Advice from Master Catechists—October 2010

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

What should I do if a catechist is not prepared when she comes to class?

Q: I do not have the time to be a catechist, so I volunteer every other week as a room assistant. I always work with B, the same catechist. But I don’t think B comes prepared. We never pray as a class. There is never a review of recently covered material. The kids do a lot of silent reading of the text at their seats. I’ve suggested activities and offered to think of ideas to go with the lesson but B just says, “No thanks. That’s not necessary.” Talking to the DRE about B seems like “tattling.” But what else can I do?

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer

A: One question as we begin: Has there been an orientation meeting for all of you, the room assistants and the catechists together, so that both groups hear at the same time what the role/job description of a room assistant entails? If that has not happened, perhaps you could make the suggestion to the DRE for future years. Even if the current challenge weren’t present, this type of beginning-of-the-year gathering enhances the working relationship between catechists and assistants. It also makes the program stronger for the children and youth—and therefore for their families.

Talk to your DRE. After all, the DRE ministers as a representative of the Church, and thereby is commissioned to oversee that the parish provides a quality experience in ongoing, deepening faith formation for each parishioner. That includes everyone—those who come to learn (and those who don’t come; we need to work on that) and those who are the facilitators of learning (for they are learners, too). We are a community of learners.

For the DRE to carry out that responsibility faithfully, he/she needs to know what is happening. She/he needs to be in touch with every catechist and every room assistant.

Perhaps B doesn’t know how to use a catechist manual and so doesn’t know of all the additional resources available to her/him for prayer, activities, etc. It could be that B doesn’t understand the role of room assistant and isn’t sure how/when/if to accept your suggestions. (That’s where the joint meeting mentioned above might be very helpful in future years.) Perhaps B needs help and guidance, which the DRE can provide when and if the situation is brought to his/her attention. 

If your appointment with your DRE is done caringly, I don’t know how it could be perceived as tattling. You’re trying to help everyone involved to grow, to continue to be the best, to provide the best opportunities for faith growth. Ask your DRE what your role is and tell your DRE how you have offered to help thus far as a room assistant and what seems to be happening. Then ask for advice.

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

Kate Ristow’s Answer

A: Seriously? You’re worried about being labeled a tattler because you are concerned about the quality of catechesis in the class where you are volunteering? Forget it! There is an easy way to handle this covertly.

Call the DRE and tell him/her that you need to speak in confidence. Arrange a meeting—in person, if possible. Share with him/her what you’ve observed. Make sure he/she understands that this is not a knee-jerk reaction and that you’ve offered suggestions to better engage the kids but your advice has been ignored.

Make sure the DRE knows this isn’t a power struggle between you and B. Ask the DRE to pop into the class on an informal basis to observe what’s going on—both when you are there and when B is teaching alone. An unannounced visit will quickly reveal any obvious problems. Then the DRE can find an opportunity later to talk to the catechist about livening up sessions.

I’d also like you to look at this situation another way. I am a terrible team teacher and I detest having an aide in the classroom. It inhibits me and makes me less effective. I get all serious and I am not nearly as creative as I am when I have the kids to myself. I guess I’m afraid of looking incompetent in front of another adult.

Perhaps something like this is going on with the catechist you’re working with. B may be having the kids silently read their texts to make sure that you know the entire lesson has been covered. It’s a terrible technique, but if B is intimidated by your presence, who knows what he/she is doing to compensate?

Here’s another idea you can try. Look ahead to the lesson planned for the next time you’re assisting. Ask B if you can be responsible for teaching a specific part of the chapter on your own—the Scripture story, the prayer service, the chapter review, whatever. Tell B that you’d like to get more experience leading the kids. Hopefully, B will agree. That will put you in the spotlight and, afterward, you can ask B for comments and suggestions. Be open to them. Then a true dialogue between the two of you can begin and the kids will reap the benefits.

