Common Wisdom: CCD—The Sequel

I should have known better. An extraordinary experience is rarely repeated. The film industry never learns; with certain exceptions II and III don’t begin to approach the quality of the initial hit. We collectively wince reading about the projected Gone With the Wind II. It is better not to attempt an encore. That applies not only to filmmakers but apparently to former teachers of CCD.

When I walked out of my last CCD class in 1980, after ten years of teaching, goodbyes were difficult. Primarily, however, I felt exhilaration, a sense of having given all my students, from grades three through eight, solid instruction in the truths of our Catholic faith. Although it had been necessary essentially to write my own lessons, because revisionists had rendered textbooks flimsy on dogma and doctrine, I was comfortable drawing on a lengthy and rigorous Catholic education. My CCD classes generated tremendous response from the kids and accolades from parents. It had been so worthwhile, a memorable decade.

Last September when a priest proposed I return to CCD, I had reservations. I understood only too well the demands of time and energy required because of the aforementioned unraveling of solid catechesis after Vatican II. I suspected the situation had worsened. But recalling the satisfaction of those years tempted me beyond any intuition to resist. I said yes. My premonitions were on target: I was about to face a year I will never forget.

How to describe the pain of discovering junior high school students do not know that Jesus Christ is God? Sitting in front of me were 12-year-olds taking prizes at science fairs functioning, in terms of their Catholic faith, at kindergarten level. It is nothing short of alarming to realize one had an hour, once a week, for nine months excluding numerous holidays, to fill informational gaps analogous to the broadest chasm in the Grand Canyon.

The first class I taught in 1970 consisted of 30 third graders; in 1990 the total enrollment of CCD was 42. This decline nicely corresponds to the decline since the unlamented ’60s in everything else: vocations, parochial schools, attendance at Mass. The paltry eight youngsters assigned to me were a pathetic remnant of what was once a thriving adjunct to parochial school religious education. They were the second wave to inherit blitzed catechesis; my own children, now in their twenties, were the first victims.

With others, I had fought exhaustively against a determined minority (dubbed the Church Relevant) who sought, successfully, to revamp eternal truths of dogma and doctrine for perceived modern taste. I knew at the time their misguided meddling would produce a lean harvest. Last fall I confronted further validation of that analysis.

Credit must be given the CCD series from which I was to teach. Obviously, there is in it a real effort to play catch-up ball. Doctrine, wantonly watered down and at times phased out of texts published in the last two decades, resurfaced. In the words of the contributors, this was a series “to present our Catholic faith accurately, completely, and consistently.” Since this is the raison d’être for every CCD text ever compiled, the statement was an unintentional testimonial to the inadequacies in recent religious texts. They certainly had a handle on what had been missing, and they tried to address it. Interspersed with essential instructions, of course, were the predictable solicitations of student “feelings” which so infected revisionist catechisms. Yet if overproduced, the book does provide a fine resource for the teacher. For the 12-year-olds, however, it comes too late. Lacking foundation, they could not appreciate nor absorb the material. Their general attitude was apathy.

Noticeable as well as unfamiliarity with basic Catholicism among my students was a marked disintegration in deportment since my ten year’s absence. There was habitual rudeness and almost primitive behavior by the boys, evidently tolerated in public school. Individually Dr. Jekylls, in class Master Hydes. With the exception of one intensely spiritual girl, and another who evidenced periodic interest, the girls had little to say. As with the boys, the unifying characteristic was indifference.

Only the naive expect youngsters to rush eagerly to CCD. They are there at the behest of parents, marking time. It is indulgent misdiagnosis, however, to excuse the lackadaisical malaise in CCD students today because they are “so tired.” Rubbish. Kids of yesterday were tired too. The problem is not fatigue. It is lack of motivation: they don’t care. Jaime Escalante in top form couldn’t ignite this group.

Not that the textbooks authors didn’t try. The books had all the visual appeal of Vogue or Sports Illustrated. Glossy pages, large captions leaping out to define each chapter division: “Our Life,” “Sharing Life,” (finally) “Our Faith,” “Coming to Faith,” “Practicing Faith.” I learned quickly to leapfrog over divisions one and two because, contrary to author expectations, the kids found these preambles not cool but feeble. They didn’t want to “share,” and when someone occasionally did, the class clowns couldn’t deal with the intimacy and the room dissolved into mayhem. Skipping this obstacle, I plunged directly into “Our Faith,” with a truncated experiential lead tailored to their attention span deficit. Bypassing cute intros and getting to the heart of the matter—instruction in their faith—worked better. I wondered what kind of Brady- bunch kids the authors had in mind as they plotted the elaborate format? Not mine.

If the student book was attractive, the teacher’s manual was breathtaking. With contemporary predilection for puffery it was called the Catechist’s Annotated Guide. Without much humility the authors tipped me off that theirs was “an exciting catechetical process.” The sleek, spiral-bound pages burst with diagrams in primary or pastel colors, full of concentric circles and arrows and painstaking explanations of how I was to implement the epic production. For someone taught from pictureless black and white catechisms with straightforward Q and A, it was like going from the good grey New York Times to USA Today. Chockfull of dogma and doctrinal pages (the student text included in my own), the Annotated Guide was highlighted with suggestions on how to enlarge on the material. It appeared I would not have to write a textbook! In fact, I was excited. How could anyone resist? My only concern was time. The skeletal program, even for one hour, was on overload. I would have to pare it down. I looked forward to it and trotted off to class enthusiastic.

