The premise started off promising, but as the evening wore on, it became clear that the speaker had neglected to put in the necessary preparatory work and was merely rambling and repeating the same points in a manner that lacked logic and cohesion. This was lazy catechesis, and its lacklustre fruits could be seen around the room, as the participants tried to cling on the last vestiges of being awake, and finally giving up understanding what the speaker’s point was, nodded to sleep.
This scenario is reflective of a larger malaise that has been gnawing away at the heart of the Church for many decades, but has largely remained unaddressed or swept under the rug. In the 1980s and early 1990s, anecdotal evidence from conversations with different parishioners in Singapore revealed that Catholic Catechesis was so bad and removed from the reality of the day, that they had sent their children to attend Sunday School at the nearby Protestant churches – with the Methodist and Baptist churches stepping in to fill in an increasingly widening gap that the Catholic Church did not know how to fill. The qualitative conversations revealed such insight as, “The lessons taught were very real and fun to attend”; “They made the lessons relevant through hands-on work and role-playing”; “It was not so much a turn-off with the pedantic, patronising, and moralising way that catechesis was taught in the Catholic Church, that made it refreshing to attend classes in this case the Baptist church that my aunty brought me to”; and “While the homilies at Mass are boring and I can barely remember anything that Catholic speakers say, I still remember the lessons that my Sunday School teacher, in an evangelical non-denominational church, taught me many years ago”. Nearer the 21st century, in a casual conversation with the youth of the Confirmation batch at a parish where I had taken on the role of a youth coordinator for a season and a time, revealed such insight as, “The catechist actually does not know anything about the faith”; “Catechism is very boring. Waste my time – I can also show 5 videos for the class and not teach anything”.
There appears to be a knowledge gap. The young are hungering for catechesis that is robust, engaging, and relevant, but perhaps as delivered by volunteers whose charisms are not in formation and catechesis, find that instead of being excited about the faith, have been led on a slow decline that is taking these once zealous youth away from the Church.
These cases are not isolated to Singapore, but reflect a global decline in the trust and belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and a general consensus that catechesis in the Catholic Church is off-putting. The content knowledge of what is taught during Catechism is also dodgy and questionable. For example, in a series of surveys conducted by Pew Research spanning the years 2010 to 2019, it was found that 50% of Catholics in the United States of America do not believe in Transubstantiation and think that the bread and wine are merely symbolic; less than 42% of the Catholics surveyed could name Genesis as the first book of the Bible; only 63% of Catholics surveyed could state that “Do unto others what you would want others to do unto you” is not one of the 10 commandments; (Pew Research Center, 2010; 2012; 2014; 2015; 2015b; 2015c; 2019; Sandstrom 2015).
The reasons that people would leave the Church are manifold and multitudinous. In exit interviews conducted over the phone initiated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C. M. of Trenton, New Jersey (Byron & Zech, 2012), it was found that there was an increasing disaffiliation from the Catholic Church and its teachings. Many tried to find belonging and community, but were turned away. A 23- year-old, is quoted as having said, “I felt deceived and undervalued by the church. I didn’t understand certain things and found no mentors within the church. I just stopped going because my community of friends and family were no longer in the church.” In this survey, what was coming to the surface as well, was the deep mistrust of the Church in handling the reports of the abuses and scandals surrounding the clergy and minors. The people surveyed felt that there was a lack of transparency and a lot of covering up in places as far-reaching as the United States, to Canada, to France, to Ireland, and to Australia. Other issues with regard to the Church’s stances towards hot-button topics such as same-sex marriage, abortion, divorce, and single-parent households were surfaced by a substantial number of respondents. An anonymous respondent said, “The Catholic Church as a whole is ritualistic and cold. I do not get the sense of family and community that I get from another faith community. I get the feeling that God is judgmental and harsh, unforgiving and unyielding,” while a woman who is 64, divorced and re-married was reported to have said, “Instead of making every Mass a form of humiliation for Catholics who cannot receive Communion, do something, like a private blessing at Communion time, to include everyone.” The common thread found in these responses is that people were yearning for a more inclusive church, and yet felt judged for who they were through no fault of theirs.
Closer home, a broad scan of our own parish infrastructure can reveal something about how inclusive and how welcoming our parishes are. For example, are there lifts and wheelchair ramps that will help access to the Worship Hall and facilities for those who have mobility issues and difficulties? Are there interpreters and visual/auditory aids for parishioners who are visually or hearing impaired? Are there ministries for those who are divorced, identify as homosexual, differently abled, single parents, orphans, and so forth?
Catechesis also needs to take on a more universal learning design and pedagogy. For example, how are those with special needs ministered to? If a person has a learning disability such as attention deficit disorder, or Dyslexia, how can the Catechist engage such students? Catechesis is teaching, and there is a skill and art to the craft that takes years to master. We would not trust our cars to someone who is not a trained mechanic, why are we entrusting the life work and heart work of catechesis to people who are unwilling even to take up the basic Catechetical courses offered by say the Office of Catechesis? We may have to grapple soon with the truth that the Church is ill-equipped, unprepared, and that its volunteers lack proper training to engage the core of Catechesis – to make the Good News come alive.
