Last week was our parish’s first week of religious ed, and my 7th grade daughter came home with an example of ordinary catechists in a traditional classroom program doing a great job at supporting parental involvement in their children’s faith.
There were three parts of the memo-from-the-teachers that made me swoon with gratitude.
1. Invitations (lots of them) for parents to come join the class anytime.
I’ve known our DRE for many years and she’s always had a very warm and open attitude towards parents’ involvement in their children’s formation. But to have the teachers repeatedly invite parents to come sit in class any time at all communicated an important message: They want us! They’re happy to have us. They’re happy for us to see what the kids are learning and take an active part in weekly faith formation.
Inviting parents to class does change the dynamic. It takes confidence and good teaching skills to be comfortable working with an audience. (And the reality is that watching people teach religious ed isn’t always the most exciting way to spend an hour. It can be, but sometimes you’re maxed out on sacrament charts and so forth.) But I love that my daughter’s teachers want me to know I’m not getting in the way. Me showing up and being involved is a good thing, not a hindrance.
That’s a rightly ordered relationship (even if I never take them up on the invitation), and I think their understanding of that relationship is why they did such a stellar job on the other two very simple helps they added to the class.
2. Weekly bring-back-to-class assignment: Noticing God’s action in our lives.
I’m sure the day is coming when we all bring in mini-tubes of toothpaste for the homeless, or spare change for missions, or whatever other project it is the kids are undertaking this year. Corporal works of mercy are good. But those works have to spring from a lived relationship with God, or the Catholic faith becomes just another option for Ways to Be Kind to People.
So every week, the teachers are asking the kids to report back one instance when they became aware of the presence of God in their lives — whether in prayer, in the created world, in the action of others, whatever it be.
Does this sound too Spirituality Lite? Let me offer firm correction: This is an age-appropriate way for kids to start crossing the bridge from an inherited faith to personal ownership of their faith. It is an age-appropriate way for the kids to become comfortable with talking about their relationship with God. It is an essential exercise, because awareness of God’s action in our lives is the foundation of the spiritual life.
Not Lite at all — it’s rock solid stone. The beautiful twist on this assignment is that by getting the parents involved, my daughter’s teachers are handing us, like a weekly subscription to the spiritual goldmine, an easy way for we parents to get comfortable with talking about discipleship with our kids. If you actually take the teachers up on this opportunity for the next twenty weeks, they’ll have helped you the parent build a habit of discussing the faith in a profound, personal, and non-adversarial way with your teenager.
This is the catechetical mission lived large: Genuinely assisting parents in their role as the primary teachers of the faith.
3. Weekly do-at-home assignment: A question for parents.
But that’s not all! Our catechists are taking it one deeper by sending home a second discussion question as well, which will change every week. Week One’s question was about promises: What promise have you made recently, and what was the outcome? What was something someone promised to you, and what was the outcome?
I liked this question a ton because it fits totally with the topics that came up in class (vocations and sacraments), it fits with questions about the moral life, and it’s not a “religious” topic even though it’s a religious topic. It’s not a question that has a “right answer” for the kid to parrot back. It’s a question, though, that hits a big tender spot in the faith. If you habitually break promises, or the people who are forming your faith (Mom and Dad) are flagrant promise-breakers, you’ve got a cracked foundation you’re building on. There’s repair work to be done. Healing work.
In contrast, if the question reveals you’ve got a solid foundation, then look what’s coming: We need to keep that relationship of trust strong through the next five or ten years. Further, for you my child who’s preparing for confirmation in the next few years? We need to think about what it is your baptismal promises mean, and what they entail.
That’s a lot impact for a discussion that took about five minutes in the car when I happened to get a snatch of time alone with my daughter for uninterrupted conversation. Twenty of those through the course of the year? The possibilities are breathtaking.
Inviting the Parents to be the Parents
The beauty of these assignments is that they help us parents do the part of the job that only we can do. Catechists can review facts and fill in gaps in the kids’ knowledge, but discipleship is parent-work. (We were also gently encouraged to get our kids to Mass regularly — another job that only a parent can do.)
I was very impressed by our first week because I felt like my daughter’s catechists understand what’s important and how this all works. When I went by the classroom, they were visibly happy to meet me and get to know me.
As far as I know, my daughter’s teachers are just a couple of ordinary catechists — goodhearted people who love God and love the kids and want to give it their best, but just normal people. And that to me is a very hopeful thing: Normal people are out there doing smart, simple, easy things to help me raise my child in the faith.