Oh, for the Help of an Angel! The Art of Selecting Catechetical Materials
by Cullen W Schippe
Marge heaved the large storage box out of the back of her vintage Volvo station wagon.
Marge heaved the large storage box out of the back of her vintage Volvo station wagon. The box was crammed full of neatly organized brochures, product samples, and correspondence from sales people—all material for her meeting with the curriculum committee at St. Brendan’s.
Marge (or “Faithful Marge” as her husband referred to her) just couldn’t sit on her hands whenever a call went up for help at the parish. That inability landed her the job of parish DRE. She was beginning her third year in the position.
This year she had been charged with the purchase of a new catechetical series. Even Marge, who thrives on pressure and stress, was surprised at just how much she was agonizing over the task. She was afraid that this evening’s meeting was going to be less than pleasant.
As she bounded up the stairs to the parish center, Marge misjudged the second to the last step, and she and her storage box crash-landed in front of the double doors. So much for organization! As she looked at the scattered materials and pulled herself to her feet, she muttered, “Now just where is my guardian angel? I certainly could have used his help just now!”
“Looks like you need a hand,” came a gentle but strong voice just over her right shoulder.
Marge did not recognize the young man, so she asked—not too sweetly—“Who are you?”
“Most people call me Mike,” the young man said. And with that, he quickly gathered Marge’s materials and got them all back into the box. “Let me carry these for you,” he said, and followed her down the corridor to the room where the committee would meet.
“Thank you for the help, Mike. My name is Marge. I am sorry if I was short back there, but we are in the process of choosing a new catechetical series, and I am just not myself. I just don’t feel up to this task.” And with that, Marge began arranging the materials on a long table at the front of the room.
“Sit down for a few minutes,” said Mike as he gently guided Marge to a gunmetal gray folding chair. “Although choosing a new series can be stressful, you have plenty of help. You’ve already formed a committee—an essential first step because you need to involve members of the parish and your catechists in the decision.”
Marge was more than a little astonished when Mike grabbed a marker, approached the whiteboard, and began talking and writing.
Resources and Guidelines
Choosing catechetical materials need not be an onerous process. It is a process that goes on every year in parishes across the land. In the choice of a new series or new sacramental preparation programs, a lot of the work has been done for you already.
Resources: There are a few publications that are most helpful. The first is the National Directory for Catechesis. This directory contains a whole section on the selection of materials as well as hints and suggestions along the way. Also very helpful is the brief booklet Guidelines for Doctrinally Sound Catechetical Materials. Finally, every DRE should read To Teach as Jesus Did: A Pastoral Message on Catholic Education. Many dioceses publish materials that explain their own catechetical mission statements.
Conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been working for over 15 years to bring all published materials into conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The conference website offers a list of all published materials that have a declaration of conformity. That declaration along with an imprimatur demonstrates that the published materials contain the essential teachings of the faith and that they provide a complete catechesis. Also available is a protocol for elementary grades and a framework for high school that shows clearly what is expected of the students and what published materials are to provide.
Diocesan guidelines and approved lists: Almost every diocese in the land publishes guidelines for what needs to be taught at each grade level. Publishers often provide charts showing how their materials square up with those guidelines. At the diocesan level, the leadership checks those correlations and creates lists of published materials that meet diocesan expectations and either recommends them or at least lists them as approved for use.
Publishers’ materials: Every catechetical publisher offers brochures, samples, scope-and-sequence charts, and other materials to help you make a decision about what series is best for you. Be sure that you have material from all the series on your diocesan-approved or recommended lists or at least on your own short list.
Armed with all this information, you might think that all you have to do is close your eyes and point or play a game of catechetical pin the tail on the donkey. In fact, however, the preliminary work has only given you a list of materials that provide a solid and complete catechesis. What you need to determine now is the right series for your parish.
And it is at this point that the real work of selecting a series of catechetical materials begins. It is also at this point that most curriculum committees or parish directors feel the stress level rising.
There are two temptations to avoid. The first is the temptation to create your own parish curriculum at the copy machine or to pick a little from one series and a little from another. Not only is such a choice a lot of work, but when you “cherry pick” or create your own curriculum, you also lose all the insurance that is built into materials on approved lists or declared to be in conformity.
The second temptation is to make this decision alone or only within the confines of a small committee. Remember that in the selection and use of materials, each of your volunteer catechists has a very big stake. It is critical to you and to your committee to let the catechists influence your decision. They will be working with the materials week in and week out, and so it is important to hear them out on their likes and dislikes.
Remember that you want to purchase materials that help your volunteer catechists be effective, satisfied, and happy in their ministry.
A good biblical image might help at this point. Several times in the Gospel, Jesus uses the metaphor of the fishing net. In the selection of catechetical materials, you are casting a big net into the sea of available resources. What that net “catches” will be of major importance for the success of your catechetical program.
So let’s use that word CATCHES as a memory aide for seven simple criteria that will facilitate your selection process. Each letter in the word CATCHES represents a term that describes one of the criteria.
