What is the Point of Religious Education?

The best education in the Faith is the practice of the Faith.

Is the religious education of children counterproductive? Blogger Joanne K. McPortland seems to have set the Catholic Internet on fire on Friday by suggesting precisely that when she wrote an impassioned post calling for the replacement of children’s catechesis with instruction aimed at adults. In a follow-up post, she says she wasn’t “entirely serious,” but neither was she being “wholly facetious.” Her aim was simply to “move us beyond the inevitable debates about which kind (approach, textbook, method, site, era, etc.) of children’s catechesis makes the best Catholics.”

McPortland’s postings are precipitated by the real crisis in Catholic faith and practice, as the statistics giving cause for concern are well-known: only 30 percent of Americans raised Catholic practice the faith; Mass attendance has been declining for decades; ever fewer baptisms are taking place and ever fewer Catholics opt for sacramental marriage; more than half of Catholics do not believe that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ.

McPortland’s initial instinct is identical to that of many of her respondents: an increased emphasis on high quality adult catechesis. I’m sympathetic, as I have a doctorate in Scripture and serve as Chair of the Department of Theology at the University of Mary. One of my bread-and-butter courses is called Basic Catholic Beliefs, in which we read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, given its breadth and depth, is perhaps the most profound theological document ever promulgated. I share John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s deep concern for the recovery of reason in an age often given over to nihilism, violence, or both. I therefore have real commitments to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the intellectual structure of the Faith and to the necessity of passing that intellectual structure on. I’m also a relatively recent revert, and so I have seen adult education done exceptionally well at the various Protestant parishes of which I was a part. God at one point in Scripture does say, “My people perish for lack of knowledge,” after all.

But in spite of my concern for the doctrinal dimension of the Faith, I realize ever more it’s not sufficient simply to instruct youth or adults in their religion, for there is more to the Faith than knowledge and more to the human person than the intellect. In any event, Scripture also suggests at one point that the demons are catechized well enough to accept monotheism. Something more is needed than more effective education, more schooling.

McPortland herself hints at the answer, as does her most interesting interlocutor, Sam Rocha. Rocha’s response, “Deschooling religious ed,” is a thoughtful jeremiad against schooling in general, a Cassandra’s cri de coeur against the capitalist and Cartesian conventions of schooling shaping every area of life, including not least religious education. Rocha writes, “Salvation today is given in degrees and diplomas and credentials. God is dead because we sent him to school, too… Religious education is failing because it is not education. It is schooling.” Rocha’s proposed alternative is “the real stuff of mystagogy: the Liturgy, prayer, life and work, and love. Conversion.”

Mystagogy. What is this? In short, mystagogy is our own participation in salvation history in the present moment through our participation in the Church’s sacramental life. (The ending “gogy” has to do with being led, like “pedagogy,” which literally means leading a child, and “myst” of course has to do with Christian mysteries.)

Now a “mystery” isn’t an enigma or a conundrum, something irrational, something totally beyond us, where we simply throw up our hands. Rather, a Christian “mystery” is something that can be understood and articulated in language (like the Holy Trinity) and experienced (like the Eucharist; indeed, mysterion is the Greek word for our Latin-derived “sacrament”). What makes it a “mystery” is that it’s a matter of revelation—something God makes known to us, something we couldn’t figure out on our own—and that it can never be exhausted. Mysteries are sacred realities we can know and experience.

And we know and experience them in the Church’s liturgical life. The same God who acts in the Old and New Testaments acts in the Church’s sacraments and liturgy today. The Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, and both are fulfilled in the Church’s sacraments and liturgy today. The Passover is the type of Christ’s Last Supper and sacrifice, which in turn are fulfilled in the Eucharistic liturgy today. Salvation history culminates in the mystagogy of every Eucharist.

The problem in the modern world is that there is little mystery left; all is revealed to us. Modern architecture revels in glass revealing everything inside; modern fashion reveals nearly all the body; ultrasound machines reveal the most profound moments of human life.

So too with modern religion, which is modern in so far as it accommodates itself to culture, seeking to reveal all that was mysterious and reducing the Faith to intellectual propositions. Religious education thus becomes a matter of mental mastery of material, while the Church’s liturgical life lacks much mystery, as the priest presides pronouncing the vernacular versus populum. Thus is the Cartesian dream of rational clarity fulfilled in the realm of religion.

The more recent emphasis on existential experience in religion is a reaction to this rationalism. Thus the manifold attempts to gin up raw experiences through the manipulation of emotions through (say) music that people supposedly like, or the browbeating of the faithful into expressions of outward but often forced and thus false joy. (One sees this most often in evangelical congregations, but modern Catholicism has not proven immune.)

Recent rationalist and existential approaches to religion have not proven effective in retaining practicing adherents. The key, as Rocha suggests, is not reform in teaching the Faith but something richer and broader: a new emphasis on living the liturgical mystery of the faith, in which the intellectual truths of the faith are experienced in a true and transformative way.

Reading over the preceding paragraphs, I find I’ve been writing like a theologian. So let’s get down to brass tacks. What might mystagogy mean in our present day? It means this: the best education in the Faith is the practice of the Faith. And that means Fathers and fathers must take the lead.

I say Fathers, because priests must continue to take the lead in the renewal of mystery in liturgy, so that the attractive power of sacred beauty in liturgy—in architecture, in the art of celebration, in music, in preaching, in all that the liturgy involves—inspires the faithful through mystery to the end of an encounter with Mystery of the Triune God, giving them the vision of the God that St. Augustine named “Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.” The Second Vatican Council did teach, after all, that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the liturgy itself is “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God.” As Pope Benedict wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis, “the best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well.” For those tempted to think that Pope Benedict’s attempts at liturgical renewal have expired under the present pontiff, just this very Monday morning in his homily at Mass Pope Francis reminded his hearers, “The liturgy is to really enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery and to be in the mystery… All of you here, we are gathered here to enter into the mystery: this is the liturgy. It is God’s time, it is God’s space…to celebrate the liturgy is to have this availability to enter into the mystery of God… We would do well today to ask the Lord to give to each of us this ‘sense of the sacred’… Let us ask for this grace: that the Lord would teach us to enter into the mystery of God.”

I say fathers, because the Faith will not take root in people unless it is lived in the home, led by the father of the family. Those of us who have worked in youth ministry know that all our programming—summer camp, Bible studies, retreats, religious education, and so forth—yield little fruit if parents aren’t living the faith. And not just parents, but fathers: a Swiss study published in 2000 found that only 3 percent of children with fathers who attend church services irregularly will grow up to practice their faith, while between 33 and 44 percent of children with fathers who attend church regularly will grow up to practice the faith (the mother’s level of attendance determines the difference). This means doing things like grace before meals, family Rosary, celebrations of saints’ days and baptismal birthdays, getting to Mass, and above all a loving Christian marriage lived before the children, as the union of husband and wife represent the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church.

This, then, is what is meant by mystagogy. The best religious education is the Catholic religion itself, practiced well. Families must live the Faith, from saying the mysteries of the Rosary together to partaking of the mystery of the Eucharist together in the context of liturgy celebrated well, and being brought thereby into a real encounter with the greatest Mystery of all, the Most Holy Trinity.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).