Thursday, February 28, 2013

Making Class More Like Mass: Beyond the Catechist's Toolbox

Catechists sometimes wonder why students often seem disinterested, disinclined to participate in class, despite efforts to make class engaging. Joe Paprocki has stepped up to challenge that paradigm with a great new book: Beyond the Catechist's Toolbox: Catechesis That Not Only Informs But Transforms (Loyola Press)

Paprocki hits the nail on the head when he says the problem is not with the message we are delivering in catechesis, nor in ourselves, but "with our method of delivery, which for many learners, feels just like another class period in a long school day."  The problem, he points out, is that too often, we are merely "reading the textbook" - using it as the only (or nearly the only) tool for catechesis. Even when catechists use audiovisual technology, games or other activities, these pretty much echo the same educational approach experienced in the dayschool classroom.

Yet, the aim of catechesis, the General Directory for Catechesis tells us, is "to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ" (80) It is not supposed to be just another class, but an experience that should open students to the presence of God.

When I was sent out on diocesan Catholic school observations a few years back, how well the teacher-catechist made that distinction between academic subjects and "religion class" was one criterion for evaluation. That should apply to the catechetical session as well. Paprocki's book is a recognition of the reality that if we give students textbooks, pencils and learning activities rooted in secular pedagogy, instead of those rooted in divine pedagogy, we are not forming kids in faith, but simply teaching religion.

Catechesis, Paprocki says, "is about more than information. It is about transformation." In this 90-page book, he outlines some methods to help catechists teach using any textbook as a toolbox but teaching "beyond the book"- in a climate "permeated with prayer," making class "more like Mass." How? by including  "the language of mystery" - sign and symbol, ritual and gesture, silence, song, story and myth.

To do that, he says, we don't ADD blessings, anointings, liturgical symbols, processions and other "Catholic" things to the textbook content, but rather translate the content into that language of mystery. Using the 4-step process from the Loyola Press Finding God series, Paprocki outlines how to create a climate of prayerfulness from the moment students enter the room, using ritual action, sacred music, prayer, and lectionary-based reflection. He explains how to engage students by letting them "enter through their door" but drawing them back to varying prayer experiences, including Ignatian guided reflections, interspersed with reading from the textbook and engaging in learning activities that culminate in some form of assessment, followed by closing prayer, sign of peace, music and a ritual of sending forth, again echoing the elements of the Mass.

Paprocki describes this process as "teaching faith as a second language." I call it giving kids "Catholic bones." By infusing the catechetical session with "smells and bells" and liturgical elements, the catechists lets students experience sacred space and sacred time - and to begin to know what it is that makes the time they spend being formed in faith different from the rest of their learning day.

I recommend that every catechist read this book with a prayerful openness and decide which elements he or she can comfortably begin to introduce into their sessions. That could only improve the experience of learning about faith.

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