Friday, June 7, 2013

Teaching the language of faith: 1

When our Catholic schools try to teach religion, and specifically the Catholic faith, they face a problem that is not often recognized. The material based on the Catechism is perfectly fine as far as it goes, and the Compendium of the Catechism and YouCat are of course readily available for use in schools. But there is a serious disconnection between these excellent summaries of doctrine, the teaching and use of Scripture in R.E., the school’s Catholic liturgy, and the curriculum in general.

The secular parts of the curriculum are generally regarded as separate from the more recognizably religious elements. Indeed how could geography or history or mathematics be taught in a way that "connects" with R.E. except by turning these subjects into an excuse for religious propaganda? (The
example of so-called “creation science” comes to mind.) The disconnect between Catechism, Scripture, and Liturgy is of a different sort. These three religious elements clearly have an intrinsic relationship amongst themselves, as the Catechism itself makes plain. But the way they are taught or celebrated, usually for reasons of convenience and efficiency, often does not make this relationship obvious to the pupil, nor is it sufficiently taken into account when teaching and liturgical resources are being prepared.

The separation of these religious elements of the school, taken as a group, from the everyday life of the community is also a problem. In theory, this separation should be overcome by the “ethos” of the school – its values and moral tone. But the definition of ethos is itself in a state of confusion. The ethos of a Catholic school is often reduced to a mere list of Gospel values and pious sentiments, compiled into a mission statement to which no one can be held accountable because no clear meaning can be assigned to it. (The question of ethos has been discussed elsewhere.)

Into this rather confused situation I tentatively suggest an approach that might offer a possibility of integration between these disparate elements. It draws from the Church’s earliest experience of religious education and formation, which was fundamentally mystagogical (by which is meant “leading into the mysteries”). In this approach there is a key to a healing of our schools and a closer relationship between its various elements and dimensions.

Mystagogy is that stage of Catholic catechesis devoted to a deeper understanding of the sacraments and symbols of the Faith. It has always been a necessary part of the instruction offered to neophytes and converts preparing to be received (or shortly after they are received) into the Church. But its potential for encouraging a continuing lively engagement and commitment to faith has not yet been realized. We can use mystagogy to combat the inroads of a secular way of thinking into our schools and parishes. More next time. For more on mystagogy in general, see also here.