Concerning Religious Education

October 18, 2010

Religious education classes started here in the parish a couple of weeks ago. As always, there were a lot of last minute registrations and a resulting scramble to get class lists together but the staff managed to get things together and the classes up and running. As many of you know, I taught at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton for a number of years. While the chief mission of the seminary is the formation of priests, St. John’s also offers a lay formation program where men and women may pursue a masters in pastoral ministry. Over the course of my time there, a number of efforts were undertaken by the faculty to develop better teaching skills and methodologies. One document that framed our discussions was an apostolic exhortation from Pope John Paul II entitled, “Pastores dabo vobis” – “I shall give you shepherds.” Addressed to both clergy and laity, the document is concerned with the formation of men for priesthood. Among many things, John Paul strives to foster a program of formation that allows the man to become a ‘bridge” to God and not a barrier. In seeking to do so, he calls for seminary programs that focus on four areas: human formation, theological formation, spiritual formation, and pastoral formation, each of which carries its own weight and merit, none of which is more important than the other.

While I do not have the space or the inclination in this column to delve into a full treatment of the document, I do think that there are elements of its teachings that can be easily applied to the education and formation of the children. Over the next few posts, I would like to look at categories of human, spiritual, theological, and pastoral formation and see how we can adapt them so as to direct and foster the life and growth of our children. For example, in the context of a seminary, theological formation has very specific and intense goals that are directed towards a man preparing for priesthood, often involving 4-6 years of studies in both philosophy and theology. Within the context of religious education in the parish, theological formation is probably better understood as catechetical formation in which families and teachers strive to educate the children in the basic tenets and doctrines of our Catholic faith.

One point of interest is worth mentioning here. While the four categories enumerated in “Pastores dabo vobis” are treated within the document as separate categories, John Paul makes it very clear that none of these categories exists as separate categories within the human person but that each of the categories blends one into the other. The person who is at one moment learning theology in the classroom is at the same moment a human being with his own prayer, worship and spiritual life. That reality impacts how he or she hears, interprets, and absorbs what is being taught. The person who is sitting in a chapel praying, in a sense “doing” spiritual formation, is the same person who has been spending time in a classroom learning theology. What he or she is learning in the classroom will obviously in someway affect the manner in which they now pray or worship. Indeed, one of the tenets of our faith is as we pray, so we believe. Now when we look at the catechetical formation of our children we can see how important it is that they not just be formed in the classroom but that they also be formed in the chapel and how what they learn in the classroom is enacted within the prayer and worship of the church.