fueled by each other’s talent and the desire to push the limits of what is possible, they innovate and achieve higher levels of ability. Now, with the web,  this is possible all around the world.  Dancers are no longer limited to learning techniques from the best in their local area. Through web video, the best, most innovative techniques can be broadcast globally. Someone in Japan can see and imitate the best dancers in New York. The potential exposure to new ideas is limited only to how much people are willing to share what they know. The more transparency and sharing, the greater the possibility for innovation.

A year ago, I went to a diocesan retreat for catechetical leaders. As we talked and shared stories, I was blown away by the fantastic things they were doing. Everyone learned so much just by being with other. We all came away thinking, wouldn’t it be great if we could share these ideas all the time? We could solve more problems and get more done.

This was “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” on a local level and it was fabulous! However, we all lived hours apart and getting together regularly was an impossibility. But what if we could interact and share our best techniques, new ideas, awesome innovations and solutions to difficult problems all the time? And, what if people all over the world were sharing? Web video is becoming easier and easier to implement and use. All these awesome catechists doing amazing things could drive innovation in catechesis to new heights.

There’s a revolution in learning on it’s way and it won’t just benefit street dancers. We can take advantage of this in the Church and in the catechetical field. All we need is the courage to share our talents, ideas and innovations with our fellow catechists around the world. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It just has to be out there. Nick Senger recently posted a list of Catholic educator’s blogs and there’s less than forty. I know there are more awesome catechists out there and more ideas to share! And, I’m sure that more and more will be coming online.

What can we do today to fuel this revolution, learn from our global network of religious educators and drive the innovation? The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations and our willingness to share.