Disclaimer: This post speaks in generalities. Yes, there are still many amazing families out there dynamically living out the role as primary catechists which they embraced at marriage and reinforced when their child was baptized. This post speaks to the average church-goer, the one that needs to be won over and introduced to a dynamic practice of the faith.
It’s time we faced the truth: Parents are no longer the primary catechists and each of us is responsible for this.
My 8-year-old does not know how to drive a stick shift; she does not know how to drive at all. If I put her in the driver seat, it would be a disaster. Imagine how confusing it would be if I handed her the keys and then proceeded to yell at her for not driving well, or not driving at all. “You have the keys! You are the driver! Why aren’t you going anywhere? It’s your job as a driver to go somewhere! God has blessed you with a car, DRIVE!”
A version of this has been shared at most parent meetings, especially during sacramental years. Pepper in a little guilt about going to church every Sunday and throw some scary statistics at the parents. Done.
How did we get here?
Historically, catechesis, or education regarding the faith, was done primarily in the homes. As our country was established and agriculture was the main industry, the family unit relied on itself for labor, schooling, and faith formation. In the more industrial parts of the country, cultures would group together often forming ghettos of different nationalities and traditions. Churches would spring forth from these communities and serve as a central piece of family life. Faith was a central piece of family life as it was where all friendships and social connections were formed.
As media and travel became more readily available and education system became more streamlined, people began to look to authority from one source; the television, a teacher, the priest or religious and so forth. With this the outsourcing of faith formation began, slowly leaving the home and moving into the churches through CCD or Religious Education. It was modeled after the education system and sought to teach things about the faith that could be measured. Thus, someone could be taught to recite prayers but never taught how to make a connection with God. Knowledge of the faith is vital but is limited in its effectiveness if it stands alone.
The 1960’s and 1970’s were filled with a distrust of authority and a rebellion against systematic structures. This bled into the way religious education was done. There was a quick shift from knowledge about God to feeling connected with the community and, at times, with Jesus. Again, connecting with the faith community is vital but not the whole picture.
Today there are generations of parents who have not been formed in the faith and ministry leaders grow weary and frustrated at the limited skill set that parents possess. Programming has sought to pick up where the parents fall short. Faith formation takes place at the church. Volunteer catechists rely heavily on printed texts and parents have an hour to go shopping. Most of the time, this is done without forming adults (outside of the homiletics offered during the liturgy.)
If you took all of the published materials of the last 25 years that empower volunteers to lead faith formation classes and stacked it next to all the printed materials ever created to empower parents to be the primary givers of the faith, you would find that materials empowering parents to be primary catechists are outnumbered 100 to 1.
Drivers Ed & Hamburger Helper
Where do we go from here? Do we keep trying to have the best programming offered for the children since their parents are, as a whole, inadequately prepared to be primary catechists? Yes, but we also must begin to make inroads to allow the parents to be givers of the faith in direct ways.
Martin Lindstrom notes in his book Brainwashed, shares how grocery stores are now packaging the pre-made pieces of a meal together so that moms no longer have to cook, but they also don’t have to live with the guilt of just picking up and warming up food. They add a few steps to assembly and so the parent can feel like they’ve prepared the meal for their family. This reality is what led to Hamburger Helper becoming a huge success. “Thus, a guilt-ridden mother can now provide a well-rounded, nutritious, home-cooked meal for her family. In the time it takes to mix in a packet of spices, gone is the fear that she’s served her family a premade, manufactured, subpar product.”
What can we learn from this? As someone who learned how to cook starting with microwaved Ramon to boxed mac-n-cheese to Hamburger Helper. I can attest that tiny success along the way gave me the confidence to move to a recipe and try to own my culinary skills without a pre-made box.
Resources must be made available. The resources should start at a hamburger helper level of expectation. The result must be a positive faith experience with a near-immediate positive result from the parent and child. Once this behavior has been established, then you should move to more involved activities that train and empower parents to be a faith sharer. These resources should help the parent to establish and develop a relationship with Jesus. It should offer easy ways to pray as a family. It should be made available in multiple formats. Yes, this is labor intensive, yes there are many different levels and you might only have a few parents embrace the opportunity, but opportunities must exist.
We must create a driver’s ed for parents to take the wheel as primary catechists. Teenagers are always excited to get behind the wheel and drive. It’s something that they have been told they can’t do for as long as they remember. For too long, too many parents have told themselves they can’t do it when it comes to being the primary catechist. Let’s find new and creative ways to allow them to take the wheel and sit next to them encouraging them, empowering them and cheering them on.
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