Concerning Religious Education – Part 2
In the last post, I began a discussion on the whole process of religious education of children, placing the process more along the idea of formation rather than education. In this sense, children are formed in the Christian life rather than simply informed about the Christian life. When we live the life of Christ, we do so not just intellectually but also spiritually and humanly. Thus, when raising our children to be Christians we need to talk about human formation, spiritual formation, and intellectual formation.
Before I go any further, though, I need to make a very important point about religious education, one that is pretty self-evident but at times forgotten – parents are the principle educators of their children in the life of faith not the Church. They are the ones who model for their children what it means to be a Catholic. They are the ones who teach them their prayers, who bring them to Mass and lead them in ‘grace’ at mealtimes. They are the ones who teach their children right from wrong. While it is important that children attend religious education classes or Catholic schools, these classes do not replace the education of children in the ways of faith by parents but only support the parents in their efforts to do so. It is fruitless to drop children off at weekly religious ed. classes if they are not praying at home, not being formed in the faith at home or attending the weekly celebration of the Mass. It would be like dropping a child off for a weekly one hour course on “how to read” but not being encouraged to read or being read to at home or ever seeing their parents pick up a book or magazine to read for their own pleasure. What good is the course if there is no follow-up or reinforcement? None. Enough said.
Well, back to the discussion at hand. First, human formation. In the early church, when a man or a woman came forward seeking to become a Christian, an initial inquiry was made about their life at the present: Were they a good person? What did they do for a living? What was their marital status? One couldn’t become a Christian if one was living a dissolute life or living in an irregular marriage or employed as a gladiator or a servant in the pagan temples. The point of all of this was that Christian faith did not infuse a person with goodness or a good life but was built upon the foundation of a good life already present within the person. The same is true today. The Christian faith in each and every one of us is built upon the basic foundation of our human lives. While faith gives us direction and guides us in life, it does not do so in a vacuum.
This is where the human formation of children comes into play. As children grow they must be taught the basic points of right from wrong, of how to get along with others and the rules of fairness and sharing. They see in the behavior of their parents and extended families how people interact in healthy ways. The adults around them model for their children the proper way that people should treat one another. They do so through their language and the way they speak about others and through their behavior towards each other. Children need to be encouraged to treat others with kindness, to respect other people’s property, and to interact appropriately with their peers and with adults. Along with this, children are taught proper respect for their bodies, the basics of health, grooming, and hygiene and appropriate behavior as regards the bodies of others.
Now it is easy to see how upon the foundation of this good basic human formation the teachings of our faith can be clearly grasped by our children when we talk about the dignity of each and every person as created by God in His image. Since the child is already treating others with respect and kindness, it is not all that difficult for them to see what Jesus meant when he taught us that we are all brother and sisters with God as our Father. When they have already seen how their parents reach out in generosity to those who need a helping hand or give of their time and treasure to help those less fortunate, they can then understand Jesus’ teaching about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, and welcoming the stranger. Faith builds on humanity and grace builds on nature. (more to follow)