Finally, please don’t ever be afraid to talk to your catechetical leader about a concern or a potential problem. Every catechetical leader knows that catechists are his/her eyes and ears in the hallways, classrooms, parking lot, and neighborhoods of your parish. Share your insights and observations with your DRE; it will ensure that your program is meeting the needs of the families you serve.   

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.

What could I say to a student who thinks our Perpetual Adoration Chapel is “stupid”?

Q: Our parish started a Perpetual Adoration Chapel a few weeks ago. The week of class after the dedication of the chapel, I included in my lesson a discussion about what perpetual adoration is. When one of my students said, “I think that’s stupid,” I was really flustered. I didn’t know what to say so I just said, “Well, Maribeth, it isn’t stupid,” and moved on. What would have been a more catechetical response?
—G. B., Seattle, WA

Dan Thomas’s Answer

A: This is one of those situations that happens to most of us when we are surprised or shocked by a student’s response. It takes us aback and we respond without thinking in a way that doesn’t help the student understand. It is a “normal response” and it is good that you recognize that it wasn’t a “catechetical response.”

One of the difficult challenges we catechists have is to see things from the perspective of our students. Many of us have grown up with perpetual adoration and never questioned its whys and wherefores. Our students haven’t. And so when they react “inappropriately” we get defensive because we feel attacked. So it is important for us to get in touch with our own reactions and why they happen.

The first thing to think about is the history of this particular person. Is this a typical response for Maribeth, which expresses a continuing negative attitude, or is this the first time she has responded this way? What do you know about her that would help you understand her response? If you can understand where Maribeth is coming from, you can make your response to her comment more effective.

Here is a response you could have made: “Why do you feel it is stupid, Maribeth?” Listen to her reasons. Then invite others in the class into the discussion.

This is an example of how you can bring out various approaches to a topic, examine it from various perspectives, and deepen the students’ understanding. It is challenging not to become defensive when you feel attacked. But it is better to listen with patience in order to understand what the student is thinking/feeling. In that way, your response can be sensitive to the student as well as beneficial to the other students.

Of note: There are some liturgists who feel that perpetual adoration expresses a view of the Eucharist as “static” rather part of the “dynamic” celebration of the Eucharistic community. This was why in some parishes Eucharistic devotions outside of Mass were downplayed. So while “stupid” is a strongly negative comment, there are reasons some would not recommend it. There are, of course, reasons on the other side as well.

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.

Chris Weber’s Answer

A: You didn’t mention if Maribeth is prone to making this type of comment. If you had already discussed perpetual adoration in some detail, and Maribeth was just being a smarty pants, then making the correction and moving on was entirely appropriate.

However, let’s assume that her comment was an honest (albeit abrupt) assessment of what she had just heard, and Maribeth was finding the idea of perpetual adoration incomprehensible. Here’s something you could have said in reply:

“Maribeth, the teaching of the Church about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is hard to understand, and difficult for many to accept. As a matter of fact, John’s Gospel tells us that many people shook their heads in disbelief and left Jesus when he told them he was ‘the Bread of life’ (John 6:35-60). However, that is indeed what he told us, and as Roman Catholics we take this teaching very seriously.

“For two thousand years, Christians around the world have broken the bread and shared the cup in the name of Jesus. Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine we share become real food for us, that when we do as Jesus commanded, these simple gifts become the very physical presence of Jesus Christ for us. Is it any wonder that we treat the Blessed Sacrament with such respect and devotion, that we reserve it in a special place, and that we offer praise and adoration to Christ for giving us such a special gift of himself? 

“Maribeth, our religion revolves around many teachings that the world may find strange. We believe that Jesus, the Son of God, became one of us. Not only that, he suffered and died for us, and then rose from the dead. He appeared to his friends and, before he returned to heaven, he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. We believe that he will come again in glory.

“To these teachings, including the Church’s teaching about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we respond in faith, as Simon Peter did, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:68).

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.

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