Because God is our creator, the potential for faith is hardwired into our very existence. But the way in which we learn about, understand and experience our faith is different at every age and stage of life. This is why the General Directory for Catechesis (the Vatican's instruction on religious education) states, "variety is required by the age and the intellectual development of Christians, their degree of ecclesial and spiritual maturity, and many other circumstances" (No. 148).
Ideally, infants and toddlers first discover God through their relationship with their parents. The relationship of an infant to his or her adult caregiver is one of total dependence, and it is through the care of this special adult that the infant learns he or she is valuable, that his or her needs will be responded to and that human contact is positive. This creates the potential for future relationships, including a friendship with God, who reveals himself to us as divine parent. Young children watch carefully what their parents are doing, and as they see their mothers or fathers in prayer and worship, they wish to imitate them, and thus their capacity for faith is nurtured.
For a Catholic child, the parish is often one of the first experiences of society outside the home, and children's early experiences at Mass and in early childhood religious education help to form their view of the Church. Children this age learn about God in the same way they learn about other things -- through sensory experience. Music, icons, stories with pictures or props and other activities can assist in this process. Because children this age are beginning to understand their identity as unique human beings, their thoughts, play and conversation are typically self-focused. This is an ideal time for them to discover themselves as people created by God to do his work in the world.
The elementary years are a time of tremendous growth and learning. Elementary-age children are very concrete in their thinking, so faith concepts should be communicated to them in simple, concrete terms, and any abstract concepts illustrated with something from their own experience. This is the example of Christ, who used concrete metaphors such as fishing, tending sheep and sowing seeds when teaching about God's kingdom.
Children in the elementary grades are quite conscious of rules, making this an ideal time to teach morality from the standpoint of God's guidelines for our behavior. This will lay a foundation for conscience formation at a deeper, more abstract level as they mature. As children progress through the elementary years, peer relationships become increasingly important. While parents are still the "primary catechists," children this age benefit greatly from learning about faith in a community of peers.
Adolescence is a critical time in identity formation, socialization and the formation of adult conscience. Teens tend to be quite self-focused as they go through the physical, mental and emotional changes of this period of life. Experiences in faith formation for teens should provide opportunities for self-discovery in light of Christian teaching and include peer-based spiritual and formational experiences. Many teens are beginning, either openly or internally, to ask themselves if they should make their parents' faith their own. They need to feel free to ask questions, and even to openly disagree. Catechists and parents should not feel threatened by this process -- it's how teens "try on" the faith for themselves. With gentle understanding and confident guidance from adults, many teens decide to make Catholicism their own -- a decision that is exemplified in the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, which, in the United States, often occurs in the teen years. Teens are particularly attracted to opportunities to serve the poor and marginalized and bring fresh energy to the charitable and social justice activities of the Church.
Teens often disagree with adults concerning fashion, music, hairstyles and what freedoms and responsibilities they should have. But it's interesting to note that teens report a desire for spiritual experiences and a real need for guidance when it comes to adult issues with which they have little experience. If we listen to them without defensiveness and encourage them to keep asking questions, while at the same time giving them a strong example of faithfulness to Church teaching and an ongoing process of spiritual growth, they will often respond with honest reflection and maturing faith.
Dr. Joseph White is a national catechetical consultant for Our Sunday Visitor and is the author of "Seven Secrets of Successful Catechists" (OSV, $4.95).