People who are serious about handing on the faith to the next generation, whether they are in Catholic parishes or schools, have been frustrated by the same problem: the widening gap between faith and the daily lives of their students.
To be sure, this is no novel issue. Back in the 1950s, Joseph Ratzinger diagnosed it as a new paganism lurking beneath the Catholicism of the time. He says, rather frankly, “she is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians, but actually have become pagans.” At the time, Ratzinger conjectured that “the modern man today, when he meets someone else anywhere, can assume with some certainty that he has a baptismal certificate, but not that he has a Christian frame of mind.” The latter is certainly true, but the former is becoming less certain.
Discouraged parish ministry leaders or school personnel need not despair. They can, I believe, bridge the gap by drawing inspiration from 20th-century distributist economists Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton and their call for a redistribution of the “means of production.” In the case of catechesis, formators need to redistribute the “means of formation” to parents.
The redistribution process consists of four basic steps:
- Acknowledge the need for a redistribution
- Make the parents the “heroes” of their child’s formation and design programs accordingly
- Build relationships and follow-through
- Entrust the whole thing to the Holy Spirit (really, this is the first step and the last one and everything between)
Acknowledge the need for a redistribution
In the early 20th century, Catholic thinkers Chesterton and Belloc introduced an economic theory known as Distributism. John Médaille defines Distributism, saying,
its key tenet is that ownership of the means of production should be as widespread as possible rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few owners (Capitalism) or in the hands of state bureaucrats (Socialism).
Capitalism tends to limit the means of production to a few, while Socialism collectivizes. Socialist measures are often used as correctives for Capitalist trends. Chesterton and Belloc observed this phenomenon in England as the government introduced forms of socialism to stabilize capitalism (e.g., minimum wage laws, liability laws, and so forth). We have witnessed the same in the United States today. Chesterton and Belloc explained that such socialist efforts establish a servile state. Distributism, for both men, serves as an alternate response to the insecurities of capitalism and the ballooning bureaucracy of socialism.
As V.N. Lukas says in his 1934 article in The Distributist, “if Distributism stands for anything, it stands for decentralization of control and for the majority as independent owners of the means of production.” Distributism does not have to do so much with redistributing profits, but the means of production, and the redistribution of the means of production is as widely as possible.
What does Distributism have to do with the world of youth formation and catechesis?
Answering this question requires a cursory history lesson.
Generally speaking, Catholics in America established the enduring structures of catechesis to instill the faith in immigrant Catholic children living in a Protestant country. Robust Catholic school systems and religious education programs, staffed in large part by religious congregations, served as a primary means of preserving the faith and handing it on to the next generation throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries.
For quite some time this sort of catechetical infrastructure succeeded. Parents would hand their children off to the brothers or sisters who would form them in the faith, and then they would pick the kids up again. Parents were involved in the direct formation of their children to greater or lesser degrees, though, anecdotally, I believe it tended toward lesser side of thing. Nevertheless, this level of parent involvement worked, because a strong Catholic subculture existed and the gap between the life of a child at home and the life of a child at school was relatively minimal. The general ethos was the same.
After the Council, however, things changed. Actually, according to Ratzinger (and many others), things were already changing in the 1950s—the post-WWII fallout bumping right into Vatican II. In the postconciliar years, the sleek structure built on a scrappiness, religious congregations, a rich sacramental life, and a solid subculture suddenly seemed unstable. By the early 1980s, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger commented that the Church was witnessing the crumbling of the two pillars upon which catechesis has stood historically: the family and the parish. The collapse of the family has been obvious: from birth control to no-fault divorce, the sexual revolution, the redefinition of marriage, and so forth. The wreckage lay all around, and after Vatican II the once camouflaged chasm between the faith and the ordinary lives of Catholics in modern America had been unmasked.
On the parish front, religious communities so wrapped up in the lives of parishes and parochial schools suffered tremendous losses. In the world of catechetics, a new class of the catechetical elite rolled up, riding on Karl Rahner’s systematic theology and modern educational philosophy. As the religious congregations vacated catechetical posts in parishes and schools, new lay professionals, schooled in the methods of Gabriel Moran and Thomas Groome took charge and the future of catechetics in America hung in the balance. A small minority attempted to hand on the faith in its fullness, while mainstream catechetics followed along the same course as the mainstream in theology—horizontalizing the faith, worshiping the gods of self-transcendence and self-construction, and ultimately rendering man as God.
