Advice from Master Catechists – February 2010

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by Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP, Kate Ristow, Chris Weber, Dan Thomas

Q: I’m a DRE in a small parish in a small rural community. A person from another denomination asked me if his child could come to our religious education classes because he’s heard excellent things about our program. This father thinks his son will learn more about faith and values in our program than he will learn in the Sunday school program of his church. I’m afraid this might cause tension between our community and the other community. What do you think?
—S.T., outside of Cedar Rapids, IA

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
There are so many things to consider about this; thanks for your caring question. You don’t mention the age of the child; that, too, might bring an added dimension.

The grounding principle that we want to operate out of—at all times and in everything—is hospitality. All are welcome. Our doors are open to all who inquire, all who ask for something from us, all who are finding something nourishing, all who are finding the Good News in who we are and what we do.

Thus, in all of the following suggestions, hospitality must be the pervading attitude; it must come through loud and clear. This family needs to know of our/your welcome, care, love, and acceptance.

Have you asked the dad if he has expressed his concern to his own church, talked with his denomination about what he feels is lacking in its Sunday school program? Church and program leaders might not be aware that people are not being fed; they might need a wake-up call. And they might be extremely grateful for it.

Have you talked with the dad about the reality that there are times his son might feel excluded/left out within your catechetical program—for instance, when there is preparation for the celebration of Sacraments? Could this be confusing for the child? That certainly isn’t our intent, but if the child is the only one not participating, how would that make him feel?

Ask the dad if he and his family are planning on staying involved in their own denomination. Would that be your strong suggestion/encouragement in order to avoid the tension?

In many areas where I have ministered, there are ecumenical groups/associations that bring together the pastors of all the churches in the area for frequent prayer and discussion of common issues and joint projects. Sometimes these associations include staff members from the churches, e.g., the religious education staffs. It would seem that, in a small town, an association like this would be easier to organize—and would be very helpful.

So let’s hope/imagine there is one, or in nearby Cedar Rapids. Why not bring up this scenario and see how everyone feels about it. You don’t have to mention that it’s actually happening; pose it as a “what if” and hear people’s responses. Suggest that realities like this might begin to be more common as the “world gets smaller” and children and families interact with one another more and more. How should we all respond?

If an association like this exists, or if it doesn’t yet, might this be a time to do some things—in your small town where everyone probably knows/socializes with one another—of an ecumenical nature? Think about organizing a Thanksgiving Eve prayer service or an event for parents and/or families on a current event or shared interest (e.g., internet safety or living simply and sanely in today’s world).

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.

Chris Weber’s Answer
The fact that you are in a small rural community raises the first red flag to me. I grew up in a small rural community and I know how people in small towns tend to know everything about everyone…and talk about it! Having a child from another church regularly in your sessions could cause quite a bit of hullabaloo. Despite the fact that the parent came to you, it could easily be perceived that you went after him.

I wave a second red flag regarding the nature of catechesis. Catechesis is deeply entwined with evangelization. At its best, catechesis doesn’t just teach Catholic faith and values; it draws our students to live them. Therefore, this father in question could get a lot more than he is bargaining for. He could end up with a son who is a practicing Catholic!

Finally, even though students in your catechetical program have a wide range of faith experience, your catechists have the comfort of assuming Catholicism as common ground, a starting point. I would hate to take that away from them. It is one thing to offer a public event, an RCIA session, or an ecumenical program where you plan to reach a broad religious audience. It is quite another to offer formation for your own people. We have so little time with them to begin with; we need to be as focused as possible. I would advise the father that, while you deeply respect people of other Christian faiths, your catechetical sessions are unabashedly Catholic.

Despite all of these red flags, I wonder if anything else besides your “excellent program” has drawn this man to your community. Is the Holy Spirit at work here? Putting myself in your shoes, I see it like this: If I clearly laid out all of the above concerns and he still wanted to send his son to my program, I would have a great deal of difficulty turning the boy away.

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, Maryland.

Q: Our DRE sat in on a class a couple of weeks ago when our closing prayer included prayers for our soldiers and military people around the world—and for the soldiers and families of those with whom we are at war. After class, the DRE said I should not include such a petition because it’s too political; parents might take offense. What should I do?
—Glenda P., Albuquerque, NM

Dan Thomas’s Answer
This is one of those questions for which the answer seems so obvious, but being true to the teaching is difficult. In Luke 6:27-28, Jesus says, “But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In the Letter to the Romans, Paul says (quoting Proverbs 25:21-22), “[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (12:20, 21).

So the teaching seems clear: We are called to love our enemies, and one of the ways of showing that love is to pray for them. It actually may be one of the easier things to do in loving our enemies. Praying for our enemies is a good thing that we as catechists should encourage.

One of the challenging parts of this is to be able to listen to those who object to this teaching. This is one of those “hard sayings” of Jesus that calls us to real conversion.

One aspect of being human is that we see our own world so well that it is extremely difficult of see the world of others. Gospel values are hard to live and easy to compromise. It is important to understand how much this teaching is against the grain of the ordinary way we live.

Politics is the art of compromise and it is essential for the good order of our government. So maybe feeding and giving drink to our enemies may not be possible, but surely we can see that they are human beings like us who have families, friends, and lives just as we do. So, at the very least, let us pray for our enemies. As Jesus also said, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).

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.

Kate Ristow’s Answer
I agree with you, Glenda. We need to pray with our students for all people involved in military conflicts—the soldiers on both sides; the leaders of the nations involved; the innocent civilians, especially the children, caught in the middle; the families of the soldiers; the reporters; the doctors and nurses in the field and in the hospitals in the home nations; anyone and everyone touched by the horror of war.

I would avoid making a list and praying it every week—it becomes routine and tends to dilute the students’ focus. Instead, although you may want to pray for the soldiers on both sides of the conflict each week, introduce the other groups or individuals into your class prayer, one at a time over the course of several weeks, so the students really have an opportunity to think about those for whom they are praying.

Frankly, I do not understand your DRE’s point at all. In Luke 6:27-36, Jesus is quite clear that we must love our enemies. Praying for others is one of the ways we show our love for them. In many situations, prayer is the only proactive thing we can do.

I cannot imagine parents thinking that prayer is too political, but if some do object, I’d review with them this passage from Luke and try to help them understand that we are trying to teach the children how followers of Jesus are called to respond to others. Praying for others is also one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.

One of our most important tasks as catechists is to help students understand that we are called to do all that we can to prepare the way for the return of Christ and the fulfillment of the kingdom. We do this by trying to bring more peace, love, and justice into our world. Prayer brings peace. Love brings peace. Acting justly brings peace. Although none of our individual actions may bring about world peace, our individual and collective prayers certainly are heard, and they encourage us to work for peace.

So, keep praying, Glenda. You are providing an invaluable example to your students!

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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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, December 2009.

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