Catechesis and Prayer

Do your faith formation classes teach people about prayer or form people as pray-ers?

Yesterday marked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s annual “Catechetical Sunday”–an unofficial kick-off to the new academic year of catechesis in parishes across the United States. This year’s theme is Prayer: The Faith Prayed, a great opportunity to consider the essential relationship between prayer and catechesis in your parish or Catholic school. 

Here’s the reality, all too often we think of catechesis or religious education as a collection of doctrines, of specific claims, statements, and positions to be learned. Something that can be fully captured in a good textbook. Yet this ignores the example of our very own Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Part 4 of the Catechism itself is “Christian Prayer.” Catechesis essentially includes the action of praying. As this year’s theme reveals, “pray” as a verb is an action of, and in, true catechesis.

Now you might be thinking, “yes, this is obvious–of course we pray during religion class, and of course our second grade students are required to memorize such-and-such prayers.”

But, what I offer to you is this: how we pray in catechesis often teaches more about prayer than our planned “lessons” ever do.

Do you offer prayer in a perfunctory, obligatory, rushed way? I certainly have. Especially when I feel a “crunch” for valuable time in a classroom.

Yet as I reflect on this, yikes, what am I really teaching my students by doing that? For one, I’m making prayer all about me. “There, I’ve said a prayer [and hopefully everyone has prayed or at least listened], and now we can move on.” Secondly, have I set the conditions for God to actually speak? i.e. Have I left any space (i.e. time, silence) for my students to hear God’s voice speaking to them personally? Am I treating this moment with the full dignity of expectation that this could be the most important part of class? That my students might tangibly encounter the Divine?

As a catechist, woe to me if I’m ever proud or satisfied that my students have memorized their prayers through hard work of drilling with their parents. While rote memorization in itself is an important, basic step in cultivating one’s prayer life (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 154)–the how of memorization matters. Memorization that occurs organically through the repeat action of praying, rather than attempting to memorize the Apostles Creed as if the Constitution, conveys the reality, significance, and words of a prayer (while memorization as for a quiz merely teaches words). Forming and empowering Christians of all ages to actually pray–to converse with God–this gift in the Holy Spirit should be my only “satisfaction” as a catechist. If my students can only follow me in prayer, and not pray on their own–then I have not fulfilled my full calling as a catechist.

Today’s Gospel (Lk 8:16-18) offers a parable where Jesus declares to his audience, “No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a  lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”

In catechesis, prayer is our light–“the faith prayed.” Prayer illuminates, brings power, spreads the warmth of God’s love, and is a moment of personal intimacy with God available to each and every person–every child, every adult, in every faith formation setting. Let us not be content to show a photograph of this “lamp” to our students for study. No, in catechesis we must pray and form pray-ers. Light the lamp with our students and experiencing the Light together.

 

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Apprenticeship in Work and Faith

Is “parish” all too synonymous with a building [set of buildings] or a group of people who have voluntarily registered? Yes.

But how do we change that mis-perception? Actions speak louder than words. To see the parish as the full geographic entity that it is–a collection of baptized, non-baptized, de-Churched, and more–we need to do the parish well beyond the walls of the church in a way that’s intentional.

Jonathan Sullivan (building on James Pauley) kicked off some practical, catechetical reflections on what apprenticeship has to do with forming disciples and creating a more authentic manifestation of “parish life” in our communities. Christian apprenticeship is this:

something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish…It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time…What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith

By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

One I’ve been thinking about is something picking up on the Center for Faith and Work initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. When we think about what occupies a significant portion of time of any person–especially single people–one’s job often comes to mind. And this work, regardless of its essentially secular character, in most cases, is still part of our Christian lives. It spiritually forms us (for better or worse). It enables us to integrate our works of creation, service, etc. with how God models this.

But, it’s awfully hard to do this alone.

While the work itself is likely not an intentional act of faith, the decision to meet, pray, and talk with others seeking to integrate faith and work would be an act of faith. And, as Zach Yenter suggests, this may be especially important for Millennial generation adults.

