I think there's something terribly wrong with our current religious education system. Some anecdotes: I was confirmed with eighth graders who went to Mass every Sunday (and still do, as far as I know), but did not know what day Jesus died on. (Was it Ash Wednesday?--No, of course not, it was Easter.) I have seen children in white dresses and suits raise their hands to answer during the homily and announce clearly that it's not really Jesus, it's just bread--and then be admitted to First Communion!
Clearly, this is a problem. It saddens me to say this, but I suspect that religious education, for many children, simply does not make a difference. I know that for some kids, religion class is the only exposure they had to religion, and that for some kids, that is enough to make the difference. I'm not suggesting cutting out religion class.
But I will say that I have had 13 years of religion class, using different books from different publishers, including some very highly recommended ones, and not one moment of any of it has ever made me want to be Catholic. I have had college classes that made me want to be Catholic, and conversations with people I love that made me want to be Catholic, and experiences of God that made me want to be Catholic. But if it all came down to religion class? I think I'd be an atheist. Religion textbooks were saccharine and shallow, filled with tacky pictures and lame essay prompts. ("Look at this picture of a bird flying across a sunset. Write a prayer to the Holy Spirit.") If this is the best the Catholic Church can come up with, what does that say about her?
So I see two big problems with the current state of religious education. It doesn't effectively convey the factual information it is intended to teach, and it doesn't effectively convey the beauty of the Church. What can be done about this? I don't know. I wish I did. I would be a better CCD teacher if I did. Here are some ideas. I'd love comments on them.
- Go back to catechism-based instruction. I do not remember anything from first grade religion class except for the following: Who made us?--God made us.--How did God make us?--In His own image and likeness.--Why did God make us?--To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next. I'm not saying we should turn religion class into children memorizing by rote phrases that they do not understand, but I believe we underestimate the importance of simply being able to state definitions. (What is a sacrament?--It's uh like this special thing that happens like at church? And uh you need a priest? Surely this is not our goal, but this is what we achieve when we water things down too much.)
- Get rid of the link between sacraments and age. If four-year-olds and eight-year-olds are both common at First Communions, the pressure to "pass" unprepared children will be lower.
- Involve parents. What if CCD classes involved family homework? "CCD is supposed to be fun, so we don't give homework." No offense, but that's garbage. Religion is not supposed to be easy. If you have to read a Bible story with your mother and talk about it with her, it's not going to kill you. Or her. Obviously it is better to evangelize children through their parents than parents through their children. But I think something like this actually does both. (How to get parents to actually do this is another question entirely. At the church I last taught at, the parents were invited in to join the class for prayer at the last five minutes of class. I usually had two or maybe three parents, out of a class of ten, bother to come five minutes early.)
- Focus on beauty. (Please don't tell me this contradicts my first suggestion. I will cry if you do.) Teach the kids to sing chant. Introduce them to old prayers. Show them paintings. As a commenter said at a post on Little Catholic Bubble, "Start by seeking the Beautiful. This will lead you to the Good. Eventually you'll end up at the Truth. Then you can dive into all the rules you want."
(Side note: In the interests of avoiding self-plagiarism, I feel obliged to state that some of this post, content-wise, has been on my Facebook page, and some of the text is actually just a copy-and-paste.)