Monday, December 1, 2014

Good catechesis provides us with a good father tongue.

In an article which appeared in The Conversation, a website that carries analysis by academics and researchers in Australia and Britain, it was reported that memorization and rote learning are important classroom strategies which all teachers should be familiar with.  Apparently, seventy teachers from Britain studied the teaching ways of Chinese students (in China) and made comparative studies against the teaching methods which Britain had been veering away from for the past 40 years, emphasizing instead inquiry or discovery learning, as opposed to direct instruction.  The latter is known in academic circles as the “chalk and talk” approach, which includes the need to memorise things like multiplication tables and poems and ballads, enabling the child to recall them automatically and easily. 

I was rather intrigued by this article, which was reprinted in our daily local paper, because I couldn’t help but make this comparison to the ways in which the Catechism is taught to our children.  Walk into any Catechism class these days in any parish, and one would find not one way of teaching, but such a smorgasbord of methods intending to impart the topic of the day.  Affected and influenced by the current trends of education which encourage ‘experiential’ learning, where the result should be that the student studies less but learns more, the Catechist appears to need to be creative enough to use tools that will entice and hold the attention of the minds of their charges which seem to be as fleeting as ephemeral and transient as steam rising from the spout of a boiling kettle of water.

One of the drawbacks of such ‘creative’ teaching, especially for things as fundamental and basic as the tenets of our faith, is that we can sometimes be so creative and veer so far from the teaching point that the student ends up appreciating the analogy or method, leaving the main topic at hand behind in the classroom.  The result is that the foundations of the faith, which are fundamental, are only implicitly known in some amorphous or dim way, resulting in a sad inability for many to say off-hand anything succinct, sharp and precise about our faith.  Perhaps this is the reason why so many now fight shy about direct evangelization. 

In the days of the penny or Baltimore catechism, the three branches of the faith were imparted in a very systematic way.  Firstly, one was taught The Creed and its tenets.  This then paved the way for the teaching of the Commandments.  Thirdly, one was given the means to attain the aims of the spiritual life, which is mainly through prayer and the Sacraments. 

To be sure, there will probably be a strong disdain for such systematic teaching, as it also seems to imply that all students have (more or less) the same levels of intelligence, and that this “one size fits all” seems to ignore or put aside the fact that all children have their own unique learning styles.  The truth that education is about curiosity and innovation also seems to be put aside in favour of a rote and stiff learning.  I can almost hear the chorus of the lament that rote learning of any kind is “boring”.  The multiplication tables were hardly exciting by any means, but look at where it has led us.

In truth, education is indeed a very complex thing.  But there is no mistaking that we all came from some sort of rote learning as a foundation in our basic education.  Which child has never benefitted from memorizing the multiplication tables?  The result is that we can now without much thought about the fundamentals, endeavor to handle the more complex and difficult math problems.  Till this day, I can attribute my deep appreciation of the English language through the rote memorization of stanzas of poems like Robert Southey’s “Inchcape Rock” and certain sonnets and soliloquies of Shakespeare.  I don’t think we liked doing this at the time, but those drills certainly served us well.

I’m afraid that by the dispensing of the rote learning of our catechism and its basic fundaments, we may have spared the rod and spoiled the child.  Many cannot say with confidence why God made us, what grace is, the difference between sanctifying and actual grace, and what the marks of the Church are.  Not that these need to be rehashed to anyone when sharing of our faith, but when these are firmly set in our hearts, perhaps like the multiplication tables, it gives us a grounding to be as creative as we can to cull from our own experiences of these truths.  Without these well set in us, the result is often that we will waver and hem and haw and resort to the very toxic phrase “but this is how I feel” or “this is for me” or even the very commonly heard “this is how I see it” when it comes to talking about God.  Without disrespect to anyone, the Church and the truths of our faith does not depend on how we personally “feel” about truth. 

It is said of people with no feelings for anything that it is not that they are devoid of feelings, but that they are inept and handicapped when talking about their feelings, and have not been armed with the right vocabulary.  In a way, I am wondering if this also applies to God, spirituality and theology.  When we have the right vocabulary for God, based on good and sound theology, our later experiences in life become the canvas of life on which our portrait of God and life is depicted.  We take the paints made up of the well-grounded principle colours of a solid catechism which we had in our formative years and slowly paint the portrait of God working in and through our lives.  But if our basic palette of this is instead an inchoate admixture that is not lucid and coherent but instead something that is made up of a hodge-podge of vague allusions and implicit hints of a deeper reality, we can very well end up being invalid and even incapacitated later in life when we need to speak in words that convey our God experiences that confirm our faith, giving the impression that our faith is something vapid, trite, insipid and worst of all, subjective.  How can we then speak rationally and objectively when confronted by a world that is fast becoming allergic and oftentimes truculent when the topic of God or religion is brought up?