C = Child centered
A = Adaptable
T = Teachable
C = Fosters community life
H = Relates to home and parents
E = Economical
S = Serviceable
Let’s look at each of these criteria and show how, taken together, they will help you make a wise choice of materials.
Child centered: Is the child at the heart of the program? Make certain that the student materials are centered in the developmental life of the child. You are presenting the gospel message and the teachings of the Church to youngsters whom you want to grow to be adult Catholics of mature faith. To ensure that, the materials you use should reflect the lives and concerns of the children. The lessons must be age appropriate, well illustrated, at a proper reading level, and of high interest. Although some of the material will be for memorization and mastery, much of the lesson should be filled with stories, illustrations, and language that will keep the students’ interest.
Adaptable: Does the program or series fit the way your program works? Does it have too many lessons or too few for your program? If you are in an ethnically diverse parish, the series should reflect that diversity and even the languages if possible. Although it is probable that no published program will fit your program exactly, look for materials that help you adapt what you purchase to the way your program runs.
Teachable: As I said before, the volunteer catechist is essential to the success of your program. So how do the various series you are considering help the catechist? What resources are available? The program you consider should provide simple and clear lesson plans. It should not demand oodles of preparation time because the volunteer does not have time in abundance. It should not depend on a raft of outside material that is hard to collect and use in the classroom. It should also provide a certain amount of built-in catechist formation and training. The more teachable a program is, the more likely catechists will feel effective and satisfied with the lessons they share with youngsters.
Fosters community life: Does the series you are considering look beyond the borders of the classroom? Does it focus on the liturgical life of the parish—especially Sunday Mass? It is important that the young people see their faith as a communal experience. They need to grow in the appreciation that faith is not a private matter. The youngsters are being initiated into the Mystical Body of Christ—the People of God. The materials you use should reflect on that communal experience and lead to participation in the life of the Church.
Relates to home and parents: How well does the series reach into the home to help the parents participate in the religious formation of themselves and their children? Every parent should receive regular communication from the catechist. The materials you choose should facilitate that communication. You want and need parents to be a vital part of the catechetical equation.
Economical: How economical is the series you are considering? This criterion is not entirely about money. Rather, how economical is the series in its use of time, parish resources, human energy on the part of the catechist, and the like? Cost is an important factor to be sure, but does the annual cost of the program prohibit you from allowing the youngsters to keep their materials and share them with their families, or do you need to use them for several years just to make them affordable? Your home budget is important, and so is the budget you have for materials.
Serviceable: What does the publisher of the material provide in the way of service to you and to your catechists? Are there multiple resources that you have to buy in addition to printed materials? Are there free resources and services—especially reproducible activities and materials for catechist formation? Just as service is important when you buy a car or an appliance, it is also important in your choice of catechetical materials. A good relationship with your publisher’s representative is part of that service—especially when it comes to reordering in years to come.
Well, Marge found herself distracted by the arrival of the first contingent from the committee. Hal was the first through the door. He was toting a tray of his wife’s world-class cupcakes. “Hey, Marge,” Hal said, eyeing the outlines on the white board. “Looks like you have been busy getting ready for this meeting!”
“Not me, exactly,” Marge quickly replied. “He did most of the work.” But when she turned to introduce Mike to the group, he wasn’t there.
Hal looked puzzled but said nothing. Meanwhile the rest of the committee tumbled into the room. After some small talk, Deacon Bill offered an opening prayer. In a moment of silence during the prayer, Marge bowed her head and whispered, “Thanks, Mike!”
The Art of Selection
It is highly unlikely that you will receive an angel’s direct intervention in your selection process. No matter! Curriculum decisions are in many ways more art than science. This art is not a solo art because it includes every catechist on your team. It demands knowledge of national and diocesan guidelines, frameworks, recommendations, and approvals. It demands clear knowledge of the various programs available to your parish and direct contact with the companies that provide them. Most important, it demands sure knowledge of the needs of your parish and the families you serve.
Like all art, however, simplicity is essential to the process.
By the way, there is one thing that cannot be supplied by any published basal curriculum or sacramental preparation program: the faithful, skillful, and ardent witness of the catechists who step into the classroom each week. That witness is as heaven-sent as any angelic visitation.
Cullen Schippe has been in Catholic publishing for over 40 years and currently serves as Vice-President of Religious Education for the Peter Li Education Group. He co-authored (with Chuck Stetson) and served as general editor of The Bible and Its Influence (BLP Publishing, 2005). E-mail Cullen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Conformity of Catechetical Materials with the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Criteria and Applicability: usccb.org/catechism/conformity-catechetical-materials-ccc.pdf
The Protocol for Assessing the Conformity of Catechetical Materials with the Catechism of the Catholic Church: usssb.org/catechism/document/protocol.shtml
Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age: usccb.org/education/framework.pdf
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Religious Education-Catechesis Resources: usccbpublishing.org/showproducts.cfm?FullCat=247
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on the Catechism Conformity Listing of Catechetical Texts and Series: usccb.org/catechism/document/Currentlist.pdf
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