In the wild West of parish catechetics, some sort of regulations needed to be put into place. So, diocesan machinery in the form of religious education offices, commissions, committees, curriculum standards, graded courses of study, and certification processes were established to address issues and to police catechesis due to the depleted catechetical corps and the unrestrained creativity of the reinforcements. All of this had the effect of giving the Rahnerian project a stamp of approval, while bureaucratizing it.
As the Catholic subculture eroded and families fared badly—offering less and less in the Catholic culture of the home—parishes responded by offering more and more by way of youth programming with little parental involvement (other than receiving a scolding or two for poor Mass attendance). Or, in some cases, parishes simply continued offering what they were before, but parents faded out of the picture almost entirely. As parental involvement waned, religion class at Catholic school, Sunday school, and Mass (maybe) constituted the whole of faith formation.
Our programming has made it easy for parents to drop their kids off at Catholic schools or religious education programs and wash their hands of the whole thing. Catholic formation? Check! Keeping Grandma happy? Check! By and large, the Church—in her parishes and schools—has wittingly or unwittingly assumed the entire means of formation for herself, despite her own constant refrain about the role of the parents as the primary formators of their children (see, for example, CCC §2221, or the Order of Baptism for Infants).
A redistribution is necessary and urgent.
Make parents the “heroes” and design programs accordingly
I have been around ministry long enough to hear plenty of conversations bemoaning parents for their lack of care or involvement in the faith formation of their children. In some cases, they are even painted as the villains of our sad state of affairs. While the lack of involvement certainly contributes to the difficulties, vilifying the parents is unjust and unhelpful. Most of today’s parents received little from the Church by way of formation and have been educated by a confused culture. Parents are not the villains, and parish catechists and schoolteachers need to stop stepping into the role of hero.
The Church never tires of informing parents they are the primary educators of their children—they are the “heroes” of their child’s faith formation.1 Statistical data corroborates the importance of the parental role. But, most parents do not know how to form their children in the faith, and they are insecure about trying. This makes any redistribution effort difficult, but it also clarifies the role of the catechist. Parents need a guide, and the parish catechist or teacher can be that guide. In other words, a redistribution of the “means of formation” requires a reconfiguring of roles. Parents are not ignorant villains, but the heroes hampered by numerous difficulties, and catechists and teachers are not the heroes, but the guides—coaching the parents along, giving them a plan, and helping them see what fruitful formation looks like.
To be sure, there has been a family-focused movement within the field of catechetics over the last decade. These are noble efforts, though laden with challenges. Early in this shift, it seems, publishers and catechists went to work developing texts and curriculum plans that would be handed to parents to employ almost entirely on their own. This could be likened to handing your neighbor a series of power tools with minimal operating instruction. In a situation like that, you have all sorts of possible outcomes: insecurity, doubt, fear, attempts, failed attempts, injury, and some successful attempts. Using power tools with little to no training can be a clumsy and even dangerous thing.
The same is true with catechetical programs. Parents need more than an info meeting and a stack of expectations and foreign materials, and from what I heard from colleagues, the outcomes went about as you might suspect (apart from a few shining lights, of course). Another model gathered the family together with some frequency (e.g., once per month) for a social time with other families, before splitting everyone out by age group. Parents received a special formation session with other parents, while children were with catechists. Everyone received the same information, in an age-appropriate manner, and parents were sent home with resources to continue the formation the rest of the month. This model has proven to be more successful, because it gives the parents more. I will discuss a third model in the case study below.
The bottom line: a redistribution of the means of formation requires catechists to become guides and parents to act as the hero of their children’s faith formation. And, parish programs need to be radically recalibrated in order to make such a shift—giving parents a plan and the support they need.
Our programs exist to serve our people, and not the other way around.