Perhaps I am a bit more passionate about this than the next man because I was on my way to becoming a lecturer in theology but got waylaid by my illness.  But because I had a firm grounding of my faith, was I able to enter into the more challenging ways of thinking about my faith later on in life, enabling me to wade through the different crises that I had to face in the landscape of my life.  It gave me a much needed vocabulary to articulate my experiences.

How much is our God-talk influenced by being familiar with our mother tongue, or in this case, a father tongue? 


  1. Sadly, I don't think catechism is taught in a creative way to get the children to experience Jesus. I see the teaching of our Catholic faith being dumped down. Catechists are so afraid that the children will find the faith to be too "cheem" (a word I often find uttered by many doctors, lawyers and other intellects after mass) that they "uncomplicate" our faith. My children can tell me the history of the Hobbitt, and the culture in Hunger Games...but they can't tell me the Salvation History, nor the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. I fear that they will grow up looking for apps rather than pray when they are in trouble. (Sorry to be hard hitting but the truth does hurt.)

  2. I meant "dumbed down", not "dumped".
    I also like to add:
    I believe that when it comes to catechism; It is about transformation, not conformation. It is about relationship, not legalism.
    Often than not, the latters are used to transmit our deposit of faith. I suspect we mistook conformation and legalism to be "rote learning" and "the systematic way". This is so far from the truth.
    Too often we round up children and put on a label, which in your words are "as fleeting as ephemeral and transient as steam rising from the spout of a boiling kettle of water." Hence, we sugar coat all our teachings for fear that they fall asleep. I think we need to "ditch the vanilla". I believe God has built into a child a compass to seek the truth. How many of our youths left the Church because they cannot handle the truth? And how many youths left the Church because we didn't give them the hard truths (sins and consequences) and the beauty (mercy and grace of God) of our faith?

  3. I do agree with you that - “I can attribute my deep appreciation of the English language through the rote memorization of stanzas of poems......................”
    ............and especially not forgetting the delightful though nonsensical and sometimes humorous , even bawdy - five-line limerick.

    Though rote learning has become out-dated as a technique in the teaching-learning process of today’s class-room, in reality, we still use rote learning as a means of repetitive memorization of information- (without even our being aware of it) – for example the alphabets, especially the spelling of words and numbers at the primary level........and in science, where the elements and their chemical numbers are memorized at the secondary and tertiary levels. It is actually used as a functional foundation to build higher-levels of learning such as in critical thinking skills!

    Likewise, in Catechism too, we need to be grounded in certain basic tenets or fundamentals of the faith, if we are going to be confident enough to objectively rationalize and evangelize – to confront “a world that is fast becoming allergic and oftentimes truculent when the topic of God or religion is brought up” (in your words) So unlike the penny-farthing that faded with the late Victorian era, the Baltimore catechism – perhaps, has much to be lauded in providing a plausible ‘father tongue’ for a sound catechesis?

    God bless you, Fr.


  4. I stumbled across your blog this morning a couple of hours before I head up to Holy Cross to talk with my 2nd graders about the sacrament of reconciliation, sin and absolution. Phew! While I am doing my best to teach them the prayers and pass along the beliefs, I am trying to convey the fact that the reason we are learning these things is to form a relationship with God. It is such a tightrope walk: the kids need to know the basic tenets and beliefs so that they can establish a relationship with God and become life long disciples. But if we don't present it in an engaging fashion, they will simply shut down and not realize any relevancy or value in their lives. Believe me, I have envied Baltimore catechists- much easier to simply present "facts" to be memorized and tested, without having to have difficult conversations that children today yearn to have...If they are not beginning to develop a relationship with God, they are simply not going to understand the value. And unfortunately many parents don't seem to have a relationship with God, at least through the Church. And I'm not sure this is because we didn't ask them to memorize a lot of rote facts that we can regurgitate without thought to simply defend our religious position. Thank you Father for addressing this subject. Catechists everywhere are doing their best to help kids encounter God through the sacraments and in their lives, and move them towards life long discipleship. Huge task!