The Bible and Church teachings offer a wealth of passages worth pondering in mentoring pairs or groups of those who work in similar fields/industries. Not to mention questions of discernment or particular intercessory prayers that may be relevant to specific sectors of employment. And, the common bond of a particular field of labor can help build community and affinity for actually being intentional off-parish-grounds about meeting, praying, and sharing life.

Check out Jonathan Sullivan’s recent blog posts on this topic, how could you imagine “apprenticeship” re-shaping catechesis in your parish? 

Catechized While Catechizing: The True Shock of Crucifixion

The devotional prayer practice of Stations of the Cross (or the Way of the Cross) is ubiquitous during Lent in Catholic parishes around the U.S. Stations of the Cross emerged as a way of doing a “Jerusalem” pilgrimage for those who lived a ways away from Jerusalem, and simply couldn’t make it to that city for a “real” pilgrimage. As you may know, not every “station” or stop is directly attested to in Scripture–and, the Stations memorialize the last day of Jesus’ earthly life, an incomplete picture of the salvation and redemption he brings for each of us, for the world, through his ultimate victory over death in rising from the dead. Pope St. John Paul the Great helped us fill in these gaps by offering us some [awesome!] complementary practices.

First in 1991, he shared a Scriptural Way of the Cross based on the four Gospels. Then in 2001, he approved an updated list of popular devotions that included the “Stations of the Resurrection” or “Way of Light”–a step-by-step way of entering into the events of the Risen Jesus’ life on earth from the moment of resurrection to Pentecost.

Now you might be thinking–sigh, do we really need more types or different versions of the Stations of the Cross? Answer: maybe. See here’s the reality, for many of us the Stations of the Cross have become so routine that the utter shock of the events has been lost. Maybe a little romanticized, or just simply domesticated. As human beings, its natural that when we hear something that’s violent, shocking, scary, and painful over and over again, we turn away from those feelings or become numb to them.

I was reminded of this in a powerful way years ago, as a catechist leading my class of 3rd to 5th graders through the Stations of the Cross in our parish church. It was Lent, and my co-catechist and I had prepared the kids for this for a few weeks–that we were going to enter into Jesus’ journey to death, his sacrifice for us. We were going on our own “pilgrimage”–leaving our classroom and heading over to the church sanctuary, it would be more quiet than usual, leaving silence for the Holy Spirit to speak to each of us.

So, we’re praying through the Stations of the Cross and at the Tenth Station my co-catechist is leading, explaining the image on the wall, and talking about Jesus being stripped of his clothes. One of the kids tugged on my sleeve to get my attention, so I bent down to hear what he had to say. “Miss Colleen,” he asked with a very concerned look on his face, “did they rape Jesus after they stripped him?” I did a mental (maybe physical too!) gasp and whispered back to him, “no, but they did really want to hurt him.” He nodded approvingly as if this made sense, and we moved on…continuing our class pilgrimage through the Stations of the Cross.

I’ll never view the Tenth Station the same. Almost every time I encounter it, I remember my shock upon hearing my student’s question. There’s the painful reality of our fallen world–that this child knew what rape was (or at least knew the word and that there was a logical association with stripping of clothes).

And then there’s the shock of entering into the true depth of understanding in the child’s question. How many times had I passed through this Station, simply scratching the surface of the stripping of Jesus’ clothes as merely a practical preparation for final crucifixion? While my student was wrong in the sense that we have no historical or traditional evidence that Jesus was raped, my student was painfully, shockingly correct in being stunned and horrified by what was happening to Jesus. Without knowing words like “humilitation” or “domination,” he was genuinely angered and concerned about what would happen to Jesus. Unlike me, he was not numb to the true gravity of this moment of contemplation. He was not avoiding how truly fallen we as human beings are.

