Teaching our Catholic beliefs

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By Janaan Manternach

As catechists, the best tools we have to guide and assist us in passing on the doctrines of our Catholic tradition are religion textbooks for the students and a teacher’s guide or manual. In most of the contempo­rary programs the dynamic of the typi­cal lesson moves from some significant life experience into a doctrinal teaching and back again to lived experience. For example, a section on the Eucharist will teach about it in relation to com­mon experiences of community, meals, and celebrations. A chapter on Catholic morality or conscience will present the teachings of Jesus and the Ten Com­mandments in relation to experiences of honesty and dishonesty, justice and injustice, poverty, hunger, and failure.

Normally there are three steps in each lesson. Each step is equally impor­tant, and an equal amount of time needs to be allotted to each one.

1. Looking at life: Help the stu­dents discern the story of God in the everyday.
2. Looking at an aspect of our Catholic tradition: Help chil­dren recognize how the story of God or a specific doctrine relates to their everyday lives.
3. Looking at how to live by what has been learned: Invite those you teach to accept God’s pres­ence and activity in their lives and act out of a new awareness of their beliefs and tradition.

Looking at life
The “life experience” step can present a different challenge than the other two steps. For example, I was teaching a group of first graders that Jesus loves them and is with them. The picture in the first step was of a father lovingly walking with his child. One child was not at all comfortable and seemed dis­tracted during the whole class. As the children were leaving the class I pulled her aside and asked, “Are you OK?” She looked at me and said, “I have a daddy but he’s not with me.”

You may have to use more than one visual to depict a life experience. The local newspaper or stories from chil­dren’s literature often contain the les­son you are trying to teach. The more you get to know the students the more resourceful you’ll become.

Teaching our Catholic beliefs
In preparing for the second step it can be helpful to discern how the teaching has meaning in your own life. Children can be deeply influenced by the passion for a belief or truth that they see and feel in a teacher.

Another part of the preparation for the second step is to look thought­fully at the way the doctrinal teaching is depicted while asking yourself how much of it can be learned by seeing as well as hearing.

Incorporate activities like discussing and writing, asking questions, drama­tizing, using music, poetry, and fine art to take the lesson out of the realm of the textbook and into their lives.

How to live by what we have learned
The third step is often unspoken, but may be expressed orally, in writing, in prayer and/or action. At the end of one of our fourth grade classes one of the boys announced, “I’ll never be a bully again.” That wasn’t what we thought might be taken away from the class but we were moved by the way he was going to live what he had learned.

In looking at doctrine, no respon­sible catechist questions the impor­tance of teaching our Catholic beliefs. The real concern is to share authentic Church teachings in such a way that they are related to everyday life; and because of what we believe we should live our lives differently.

For your enrichment
Spend time this month discerning
- what gives you the most joy in being a catechist?
- what is the biggest challenge?
- what have your students written or said that reveal they are growing in their understanding of who they are as Catholic Christians?

A typical faith lesson
with a significant life experience
Move to
teaching doctrine
with lived experience

In 1990, the U.S. bishops developed nine criteria for teaching doctrine when creating catechetical materials. For a copy of the list of criteria, please click here.

Janaan Manternach

Janaan Manternach is an author and master catechist who lives in Dubuque, Iowa.

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