In a couple of weeks, volunteers from the pews of every parish will begin their first class of religious education as we do all things: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Much preparation goes into what each catechist offers his or her students. There is no winging classes for children who, in all likelihood, are seated before them after having been through a full day of public or private school.
What I just described is the plight of the catechist in a traditional once a week religious education class. For those parishes which offer Family Catechesis, the curriculum of one Sunday per month is so multifaceted and full, that the challenge for the catechist becomes “how do I hold the attention of the children and their parents for an entire morning?”
In this age where bullying often begins with children fighting over each other’s differences, such as first language, ethnic background and skin color, it may be beneficial to compare and contrast the Catholic faith with world religions. While the notion of integrating the topic of world religions into the curriculum may sound daunting, it may diminish bias which is rooted in ignorance. It is impossible to teach what other people believe without contrasting their faith with our own; this would show bullies that our common ground outweighs our differences.
Perhaps the best way to expose world religions to the children is to begin when they are mature enough to handle the topic, perhaps limit the discussion to students at the middle school level. In addition, keep the world religions to a few. It may not be a bad idea to refrain from the complex eastern faiths, such as Shinto, Buddhism and Hinduism — in favor of the religions of the Abrahamic tradition, which would include: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Finally, in comparing and contrasting Catholic Christianity with the faith of Jews and Muslims, emphasize as succinctly as possible, what the three great faiths hold in common. Each of them have the following elements: Cosmos: A common understanding of Reality (God) Community: People who share this common understanding of Reality gravitate toward each other and assemble together usually weekly, some on a daily basis. Creed: A set of basic doctrines, dogmas or simply said, “beliefs.”Code: The application of faith in one’s life is guided by values, morals, a code of rules or expectations, such as “Ten Commandments.”Cult: How one makes known what one believes is done through worship, individual and communal. In Catholic circles, we call this“liturgy,” the public work of the Church. Jewsnormally assemble at the temple at the beginning of, during or at the conclusion of the Sabbath. Muslims may frequent the Majiid on Friday evening. By engaging your students, some of whom come from homes of mixed religions, the clarification of three
world religions will improve their understanding of the parent whose faith they do not practice. For the bully who picks on children because of their differences, maybe education will diminish bias, which is rooted in hatred, in favor of a new perspective tethered to love. What I have offered you is simply an option to keep the discussions lively and enlightening to the students you face week after week, or month after month. While many of them do not attend Mass regularly, please keep in mind that for these children (whose parents should be accountable for Mass attendance, not their children), religious education is their only experience of being Church. So, why not make it exciting, challenging, fun? It does not take a theologian to integrate world religions into your classes, just a little research which you can do by purchasing any anthology of world religions.
It should also be said, that nothing will translate better in the comparing and contrasting of faiths than to invite at the end of the academic year, a representative from the three faiths mentioned above. Even if you cannot get your priest, a rabbi and imam to participate in a pannel discussion, you may be able to get some neighbors from each of these faiths — and they will also have an impact on the perspective of your students.
Toward the end of the school year, it is imperative to incorporate some apologetics. After all, we, catechists, want to give our Catholic chidlren reasons to remain Catholic. Here, I would recommend reviewing the key tenets of our faith as listed in the Apostles Creed. This presentation need not be deep — but is an opportunity to move the discussion of what it means to be Church to the personal level. Art projects, essays, even little skits might be helpful tools to shed light on the positive attributes of being Catholic Christians. What it means to be Church must move away from brick and mortar to the Assembly of Believers. Show the good works being done by your own parish, which then shifts the attention of the students to here and now.
Cathechists, thank you for giving of your time and talents to share your faith with the children entrusted to your care. May God bless you as you begin this ministry of teaching and reward your selflessness abundantly.
Fr. Comandini is managing editor of The Catholic Spirit