Make sure your religion classes reflect a distinctive Catholic identity.
By Joe Paprocki
Analyzing Our “Catholic DNA”
Among the tools that CSI (Crime Scene Investigators) have at their disposal is DNA testing. The “information” in DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is stored like a code which, when studied by forensic scientists, can establish a person’s identity. When it comes to Catholic identity, DNA may not quite be the answer. However, there are concrete ways that we can recognize Catholic identity. If we were to put Catholics “under the microscope” and examine the characteristic building blocks of Catholicism, we would find the following characteristics:
- a sense of sacramentality
- a commitment to community
- a respect for the dignity of human life and a commitment to justice
- a reverence for tradition, and
- a disposition to faith and hope, not despair.
While Catholic identity is formed in and through the family, the community, and the parish, one very powerful and privileged vehicle for shaping Catholic identity is the religion class in the Catholic school. Let’s take a look at 15 ways that religion teachers in Catholic schools can strengthen Catholic identity in and through their religion classes.
A Sense of Sacramentality
Ultimately, sacramentality deals with the question of “where is God?” For Catholics, the answer is, as Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught us, “in all things.” We recognize God’s presence (and transcendence) in all of creation: All of reality bears God’s presence. The Catholic sacramental experience provides us with channels of grace through which we encounter God’s presence in daily life.
- Walls that Talk: No doubt you are familiar with the phrase, “If these walls could talk …” Well, Catholic walls do talk. Traditional Catholic churches were built with walls and windows that articulated the Catholic faith through stained glass, statues, paintings, murals, and more. Don’t be shy about bringing these elements into your religion class and displaying them in a tasteful manner. Well-placed icons, statuettes, pictures, and posters can help young people to visualize Scripture stories, Mary and the saints, and Jesus, and Church teachings. The centerpiece of the Catholic environment should be a prayer table that is placed front and center; is draped with a cloth representing the liturgical season; and is arranged with a Bible, a crucifix or other sacred image, a bowl of holy water, and a candle.
- Processions: We Catholics pray with our bodies; we stand, sit, kneel, bow, genuflect, and so on. For Catholics, one of the most popular forms of praying with our bodies is participating in processions. We can utilize processions in our religion classes in a myriad of ways, the simplest of which is inviting children to process around the room with the objects mentioned above for the prayer table (cloth, crucifix, Bible, and so on) accompanied by music (either recorded or sung) before reaching the prayer table where they can reverently place the objects in procession. This can become a daily ritual.
- Rituals and Gestures: The “sameness” of rituals provides a sense of security for children who live in a rapidly changing world. Introduce them to some of the rituals and gestures that we use at Mass. For example, begin each class by inviting the children to trace a cross, using their thumb, on their forehead, lips, and heart as together you say aloud, “May the Word of God be in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts.” Likewise, you can introduce ritual greetings, alternating them each day. For example, you can greet them by saying, “This is the day the Lord has made,” teaching them to respond, “Let us rejoice and be glad!” Or, “Our help is in the name of the Lord …” “… who made heaven and earth.” Or finally, “Blessed be God …” “… now and forever,” just to name a few.
A Commitment to Community
Catholicism is Trinitarian, meaning that we believe in the communal nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- one God, three persons. In light of this, Catholicism is inherently communal- we are not simply a loose association of like-minded people. We are the Body of Christ. Because God is our Father, we are all brothers and sisters with the responsibility to care for one another.
- Invite Intercessory Prayer: One of the ways that we Catholics exemplify our communal nature is at Sunday Mass when we offer the General Intercessions (petitions). We pray for the needs of our community, our nation, our world, our Church, and especially for those who are sick and those who have died. You can reinforce the notion of our solidarity with one another by always inviting the children to bring their needs to prayer. For those who are less vocal, offer opportunities for intercessions to be written either in a book of prayers or on paper that is folded and placed in a box or in a bowl.
- Emphasize the Communion of Saints: Catholics know that our communal bonds are not broken by death. Young people are often grappling with the first loss of a loved one- perhaps a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. Make a special effort to invite children to mention the names of loved ones who have died and to do so on a regular basis so that they become more comfortable with this practice and come to recognize that we are still in relationship with those who have died and that our prayers can help them and their prayers can help us. The Communion of Saints provides us with a “network” (something like the one promised by a certain wireless phone carrier) that follows us wherever we go!
- Celebrate Birthdays and Feast Days: Create a calendar that indicates when your students’ birthdays and feast days fall and draw attention to these occasions with a small celebration that includes a prayer for the individual. Recognition of a person’s birthday and/or feast day is a powerful way of letting an individual know that he or she is a treasured part of a community. For a calendar of saints’ feast days and an index of patron saint names, visit AmericanCatholic.org.
Respect for the Dignity of Human Life and Commitment to Justice
Because of its Incarnational nature, Catholicism emphasizes the dignity of very human being, which in turn serves as the foundation of our moral vision. The only way to protect human dignity and to live in a healthy community is for each of us to accept our responsibility to protect those rights in our own interactions and through service to others.
- The Corporal Works of Mercy: All Christians are called to practice what we preach. For Catholics, we practice the Gospel through the Corporal Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, and burying the dead. Post these works of mercy in your religion classroom and remind the kids that these are typically not dramatic acts- they are everyday acts of kindness and compassion for the physical wellbeing of others.