Sometimes we can get so fixated on programming, we forget there are real people on the other side of it—real people served by it. And, needless to say, all those people are different. They have unique needs, unique situations, unique pasts, and unique questions. Getting at the uniqueness, and guiding the parents well, requires engaging in the messiness of relationship. Catechists have to engage with parents frequently. This is time-consuming, but necessary to set the parents up for success.
It will also make your programs better, because you will have a better sense of those you serve. (If it is helpful, I did write about this topic in a previous CWR article.)
Entrust it all to the Holy Spirit
Anyone who knows me, knows this goes without saying: Only the Holy Spirit can inspire a parish or school to make strides (however big or small) toward a redistribution of the “means of formation.” And, only the Holy Spirit can guide it through to its completion.
As the culture becomes more post-Christian and as families crumble under its weight, it seems to me that the saying “God has no grandchildren” becomes truer. As our structures for announcing the Gospel rust, Church leaders have to respond with radical openness to the Holy Spirit and boldness in carrying out His inspirations. We know what failure looks like at this point because it is all around us.
Part of the solution, and it is only part of it, lies in a redistribution of the “means of formation” to the primary formators of the children in a way that gives them a plan and support.
In conclusion: A case study
By way of a case study, I have witnessed a redistribution of sorts at our home parish (St. Gertrude in Cincinnati, Ohio), and I have been part of the redistribution in a number of ways.2 At St. Gertrude, the pandemic expedited a process that had been underway for years, shifting our faith formation model to be child-centered and family-focused. For us, this meant investing in Sofia Cavalletti’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) and adjusting all sacramental formation for First Reconciliation and First Communion. Instead of parents attending a brief informational meeting for each of the Sacraments, parents now engage in the CGS atrium (prepared environment) with their children for multiple sessions focused on sacramental formation. In this format, children and parents hear the same teaching, have meaningful conversations, pray, and work together in the atrium. In just two years, I have heard countless stories from parents about their child’s experience and their own. Parents and their children are encountering Christ together.
For older children, St. Gertrude Church implemented a program called Family Faith. Designed for fourth to sixth graders, Family Faith incorporates elements from Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Catholic youth ministry, with a Bible-based curriculum cycle that incorporates each of the pillars of the Catechism. Unlike similar programs mentioned above (in step #3 of the plan), Family Faith keeps parents with their children, so they engage in the formation experience together. Throughout the sessions, catechists provide teachings before turning things over to the parents to lead conversations, Bible studies, and activities with their children. I would always tell people that we were just trying to set the parents up to succeed in forming their children—“we’re just throwing them a lob ball.” In the two years the program has existed, I watched parents pray with their children, introduce meaningful conversation topics, and gain confidence in understanding and navigating the Bible.
In both cases, CGS and Family Faith, our catechists have implemented an intentional relationship-building effort. This begins with welcoming each family as they arrive, engaging with them during sessions and during the social time built into each session, and follow-up calls, emails, and texts during the year.
I have come to believe that the time is right for a redistribution of this kind of magnitude, one that radically shifts some structures of proclamation, because these parents are ready. The pandemic sped up a process that was already in motion. The parents engaging with us today are not the same parents I saw in religious education ten years ago—many were disengaged, skeptical, and frustrating to work with. These parents are far more cooperative, eager, enthusiastic, and engaged. There are also fewer of them. Nearly of our programs had been shrinking over the last decade along the same trend lines as many of the parishes in the archdiocese.
The time was right for a redistribution and large structures once fruitful needed to be renewed by being pruned, so they can grow again. It all reminds me of Ratzinger’s now famous observation:
[The Church] will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members . . . And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun . . . But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
With a smaller, more concentrated, and more serious cadre of parents, now is the time for a redistribution of the means of formation—and hopefully, by God’s grace, it can contribute to that fresh blossoming of the faith.
1 Someone will surely jump in at this point and argue that Jesus or the Holy Spirit is the real hero. I agree. But, it is also true that the proclamation of the Gospel is mediated—the Evangelists’ “great commissions” make this clear—and the most proximate mediation for most of us is the family.
2 After nearly 14 years of ministry, I recently stepped down from my role to “redistribute” the time I was spending doing ministry on nights and weekends back to my family.
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