The General Directory for Catechesis outlines several important tasks given to the presbyterate, and to parish priests in particular, with respect to catechesis. These include fostering “a sense of common responsibility for catechesis in the Christian community,” promoting vocations to catechetical ministry and helping to form catechists, integrating catechetical activity into a larger program of community evangelization, and “securing the bonds between the catechesis of his community and the diocesan pastoral program.” These are awesome responsibilities to be sure. The parish priest has a privileged role in catechesis. Indeed, he is called “catechist of catechists” (GDC, No. 225).
One essential part of fulfilling this role is choosing catechetical tools, such as textbook series, that will help to facilitate and organize an effective program of catechesis in the parish. Texts are important because, when they are of high quality, they help to organize our catechetical approach and ensure the integrity of the message.
In choosing the textbook series that is most appropriate for a particular parish program, there are several aspects that should be considered. These can be organized most generally around the issues of content and methodology.
Perhaps the most important question with regard to content is, “Does this text present authentic Catholic teaching?”
The word catechesis comes from the Greek word for “echo,” implying that as catechists, we echo the teachings of Christ and the apostles. The texts we use in a catechetical program must be theologically and doctrinally correct, so that we can truly say, with Jesus, “My teaching is not my own but is from the One who sent me.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has established an Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism. A primary task of this committee is reviewing texts for children and youth and evaluating them for theological content and doctrinal accuracy. The results of their reviews can be found on the USCCB website, where a current list is posted of texts found to be in conformity with the Catechism.
Another key issue related to content is the Christocentricity of the text.
The General Directory for Catechesis states, “The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (GDC, No. 80). Christianity at its core is about discipleship, following — both individually and as a body — the person of Jesus Christ.
Finally, a good textbook series will be comprehensive in its approach.
Every Catholic, and certainly every catechist, has aspects of the faith that they especially love, for example devotion to the Blessed Mother, Catholic social teaching, Church history or Catholic apologetics. These are all part of our rich and multifaceted Faith.
However, our task as catechists is not just to highlight those aspects of the faith for which we have a particular fondness. Rather, we are called to hand on the faith in its entirety. A textbook series, as an organizing tool for catechetical ministry, should present a comprehensive overview of the basic teachings of the Catholic Faith. This is another important element assessed by the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee before texts are found to be in conformity. They must present the fullness of Catholic teaching.
Another useful framework for assessing the comprehensiveness of a textbook series is found in the General Directory for Catechesis. This document gives six “fundamental tasks of catechesis”:
• Promoting knowledge of the faith: We cannot live a faith we do not know. For this reason, studying the teachings of Jesus and His Church is an essential task of catechesis.
• Liturgical education: This task relates to learning about the ways in which the Church worships and celebrates, including the Seven Sacraments, the Order of Mass, and the liturgical year.
• Moral formation: This task of catechesis involves forming the consciences of learners through the moral teachings of Jesus and His Church and fostering understanding of what it means to live these teachings in one’s daily life.
• Teaching to pray: This task of catechesis involves teaching the traditional prayers of the Church and the various forms and expressions of prayer. It involves fostering an understanding of prayer as conversation with God — teaching how to talk with God in one’s own words as well as how to listen to Him.
• Education for Community Life: This task of catechesis relates to developing an understanding of what it means to be a part of the Christian community, including respecting the authority and structure of the Church as well as living out Jesus’ New Commandment to love one another as He has loved us.
• Missionary initiation: All Christians are called, by virtue of their baptism, to be witnesses of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. This task of catechesis prepares the learner to share his or her faith with others.
A comprehensive textbook series will provide tools for catechists to engage in each of these fundamental tasks with their learners.
The General Directory for Catechesis points out that a variety of methodologies are appropriate for use in catechesis, stating that “perfect fidelity to Catholic doctrine is compatible with a rich diversity of presentation” (GDC, No. 122). In fact, the GDC goes on to say that “the “variety of methods is a sign of life and richness” as well as a demonstration of respect for those to whom catechesis is addressed” (GDC, No. 148).
Using methods that are appropriate to the particular learner, group, or environment help to engage the learner, to show that our message is both living and rich. We also show respect for the learner by tailoring our message to individual needs.
Multiple methods are important when we consider what educational research tells us about how people of various ages learn best. Children and teens especially are most likely to pay attention to information, and to remember it, when it is presented in a variety of forms. Therefore, a good textbook series should provide a variety of visual, auditory and kinesthetic activities to reinforce key teachings.
It should also present teachings systematically such that key definitions and concepts are presented as a child or teen is developmentally able to understand them. What a shame it would be to have an authentic message delivered in a form in which children were unlikely to fully understand, pay attention, or remember! A good catechetical series will involve professionals trained in education and child development as well as theology to ensure that the message is presented in a way that children and teens can hear and understand.
Another important aspect of methodology relates to the catechist. A good textbook series should have catechist manuals that are understandable and easy to use. It should include material that assists in the catechist formation and reflection, since we cannot hand on a faith that we ourselves do not know or practice.
Finally, remembering the Church teaching that parents are the first and most important catechists of their children, a catechetical textbook series should provide resources for parents and families to talk about and practice their faith at home. The parish is called to assist families by articulating and organizing the key teachings of the Church, which should be lived out at home as the ultimate witness of what Catholics believe and practice.
Content and methodology are not, as some would have us believe, opposite poles of the same continuum. It is not the case that parishes must choose between a curriculum that is doctrinally correct or one that is developmentally appropriate. Both content and methodology are essential to faithful and effective transmission of the Catholic Faith to the next generation.
Dr. White, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and former parish director of religious education, is the author of several books on catechesis. He is currently a National Catechetical Consultant for Our Sunday Visitor.