As we enter this final week of Lent, this Great and Holy Week, as it is often called, you may be praying the Stations of the Cross for the last time this year. If they’ve become routine, without arousing genuine emotion, without shocking you, then I encourage you to mix it up. Approach this holy pilgrimage in a new way, imagine watching live–as if you did not know how the story ends. Imagine hearing this for the first time and feel the weight and drama of it all. If needed, try the Scriptural Stations of the Cross and see if something new strikes you. Whatever you choose, make this devotion your own and personally experience what it meant for Jesus to take our sins to the cross and give us complete, joyful newness of life and the ultimate assurance of victory over death.

a version of this originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

Review of Jared Dees’ “To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach”

heal_proclaim_teach-3dOkay, so I’m not going to lie. When I first picked up Jared Dees’ new book, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach: The Essential Guide to Ministry in Today’s Catholic Church (Ave Maria Pres, 2016), I was initially underwhelmed. Even a little bored. I mean, Dees was just saying stuff that’s obvious over and over, that people in ministry know, right?

But I kept reading. And as I worked my way through the book, I realized that these characteristics are precisely what makes this book so valuable. Absolutely needed in American parish life. I cannot think of another book that summarizes the essential theology of evangelization in such an approachable, easy-to-reference way.

But this book is more than theology–it moves to a basic framework of practice that places all functions of typical parish life (that so many like to silo and separate) within the unity and fullness of evangelization. Dees explains:

Church leaders have talked and written and read about evangelization so much in recent years that we have placed it in a category of actions all to itself—as if evangelization were one mode of acting and speaking that ministers undertake completely separate from the work of other ministries. It would be a very big mistake to think that only those with offices and titles that include the word evangelization are responsible for it. It can be easy to separate, and our minds, the good work of managing soup kitchens are planning weddings or educating children in Catholic schools from the work of evangelization. But all ministries must be characterized by an evangelizing spirit, and all efforts at evangelization must be rooted in the ministerial priorities of Jesus (13-14).

In a thorough (almost 300 pages), yet remarkably readable way, Dees goes on to present the evangelization basics that lie behind parish transformation books like Rebuilt and Divine Renovation and provides the broader context for Sherry Weddell’s best-selling book on conversion, Forming Intentional Disciples.

The need for a book like this is real. As an adult educator, I get to know Catholic ministry volunteer leaders and parish staff from a wide range of backgrounds. Lots of different dioceses. Off the beaten path parishes. While it’s easy to look online and hear about Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, MI or the Amazing Parish work, and think that this is the big picture, it’s not. My husband and I are reminded every time we travel that “typical” Catholic parish life involves ministry staff and leaders who are in maintenance mode of a status quo that isn’t suited for our current evangelistic setting. There are huge gaps when it comes to having any sense of how authentically Catholic evangelization is and how it should organize and define all of parish life (rather than be sidelined as a burdensome “add on” or “new” ministry).

When engaging these well-meaning staff and volunteer leaders in conversation, there’s often a bit of hopelessness. A sense that there’s nothing “we” can do about the slow death of their parishes. Dees confronts this head on, explaining:

one possible response [to our setting] is to blame an uncontrollable consumer culture and simply admit defeat… but another possible response is to look at ourselves as Christian leaders and the work we have been doing to see if there’s something we can do differently to meet the spiritual—indeed, religious—needs of Americans today (viii).

He later adds:

We in Catholic leadership, in ministries complex and simple, are left with a choice. We can continue acting only as teachers resenting those who don’t “get it”, all the while wishing there were more people at mass on Sunday. Or, we can do things differently (9).

There you have it. A call to transformative, transforming, change leadership. A call for every baptized person–especially those comfortably self-identifying as catechists or religious educators–to own the mantle and privilege of evangelization.

The concrete practices he offers are simple. And really, what should we expect? Evangelization isn’t about a silver bullet or magic-perfect-program, it’s about the most fundamental motions of the faith. It’s about first being evangelized and surrendering to Jesus Christ as Lord, and then sharing this personal Good News as if divinely empowered to do so (Pentecost spoiler alert: we are!)

Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who (like pastoral theologian, Zeni Fox, on the back cover) experiences discomfort with “evangelization.” Anyone who expresses concern about, or wants to know how Rebuilt, Divine Renovation, and Forming Intentional Disciples are solidly rooted in the Church’s teaching on evangelization. Anyone seeking a foundational “textbook” or “desk side reference” for catechesis or RCIA ministry [in fact, I’m pretty sure this will be on a required book list for some classes I teach in the future…]

If you’d like a peek, a free chapter is available for download here.

Disclaimer: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book. The opinions presented in this review (and all other posts referencing To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach) are my own.

 

 

 

Review of Chris Wesley’s “Rebuilding Youth Ministry”

Rebuilding Youth Ministry: Ten Practical Strategies for Catholic Parishes (Ave Maria Press, 2015) is the third in the “Rebuilt parish” series–following Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding. I recommend this book for anyone in a specialty/functional area parish ministry–i.e. youth ministry, adult faith formation, young adult ministry, children’s religious education, RCIA, etc.

Now, this might strike you as a curious recommendation–I mean the title says youth ministry and it’s about youth ministry–but the value of this book as a resource for ministry leaders goes well beyond youth ministry.

The Big Picture

Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding focus on renewal from the perspective of a parish leader–a pastor, pastoral council, or pastoral associate. Rebuilding Youth Ministry is different. It’s a shorter, more focused primer on how to plan and specialty/functional ministry in the parish–through the lens of youth ministry. It’s an easy read filled with clear explanations of leadership and management basics, ideal for someone who has theological training, but wants to be more effective in ministry, without the detail that HBR or SSIR articles on leadership and management provide. Wesley writes for youth ministers, but what he says is so practically applicable, any leader of a parish formation/catechetical ministry could benefit from reading this. Read it and substitute your functional area (i.e. adult faith formation, RCIA, etc.) for youth ministry 🙂 it’s a fun and useful thought experiment.

Nuts and Bolts

The starting premise (provided by Rebuilt parish authors Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran in the forward) is simple:

Students…are an important part of the Church right now. God very much desires a growing relationship with them and has granted them gifts and talents to serve him and his family. (vii)

Basically, if you’re only concerned with youth ministry for the sake of the future, you’ve got an inadequate view of how the Holy Spirit can use all believers, today, for the sake of the Gospel.

So how to respond? Have a sense of irresistible, joyous urgency that “every even remotely interested teen living within your parish boundaries needs to be connected to a small group that is focused on evangelization and discipleship (growing a relationship with Jesus and learning how to serve him)” (25).

Whoa! (You might be thinking). That’s impossible. Youth ministry in my parish has been a struggle of kids not showing up, burn out, parents forcing kids into Confirmation, etc. If Church of the Nativity is having success, I want whatever program they’re using…

And this is where Wesley urges us to change our thinking. Stop with programs, retreats, and events as silver bullets–“teens are not event-driven; they are relationally driven. The last thing they need is another program” (9). [Note: kids and adults are probably the same way 😉 hence why I recommend this book to those with no connection to youth ministry.] Wesley accurately observes, “you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the concept that relationships are essential to a person’s faith journey” (29). But putting this into practice is a challenge in many parishes because we try and think big too quickly–skipping the critical step of building a “structure of authentic relationships” (29).

To build strongly means to grow a solid foundation of vision, mission, a volunteer team, parish buy-in and resourcing, prayer, personal ministerial identity, and more–and this is what the ten strategies of Rebuilding Youth Ministry help walk us through. Each chapter dissects one strategy and includes concrete “First Steps” that ministry leaders can immediately begin to discuss and take action on, developing (step-by-step) the sustainable ministry Wesley describes.

