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Advice from Master Catechists - January 2010
by Dan Thomas, Kate Ristow, Janet Schaeffler, Chris Weber
What can I say to the parent whose child does not want to come to class? What should I know about indulgences? What should my seventh-graders know?
Q: I’ve been a DRE for seven years, and I’ve never felt confident in answering the frustrated parent who says, “My child hates coming to religion class and I hate forcing him/her. What can I do?” How can I answer this question?
—Catechist, Lancaster, CA

Dan Thomas’s Answer
A: This is a question that comes up for every DRE at some time or the other. It is a challenging one that calls, first of all, for careful listening to the reasons the parent presents. It can be a situation that relates to a particular catechist, to the program in general, or to the child. Or it may reflect the parent’s attitude.

Sometimes a catechist and a child just don’t have good rapport or something has happened between them that creates a negative experience. Deal with this by inviting the catechist to see if he/she can work it out with the child. Maybe bringing the two together with you as a third voice might solve the problem. If this doesn’t work, moving the child to another class might be the solution.

Another reason a child might have for not wanting to come to class has to do with the time of the program. Maybe it interferes with some other activity that the child values more.

Or perhaps other children in the class have not welcomed or respected this child. It is sometimes difficult for newcomers to be accepted, or there are personality differences that get in the way.

Perhaps there is a lack of creativity on the part of the catechist in using a variety of activities in the classroom so that the class is not “boring.”

These are only a few issues that might contribute to a child not wanting to go to class. It is important to explore with the parent what he/she is hearing in order to deal with the real cause of the problem. It is also important to explore with parents what they are communicating about the program. Children sometimes pick up what their parents are communicating subconsciously. Is the program really important to them or is it toward the bottom of their priorities? Have they criticized the catechist or the program in front of the child? It is not easy to raise these questions, and it may not always be possible to do so. But these kinds of considerations can help explain the child’s attitude.

In all of your efforts to find out what is truly going on in this situation, the key point is that the parish school of religion is a program that the parish values; it is important for the children to be there. It is important for parents to emphasize to their children the value of class attendance and learning about the Catholic faith, just as parents would insist on good eating habits.

That is why getting to the bottom of the situation is essential. It takes time and effort to listen carefully and search diligently to find the problem and create a solution. But we know that it is worth the effort because what we are doing is worthwhile.

Dan Thomas has been a DRE for 28 years and is involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two college-age sons.

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
There are so many ways to look at this. Getting to know each parent will help us determine how we can best respond to them, support them, and challenge them. We want to help them look at faith formation not as something they and their children are “forced” to do but as a privilege and a responsibility of living their baptismal call to discipleship.

There are so many ways to look at this. Knowing each parent will determine how we, as catechists, can best respond and support them, how we can best challenge them, how we can help them look at the priority of faith formation and the privilege/responsibility of living our baptismal call to discipleship, rather than seeing the journey of faith as something they and their children are “forced” to do.

Thus, depending on each situation, consider the following in a talk with parents:
* The reality is that families/parents get caught in the busyness and over-scheduling of life today. So a child puts faith formation class at the bottom of the priority list and balks at going.
* I am becoming more and more convinced that when a young person (the age is becoming younger and younger) says to his or her parents (or other significant adults representing the Church) things like “I don’t want to go to Mass anymore” or “I hate going to religious education class and I don’t want to go,” the child is really saying “Tell me why you go. Tell me why it’s important to you.” If we can’t give children good reasons, if we can’t explain why it’s a priority in our lives, if we can’t share the impact that knowing Jesus and living as his disciple has made upon our daily lives—then children see no reason why it should be important to them. 
* Parents are the Church to their children. Before children/youth learn anything in catechetical sessions, what are they “learning” from parents, from their home environment? We need to ask this gently and delicately. Are the children eager/excited about coming to classes because of what they live/experience at home? Do they appreciate a relationship with Jesus and value belonging to the Church community because they have absorbed these things from their parents?
* Hopefully, following the U.S. bishops’ pastoral plan for adult faith formation, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, there is an environment of and opportunities for adult faith formation within your parish. If parents are participating—and therefore modeling the necessity of ongoing growth in faith—it isn’t a question of forcing a child to go. Rather, it is something we all do, for all of life, because it’s part of being a disciple.
* “I hate forcing my child.” Do parents say this about sending children to school, about eating healthy foods, about safety? When did parents start saying this about the faith growth of their children? 

