Faith Formation or Forsaken?

Catholic faith formation has taught my children almost nothing about their religion. 

I regret there’s not a gentler way to sum up my experience of the last two decades. During that time I’ve been involved in the spiritual life of an assortment of Catholic youngsters, ages 6 to 16, scattered throughout the country. My far-flung fold is Caucasian and middle-class, doing well in public school, good kids from good families. Some of them live in cities, others in the suburbs or outlying towns, and I live on the move between both coasts. Wherever my travels find me, I will take the individual or group from that locale to religious ed, where sometimes I join them in the classroom. 

It’s a ministry I cherish, and it has also given me a rare chance to evaluate the quality of faith formation programs across a wide and diverse spectrum. The different regions refer to these programs in their own way: religious education, parish catechetical instruction, parish evangelization, First Communion class, childhood catechesis, Confirmation class, youth ministry, youth and family faith formation, CCD. Whatever they’re called, or wherever they are, they have taught my children almost nothing about their religion. 

I address you — pastors, priests, and deacons — because the solution to this crisis is in your hands. For many, up till now, the crisis seems to have been hidden from view. It isn’t seen by most of the educators or DREs I’ve consulted, whether at the parish or the diocese. It isn’t on the radar of the speakers or participants I’ve met at regional religious congresses. Which means things are probably worse than the rest of us may have thought. As parents, grandparents and parishioners, perhaps we’re aware of the magnitude of the problem because we’re not invested in theories or good intentions but are witnesses of actual results. 

I would like to share that witness here by reflecting on my experience of a pedagogical system that is not working. I will also consider recent Church statements on evangelization and catechesis and their importance in framing any discussion of faith formation. I will conclude with talking points for addressing the crisis, seeking to show that under your leadership there is real — and more importantly, realistic — possibility for change. 

You may have suspected that my name is not L. Ayman, though I am in fact numbered among the married laity. I write under a pseudonym and have disguised most names and places so that I may freely tell my story. I come to this inquiry as a cradle Catholic from an earlier time when faith formation operated within an entirely different milieu. But each era must read the signs of its own time and place. What I’m asking us as members of the living body of the Church is to discern how, today, we can pass on the faith, leaving to history the religious impoverishment that besets not only my children and but tens of thousands besides. I begin with a few real-life episodes. 

Margaret, the First Communion teacher, finally got her 37 students to be quiet, 20 or so minutes into the class, though Robert came close to being sent down to Ms. Gomez. Freshly enthused after attending the local religious ed conference that weekend, Margaret had an important announcement to make: Confession was no longer a sacrament. The children received her news with the listless inattention that typically alternates with their spells of unruly chatter. 

Since I was only a visitor in Margaret’s classroom, I had to wait till after class to gently remind her that our textbook for the last six months was entitled The Sacrament of Reconciliation. To her credit she retracted her statement in front of the children the next week after checking with the leader of her conference workshop. But I knew it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Her children, if asked, could not have told her what a sacrament was, what it meant to be or not to be one, what Confession was, or what it had to do with Reconciliation, the big word on the textbook that’s so hard to pronounce. 

A scenario uncannily like this one played out a thousand miles away when Diane, the Confirmation teacher, responded to a candidate’s question about the afterlife by proclaiming the demise of purgatory as an article of Catholic belief. In Diane’s case, even after being contradicted by The Catechism of The Catholic Church, she left it up to her candidates to decide for themselves, though it was obvious that for most of them purgatory wasn’t a doctrine they cared much about. 

Diane’s DRE, Judith, was keen to correct another obsolete notion, the use of saints’ names for Confirmation, and had instructed Diane accordingly. One of the students asked about Teresa of Avila, but Diane had never heard of her. Your first name is already OK, she tried to explain, which is probably why the names of at least two of her candidates, Trade and Jasmine, appeared on the rolls of the anointed for the first time. 

A year later, and two states north, the rite of welcome for Confirmation candidates in a large urban parish consisted of word games, musical chairs and beanbag tosses. Frances, who had asked me to be her sponsor, felt patronized by the infantile activity imposed by the adults. What she had expected was age-appropriate introductions, prayer, meaningful social networking, some kind of orientation to the faith formation program ahead, and maybe even “a spiritual vibe.” The games went on until the group dispersed after an Our Father. 

Richard, volunteering at a suburban parish on the opposite coast, ignored the expensive textbook his candidates had to buy and preferred to tell personal stories, play the guitar, and show DVDs. These included Toy Story Three, which ran too long for class discussion, and a documentary on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

I could multiply examples, but they all point to the same result. Here is random feedback from my kids on some of the things I’ve asked them when driving to and from faith formation classes. An important figure from the Old Testament? John The Baptist. The three persons of the Trinity? Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The contents of the tabernacle? The little round things. Prayer without words? Yoga. The main difference between Protestants and Catholics? Protestants don’t believe in God and Catholics don’t like other religions or gay people. The name of the Pope? What does Immaculate Conception, the name of your church, refer to? Something about a saint, or God. The lesson for today? We colored. Life after death? We come back as lower animals because of karma. God’s existence? He must have been created by something else. . . aliens maybe

Proposed by intelligent Catholic children, these answers sound like the stuff of comedic invention. Sadly they are not. And sadly we can predict what the remedy is not. It is not suggesting new language for the mission statement or the parish’s faith formation curriculum. Teaching materials, especially the commercial textbooks, look great on paper. And no use seeking remedy in the halls of the Chancery because, as I mentioned, all is well at the top. 

