Q: Whose responsibility is it really to teach our youngsters the Catholic faith?
A: In a few short weeks, many parish religious education programs will get under way in earnest. Like our school teachers who have to deal with the dreaded “summer slump” in the first few weeks when students return to school full time, our volunteer catechists need to pick up where they left off with faith formation programs and sacramental preparation. We “drill” our kids in the Ten Commandments, in the mystery of the Trinity, in the Mass, in the essential prayers of the Catholic faith — the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, especially — and so much more. We pray that the foundation we’re giving them will be just that: the bedrock on which their faith will grow and mature just as they grow and mature.
All the work that directors of religious education and catechists (not to mention priests and parents!) do in religious education leads us to ask: Whose responsibility is it really to teach our youngsters the Catholic faith? Many have lamented the fact that there have been at least two, maybe even three, generations of Catholics who have not learned the faith and so have not passed it along adequately to their children, who have stopped practicing, stopped attending Mass regularly or stopped receiving the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness of sins in confession.
Rather than look at what’s gone wrong, let’s look at what lies ahead and at what we can do together to correct or improve the situation. The Catholic Church is clear when it comes to who should take the lead in forming young people in the faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (2223) and “Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of faith of which they are the ‘first heralds’ for the children. They should associate them from their tenderest years with the life of the Church” (2225). Yes, that can mean enrolling them in religious education when they are first-graders, but it really means bringing young children to Mass from the get-go, making the sign of the cross on them with holy water until they are old enough to do so themselves and much more. Formal education in a classroom is one thing; living the faith at home with prayer time, simple instruction and, above all, Sunday Mass attendance are what parents must not neglect.
But the catechism adds this: “The parish is the eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents” (2226). Note that well: “children and parents.” Parents should review their children’s religious education lessons with them weekly; it’s good for the kids and a refresher for adults as well.
In one respect, by linking religious education with the parish, the Church is keeping things local when possible — making decisions and taking care of problems at the smallest level possible. So, yes, families have as their first responsibility to teach their children the faith. But, they need to turn to, lend their support to and call upon the parish to help them in this task — not criticize and complain about schedules interfering with soccer or dance or you-name-it. Yes, these are important, but we pray our kids will be lifelong Catholics; very few of them will be all-star, lifelong soccer standouts or prima ballerinas.
Pope Francis has said time and again that pastoral work, such as a parish religious education program, must inspire and prepare the faithful to go forth and evangelize. It’s not enough to memorize names and dates and places, though these are important in their own right. In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis reminded us that our parishes should be places of “living communion” between the faithful of all ages and centers of “constant missionary outreach” where all members are encouraged and trained to be evangelizers (28).
So as we prepare to launch another year of parish religious education programs, let’s keep two sets of words in mind: “parents and parish” and “educate to evangelize.” Whose responsibility is it to teach our youth the faith? As Jesus instructed his disciples, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them. It is to just such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mk 10:14)