I have to admit, the image of Saint Joan of Arc using her sword to herd all kinds of animals aboard Noah’s ark is intriguing. But it is also disturbing. It is yet another indicator of gaping holes in religious knowledge.
Before we conclude that such ignorance exists only in the general populace and not within our own community of faith, let’s examine our consciences. A frequently cited New York Times poll, taken several years ago, showed that only about a third of American Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. So we need to ask ourselves: Do we really know our faith? Have we acquired the concepts to express what we believe? Even more importantly, are we giving our children – the future of the Church – a solid knowledge of the Church’s teaching and an ability to articulate their faith?
The answer is “yes” and “no.” Some know their faith very well and can express it clearly, accurately, and lovingly. Others have only a very vague idea about basic religious truths and lack the words and concepts they need to describe the faith that is their baptismal inheritance. And all of us – myself included – can and should be growing constantly in our knowledge and love of the Church’s faith.
We rightfully show special concern for children and young people. We want to give them every benefit: good, safe schools; a sound curriculum; up-to-date technology; marketable skills; good social skills; sports and entertainment opportunities. But so often we neglect to give them even the rudiments of religious knowledge. Some aren’t quite sure who or what the Trinity is. Others have hazy and erroneous ideas about Jesus’ identity and mission. Still others falter when asked to recite basic prayers like the Our Father or the Hail Mary.
When one lacks a religious vocabulary, the Mass, the sacraments, and other religious rituals often don’t make sense. The Mass may be in English but, for many, the words of the Mass don’t register in their minds, let alone in their hearts. Even the simplest and best constructed homily seems dry and technical to someone who has almost no grasp of religious language. For example, a homilist may presume that when he uses the word “sacrament” everyone knows what he means. Unfortunately, that presumption isn’t necessarily true. Thankfully, more and more Catholics are recognizing the need for better faith formation for young people as well as for adults. In a recent online survey conducted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – a survey that included nearly 60,000 respondants – nearly 70% said it was important that parishes improve how they support parents in passing on the faith to their children.
Our schools and religious education programs are working hard to address those deficiencies. Under the combined leadership of Dr. Joan Kelly, director of the Diocesan Office of Catechesis, and Mr. Armand Fabbri, superintendent of Catholic schools, we are developing a standard and comprehensive religion curriculum for our elementary and secondary schools and parish religious education programs. But that’s just the first stage. Next we shall review the religion textbooks and resources currently on the market. Only those in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and with our standardized curriculum will be approved for religious instruction. The train has left the station, but we need someone else to climb aboard – the parents – including those that did not respond to the aforementioned survey!
Even the best Catholic school and religious education program will not be successful without the full and loving cooperation of you, the parents of our children. If they are really to learn the faith, they need your help and your commitment. For example, some parents will send their children to religious education classes and Catholic schools but not bring them to Mass on Sunday! Parents need to reinforce what their children learn in religious education by attending Mass with them each and every Sunday and by checking to see if they know the basics of the faith. I’m not talking about complicated theological theories. I’m talking basics.
For starters, here’s a checklist of things your child should know by the time he or she is in the fifth grade:
- Can your child name the three Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity? Is he or she clear that there is One God in Three Persons?
- Does your child know who Jesus is and what He did for us?
- Can your child tell you what the word “sacrament” means? Does he or she know the names of the seven sacraments and something about each one of them?
- Can your child tell you whom he or she receives in Holy Communion? Does he or she know the connection between the Mass and what Jesus did to save us?
- Does your child know how to receive the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation? When is the last time you brought your children to church to participate in that sacrament?
- Does your child know what sanctifying grace is?
- Does he or she know who founded the Church and what her mission is?
- Can your child recite the Ten Commandments?
- Can your child explain the difference between mortal and venial sin?
- Does your child know about heaven, purgatory, and hell?
- Can he or she recite from memory the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, and the Apostles Creed?
- Does your child know who Mary is and who the saints are? Can they tell you what the saints do for us?
If the answer to all these questions is “yes”, please keep doing what you’re doing. But if the answer is “no” – it’s time for some soul searching. After all, parents are the first teachers of the children in the ways of faith. May you be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by word and example.
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