- Morality and the Ten Commandments: Catholic schools have always had a well-deserved reputation for emphasizing moral values, and the religion class is the locus of this formation. See to it that your students have taken the Ten Commandments to heart (memorized them). Be a consistent enforcer (not a drill sergeant, but rather a moral compass) of good moral conduct, reminding the children that love of God and love of neighbor cannot be separated. Post the Commandments in your religion classroom along with the Beatitudes and other teachings about conscience formation and moral principles.
- Global Concerns: Agencies and efforts such as the Holy Childhood Association and Catholic Relief Services (Operation: Rice Bowl in particular) allow children the opportunity to practice the Catholic social teachings of solidarity, an option for the poor and vulnerable, and the life and dignity of the human person. By involving your students in these charitable efforts, you can help them to recognize that love of neighbor is global.
A Reverence for Tradition
We believe that God reveals himself to us through not only the words of Scripture, but also through the traditions of the Church. The living tradition includes the lives and writings of the saints and the teachings of the Church as handed down through Church documents and writings.
- The Lives of the Saints: Learning and studying the lives of the saints is a time-honored method for developing a deeper relationship with God. Place the name of the saint of the day on the board and share a little background about that saint. Place pictures of saints in your religion classroom. So as to avoid some of the dour faces often portrayed on saints’ images, take a look at Patrons and Protectors: Occupations, a set of 5″ x 7″ prints from Liturgy Training Publications.
- Use the Bible: As a catechist, I once planned on doing a Bible activity with my students. Unfortunately, upon distributing the Bibles that were stored in the classroom, I found that they were covered in a layer of dust! It was obvious these Bibles were not being used. Do your best to see to it that the next generation of Catholics does not grow up biblically deprived! use Bibles often in your religion classes, teaching the kids how to locate passages. For help, see my book God’s Library: A Catholic Introduction to the World’s Greatest Book (Loyola Press). For kid-friendly versions of the Bible, see Saint Mary’s Press for Breakthrough! The Bible for Young Catholics.
- Don’t Forget Those Traditional Prayers: Traditional prayers are like family heirlooms, passed one from one generation to another, providing us with words we can pray individually when we can’t find our own words, as well as words we can pray together communally. Post the words of traditional Catholic prayers in your religion classroom and take the time to help the children take them to heart (I like that phrase better than the word memorize!), using them as part of your opening and closing prayers.
A Disposition to Faith and Hope, Not Despair
Catholics are a people of hope. We see the world as good. We have an optimistic worldview, fueled by our belief that God loves us so much that he gave us his only Son. This worldview calls us to be evangelizers, eagerly proclaiming the good news of Jesus to others in word and deed.
- Music and Singing: During the Eucharistic prayer at Mass, the priest prays “Lift up your hearts!” One of the best ways we Catholics lift our hearts is through song. Traditional and contemporary hymns not only provide us with a way to lift our minds and hearts to God, but their lyrics also teach: Hymns are catechetical! Younger children especially love to sing. Older children may not be as enthusiastic about singing but they do love to listen to music, so don’t hesitate to bring in CDs or your iPod. One good source for both traditional and contemporary Catholic hymns is the Catholic Classics CD series (GIA Publications).
- Live Plants: Because we see the world as good, we commit ourselves to care for it. One of the themes of Catholic social teaching is care for God’s creation. Our care for the earth is an expression of hope and faith in the Creator of all things. As much as is possible, bring in some living plants (nothing that will cause allergic reactions, of course!) and invite the children to cooperate in caring for them. Consider ivy, ficus, mother-in-law tongue, philodendrons, and ferns- just to name a few.
- We Give You Thanks: Recently, I saw a bumper sticker that read, “If it’s not one blessing, it’s another!” How refreshing and how true. Often, it is too easy for us to get caught up in negativity and cynicism. Catholicism, on the other hand, is a Eucharistic faith, and the word eucharist means thanksgiving! Make every religion class a time of thanksgiving. Begin every religion class by inviting the children to mention prayerfully what they are thankful for: a good breakfast, success on a tough assignment, a nice weekend with their family, a big win for their team, and so on. Help your children to live up to the words of Preface at Mass: “We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.”
In his second-century defense of Christians, Church father Tertullian wrote that pagans in Rome often commented about the Christians, saying, “See how they love one another.” Christian love must be manifested. The religion class in a Catholic school is not the only place where this way of life is taught, but it is a crucial and privileged place for such formation. By taking steps to make sure that our religion classes reflect a distinctive Catholic identity, we are helping our young people to manifest outwardly the love of Christ that they carry in their hearts so that others may see they good deeds and glorify our heavenly Father (based on Matthew 5:16).
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press in Chicago. He has over 25 years of experience in pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Joe is the author of numerous books on pastoral ministry and catechesis, including God’s Library, Living the Mass, and the best-selling The Catechist’s Toolbox and A Well-Built Faith (all from Loyola Press). Joe, who earned his masters degree in Pastoral Studies from Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, recently received his doctor of ministry degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. Joe serves as an eighth-grade catechist and blogs about the experience at CatechistsJourney.com.
This article was originally published in our April 2009 issue.
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