When it comes to handing on the firith to their children, the methods of Catholics parents come in different shapes and sizes. Some consider that their primary duty is to send their children, faithfully for parish-based catechism classes. Some insist that regular family prayer is the norm. Others believe that their children must be regularly involved in parish activities. Are they all right? Or are all missing something? Nick Chui sits down with Fr Erbin Fernandez, our Archdiocesan Director of Catechesis and discovers some very clear and surprising answers.
Many Catholic families would really like to know, "What should I be doing to catechize my children?"
Many people hear the word catechesis and straight away think of the handing on of doctrinal propositions i.e "how many sacraments are there?", "name the 6th commandment?" and being familiar with the stories in the Bible. Now doctrine and Bible stories are essential in catechesis. Nevertheless, they are not the goal of catechesis. The goal of catechesis is ultimately aimed at putting children (and adults!) in contact and intimate relationship with the person of Christ. (General Directory of Catechesis, GDC #80) Doctrinal propositions are essential guide posts and lamps in helping people encounter the person of Christ. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC #89) They are not to be confused with Christ himself. If you do that, you would be akin to confusing accurate statements about another human being with the human being himself. In the case of Christ, our human experiences are the road to union with him. Nevertheless, without the light of doctrine, the path to union with Christ will necessarily be confused and unclear as divine revelation teaches us that our human experiences are fundamentally ambiguous.
With regards to your remarks in your initial opening paragraph, all three tasks i.e. bringing children to parish based catechism classes, saying family prayer and being involved in parish activities are important steps in helping children encounter the person of Jesus Christ. They are distinct tasks but they are related and not separated from each other.
Many parents will say that what you have just shared sounds pretty diffiicull! They feel inadequate to the task...
I think it is first of all important to differentiate between the so-called doctrinal dimensions of catechesis i.e. explaining to children the nature of the Mass, the sacraments, and the so-called human dimension. Many parents feel inadequate and ill-equipped to provide doctrinal formation to their children. That is understandable. They can of course attend the various courses and faith formation sessions available in the parishes or at the Singapore Pastoral Institute. Moreover, that is where the role of the parish catechist comes in. Parish catechists are after all volunteers who feel that they are a bit more familiar with the faith and thereby hope to transmit it to others.
Nevertheless, parents and children should feel very at ease and are already probably doing the natural human tasks which all families do i.e, eating together, going out for a family trip and having enriching conversations. The task for us at the Catechetical office is to help parents see that their very natural tasks are potentially charged with supernatural meaning. Take for example a family meal. Families, Christian or not, do that all the time. However, enlightened by the light of Catholic faith, you can help your children (and children can help their parents!) to see that like Jesus who shared table fellowship with all kinds of people, the very act of sharing a meal indicates a shared space where everybody is equal in dignity and that their opinions which will inevitably be shared over table conversation are treated with respect (though not necessarily agreement!). The enriching conversation that follows will be a model of dialogue and reciprocity and teaches that we can enrich each other with our experiences and even disagree without being disagreeable. Neglect regular family meals and we will create a culture within a family where everybody simply feeds i.e. fill their bellies rather than eat i.e enjoying food and conversation. When we simply feed, we really become less than human. I can multiply such ordinary examples, taking holidays, going to the beach together, visiting relatives. These are ordinary human experiences. But they are charged with supernatural meaning especially when understood in the light of the Gospel.
Are there special moments in the life of children where catechesis can be potentially very fruitful?
I am very influenced by the writings and experience of Dr. Sofia Cavalletti, the co-founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd on this point. She has identified 3 particular stages in the life of a child that are potentially powerful moments for a profound catechesis. For the 3-6 year old child, the image of the Good Shepherd gathering his sheep calling each one by name is very significant. They need that image of being loved and cared for and God is portrayed as such. This is the age of tremendous wonder for
them and they are constantly struck with a sense of joy about all they see, touch and taste. For the 6-9 year old child the bibilical image that speaks most to their heart is the Vine and Branches. They are beginning to discover the other and have a need to be connected with others and God. This period also begins the age when they reason things out for themselves. For the 9-12 year old child, they move into the period of yearning for justice and they want to know their place in the world and the quest for meaning becomes very important. They are introduced to huge timelines of biblical, church and world history. They want to know the "big picture" - what is my purpose for being here in the world?
There would be many parents who would share "I have checked all my Catholic boxes but my child has recently come up to me and declare that he/she no longer wants to go to Church." As a priest, what would you say to parents [and children) in such situations?
It would take a lot of courage on the part of parents but in my view parents should see this as an opportunity and an indication that they should do a thorough examination of their lives to discover why their children do not wish to follow in their footsteps and embrace the Catholic faith. Very often, their children, by rejecting the faith of their parents, uncover their parent's biases and moral blind spots and this can be an opportunity for purification. That would be much better than a typical reaction where parents first force their children to return to the practice of the faith by lots of pressure and, after having done so and failing abandon their children to themselves.
After admitting and examining what they have done wrong and how by their actions they may have been a counter-witness to their children in the practice of the faith, parents can then keep up an authentic dialogue of life with their children and show that they understand that their child is ultimately on a quest to discover authentic happiness. In that quest, it involves testing the paradigm of faith their parents are living to discover if that is truly the path that leads to authentic happiness. If parents can accept that, then dialogue can happen and they can understand, tolerate (but not necessarily endorse) their children's immediate actions which are often heart-breaking. It is a time of heart-break to be sure. But God can draw great good from apparent tragedy. As such it can also very well be a time of re-establishing new and deeper relationships between parent and child and between God and the entire family!
Thank you very much!
by The Family LifeLine