The kindly bishop or diocesan DRE will direct you to St. ____ with its exemplary, widely-acclaimed program of faith formation. St. ____ has all of that, to be sure, and almost as surely it’s a salient deviation from the norm of the diocese. Nor can remedy be found in the humbler offices of the hard-working parish DRE, who will remind you of the rigorous training required of her catechists. And the children? Hundreds of them in beautiful smiles and handsome garb will be initiated yearly in hundreds of parishes around the country. 

Statistics tell us, of course, what happens to these children next. Most of them will never be seen again in a Catholic church. They will drift into other denominations or into “spirituality without religion” or into unbelief. For every one Catholic entering the Church today, four are leaving. Ex-Catholics are now the largest single “religious” group in the country. Headlines blaze the increasingly painful data from polling organizations such as Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in The Apostolate (CARA) and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.1 The numbers shouldn’t really surprise us. If our youngsters continue to learn nothing about their faith, what are we thinking gives them any reason to stay? 

The conventional understanding of faith formation, affirmed by the Church since Vatican II, is that it centers in the home. But the paradigm of the Catholic family has radically changed. Today’s Catholic parents have themselves been the victim of a declining emphasis on religious knowledge and “Catholic culture.” There are also the new and complex configurations of working parents, single parents, inter-faith marriages, and the divorced. In many ways it’s a miracle their kids even show up for faith formation programs. The other radical paradigm shift, of course, has been the loss of the teaching sisters. God bless every parishioner who since then has volunteered to be a catechist. But there’s simply no denying the benefits of a formal teaching degree, a background in religious pedagogy, and a lifetime in the classroom. 

What, then, is to be done? 

“All believers have a right to catechesis; all pastors have the duty to provide it.” These simple but prophetic words from John Paul II’s Catechesi Tradendae (1979) echo through the Vatican’s General Directory For Catechesis (1998) as well as the USCCB’s National Directory For Catechesis (2005).2 If successful faith formation is proving elusive, then catechesis becomes job one for the pastor, his associate priests and his deacons. Given your own paradigm shift in recent years affecting the ranks of the ordained, this might strike you as a daunting and presumptuous directive. 

But John Paul II wasn’t asking the impossible. In the same apostolic exhortation, he went to the heart of what afflicts today’s religious education: “The blossoms — if we may call them that — of faith and piety do not grow in the desert places of a memoryless catechesis.”3 This precisely finds the word to describe my memoryless children and their classmates. John Paul II wasn’t touting memory as a tool of “rote religion” in the mold of the Baltimore Catechism. His context is basic Christian literacy, being able to name and recognize — hold in memory — the rudimentary terms and landmarks of our journey: the books of the Bible, the four evangelists, the three persons of the Trinity, the decalogue, the beatitudes, the saints, and so on. Currently, faith formation is failing to impart this sense of the landscape. 

Perhaps in reaction to the Baltimore experience, memory of almost any kind is resisted in catechesis today because it’s thought to steal emphasis from the formation of the Christian life and Christian community. This sentiment may have been given a push in the mid-1970s by a narrow reading of the U.S. bishops’ A Vision of Youth Ministry (1976), which came down hard on “religious education-only youth programming.” The catechesis it favored was developmental, relational, people-centered and needs-focused.4 Two decades after these approaches had been implemented, the bishops saw the need to restore a balance lost in the new praxis. In Renewing the Vision: A Framework For Youth Ministry (1997), they invite “comprehensive and substantive knowledge” back into the “mind, heart, and will” triad of a developing Christian faith.5 

Published the same year, the Vatican’s General Directory for Catechesis shared the bishops’ concerns about the status of knowledge. Importing John Paul’s frame of reference, it advocates the “use of memory” as an historically-sanctioned “constitutive aspect of the pedagogy of the faith.” Far from impeding Christian formation, it argues, “secure possession of the language of faith is an indispensable condition for living that same faith.”6 The U.S. bishops concur, adding that language secured in memory not only facilitates personal formation but also sustains the life of Christian community. 

In “Learning by Heart,” a chapter in their most recent set of guidelines, the 2005 National Directory For Catechesis, the bishops conclude that “the ability to express the one faith in a language that can be understood by all within the cultural diversity of the Church in the United States. . .deepens the common understanding of the faith.” This fosters communal bonds because the faith is “proclaimed, celebrated, lived and prayed in words familiar to all the faithful,” as well as giving the community a way “to hand it on to future generations.”7 

As pastors, and now as missionaries enlisted by circumstance, your position of authority allows you to return the life-blood of memory to Christian formation without having to challenge the theories, the goals or the competence of personnel such as your DRE, who need not be excluded from the process and indeed may champion your cause. The introduction of a simple standard of Christian literacy will complement any parish’s existing catechetical plan. No doubt you have already witnessed the power of Father’s mere presence, sticking his head into the classroom for a smile, an affirmation, just to let his young flock know he is there, and he cares. All John Paul asks is for being-there to take a single step further so that the memoryless desert of faith formation might blossom under your stewardship. 