Perhaps, too, this question calls us as catechists to gather together and explore the question (as we always should do): How are we teaching? Is anything boring? How do we continue to make the rich tradition of our wondrous faith alive and meaningful for each generation?

Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP, Associate Director for Adult Faith Formation, Office for Catechetics, Archdiocese of Detroit, writes frequently for CATECHIST and other publications. She has many years of experience as a catechist and parish DRE.

Q: One of my seventh-graders asked about indulgences. He said that, based on what he’s heard, indulgences sound like insurance policies to get into heaven. He said that his mother said that she was going to get one. Phew. What should I know about indulgences and how can I present that information to my seventh-graders?
—Kevin B., Lincoln, NE

Chris Weber’s Answer
Consider this scenario:
Amanda is lining up dominoes in a pattern on the table and is just about ready to set the layout in motion. Malik comes into the room and, seeing the amazing layout, excitedly walks over to the first domino. Amanda calls out to him to stop, but he ignores the call and flicks the first domino. In seconds, the falling dominoes whiz to the end of the pattern, where a tearful Amanda holds the last domino. 

Let’s suppose that Malik feels sorry and sincerely apologizes for flicking the domino. Amanda forgives him. What happens next? Malik can make reparation for his crime by helping Amanda set up another layout or by doing something else for her. But can he undo the first tumbling of the dominoes? Of course not.

Think of those fallen dominoes as the consequences of sin in our own lives and in the world. Even if we are forgiven by God, our sins make things happen—sometimes horrible things—and the spiritual force of those actions comes back on us. This is what the Church calls the “temporal punishment” for sins.

Thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church has the authority not only to forgive sins but to set us free from the spiritual consequences of sins. We base this authority in the words of Jesus to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).

Just like our sinful acts have profound spiritual consequences, so, too, our acts of charity and goodness bear spiritual fruit. In certain very limited situations, Catholics can perform acts of charity, sacrifice, and devotion, and thereby receive an indulgence which the Church declares to free them from the spiritual consequences of their sins. This is by no means a sure trip to heaven. Rather, it is a way of  encouraging Catholics to live virtuous lives, mending the painful spiritual ruptures of sin, and bringing healing and light to the world.

For more information about indulgences, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1471-1479.

Chris Weber has worked in the field of catechesis for over 20 years as a catechist, a parish catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.

Kate Ristow’s Answer
We cannot buy our way into heaven. However, through prayer and good works, we can receive remission from God for the temporal punishment resulting from sin. There are two kinds of punishment for sin: eternal and temporal. Grave, or mortal, sin has the consequence of eternal punishment, which we call hell, if the sinner does not seek God’s and the Church’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Temporal punishment is the purification of purgatory.

Even if sins are forgiven, temporal punishment for all sins, even venial sin, is still required. The souls in purgatory, for example, are experiencing purification from sin. The prayers of the Christian community on earth and the intercession of the saints in heaven for the souls in purgatory are a positive force in alleviating the temporal punishment of their sins so that they can attain communion with God in heaven more promptly or efficaciously (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1471-1479).

Your students need to know that their prayers for the souls in purgatory are important and they do help those in purgatory to be welcomed into everlasting life in heaven. There is no magic formula for this. God’s mercy and grace and the sinner’s sorrow for his or her sins are major factors in an individual’s passing from purgatory into heaven.

We all “get” indulgences—although your student’s mother makes it sound like a winning lottery ticket. The Church speaks of a “treasury” which includes the reception of the Sacraments, praying, and performing acts of charity through which indulgences can be obtained. There are two types of indulgences: plenary (full or complete) or partial. Yet, no matter what we believe about indulgences, only God can decide when and if the temporal punishment for sins has been satisfied.

What is most important for your students to know is that God wants us to live as his children, to avoid sin, and to follow Christ. When we sin, we are called to express our sorrow and do penance—through prayer and actions—to make up for our sins as best as we can. We can depend on God’s mercy and love in forgiving us and in doing all he can—through Jesus and the Holy Spirit—to make it possible for us to live forever in the kingdom he has prepared for us.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, is National Catechetical Consultant for RCL Benziger. She has been involved in children’s religious education for over 25 years as a Catholic-school teacher and parish catechist.

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