Leading Students to ChristEDWARD P. SRI
In his book The Mystery We Proclaim (Our Sunday Visitor, 1993), Msgr. Francis Kelly offers a five-step plan that provides catechists with a helpful framework for every time they teach the faith.
First, in every catechetical lesson, we want to create an atmosphere that will prepare people for hearing Godís Revelation and help them respond to it. This first step might be the simplest, yet it can have an enormous impact on the people we teach.
Our catechesis is different from the ordinary day-to-day activities in life. Catechesis should not be perceived as just another meeting to attend or just another class to sit through. Rather, it is a time and a place for meeting God Himself. Thus, catechists should strive to create a religious atmosphere which subtly says, "Something very different, something sacred is going on here."
Msgr. Kelly describes this catechetical technique as a "calculated disengagement," in which the catechist strategically detaches people from the secular world and prepares them for encountering the living mystery of God. By placing people in a religious environment and creating a spiritual atmosphere, we can help prepare them for really meeting Jesus.
The great Catholic heritage of religious art, music, and architecture attests to the power that sacred atmosphere has to disengage our minds and hearts from the secular world and bring our souls in touch with the divine. For example, consider the aura of a church like St. Peterís Basilica in the Vatican. Even after living and studying in Rome for two years, I never cease to be amazed by the beauty of St. Peterís. Walking into the basilica is like walking into another world. The statues, the paintings, the windows, and the domes all cry out with the splendor of God Himself. Even my father, who is not a believer, was awe-struck when he entered St. Peterís for the first time. We spent hours there together, and he didnít want to leave. Iíll never forget his stopping in the middle of the basilica, staring upward into the central dome, and then turning to me and saying, "Wow! . . . This place makes you think about God."
This is the type of mood we want to create in the places where we teach the faith. We want to create an atmosphere that "makes you think about God." As a seminarian friend of mine likes to say, St. Peterís Basilica is "a living catechism" that lifts up our souls and puts us in touch with the mysteries of Christ. Similarly, we want to do all we can to make our catechetical setting "a living catechism" — an environment that helps people become more open to Godís work in their lives. Granted, most of our classrooms wonít be able to top Michaelangeloís design of St. Peterís, but there are two little things we can do to help our students become more disposed to the faith.
The first thing we can do is make sacred space. It is amazing how much impact little details such as using sacred art or lighting a candle in front of the room can have for setting a religious mood. This is why many catechists recommend establishing some "holy space" in the classroom. This might simply entail displaying a large standing crucifix on a table. Some catechists use a large, opened Bible or Lectionary "enthroned" on top of a table alongside other religious items such as a crucifix, a burning candle, or an icon of Christ. The table itself might be covered with a white cloth or colored drapery corresponding to the appropriate color for the particular liturgical season.
Even moving out of the traditional classroom, at least from time-to-time, might be a way to establish a more religious environment. A friend of mine recently told me how this notion of sacred space has helped transform the R.C.I.A. class he teaches. Last year, the R.C.I.A. group met in the parish schoolís cafeteria. This year, he decided to meet in the church in order to create a more prayerful, spiritual atmosphere. This change, he claims, has made all the difference. This year, half of the catechumens began attending Eucharistic adoration regularly. Most have cultivated a daily prayer life, and a number of them want to become leaders in the parish, helping to pass on the Catholic faith to others. This is a significant turnaround from the previous year. "Last year, the cafeteria was a good place for putting people in touch with information about the faith," he says. "But this year weíre in the church, and weíre doing a much better job of putting people in communion with Christ Himself."
In addition to using sacred space, another thing we can do to prepare people for hearing Godís Word is to make sacred time. People should have a sense that every catechetical session is a time set apart as holy. That is why many catechists begin with some type of liturgical prayer. This is not just "beginning with prayer" to ask for Godís blessings on the class. Rather, catechists begin with a prayer service in order to show how their time together really is a sacred time — a time for encountering the mystery of God Himself. Starting with liturgical prayer puts people in communion with God right away and thus helps them become more disposed to hearing His teachings. Liturgy is especially effective at doing this because liturgical words, symbols, and actions communicate the very mysteries of the faith which we are trying to teach.
Here are a few brief suggestions on different ways to set apart catechetical sessions as sacred time: (1) Psalm Response: Lead the people in a Psalm response that can be taken from the Liturgy of the Hours or from the Responsorial Psalm of the day or the Psalm for the upcoming Sunday. (2) Proclamation of the Word: This involves not simply reading from the Scriptures, but giving a solemn proclamation of the Word of God with the people rising, the reader beginning with a liturgical introduction ("A reading from the letter of Paul") followed by the liturgical response at the close ("The Word of the Lord . . . Thanks be to God"). (3) Priestly Blessings: As much as possible, bring in a priest or deacon to lead a short liturgical prayer service and give the people blessings. (4) Sacred Music: Listening to some religious music or singing sacred songs can help create a reflective mood of interior silence, enabling participants to be more disposed to accepting Godís Revelation.