The class was not. They refused to buy the personal experience bit that introduced each lesson, thereby giving the lie to the magic “experiential” methodology insisted on by catechetical revisions post-Vatican II. They found the instructional matter dull. It was Greek to them. Not having been taught in an orderly progression, as had legions of Catholics before them, from the basics simply presented in grade one, repeated with more advanced exposition in subsequent grades, these children encountered wholly new material. I tried to salvage chapters by reducing to bare bones whatever doctrine was introduced. To encourage participation, I asked them to read a chapter ahead, which I would then break down and dissect. They balked. No one did homework. Undaunted, I had them take turns reading in class to cover the lesson, but many were poor readers. Worse, while one read, the others talked or otherwise annoyed their neighbors (I began to understand why friends who are teachers abandon their profession). Soon most would not bring the book to class at all. I began writing my own lessons (again), respecting the outline we were supposed to follow. Many times I had to depart even from this spare plan and wing it. I reduced my goal to the prayer they would leave class having learned one thing about their Catholic faith they had not known upon arrival.

The ambitious objective of the series is to involve the catechist with the family, facilitated by take-home tear- sheets after each chapter so that “the young person can more easily initiate faith discussions with family and/or friends and encourage them to decide to live the faith today.” It bombed. Walking out of CCD, youngsters wanted no further “involvement” until the next class. Unlike math, it is not necessary to pass CCD in order to be promoted, and they knew it.

Not yet defeated, I tried a different tactic. I wrote or phoned students with suggestions about what we would discuss next week. I would hear, “Oh, yeah, okay.” They would then show up unprepared. I tried visual aids, handsomely produced videos from Catholic educational television, guaranteed to ensnare the attention of a TV generation. Initially the kids watched, then they drifted. Consensus? Negative. Guest speakers dropped by. A certain (insisted upon) polite reception was given, but in the wake of the speaker’s departure little or no response. Again, indifference.

Why? Some adults, acknowledging this sad state of affairs, are bewildered. At least I am not baffled. The genesis of the mess is found in the late 1960s, when orthodox catechesis suffered scissoring, when the emphasis shifted from teaching the faith to exploring feelings, when religious texts became thematically dominated by psychology in lieu of theology. The dissolution was firmly entrenched by the early ’70s. I had to attend innumerable CCD workshops to enlighten me as to the dramatic changes in catechesis and catechizing and to “update” my religion. The idea, promoted by a vocal minority of malcontents, religious and lay, was that suddenly it was imperative to restructure catechesis both in methodology and, dangerously so at times, in message. We were to revise, omit, or ameliorate the unappetizing—original sin, sin itself, rules, regulations—lest the young find the Church repressive and irrelevant. Always during these seminars were implicit and explicit slams at past catechesis for lacking sensitivity and appeal. Lecturers were oblivious to the paradox that workshop attendees were precisely the presumably abused recipients of those heavy-handed, benighted years who emerged not only loving and loyal to Catholicism but eager to impart it to others.

The clarity in doctrine and firmness in purpose we were taught was being scuttled in favor of muddy speculations about “who am I?” In exchange for conviction, we saw a lot of searching for the truth. This, in elementary texts. The idea was to develop by gentle probing, using the latest in psychology, an evolving fellowship with Christ and “the Christian community” (beloved phrase). My reading of this was that the concept was unsound, unwarranted and treacherous in terms of religious formation. Res ipsa loquitur: one is more likely to see at Mass today the old and middle-aged, about whose catechesis no one fussed or fretted, but which nourished and convinced us for a lifetime, whereas the wheel-spinning efforts to intrigue the young have resulted in empty heads and empty pews.

It is not hyperbole to say young adults today, and adolescents, manifest a staggering unfamiliarity with their faith. The old catechisms had it right and in sequence: we are here to know, love, and serve God. Revisionists literally removed or vastly pruned that first factor, “to know.” How can you love, why would you serve, what you do not know?

Some Catholics now wag fingers at parental shortcomings. It is outrageously unfair. How can casualties themselves of etiolated catechesis teach their own children? Granted, in the past there were always devout if untutored parents whose faith ran deep, but who depended on the parochial school/co) class to catechize their offspring. And they did. It wasn’t until my hapless generation began to raise its children that one encountered decimated catechisms, and the need to stand toe to toe against priests, nuns, and laity fallen under the siren song of revisionism. We pleaded for continuation of the catechesis which had been ours. We were reviled as reactionary, out of date and, the worst epithet hurled, “very pre-Vatican II.” We went down to defeat. But that wasn’t the worst result. My peers, many of them daily communicants, saw their kids leave the Church in record numbers. Why not? They did not know enough to stay.

The privilege and responsibility of teaching a Catholic child about the unique heritage into which he is born should be a cooperative venture between home, parochial school/CCD, and the Church. (Parenthetically, I believe homilies should not only inspire they should educate.) Parents must see to it children receive religious education, but educators must see to it the education is substance, not shadow. The crucial key? It has to begin in the first day of the first class in the first grade. And continue, uncompromised. Religion class needs to move from the back of the bus. Catholic students must understand that the priority to learn about Christ and the Church He founded exceeds anything taught about   or the Magna Carta.

In the 1970s, I routinely began and ended CCD classes each September and May with a prophecy that got immediate attention. “Someday,” I assured them, “you will be standing where I am. It will be your turn to pass along to others the faith others gave to you. It will be your turn to respond to the command of Jesus to teach. Will you be ready?” The notion of being in my shoes always caused a sober reaction of disbelief, but unfailingly provoked before a glimmer of challenge in those student eyes. This is the first year I did not repeat it in the final class.

Preparing this essay, I had that not infrequent experience of reading scripture which reaches out and addresses so profoundly the topic about which I am writing, and about which I care so much. It was my turn as lector, and I read with more than usual appreciation and gratitude the affirmation of a lifetime:

What we have heard and know, and what our fathers declared to us, we will declare to the generation to come, the glorious deeds of the Lord and his strength and the wonders he wrought. [Psalms 78:3-4]

That is what catechesis is all about.

By

B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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