Over the past few weeks, I introduced two “discipleship plans.” One was from Pope Francis. Another one came from Father Mike Schmitz. These are important today for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the world needs you. The world needs disciples. 40 years ago, Russian writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 gave a commencement speech to Harvard University graduates. The talk was entitled “A World Split Apart.” The Nobel Prize winner took the West to task on a variety of topics. Spiritual depravity and a total rejection of God were two. That dearth of a solid spiritual foundation is worse today. Second, Catholics were never taught this, either in Catholic schools or our religious education programs. So combine the two and one sees the need for something systematic if Roman Catholics are going to be effective witnesses to the faith.
For years, the “religion plan” for Catholics involved three steps. Step one was to “catechize,” or teach, young people about the faith. There were two options. Catholic children could attend “religion class” in Catholic schools. The other option was to receive “religious instruction” using materials from the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine or “CCD” (remember that one?). CCD was an association established in Rome in 1562 for the purpose of providing materials for religious education. The second step was to prepare the young people to receive their sacraments or “sacramentalize” them. Finally, there was the hope that, if the children had been catechized and sacramentalized, a solid faith relationship with Christ and the Church – being “evangelized” – would develop.
To be honest, for years, this approach worked. It was an appropriate model for the multi-cultural, immigrant Catholic church in America. But at some point, this model was no longer effective. The zenith of total religious fervor and participation in the United States was achieved around 1958. This most likely reflected the situation in the Catholic Church as well. So at some point in the 1960’s, the model of “catechize – sacramentalize – evangelize” no longer addressed the spiritual and religious needs of an increasingly sophisticated and educated Catholic population. Catholics were moving out of the Italian-Catholic, Polish-Catholic, Irish-Catholic, Slovak-Catholic cultural Catholic ghettos. They were interacting with an increasingly diverse population. Simple formulas memorized from the Baltimore Catechism would not address an onslaught of questions from an increasingly skeptical secular world. I heard, but have never been able to verify, that a US Bishop’s study on the effectiveness of CCD/Religious Education at this time was so atrocious, that it was never publicly released.
Another issue was a dearth of solid, quality, professionally-produced, relevant Catholic religious materials. The materials and approaches, that young people received in the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, was provided with the best of intentions. In the end, the quality was very poor. Even in the late 1990’s, when I was teaching high school, there was practically nothing available. I made up the lesson plans myself by scrounging materials from a variety of sources. The internet was young and online resources simply did not exist or were primitive. There were some very high-quality materials that were beginning to become available. The trouble was that they were all in print/book form. They were also written with a high level of sophistication. They were at a level that was totally inappropriate and unreachable for high school students, much less grade school students.
A third issue was that Catholics were simply never encouraged to have a “personal relationship with Christ.” That sounded too Protestant. That had an unfortunate effect. Catholic blogger and author Rod Dreher recently wrote about this in Catholics & The ‘Personal Relationship’ With God: “Even today, it is especially sobering to learn that when Pew surveyors asked the question, ‘Which comes closest to your view of God: God is a person with whom people can have a relationship, or God is an impersonal force?’ only 48 percent of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.” This is tragic especially when one looks at the Bible. What held the early disciple’s faith together, even in the face of crushing persecution? They had had a “personal relationship with Christ.” They had met him. They knew him. They had spoken with, ate with, touched, laughed, cried with, lived with – and died with him. It was a solid foundation that could withstand a culture that was not favorable towards Christianity.
What is needed today is to flip the “plan.” What is needed today is an “evangelize – sacramentalize – catechize” model. More on that in the coming weeks.