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Advice from Master Catechists—November/December 2010
by Dan Thomas, Kate Ristow, Janet Schaeffler, Chris Weber
Could you suggest some holiday movies? What should I emphasize when teaching about sin?
Q: Could you suggest some good Christian-value movies so I could make a “For Your Holiday Viewing” list to send home to parents?
—V.L., Youngstown, OH


Dan Thomas’s Answer

: As I read your question, the first movie that jumped into my mind was It’s a Wonderful Life, the holiday classic that raises important questions about the meaning of each individual life.

There are, of course, other holiday classics that would fit in the good Christian-values category. But as I thought about which movies to recommend, I realized how difficult it would be to make specific recommendations.

But how about another approach?

Maybe it would be better to help families create their own choices by suggesting resources that offer movie reviews, discussion questions, lists of best movies, and the like. Then families can make their own choices based on their own criteria. So the following are some places I found on the internet that should be helpful.

Check out the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ site ( It “is responsible for reviewing and rating theatrical motion pictures, previewing and evaluating television programming as well as providing the Catholic public with information about the role of the entertainment and news media in influencing societal and personal values.” It reviews current movies, movies coming soon, those new on DVD/video, and family videos. It offers archived movie reviews. It also has the Vatican top-45 list and a list of criteria that it uses to review movies. In addition, it has the Ten Best List for each year from 1965 to 2009. This could be a resource for you or one you could suggest to families.

Another helpful website is Spirituality and Practice: Resources for the Journey ( Here Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, who have been reviewing media for over 30 years, offer reviews of recent movies and list the “ten most spiritually literate movies” for the last several years. This is an outstanding site that has many other valuable features as well.

Paulist Productions ( is a helpful resource. It “creates films and television programs that reveal God’s presence in the contemporary human experience.” It has produced such movies as Romero, Entertaining Angels, The Twelve Apostles, and other more recent productions. Its Humanitas Award, given “to encourage the communication of human values through entertainment writing,” has honored some powerful and meaningful movies over the last 35 years.

Two other Christian resources are (evaluates motion pictures and other entertainment products from a conservative Christian perspective) and The Dove Foundation ( places a blue dove seal on films it considers family friendly).

Keep in mind that it’s the approach that matters. This approach is a teaching/learning method that guides families in making their own choices.

Dan Thomas served in catechetical leadership for over 30 years and remains involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two adult sons.

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
: Since it’s a holiday movie list you’re making, you likely want to suggest some Christmas-themed movies. Consider Disney’s A Christmas Carol; The Nativity Story; The Polar Express; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and The Veggie Tales: St. Nicholas.

Some other movies that are family favorites and have themes (often multiple) of gospel values are Ratatouille; Charlotte’s Web; Two Brothers; The Ultimate Gift; The Lion King; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; Toy Story; Shrek; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and Letters to God.

The key concern here—and with all media (movies, television, etc.)—is that parents and children view together and then follow their viewing with marvelous conversations. The following questions can help get conversations started:

* What did you like about this movie? Why?
* Were any of the characters like you? Which ones? In what way?
* Was ___ a good thing to do? Why? What would you have done differently?
* Where did you see God in these events?
* Who was acting like a disciple of Jesus?
* Was forgiveness ever needed in the story? 
* Was anyone treated unfairly? Who? Why? What would you have done?
* Where/when did we see kindness? Compassion? Honesty? 
* Where/when was community? Did we see people who are alone or lonely?

What you might want to do—and encourage your parents to do—is to stay up to date with current reviews and suggestions of current movies (as well as movies from the past). These websites/periodicals will be helpful:

* The U.S. bishops’ website ( gives current movie reviews as well as the top ten movies and top ten family movies of each year. Families can also find archived movie reviews and reviews of family videos.
* St. Anthony Messenger, U.S. Catholic, America, and The National Catholic Reporter are periodicals that offer movie reviews. Also check out their websites.
* Sister Rose Pacatte ( has dedicated her ministry to helping catechists, teachers, and parents better understand and use media effectively. Her website is a goldmine of reviews, resources, and incredible helps.
* Visit for additional media mindfulness information, resources, and activities for children, parents, and catechists.
* Catechists and catechetical leaders will find helpful ideas for using clips in Using the Remote to Channel Jesus: 50 Movie Clips for Ministry by Patrick J. Donovan (Saint Mary’s Press,, 2009).