At first glance, making sacred time and sacred space might not seem very important
for teaching the faith. Yet, these little details can make all the difference
in preparing peopleís hearts and minds for hearing and accepting the catechesis
we will offer. By simply taking time to cultivate the soil of peopleís souls,
the seeds of Godís Word are more likely to take deeper root and bear fruit in
the lives of the people we teach.
This second step involves offering a basic proclamation of the particular aspect of the Catholic faith that is being taught. Before providing people with an in-depth, detailed explanation or an apologetic defense of a certain doctrine, the catechist should first introduce them to the basics of that doctrine. This simply involves proclaiming the teaching of Christ, drawing from the Scriptures and the Catechism in his presentation and adapting the message for the particular audience at hand.
Although beginning with a basic proclamation of the faith might seem like common sense, it is worth noting that some modern catechetical approaches have not emphasized the actual content of the Catholic faith, but instead have tended to focus more on the participantsí subjective feelings or personal experiences in relation to the faith. While relating the Catholic faith to peopleís lives certainly is an essential catechetical task, the faith must be presented before it can be experienced:
No one can arrive at the whole truth on the basis solely of some simple private experience, that is to say, without an adequate explanation of the message of Christ, who is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, no. 22, quoting Jn. 14:6).
Our Catholic tradition tells us that grace is imparted simply by proclaiming the faith. Whenever Godís Word is announced, the Holy Spirit begins working in the people who are listening, stirring their hearts to respond in faith. Thus, catechists should have a great confidence in announcing Christís teachings, leading off with Godís Word more than their own words of explanation. The New Testament itself attests to the effectiveness of Godís Word: "For the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12).
Further, by beginning with a proclamation of Godís Revelation, the catechist imitates the way God Himself teaches. Throughout salvation history, God takes the initiative, revealing Himself to humanity. We respond to His self-revelation in faith (cf. General Directory for Catechesis, no. 143).
Thus, following Godís
own method, the catechist begins by proclaiming the Christian faith, communicating
Godís Word to the people he teaches. Those who hear (cf. Lk. 8:8) may then respond
to this divine invitation and thus deepen their relationship with Christ.
While the second step of "proclamation" involves a basic announcement of the teachings of Christ, the third step of "explanation" is meant to help people understand and assimilate that message.
Once the basics of the teaching have been proclaimed, the catechist then needs to draw out the meaning of the particular teaching and show its implications for our lives. Here, the catechist may use stories, personal testimonies, or passages from the Scriptures and the lives of the saints to help illuminate the teaching. By drawing on such examples of faith, catechists will in a sense "incarnate" the doctrines for their students, showing how these teachings are meant to shape their lives.
It is also important at this point to anticipate and address common questions and misunderstandings people may have about the particular teaching being discussed. This is where apologetics might come into play, showing how the faith is reasonable and how it flows from the sources of Revelation.
At this step Msgr. Kelly also emphasizes the need to engage the listeners. To this end, he encourages catechists to use audiovisual aids, skits, journal writing, memory games, and other activities that help reinforce the teaching. While such activities should not be used as ends in themselves (e.g., playing games simply to have a fun activity for students), they can serve as effective tools for deepening peopleís commitment to Jesus and for helping them respond in faith to Godís Word.
A recent study has illustrated the importance of using visual aids and activities to strengthen oneís teaching. Edgar Dale, a researcher who has developed what has come to be known as "Daleís Cone of Experience," has shown that people remember only about 20 percent of what they hear and 30 percent of what they see. However, retention increases when visual aids are used and when students participate in some type of activity. Dale notes how people remember about 50 percent of what they hear and see and 80 percent of what they hear, see, and "do" (see Lilly Walters, Secrets of Successful Speakers [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993], p. 131). The more teachers engage their students with visual aids and activities, the greater impact their teaching will have.
This has great bearing on the way we teach the faith. It is not enough for catechists to give beautiful theological explanations of Catholic doctrine. Students are likely to remember only about 20 percent of what a catechist has to say — no matter how eloquent and convincing the catechist may be. This is why catechists need to reinforce their teaching with visual aids and activities if they want to maximize their effectiveness.
There are numerous ways to include visual and active learning in our catechesis. Here are just a few brief examples:
A lesson on Christís passion and death can be followed by praying the Stations of the Cross together as a class. . A class on Jesus or the Gospels can include a video clip on the Holy Land, which can help students visualize the biblical narratives. . A teaching on the Eucharist can conclude by going into the chapel as a class for some prayers before the Blessed Sacrament. . Instruction on purgatory might end with a prayer service in memory of all deceased friends and family members to help students cultivate the practice of praying for the dead. . A class on social justice issues could commit to charitable works on a regular basis, such as working at a soup kitchen, visiting the sick and elderly, or participating in pro-life activities.
