At a Parish Council meeting the other night, that pesky question was asked yet again. "Are the children learning their catechism?" One of our older parishioners said "I mean, can they answer 'who made me?'"
That question is troubling for many reasons. Our parish has used a lifelong, inter-generational approach to faith formation for the past ten years, emphasizing the philosophy that it's the adults in our parish who need the most faith formation- that all members of the parish (not just those under the age of 16) need to grow in their faith, and that if we have a strong, faithful adult community, the children will "catch" the faith. But old habits die very slowly. Every generation, I suppose, asks that question in some form or another: "will the kids of today get what I got?"
The good news is that the answer to the catechism question, even with the change in philosophy, is YES. We are consistently amazed that the kids in our program know a lot about their faith, can answer questions and remember what they've been taught... but also, it's amazing how joyful they seem in church, actually happy to be there. We hear from a few people each year that their kids are upset when they have to miss a session. This past month I heard from a mother who said she was sick on Sunday morning but her kids said "But... we ARE going to GOF, right?" and from another parent who said that they attended last month's makeup session instead of attending a school activity that night. I don't know if the people of my parents' generation- the Baltimore Catechism generation- would have skipped a secular activity for a Church one by choice, but I know that I would never have chosen a CCD class over... anything.
In my day, the Church was bouncing far away from the Q&A format of faith formation, believing it to have created un-critical followers who could answer all the questions but did not know Jesus. We were raised on love and crafts, the far side of the pendulum swing, very little doctrine or dogma. We learned that Jesus loved us, and little else.
Which brings us back to that question. Which is better? Knowing your faith by rote, or feeling it by heart? I think that the difference is in the life-long-ness of this model. We can take the luxury of spending time on kids' hearts, knowing that there's time for the knowing later, when (let's face it) they're more ready cognitively to handle concepts like consubstantiation. We have a whole lifetime. It's not a matter of dogma OR love. It's a hard-struck balance.
The other night (on my way home from this Parish Council meeting, in fact) I tuned in to Catholic radio on Sirius, and heard Cardinal Dolan talking to Fr. Robert Barron. They were talking about the new Pope, and about how much the world might be learning about the Church from seeing him, from seeing our process for electing him, from seeing our reactions. Fr. Barron said "you don't start out to teach a kid about baseball by outlining the infield fly rule. You expose the kid to the beauty of the game, and eventually, the fly rule comes to make sense."
I believe that the best place to start for faith is heart-first. If we want people to know God (who is Love), we must focus on relationships and the stories of our faith. In life and in faith we learn who we are through the relatives we encounter, the love we receive, the stories we share, and the traditions we carry on from generation to generation.