After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats, and teaching. Her website is


What should I emphasize when teaching about sin?

: I’m a first-year catechist—I teach seventh grade. I need a lot of help—like teaching about sin. Surely at this age the kids know right from wrong. They know if their actions (or non-actions) are sinful. What are the main things I should reemphasize when I teach kids this age about how to avoid sin and to know when they have sinned?
—W.W., Boca Raton, FL

Chris Weber’s Answer
As a first-year catechist, you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself and you don’t want to set your expectations too high. Your textbook sets clear parameters for your teaching, and it is best to keep to them.

Most junior-high curricula make ample reference to moral decision making. Review your text thoroughly with this in mind. If you want to offer a specific lesson on sin, ask your catechetical leader for help finding a resource.

I consulted with an expert on this matter: an eighth-grader named Lisa. Lisa came up with some terrific advice about making moral decisions:

1. Always “count to ten” before acting. Don’t respond or act hastily. Give yourself time to consider both options and consequences. If you are feeling emotional or upset, you should count to 20 or even more. 
2. Listen to your conscience. If you pause long enough, you will be able to pay attention to the nagging feeling when the choice you are about to make is wrong. 
3. Believe in yourself. Don’t let someone else talk you into doing something that you feel is wrong.
4. Talk it over with someone you trust. When I asked Lisa whom she would consult, she said she would talk with her parents. Lisa added that if it were too hard to go to parents first, she would consult with her best friend. She clearly understood that the person with whom you speak should be someone who will tell you what he or she truly believes is right, not what you want to hear.

Always count to ten before acting. Listen to your conscience. Believe in yourself. Talk it over with someone you trust. How about making a small poster out of this “Advice from an Eighth-Grader” and placing it in front of your class each time you meet? I am going to make a bookmark for myself. This young kid’s advice is great for us “older kids,” too!

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
Here’s the reality. You probably told your class that you are a first-time catechist. Big mistake with junior-high kids! Some of them are simply not able to resist testing you at every turn.

A famous junior-high trick is the “dumb-bunny” technique. “Sin? I don’t think we’ve ever learned about sin.” They give you that helpless “Gee, I don’t have a clue” look. The whole purpose of this feigned ignorance is to avoid buckling down and actually learning and applying the teachings of the Church to their lives. Do not fall for it.

Trust me. If you are using a decent series, the kids learned about sin in every grade and they have also learned the distinction between Original Sin, venial sin, and mortal sin. If you get the clueless routine, say confidently, “Darn! I guess we’ll have to start from scratch—and I wanted to do so many fun things during our session today! Oh, well.”

Write the words sin, Original Sin, mortal sin and venial sin on the board. Work with the class until you have a definition for each term, or have students look up the words in your text glossary and explain—not merely read—each definition.

Arrange the class into small groups and assign one of the following questions to each group:

Question 1: How does a seventh-grader know when he or she has sinned?
Question 2: What are some of the things a person your age can do to avoid committing a sin?

Give each group paper and a pencil so they can write their responses. Move around the room as they work, offering suggestions and keeping the groups on task.

After ten or fifteen minutes, call the class back to attention. Ask the groups that tackled Question 1 to share their responses. Then elicit feedback from the rest of the class. If it appears that some have completely missed the point, emphasize the importance of one being “tuned in” to his or her conscience—that inner voice that tells us whether an act is right or wrong.

Then ask the groups that answered Question 2 to share their responses. List responses on the board: choosing good friends; remembering what we have learned about the Law of Love, the Ten Commandments, and the Great Commandment.

Keep prodding students for specifics; don’t give up. Help them appreciate that we have been given the gift of free will and that we constantly face choices in life. If we truly want to live our Catholic faith, we need to stop before we act, think about Christ’s teachings, and try always to choose good. That is the only way to avoid sin. It is a point we need to make again and again with the kids we teach. Although God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have given us many helps, the ball ultimately is in our court.

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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