A few years ago, my niece Michelle sat on the couch crying. She had just received word that good friends of hers had been in a serious auto accident, hit head-on by a drunken driver. Her 3-year-old son, Tyler, climbed into her lap, put his arm around her and said, "It'll be OK, Mom. I'm here."

As our children grow, our hope and prayer is they will be people of compassion, people of conscience, people of care, people who respond to the needs of others.

What is our role as catechists in that? Especially in today's world, in recent times, when they seem to be surrounded by tragedies and sufferings, is this a particular learning time? More than ever, is it calling us to a deeper formation of conscience that we are one body in which we all have a role of responding, forming and nurturing?

A teacher was showing children pictures of the earth from space. "Oh! We draw the lines,"a student replied.

"What do you mean?" asked the teacher.

"Look at the pictures. No lines. Look at the globe and our maps. Lines. We draw the lines. We're really one; nothing is dividing us up, separating us."

Forming consciences

How do we form our consciences? We do that in many ways, but let us look at just one. Many researchers agree that the first moral feeling is empathy -see William Damon's "The Moral Child" (Free Press, $15.95). The ability to feel another's suffering, need or happiness is the foundation of virtue.

In reality, we have feelings because we have convictions. We have convictions because of the experiences we've had. So, the implications for catechesis include: What kinds of experiences do we need so that our moral, caring, compassionate sensibilities will grow?

Tips for catechists

Affirm the generosity and loving actions that you see children/youths already doing: For example, as a family was shopping for a Thanksgiving basket for the needy, the dad picked a box of generic oatmeal. His 8-year-old immediately returned it to the shelf. His dad asked, "What's wrong with that?""We bought Sugar Frosted Flakes for us. The hungry kids out there like Sugar Frosted Flakes better than generic oatmeal," he replied. He needs to be affirmed for his sensitivity.

Model caring, concern and kindness: Open the door for students. Thank them. Call their family when there is an illness. Every kind deed proclaims the worth of each person and the interconnectedness of humanity.

Stress the importance of community: We never teach isolated individuals; we teach them as part of a community. Encourage cooperative learning, group work, circles of learning, discussions so they know one another, etc.

Tell stories: Let them know the lives of our heroes and heroines. Do they know their parents' and grandparents' stories of faith and service? Invite parishioners to tell their stories of witness and service. Frequently use open-ended stories (applying our beliefs and teachings to real life), always asking, "What would you do?"

 Role-playing: Use this technique often so they walk in the shoes of others.

 Take students on field trips:Don't just talk about the needs of others or make things to send to them (placemats for the nursing home); go to the nursing home, the soup kitchen. Be with the people who need us. It's the experience that forms our consciences.

  Unifying images: Surround youngsters with images that show unity and wholeness - for example, the universal flag, the earth from space - rather than division and separateness.

 Live the Corporal Works of Mercy: Often we misunderstand "mercy"; it includes many things, such as care, making someone else's problem your concern and readiness to help those in need.

 Involve youngsters in parish events: We don't have to invent new things or do things on our own. Connect children (and their families) with the service and outreach events of the parish.

A challenge

If one of the most effective ways we help our children and youths is by modeling, by being witnesses, by the way we live. We need to continually look at just that: Who are we? What are we doing? How are we doing? What message do we give our young people by some of our actions?

Perhaps another way of asking the question is: Are we continuing to form our consciences, continuing to grow in our sensitivity to and awareness of our interconnectedness with all people, and therefore our responsibility for one another?

Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler is the associate director of the Office for Catechetics and Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Detroit.