In moving from the general to the specific, I offer the following talking points with a degree of reservation. This is a pastoral project, and obviously must account for individual parish settings and personal styles. What my own suggestions may demonstrate, if nothing else, is a general principle that mixes irony and hope: how problems so huge can be served by solutions so elemental. 

1. Materials. A series of single-sheet hand-outs compiled by the pastor containing essential terms, facts, personages, events and texts basic to Roman Catholic literacy. Each hand-out contains no more than five to ten items, possibly arranged in traditional question and answer format, such as: Who are the four Gospel writers? The four Gospel writers are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each sheet can be keyed to the existing lesson plan or as a complimentary addendum to the syllabus. A useful guide to specific topics for memorization can be found in “Learning By Heart” from the National Directory referenced above, as well as in “Faith Themes For Young Adolescents” in A Renewed Vision. A more extensive list of “outstanding elements of the Christian message” is available in chapter two of the Bishops’ earlier National Catechetical Directory (1979), subtitled Sharing The Light Of Faith

2. Methods. Setting aside a small portion of class time and limiting the exercise to one sheet per session, each item on the hand-out is repeated several times aloud, by catechist and students together, until it becomes a familiar part of the students’ religious lexicon. Eventually, as John Paul II further instructs, such texts and facts must be “gradually understood in depth, in order to become a source of Christian life on the personal level and the community level.”8 This is the task of the catechist or, at your discretion, a function performed by yourself as the “catechist of catechists,” to use the language of Holy Orders. 

3. Accountability. Missing entirely from today’s youth catechesis is any consistent effort to evaluate what has been learned. This absence of accountability flies in the face of the student’s own experience of the educational process, and in the long run sends the wrong message about the import of the material. As I have suggested above, we can no longer gauge what the student is learning by asking the educators or perusing the textbook. We can only find out from the students themselves. A simple written or oral test on information “held in memory” serves this purpose, just as it does in any pedagogical environment. (Diocesan-wide standards of Christian literacy, promulgated by the bishop and tested on a scheduled basis, could provide a stay against memoryless catechesis on a yet broader scale. It might even revive the tradition of the presiding bishop’s interrogation of Confirmation candidates, now dropped almost universally from the ceremony in apparent acknowledgment that the resulting spectacle of ignorance would dismay, if not scandalize, the assembled faithful.) 

4. Other Strategies. A few parishes in the U.S. and Canada have insisted that parents must accompany their children to faith formation classes. Other programs link classes with Sunday Mass hoping to raise the proportion of children attending regular liturgy from the current average of 25 percent. Another proposal involves the use of remote instruction delivered to computer teaching screens, so that several classrooms could be served interactively by a single professional religion teacher or the pastor himself. 

I close by returning to the baseline of my appeal: Catholic faith formation has taught my children almost nothing about their religion. May John Paul II’s exhortation to pastors, priests and deacons help you provide your young flock with words that will not return void to God but will accomplish the end for which they were sent. Let us pray that Catholic faith formation no longer leaves our children memoryless, but becomes the flame of a new enlightenment that can redirect and illuminate the Church. TP


1 See the Pew Forum’s “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” (February 2008) for demographics, and their “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” (September 2010) in which Catholics rate behind “agnostics/atheists” in knowledge of the Bible and Christianity, and last place in general religious knowledge behind all U.S. Christian denominations, as well as behind nonreligious and nonbelieving populations. See also CARA’s “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among Catholics” and “The Impact of Religious Switching and Secularization on the Estimated Size of the U.S. Adult Catholic Population” (February 2008), and their 2003 CARA Catholic Poll (CCP). 

2 John Paul II. On Catechesis in Our Time: Catechesi Tradendae, apostolic exhortation (October 1979), No. 64; Congregation For The Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, August 1997), USCCB English translation, January 1998; USCCB, National Directory for Catechesis (Washington, D.C., May 2005). 

3 Catechesi Tradendae, No. 55. 

4 For my summary of A Vision of Youth Ministry (USCCB, Washington, D.C.: September 1976) see “Part One: The Growth and Development of the Church’s Ministry with Adolescents” in Renewing The Vision: A Framework For Youth Ministry (USCCB, Washington, D.C.: June 1997). 

5 Renewing the Vision, “Part Two: Goals for Ministry and Adolescence.” My account of the U.S. bishops’ developing guidelines for catechesis follows “Part One” of Renewing the Vision and “Where are we in Catechesis? Situating the National Directory for Catechesis” by the Most Reverend Leonard P. Blair (USCCB, 1997). 

6 General Directory, No. 154 

7 National Directory, p. 102, p. 86. 

8 Catechesi Tradendae, No. 55. 

L. Ayman writes from Northern Virginia.