Teaching It Forward: Religious Education Reimagined

By Donahue, Wendy | U.S. Catholic, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Teaching It Forward: Religious Education Reimagined


Donahue, Wendy, U.S. Catholic


What kids experience at their local parish today scarcely resembles the CCD their parents remember. Whether the changes will turn the tide remains to be seen.

Cynthia Giarelli has been teaching eighth-grade religion long enough to control hormones, smartphones, and her own expectations. The dynamics of each class fluctuate, sometimes wildly. But she can count on one constant when Tuesday night class rolls around in Lake Forest, Illinois: Her students will be exhausted after school, sports, and other activities, with homework looming large when their parents pick them up at the Church of St. Mary at 8:15 p.m.

"So I just warm them up a bit and get them chatting," says Giarelli, who before retiring from professional teaching worked in the parish's school. "I ask them questions about bullying or social media. Talking about things that will happen in high school always perks them up; they want to hear about the decisions they'll have to make."

In short order, though, Giarelli must redirect attention from the dramas of the days ahead to faith formation for a lifetime. With eighth graders, she says, "that's not always easy."

Little is easy for catechists in the 21st century. Dire statistics are everywhere. A frequently referenced study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that although nearly 1 in 3 Americans (31 percent) were raised Catholic, today fewer than 1 in 4 (24 percent) describe themselves as Catholic. In 2011 Pew revealed that more than 70 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so before age 24; a 2012 Pew study showed that a third of U.S. adults under 30 report "none" as their religious affiliation.

Christian Smith's 2014 book Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (Oxford) unearths possible reasons for the estrangement. The author suggests that often it's less of a deliberate decision than a drifting from a religion whose tenets were never fully grasped, even after years of Sunday school.

Some sociologists, including Catholic University of America's William D'Antonio, believe the Young Catholic America portrayal is overly pessimistic and based on an "either/or, small tent" view of Catholicism. D'Antonio offers a more positive view of what he calls today's "conscience-oriented" young Catholics. One thing everyone can probably agree on, however, is that the competition for kids' time and attention has only intensified, whether it's math tutoring or Minecraft or traveling to soccer games on Sunday mornings--or even what parents practice and preach.

"The message coming from home when I started teaching in the '80s was, 'This is really important to all of us. This is what we do,' " Giarelli says. "Now with many families the message is, 'This is what you have to do because you're Catholic, and you've got to do it until you're confirmed, and I don't like it either.' Parents just drop kids off and expect them to be educated. And if something comes up, religious education becomes second or third in importance on the list, or worse."

To give faith a fighting chance, parishes are trying new approaches to youth catechesis that scarcely resemble the CCD many parents knew (one reason that the term CCD, or Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, has been replaced with terms such as "faith formation").

Peek in on parishes around the country and you might see eighth graders meditating, sixth graders watching videos from the Busted Halo website sponsored by the Paulist Fathers, or parents arriving with their children--and staying for their own simultaneous faith formation session.

The goal: "To form, inform, and transform," says Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, director of religious education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "We need to help [students] come to know Jesus in their hearts, not just in their heads. One model won't fit all. We have to be open to different ways of experimenting to see what works. …

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