Advice from Master Catechists—February 2012

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

How can our class fast together during Lent?

Q: The week before Lent, I’ll review prayer, fasting, and almsgiving with my students. What can I suggest to students as ways that we might fast together as a group?
—Seventh-grade catechist, Fort Wayne, IN

Kate Ristow’s Answer
Ask the young people to name their most prized possession. Some kids likely will name their cell phones, iPods, or Facebook accounts. Suggest to the students that fasting from using one of these mediums for the six weeks of Lent will help them understand what it means to make a sacrifice. It enables them to be united with Jesus and to better appreciate his sacrificial death on the cross to atone for our sins.

Make clear that this commitment is on the honor system. “Only you will know if your are living up to your decision to give up the use of the media/object you choose.”

However, it is important that you mention their commitment each time you gather during Lent. It is a long season, and we all know how easily time and our resolve slip away. Tell students that the point is to make the effort, and if they forget their promise on occasion, they can make a fresh start. Explain that this is what the Christian life is—trying to follow Jesus’ example and allowing him to work through us, gradually transforming us into true and faithful disciples.

Another activity you might plan—with families in attendance—is a Hunger Awareness Meal. There are countless variations of this activity on the internet, along with scripts, music suggestions, and prayer experiences. Basically, participants are divided arbitrarily into groups representing different social classes (wealthy, middle/working class, and poor) and served a meal appropriate to that social class. They are introduced to statistics about hunger in the world and have the opportunity to pray together.

Suggestions also are offered for follow-up activities.

One word of caution: Anytime I have done this experience without parents in attendance, I have been bombarded by complaints from parents of the kids who become part of the “poor” group—no matter how much advance publicity we did. They felt that their kids were being discriminated against in some way. I finally concluded that parents have to experience this activity to understand it.

Doing a hunger-awareness activity such as this helps kids understand what hunger is and that some people in our world have no choice but to “fast” each day. This experience is sure to have a lasting impact on your class.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

Chris Weber’s Answer
A: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving turn our focus away from ourselves and open us to the greater world of others and God. In that very positive light, we can think of fasting as temporarily refocusing our hunger for food toward our deeper spiritual hunger for God. Through the experience of hunger, we also can connect with others who hunger day in and day out.

So for a group fasting activity, key in on hunger in the broadest sense of the word.

Introduce the topic by writing “What are you hungry for?” on the board. As students share the inevitable food examples, guide them to reflect on other appetites and desires as well.

For example, they hunger for acceptance, affection, and meaningful relationships. They hunger for relaxation, entertainment, and extra time. Invite students to name some of the ways they feed these hungers: hanging out with friends, playing games, shopping, talking on the phone or texting, eating snacks, watching movies, and more.

Then ask students to name things that would be hard to give up for Lent, and why. Help them devise reasonable sacrifices that involve fasting from some of the things for which they hunger.

Don’t go over the top with this. If students are big into texting, suggest that they turn their devices off for one hour during one of their favorite texting times. If their weakness is snacking, have them avoid snacks for the first three days of the week.

Try to come up with at least five or six fasts that everyone in the class can agree to do. Then put these in a nicely decorated “fasting can.” As part of your prayer each week, have each student draw out a fast from the can. Allow them to redraw if the task is not feasible or pertinent.

Encourage students to pray as they fast, asking God to help them call to mind others who need their kindness or prayers. When you gather the following week, invite them to share their experiences. Pray as a group for everyone who came to their minds in prayer during the week.

Let these simple spiritual sacrifices inspire your students to see fasting in a fresh and positive light. 

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 the author of Jesus-Style Recruiting: A Fresh Look at Recruiting and Forming Parish Volunteers, published by Visual Dynamics Publishing. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.

How is having students pray at home as part of a lesson on prayer a good idea, a bad idea?

Q: Our fifth-grade through eighth-grade classes meet on Wednesday evenings. The fifth-grade catechist wants to plan a three-session lesson on prayer during Lent. She wants the first session to be on prayer. Then she wants the second session to be a non-class experience for the students. She wants them to not come to class but to stay home and pray for an hour. Then she wants to build the third session around helping students explore that previous week’s experience. How is this a good idea and a bad idea?
—DRE, Seattle, WA

Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
If the planning and follow-up are done prayerfully and creatively, this sounds like it has the potential to be an exciting, well-remembered, and faith-connected-to-life learning activity.

Think about some of the advantages. 

This experience is a change of pace. How many times do our young learners say that things are boring and that they’re always doing things the same way? This activity is different; it’s a unique approach.

Plus, this activity gives our students responsibility for their own growth in faith. As catechists, we aren’t here to do all the work and provide all the answers. We are in this together, sharing and growing in faith together.

Finally, we are continually and constantly looking for ways to do what we say we want to do (and Church documents on catechesis say we are to do as catechists): partner with parents in sharing faith within the family. This activity is ideal for fostering prayer in the home.

And so, a few suggestions:
* Explain thoroughly to parents what you’re doing and why.
* Affirm parents in what they do as parents to teach their children about the Catholic faith.
* Explain to parents that the week their children remain at home to pray is to be a family experience.

You might offer parents various approaches and suggestions for this experience at home. For example, you might send home a list of brief ideas for families to use throughout the week, rather than something to use in one hour. The ideas could be prayers and prayer forms that family members use individually, whenever they choose, and then share with one another at dinner or a time convenient for the family. Be sure to include prayer ideas that the family can pray together as well.

Of course, there is this obvious question: What about those who don’t use this time at home for prayer? Perhaps the better question is: What about those who do? We do not want to pass on a good idea because a few might not participate—although there will be those who do not participate for good reasons, reasons beyond their control.

Perhaps those who do not do this—this time—will gain much for participating in the third class, listening to others share about their experiences. That spirited, enthusiastic conversation might entice them to participate in a similar activity you plan for the future.

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

Dan Thomas’s Answer
Catechists and catechetical leaders need to be creative and encourage creativity. This catechist seems to be one who likes to try different ways of reaching students. I applaud her creativity, and I applaud you for giving this idea serious consideration.

There are some important things you and the catechist will want to consider about this idea.

First, how can the catechist ensure that her students actually use the time for prayer at home? One way is to include the parents and the entire family in praying together—for at least some of the appointed time. For a small portion of the prayer time, perhaps the family could pray together a decade of the Rosary or a litany or another family prayer that they already use. It is important that the major part of the time be personal prayer, since it seems that personal prayer is what the catechist wants to emphasize.

Second, be sure the first session of this three-part lesson is about various ways of praying and prayer resources. The catechist might explain how to pray using Scripture, or point out prayers in Scripture that we can make our own. She could explain short forms of contemplative prayer, offering techniques for quieting the body to be aware of the presence of God. She might have students imagine themselves being held in God’s arms.

The catechist should offer students the prayers of our tradition, prayers students know—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed—and tell students to pray these prayers attentively and slowly, letting the meaning of the words take hold in their minds, hearts, and souls.

One of the advantages of this idea is that it shows trust in the students, giving them responsibility for using their time well. In fact, the catechist will want to emphasize to both students and parents that time for class is limited throughout the year, that time for this activity is valuable, that she is putting this time into their hands, that they need to use it well, that she trusts they will use it well.

I like this approach because it is different. It challenges students to be responsible. Tell the catechist to let her students’ parents know what she is doing and why, and to be sure to evaluate the experience with both students and parents. Then you will want to meet with the catechist to find out how well it worked, if it achieved her objective, and how the experience can be improved.

God’s blessing on this effort.

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.

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