This third step certainly
challenges the personal creativity of the catechist, but is very important for
effective catechesis. The more we help people not only "hear" the faith, but give
them opportunities to "see" it and "do" it, the more likely it will take deeper
root in their minds and hearts.
Last month, I discussed how the Church is calling catechists not only to teach orthodox Catholic doctrine, but to do so in a strategic way that helps people grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. We need to teach the Catholic faith in a life-transforming manner that brings about an ever-deepening conversion in our students. This fourth step of "application" is probably the most crucial for assisting people in that process, helping them apply the doctrines of the faith to their daily lives.
Msgr. Kelly recommends that whenever we teach the faith, we include an exhortation, encouraging people to live out what they have just learned. We want to show people how the doctrine we are teaching can make a difference in their lives. I find that many people coming for catechesis are genuinely open to the faith and sincerely want to grow closer to God. Often, they just need some specific suggestions on how to go about doing that — a little push and encouragement to make a deeper commitment to live out their faith. Offering practical recommendations sometimes can make all the difference in the world.
For example, our campus recently invited CUF President Curtis Martin to give a talk on the challenges of following Christ as a college student. During the talk, Curtis mentioned that one practical way college students can grow in their relationship with Christ is to get to know Him through the Scriptures. At the end of his presentation, we passed out surveys asking students if they would be interested in participating in student-led small group Bible studies as a way to help them grow in their faith. A majority of the students said they were very interested. More than 50 students even gave us their names and phone numbers wanting us to call them when the Bible studies were ready to begin! Within two months, we had about 40 students involved in new small group Bible studies in which they pray together and learn about the Catholic faith through the Scriptures. Many more wanted to participate, but at the time we just didnít have enough Bible study leaders to meet the demand!
It has been exciting to see how these Bible studies have changed studentsí lives. Yet it all began with a simple invitation. Curtis didnít simply give a teaching about following Jesus Christ, but he went on and encouraged students to meet Christ in the Scriptures. He gave a point of application, encouraging them to participate in Bible studies. While Curtis certainly gave an excellent talk which was well-received by the students, it was the invitation to join the Bible studies that seems to have had the greatest long-term impact.
Every Catholic teaching is intimately connected to everyday life. And so, the
catechist must remember to offer a point of application that relates the doctrine
to the Christianís life. Perhaps the catechist, when teaching about the pope,
could conclude by discussing the pious practice of praying for the pope and his
intentions on a regular basis. This wonderful Catholic practice helps cultivate
a filial love and reverence for the pope as our Holy Father in the Family of God,
the Church. By simply encouraging people to pray an "Our Father," "Hail Mary,"
and "Glory Be" each day for the pope, the catechist helps people make a connection
between faith and life, between the doctrine of the papacy and their daily Christian
In the fifth step, the catechist concludes the catechetical session in the way it began: in prayer. Yet, this is more than simply closing with a prayer. Msgr. Kelly describes this last step as the climax of catechesis. The purpose of prayer is to foster our relationship with Christ (cf. Catechism, no. 2558), and this is also the goal of catechesis. So it is quite fitting that catechesis should culminate in a prayerful celebration of the very mysteries that have been taught.
At the close of catechetical instruction, we want to give people the opportunity to respond prayerfully to what they have just received in our teaching. One way is to conduct a prayer service that follows this basic threefold framework: (1) proclamation of the Word, (2) silent reflection and (3) a common response.
This prayer service might begin with a solemn proclamation of a Scripture passage that relates to the topic discussed in catechesis. This proclamation of the Word should involve the common liturgical responses (e.g., "A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans . . . The Word of the Lord . . . Thanks be to God"). After the Scripture reading, some quiet time for silent reflection can give people a chance to respond to Godís Word in the silence of their hearts. The celebration then can conclude with some type of common prayers, whether it be prayers of petition (in which people respond "Lord hear our prayer"), a psalm response, or a sacred song.
Other ways to close in celebration might involve praying a decade of the Rosary together, taking time to write in a personal prayer journal, or even making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. With different personalities who are likely to be attracted to different ways of praying, it is probably best for the catechist to offer diverse forms of prayer throughout the year. Nevertheless, since the Eucharist is the center of our faith, perhaps the catechist can occasionally ask the parish priest to offer Benediction or Mass at the end of class.
In this way, the catechist not only teaches about Jesus in catechesis, but also leads the people to a personal encounter with Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament. I canít think of a better way to bring catechesis to its climactic conclusion!
Sri, Edward P. "Leading Students to Christ." Lay Witness (May-June 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Copyright © 1999 LayWitness
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.