In Summary

Overall, Wesley focuses on ministerial strategies rather than specific tactics/techniques, programs, curricula, events, or formats–and this is a good thing. It’s a discussion of how to think, envision, and build/develop–rather than a simple prescription of what to do. All too often parishes focus on what to do and doing more, rather than on the deeply rooted, essential vision and relationships behind ministry growth. Rebuilding Youth Ministry challenges the assumption that “more is better” in when it comes to ministry (or parish) health. It’s an outstanding guide for anyone ready to honestly assess and renew youth ministry in a parish setting. And, (if you can think outside the box a little) it’s also widely applicable for all parish ministers–something I’ll be diving into over the next few weeks with some of my favorite takeaways from the book.

Your thoughts? Have you read this book or applied parts of it? What were your experiences? Share here or on Twitter using the hashtag #RebuildingYM to continue the conversation.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. Opinions expressed are my own, completely honest enthusiasm. 😀

Catechetical Sunday? Meh.

Tomorrow marks the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s annual celebration of Catechetical Sunday. I suppose doing this annually in September serves as an unofficial kick-off to parish catechesis, which generally follows the academic calendar. Blessing and commissioning of catechists at Sunday masses is great. Catechesis is an extremely important part of the Church’s cycle of evangelization, yet Catechetical Sunday just seems like a yawn. Different annual theme, but so what? I don’t see a lack of catechetical themes as hobbling evangelization in the United States. The most critical problem seems to be catechesis that forgets the kerygma, neglects the essentials of formation that foster personal conversion–the conditions that make it unexceptional for a child or adult to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord in a catechetical setting.

So here’s my nomination for an annual “theme” for say, the next decade (we’ll re-evaluate in 9 years 😉 ) — personal conversion to Jesus Christ. This is what recent popes have been teaching in so many forms, from the General Directory for Catechesis, which reminds us that catechesis must have a style “of integral [meaning essential] formation rather than mere information; it must act in reality as a means of arousing true conversion” (§27) to St. John Paul’s wonderful statement, Catechesi Tradendae.

Conversion cuts to the heart. In the New Testament it’s called metanoia. And the true and radical conversion that is metanoia doesn’t happen when an individual merely hears, learns, or articulates certain facts. It’s life-change. All the information and planning for themes in catechesis is no substitute for this fundamental reality.

Some conversions are really big. Like the initial, fundamental conversion every Christian must have–when he or she encounters Jesus Christ as Lord and says “yes” with one’s life (Deus Caritas Est, §1). Other conversions as part of the life of faith and formation in catechesis are proportionately smaller–wrestling with God over a challenging teaching and as a result forming a deeper relationship with Him, turning from a particular sin, claiming a new promise of God for one’s own life (versus just hearing it as an informative doctrine of a catechetics class), and more.

I don’t think “Catechetical Sunday” is going away (and it doesn’t need to, as the blessing and commissioning of catechists is a great and important moment in every parish). But here’s what counts–no matter what the theme of “Catechetical Sunday,” no matter what series or curriculum you use, evangelization means we must ensure that catechesis is never “mere information,” but always becoming, ever more fully “a means of arousing true conversion.” Explicitly. Directly. Without a doubt. So that while a child or adult might not always choose to accept the invitation, no person walks away unaware of the kerygma or unaware that Jesus their loving Savior stands waiting for their personal yes.

New Forming Intentional Disciples Book Club Starting

Have you read (or been meaning to read) Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples? If you haven’t given this book a look, make time to do it this year. Check out these reviews.

If your parish or ministry isn’t forming disciples, or if you assume it’s happening indirectly, or you’re just not sure–this book is a must.

If your parish or ministry is intentionally forming disciples, and you know it, this book is still great as a teaching tool for equipping everyone in your congregation or ministry to become a more effective evangelist.

There’s a free online Book Club sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association starting on Feb 1st to discuss and study Forming Intentional Disciples. A great opportunity for professional development or networking for anyone interested in catechesis and evangelization.

Also, check out our resource page for other links, study guides, and presentations to help dig deeper into Forming Intentional Disciples.