Category Archives: Education

Faith Formation Series: Prayer and Posture

My last post in this Faith Formation Series explored the possibility that parents and teachers can sometimes get in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of children, even though that is not our intent. I introduced to us some questions that might serve as “a catechist’s examination of conscience.” In this post, I am unpacking the first three questions. As we walk through them, let’s open our hearts intentionally to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Question #1: Do I enter into this formational work with prayer, asking for God’s will and not my own to be accomplished?

I could reference a litany of scriptures and saints here when it comes to the principle that we should bathe every effort and action in prayer. We instinctively know this, but it is often our tendency to plunge into a class or a conversation with our own agenda firmly in place. How much better to resolve to start every movement with humble prayer, with a recollected heart that seeks God’s will to replace our own. Proverbs 19:21 holds a lot of wisdom for us on this issue: “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” We want to start with prayer because we want God’s purpose to be the one that is established in our lessons (formal or informal) with children.

I’ve often seen bumper stickers with the question: Have you prayed about it? We know it’s the reminder that we need in many areas of life, but we so often forget to pray and ask for God’s direction. We get into the habit of making plans without running them by God; and when it comes to passing on the faith to the next generation, our unchecked methods seem good to us. What’s at risk? Scripture warns us: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12; Proverbs 16:25). Let’s pause there. That might seem like a heavy statement to apply to catechetical work. Surely, we might say, none of my words or methods regarding faith formation are going to lead to death! But the truth is that our posture, tone, emphasis, words, and methods—if not led by the Spirit—can often cause death in the spiritual life of a child. The stakes are high. Have we asked for God’s purpose and spirit to be establish in our words and actions?

Question #2: Am I recognizing the child as a person made by God in his image, or am I trying to remake the child into an image of myself? 

We must always remember that discipleship is about making “little Christs”—not miniature versions of ourselves. We are all unique individuals, and there is great diversity in the body of Christ. Catholicism is a big tent in many ways, encompassing a great variety of cultural expressions and devotional aesthetics. Our goal should always be that children become the best version of the unique people that God made them to be, with their unique personalities, charisms and devotional relationship to the Trinity.

The children in our homes and classrooms will not have identical lives of faith to us or anyone else. There will be different gifts and different struggles; they may connect with the Lord in prayer differently than we do. Scripture passages may inspire different ideas for one person than they do for another. As a guide and friend in the journey of faith, we must keep this principle foremost in our minds. We need to ask whether we are giving our own experiences and perspective undue influence on the life of another. We must be careful not to communicate that our devotional experiences are the best to emulate. We need to walk humbly, always pointing the children toward Christ’s example. We would also do well to remember that we can learn much from these children that we don’t already know. Could it be that a child in our midst may lead us to Christ in a new way? I think that God intends that more than we realize.

Question #3: Do I treat the children God has placed under my authority with respect?

I find that culturally we don’t talk enough about respecting the personhood of the child. Of course, children are to show parents and teachers due respect, as these individuals have been deputized by God as spiritual authority figures in their lives. But the principle of treating other human beings with respect is irrespective of age and authority position. In fact, teachers and parents are under a greater obligation to demonstrate and teach respect by their own behavior towards the children in their midst. Children learn how to respect others by being treated with respect; and that respect is due them simply because they are human beings created in the image of God.

Our behavior towards them communicates whether we believe they have worth. There are various behaviors that will reveal a respectful or disrespectful attitude toward children. Do we take their questions and concerns seriously? Are we careful not to offend their sensitivities or convictions? Do we act as if their ideas are silly or uninteresting? Do we hold our place of authority over them in arbitrary ways? Ultimately, respect for children reflects whether we as parents or teachers see ourselves as under God’s authority.

We will continue to unpack the remaining questions in our “catechist’s examination of conscience” in the next post.

Faith Formation Series: Getting in the Way

In my previous post in this series on faith formation, I discussed the role of parents and teachers in passing on the faith. I shared how it is the Holy Spirit who is the molder of our children’s minds and hearts, and that we parents and teachers have the privilege of being tools in our Lord’s hands. The Holy Spirit is at work in the children’s lives and hearts from the moment of baptism (CCC 1265-1266). Therefore, we are at the service of the Holy Spirit in this formation process; we want to cooperate with the Spirit in our work, and in no way do we want our methods of catechesis to interfere with the work that he is doing in the children’s hearts. 

Now, rarely do we intend to get in the way of the Holy Spirit in any aspect of our lives; but all of us can honestly say that we often do so nonetheless. We are disciples in progress, on a journey of holiness ourselves. That is why regular examination of conscience and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are such important means of restoring us to God and keeping our actions under his will and not driven by our own. The Holy Spirit reveals truth to our hearts when we regularly get quiet with him and ask for clear sight and understanding. 