A possible key is the deployment of a Catechetical pedagogy and methodology that is intentional and systemic. It cannot be merely relegated to weekly hour-long classes, but needs to be integrated fully into the lived realities and every day of the people who are receiving this catechesis. The connections to the life experiences of the catechumen must be broad and deep, with the content knowledge of the Faith bridging and interweaving with what the catechumen are living out in their daily lives. Catechesis also needs to be creative and think out of the box. More than ever, the notion of Fides et Ratio, Faith and Rationale need to exist complementarily and to inform and involve the other. Faith cannot be divorced from rationale, and rationale cannot exist separately from faith. If these questions of the head are not answered, today’s generation will find even more difficulty in connecting to these topics with eyes of faith, and with their hearts.
Some models of Catechesis utilising a multi-pronged approach could be considered:
- Catechumen Night – where the catechumen gather once a week outside their catechetical classes to fellowship and informally discover more about the faith.
- Holiday intensive Catechesis – For 2 weeks of the school holidays, participants meet every day to unpack the teachings of the Church, or books of the Bible. If catering to working adults, then they commit to meeting every night for 2 weeks to learn more about the faith.
- Applied Theatre in Catechesis – live action role playing helps the characters of biblical times come alive in a real and tangible way. Role playing also helps unpack the liturgy, liturgical seasons, while empowering the catechumen with agency and a voice.
- Empowering the young to become catechists, who are working alongside adult catechists help keep the teaching of the faith relevant. This could work via the Youth Aide or Peer Support Leader model.
- Family as partners. Catechism begins at home, and families need to be evangelised to before they can bring up their children in the right values.
- Retreat Programmes – tend to be meeting points and mountain experiences with God. The issue is in creating solid follow-up sessions to the retreat to ensure the continuity of the mountain experience. Many conversions die off after the descent from the mountain into the ordinary.
- Pilgrimages make the faith come alive in ways that are experiential and phenomenological. These pilgrimages taken in the footsteps of Jesus of the Apostles, often are turning points of conversion for many who embark on these paths.
- A heart for the Poor – service-learning initiatives throw the catechumen into the deep end, where they are immersed fully in the lives of those who are poor and disenfranchised. This is the face of the Church and the love of the Christian is the initial touchpoint of many desiring to want some of whatever these Christians are having.
- Intergenerational Faith communities, which may first begin as Biology-based communities for male and female, or segregated age-group communities, such as separate groups for the youth and the old, and which should eventually take the shape of intergenerational faith communities like the very first apostles – are instrumental in providing accountability and support in the Faith.
- The Mentoring Model, where catechumen journey with a mentor of the Faith is an important way of imparting the faith.
- The celebration of important rites and milestones of life such as Baptisms, anniversaries of First Communions and Confirmations, birthdays, weddings, and other milestones of living, bring the community together and provide a deep sense of belonging and identity. (c.f. Thielson, 2008)
At the heart of these approaches are these common touchpoints: They are intensive and for them to succeed, the participants are placed in situations where relationship building is the default mode; these approaches engage creatively and innovatively and empower all of different age groups to take on mentoring, guiding, facilitating roles; they give back to the community through charity and time; and they celebrate the unique giftings and the whole personhood of a person (c.f. Thielson, 2008)
For too long, catechesis has been dull, forced, and lifeless. Perhaps, the time has come to consider carefully how it may be transformed and revitalised, so as to retain, and engage, and inspire.
What is the Good News that catechesis needs to tell the world? That we are loved, we are forgiven, we have a God who suffers with us, and that we have a Father in God. Let us start with that premise.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Byron, W. J., & Zech, C. (2012). Why They Left: Exit Interviews Shed Light on Empty Pews. America The Jesuit Review. Retrieved October 8, 2021 from https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/5138/article/why-they-left
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Pew Research Center. (2012). “Nones” on the Rise. [Dataset]. Retrieved October 8, 2021 from https://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
Pew Research Center. (2014). Pew Research Center 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study. [Dataset]. Retrieved October 8, 2021 from https://www.pewforum.org/dataset/pew-research-center-2014-u-s-religious-landscape-study/
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Pew Research Center. (2015c). U.S. Public becoming less Religious. [Dataset]. Retrieved October 8, 2021 from https://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/
Pew Research Center. (2019). What Americans Know about Religion. [Dataset]. Retrieved October 8, 2021 from https://www.pewforum.org/2019/07/23/what-americans-know-about-religion/ – question-list
Sandstrom, A. (2015). 5 facts about Communion and American Catholics. Pew Research Center. Retrieved October 8, 2021 from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/09/24/5-facts-about-communion-and-american-catholics/
Thielson, M. (2008). Adolescent Catechesis Today: On the Road to Transformation. Source Book on Adolescent Catechesis, 1. National Catholic Educational Association.