Rediscover the Fourth Task of Catechesis
The fourth task of catechesis is teaching the Christian how to pray with Christ. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ prayer, we learn his pattern. He prayed alone, always in the early morning and in secluded places. His prayer was a habit. In prayer, Jesus spoke to the Father as though he were right there. Jesus was conversational and relational with the Father, confident the Father heard him.
“And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him followed him, and they found him …” (Mark 1:35)
The section on prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with a picture from a monastery in Constantinople. It was painted around the year 1059 AD and depicts the above passage from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus faces the Father in prayer. The apostles watch from a distance. St. Peter, their leader, faces them but points to Jesus as if to say, “See and learn.”
As the picture in the Catechism suggests, Jesus’ fellowship with the Father is our model for prayer. Jesus enjoys an intimate communion with the Father, and he invites us to share in that communion. We imitate Jesus and adopt his attitude of prayer. This article will discuss how you can foster that attitude in your students.
Prayer is Personal
Pew Research statistics show that 4 out of every 10 adult Catholics don’t believe in a personal God. Almost a third believe God is an impersonal force. When asked if God is a person you could have a relationship with, only half said yes with absolute certainty.
If God is not a person, he wouldn’t care about our lives. He, or maybe I should say “it,” would not bother with our problems or listen to our concerns. We wouldn’t need or want to pray.
This is not a proper depiction of God, though. It contradicts how God reveals himself in the Bible. Look at how God interacts with the prophet Jeremiah. God tells Jeremiah he plans our futures: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Can God ignore us? In Isaiah, God compares his love for us to that of a new mother. Just as she gives her newborn constant care, so too we are always in God’s thoughts. “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49:16). God knows us personally, at the core of our being. Psalm 139 describes it well:
Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand;[b]you understand my thoughts from afar. …with all my ways you are familiar. (Psalm 139:1-3)
In teaching your students how to pray, you are teaching them how to relate to a personal God and have a relationship with him. If the above statistics are correct, it’s imperative that they have this vital skill.
Praying with Your Own Words
The best way to teach this prayer is to model it. When you pray the opening prayer, instead of reading it from the textbook, pray what you’re thinking in your own words. This can be difficult … and terrifying. It’s not something Catholics do often. We tend toward rote prayers or prayers from books. It may take practice, but it’s worth the effort.
The key? Don’t get too fancy or overly long. Perhaps you’ve heard Protestant ministers pray this way. They can weave eloquent tapestries of prayer for what seems like 10 minutes. Don’t do that. Just talk to God the way you talk. Pray for God to bless your time together. Pray for your students; pray that you don’t say anything stupid. You don’t need beautiful words, and it doesn’t have to be long. It needs to be conversational — just you speaking to God.
After you do this a while, it will become easier. You’ll develop go-to patterns and phrases that will sound spontaneous. I like to end with a standard prayer that people know — such as the Hail Mary or the Our Father. It allows others to join you.
One popular form of classroom prayer focuses on petitions and intercessions. This is where you ask God for things you need or for the needs of others. You can also transform these with conversational prayer. I used to gather my class of third graders together, seated on a rug at the end of class, and they would say who, or what, needed prayers. They would take turns telling me about their grandma who was sick or their pets (often their pets!), and I would close by offering those petitions to God. That wasn’t a bad approach, but there’s a better way.
Rather than have your students say their petitions, invite each of them to speak it aloud to God. You must model this first with your own prayer, and you might need to do a little coaching. You want them to speak to God like he’s there (because he is!). And it’s OK if it goes on too long or the kids stumble for words. The important thing is they are learning conversation with God.
This might become more difficult as students get older. They get self-conscious and afraid of being embarrassed. It may not be something you can accomplish early in the year. You must build rapport with them first. Set ground rules about respect during conversations and be quick to correct violators. The more comfortable they are having conversation among themselves, the easier it will be to have them share in prayer.
“Show me” Prayer that Increases Faith
Another aspect of prayer associated with relationship is trust. Sometimes people have a hard time trusting God because they don’t see proof of his actions. Trust can exist in the abstract … but not for long.
I live and work in Missouri, the “Show Me State.” Sometimes, if I want people to believe in what I’m doing, I need to show results. There’s a bit of skepticism in all of us. Increase your students’ trust in God by searching for answers to prayer within the group.
Most of the time, we offer petitions or intercessions and then forget about them. Find out if there were any answers to earlier prayers. Did things get better? Did someone recover? Was that lost thing found?
When someone receives an answer to prayer, faith increases. That’s just the way it works. Think about how that’s multiplied when you see many answers to prayer.
Praying with God’s own Words
Try the ACTS method, a way of doing reflective prayer. ACTS is an acronym for Adoration (praise), Contrition (sorrow for sin), Thanksgiving (that’s an easy one), and Supplication (petition/intercession). Using the ACTS method, you pray all of these different types of prayers in one session. So, how do you praise God? How should you express sorrow for sin? Are there other ways to say thanks besides saying thanks?
The Psalms give us a perfect example of this relational, conversational prayer. Take the previously cited passage from Psalm 139. The psalmist is speaking to God, addressing him as a person. The authors of the Psalms pour out their hearts to God. They express their deepest emotions — joy, exuberance, sorrow, fear, anger, regret, and even whining. To take “baby steps” toward learning conversational prayer, make the words of the Psalms your own. I learned this recently, and I love the simplicity and fruitfulness of it.
Learning how to pray with Christ means learning to imitate his conversation with the Father. Baptism unites us with Christ and makes us sons and daughters in the Son. Christ’s Father is our Father, too. Therefore, the intimate communion Jesus has with the Father can also be ours.
A relationship with God is at the heart of Christian experience. God is a person. He relates to us as persons. God knows us, cares for us, and loves us. He invites us into a transformative relationship. Prayer is the way to develop this relationship and be healed of the obstacles to a full and happy life.
If you can teach that attitude — and call your students to an ongoing prayer life — the important fourth task of catechesis will be accomplished.
Marc Cardaronella, MA, is director of the Office of Discipleship and Faith Formation in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He is author of Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making It Stick and blogs at MarcCardaronella.com
PHOTOS (L-R, T-B): RENATA SEDMAKOVA/SHUTTERSTOCK, DANIEL IBÁÑEZ/CNA
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, February 2018