Just so, we can follow a type of examination of conscience in reviewing our conduct as teachers of the faith. We need to regularly get quiet and check in with the Spirit, especially when faith formation is going poorly in the home or in the classroom, and ask him to show us if and how we are interfering with his methods. In light of the guiding principle that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to children since children are persons just like us adults, capable of digesting the living ideas of our faith and responding to the Holy Spirit in a life of prayer, I offer us some questions that might serve as “a catechist’s examination of conscience”:

  • Do I enter into this formational work with prayer, asking for God’s will and not my own to be accomplished?
  • Am I recognizing the child as a person made by God in his image, or am I trying to remake the child into an image of myself? 
  • Do I treat the children God has placed under my authority with respect?
  • Am I introducing children to the living ideas of church teaching and Scripture, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through the inspired words; or am I giving them second-hand religious knowledge?
  • Am I cultivating an atmosphere of discovery and wonder as we explore the mysteries of our faith and knowledge of God, or am I presenting the faith in a way that prevents children from engaging their minds and hearts?
  • Do I think of religious education as the deposit of information into children’s minds or as the formation of truth and the embodiment of the Church’s teaching in the daily life of the person?

There is a lot for us to meditate on in this list, and in upcoming posts in this series I will be unpacking each of these questions so that we can meditate more deeply on them. These questions help us to reflect on the atmosphere, ideas, and habits of our faith formation practices. In the last post, I introduced British education reformer Charlotte Mason, who has a great deal of insight to offer us in regard to considering the atmosphere, living ideas, and habits of religious education. As we work through these questions, I will introduce some of Mason’s principles, which are anchored in the primacy of the work of the Holy Spirit and the dignity of human persons. As we unpack these questions together, a few at a time, we will be opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit; and we will be able to listen to his voice and discern guiding principles by which we can approach faith formation with great joy.

Faith Formation Series: What’s Your Role?

When approaching the project of passing on the faith to our children, whether we be parents or catechists, we often wrongly conceptualize the teacher-student relationship. Our mindset has been influenced by decades of various educational systems that approach pedagogy from the perspective that teachers deposit information into the brains of children (a very modernist and anti-Catholic understanding of knowledge and the human person, by the way; but I won’t unpack that idea here). This perspective wrongly assumes, among many things, that the transmission of knowledge is moving in one direction—from teacher to student; and operating from that starting point, what other incorrect assumptions might we make? I can think of two problematic ones that we need to root out. 

#1: There is little that children will teach me. 

To be honest, I don’t expect that many adults would come out and say this; but I do see plenty of evidence from our teaching methods, our posture, and our tone that we interiorly hold this expectation. We don’t behave as if we expect children to teach us about God. But why not? We can’t have read much of the gospels if we believe that to be true. Jesus says:

 “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:16-17).

Jesus is saying that we have everything to learn from children. We have to actually become like them to be part of his kingdom. I would say that he intends us to gain much knowledge of himself and how we are to love him through our interactions with children. This ought to be a fundamental starting point for our posture as parents or catechists who want our children to know and love God. Moreover, it seems that it is in those interactions of passing on the faith to them that we learn with them and from them what loving God looks like. 

#2: I am forming the children.

Many adults have come to believe that the parents and teachers are the “molders” of children, taking them in their ignorant state and transforming them into enlightened human beings. But if this is our mindset, then we have forgotten who is the true Potter (Jeremiah 18:6). It is not our hands on the clay, but our Lord’s hands. It is not our spirit and mind being transferred or duplicated in them, but rather the Holy Spirit giving them the mind of Christ. Our role is important, but we are not the molders; we are simply faithful tools in the Potter’s hands. Children are born whole persons, created in the image of God, and as such they are able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and respond directly. It is He who is forming the children.

By being responsive to the Holy Spirit ourselves, we can correct these wrong assumptions and see our role as parents and teachers with fresh eyes. If we have a great deal to learn from and with children, and if we see ourselves at the service of the Holy Spirit, then how should we describe our role in the formation process? 

British education reformer, Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), offers us her teacher’s motto of “guide, philosopher, and friend,” which I find to be just as applicable to religious education as it is in any classroom (Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 32). In passing down our faith we can be guides, because we have navigated the road of faith before them. We have valuable experiences to share. We are philosophers because we should be introducing to them the fundamental questions, directing them to the fundamental truths that are discoverable about God. (This question and answer model is, after all, the format that the child’s Catechism takes.) Finally, we are friends with the children. And the use of the word “friend” should not mistakenly convey any lack of authority on the teacher’s part; quite the contrary, we have been deputized with authority by Christ to follow his example of friendship with children (Mason, Parents and Children, p. 14). 

Let us prayerfully consider what a difference can be made in our re-imagining of our role in passing on the faith to the children in our midst. It is a privileged position indeed; and I am convinced that it is one that will return the greatest blessings to ourselves. For through this relationship with children we will better know our Father.  

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Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. A philosophy of education.

Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. Parents and children.