A few days ago, I had two experiences on the same day that showed very different expectations for catechism class.
After noon Mass at the retreat center, one of the employees said she had a theological question for me. Since I’m studying a graduate degree in theology, she figured I could answer it. She’s teaching a catechism class along with a priest at her parish. The night before, the priest had insisted that Jesus was sacramentally present in the Eucharist and not naturally present. This confused her but she didn’t want to contradict the priest. I could just imagine how confused the 16-year-olds were, if this woman (who knows far more theology than the average layperson) was confused. In sacramental theology, this distinction is valid – however, this priest expects the students who barely understand that Jesus is fully and substantially present to understand such a distinction. (I’ll add a note at the end of this to explain this distinction.)
Then that evening, I went to help a parish priest with First Reconciliation. Afterwards, the pastor, the chief catechist, and I were locking up the church. She turns to us and says: “I told them they need to come every year and they should come every month, but I hope they come once before confirmation.” I don’t doubt that she’s a realist regarding what will likely happen with many of those kids. She realizes few of their parents will bring them regularly to confession.
These joint experiences led me to two reflections on the expectations we have for what kids and teens get from catechism class.
First, we see the dichotomy that we expect a very high degree of theology, but a very low-level of practice. In North America, we unfortunately intellectualize our faith quite often. We think about faith just as understanding and believing the right things. However, the core of our faith is doing the right things.
We insist that young people go through about a decade of religious education classes, but we don’t seem to insist that they do acts of Christian charity every two months for even a few years, and we almost never insist that they do anything to evangelize. If the faith is just something that we understand but not something that we live, it can be thrown away when another idea comes. However, we cannot throw away what we live. It is our acts that save us, not our knowledge. Of course unless we know what the right thing to believe and do is, we can’t do it. But if we only know it, that knowledge is of little value. Satan could quote the catechism but couldn’t perform a single act of virtue.
My second reflection is about how we balance our expectations. We can’t expect 100% of the kids to become experts in theology or apostles to dedicate their life to the Church. On the other hand, we should expect at least a basic practice of the faith, such as Sunday mass, confession every few months, some kind of personal prayer, and occasional service to the needy. We need to balance optimism and realism: I’d aim for “hopeful realism.”
Our expectations for what kids get from catechism class should involve action – not just ideas – and should be realistic but optimistic.
Note: explanation of what “Jesus is sacramentally but not naturally present in the Eucharist” means. Jesus was naturally present when he walked on this earth about 2000 years ago, but his presence in the Eucharist is different in two ways. First of all, in the Eucharist, his body is not sensibly present. Second, he is fully present – whole body, blood, soul and divinity – in each particle, while in his body, only part of his body is present in each part. Put another way, when he was present Naturally, one part of him was his thumb and another part of him was his eyeball. When he is sacramentally present today, each part of the Eucharist is the whole body. Hopefully this explanation is clear enough – at least it shows you why this might be a confusing distinction to bring into basic catechesis.