|Marianne Alpha, C. V., is Religious Education Coordinator at Our
Lady of the Lake Catholic Church, 1975 Daytona Dr., Lake Havasu City,
With the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
there is a greater emphasis on catechetics. During the past few years
there has been much negative press about existing religious education
programs in this country. Many people voice the opinion that it is not
possible to pass on the Catholic faith in a CCD program.
I have been directing CCD programs for almost twenty years, and I
know from experience that it is possible to have a good religious
education program with students really knowing and practicing the
Catholic faith. Our students evangelize their friends and bring them to
class. Through the example of even our smallest children, whole families
have come back to the Church. Other families have converted to the
Faith, entering the Church through our RCIA program.
Most people are amazed when I tell them that we have more than five
hundred students in grades pre-school through high school. We maintain a
95 percent attendance throughout the program. We have more than one
hundred adults registered and attending the RCIA/Adult RE Class which
meets on Tuesday evening.
And it is possible to have all this in limited space and on a limited
budget. In the seven years I have been in my present parish as religious
education coordinator, we had only two classrooms in our small parish
hall. We also had a classroom set up in the vestibule of the church, and
we had fifteen students in our parish library. So much for not having
When I have given workshops in other parishes outside our diocese, I
have found a real desire on the part of volunteers. The problem is that,
for the most part, they don't know where or how to begin. They tell me
that when they have attended workshops in the past, they have been given
theory but nothing, or not much, that is practical.
I hope this will be a practical guide for beginning or improving an
existing religious education program. All I can offer is my own
experience and the assurance that it does work.
Having practicing Catholics as teachers, and good texts are equally
important. The first step in choosing teachers is prayer. Before I ask
anyone to help in our program, I ask God to direct me not only to choose
the right person but to place that person in the grade best suited for
him or her. I look on this work as a vocation-a call from God. I ask the
teachers to see this work in the same way. Once we realize that this is
God's work and not ours-that He wants his people to know Him and love
Him-we will have the confidence to trust in His help.
All teachers must take part in a series of five workshops each August
and September. They are taught how to handle a class, good discipline
techniques, and lesson planning. Every year we review how to teach the
Sacraments, Traditional Prayers and Commandments. We have a special
workshop on how to teach "Life" in a prodeath society.
At the end of the workshops, the teachers are commissioned as
catechists at a special ceremony during our main Sunday Mass. I speak at
the Masses that weekend, encouraging parents to send their children and
to attend the adult religious ed program as a couple.
Catechists are required to attend the adult religious education class
each week. They also must attend a help session every month. This takes
only twenty minutes and is scheduled on the day they teach. I use this
time to teach them fun ways to review the lessons already covered. It
also gives them a chance to express any particular problems concerning
their grade levels.
We have two teachers in every class, and they are taught to teach as
a team; one is the lead teacher, while the other prepares activities
which reinforce the lesson taught that day. If there is an emergency and
either teacher is absent, the other catechist can handle the entire
class. We are never faced with the problem of coming up with a video to
babysit a class because there isn't a teacher available to substitute.
Choosing the texts
Choosing the right texts is as important as choosing teachers who
live the Catholic faith and are willing to study and grow in knowledge
and love of God and of the Church He founded.
In our program, we use the Faith and Life series published by
Ignatius Press for first through eighth grades. While there are some
other orthodox series, I believe Faith and Life is in a category
all by itself.
When we changed to this series, our program really came alive. Before
we began, I was concerned about the reading level of the texts and even
wrote to the parents assuring them that we would take the higher reading
level into consideration as we prepared our classes. To my delight, the
students responded enthusiastically the very first day they used this
series. Catholic truth is the attraction in our religious education
Parents are particularly pleased with knowing what their children are
learning. It is all in the books the students bring home, unlike some
other series which contain most of the information given to students
only in the teacher's manual. Many parents who have never had the
opportunity to learn the truths of the Faith are studying along with
The greatest reward for me, personally, is to be able to hold a
conversation with students on every grade level about the Catholic
faith. These conversations are initiated by the students and are usually
about ideas that come to them as they think about the truths learned.
The Truth has become a part of their life.
We have been using this series since the 1990-1991 school year. At
the end of the first year, during a Sunday mass, I happened to be
sitting behind one of our First Communicants and his family. Since the
Gospel was from the sixth chapter of Saint John, our pastor was giving a
homily on the Eucharist. I was delighted to see the child nodding his
head periodically in agreement with the priest.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the enthusiasm of the
catechists for this series. Some of them have come from other RE
programs with little depth. I refer to those programs as consisting of
balloons, butterflies and collages. A few of the new teachers have been
apprehensive about teaching so much to students. However, by the end of
our workshops and especially after teaching in a class or two, they have
been the greatest supporters of the Faith and Life series.
For the pre-school and kindergarten classes, we use the Image of
God series, also from Ignatius Press. It is the best I've ever seen
for this age group.
Sex ed? No thanks!
On the junior and senior high school level we use a variety of
material. Our ninth grade is the closest we come to "sex
education." Since sex education has been a complete failure in the
public schools and the source of great confusion in Catholic school and
RE programs, we see no reason to be a part of it. Instead we spend a
year studying Catholic morality-the theology of the body-which has been
developed and presented on many occasions by Pope John Paul II.
I teach this class and use The Wonder of Human Sexuality
available from Leaflet Missal Co. We also use material from Human Life
International and Womanity. We also have some excellent videos which
have become part of this year of study.
My emphasis in this class is on God's will for this great gift He has
given us, as opposed to the emphasis on sexual gratification which
inundates us in our society and in the media. I teach the students that
"self-esteem" and "self-worth" follow when we
realize that we are created in God's image, that each one of us is a
unique, unrepeatable reflection of God with a special mission from Him.
Because of these truths and the awesome fact that God loved us enough to
become one of us and redeemed us, we already have value. Our
"value" or "worth" does not come from ourselves.
Beginning with the first three chapters of Genesis, following Pope
John Paul II, we study the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual
love and why it must take place only within the sanctity of married
life. Outside marriage it is a lie which acts out a unity which does not
exist. We also study sexual sins. I want the students to not only know
what is sinful but why it is so.
Following Humanae Vitae, I teach that the use of
contraceptives is intrinsically evil, destroying the gift of self which
must be complete within marriage. By God's grace we can remain chaste
before marriage, and this will prepare us for a chaste married life. I
give them what I call three things we must do if we wish to guard
chastity: daily prayer, weekly Mass, monthly confession.
Most of this material is reviewed during the final year of
confirmation preparation, when I teach the commandments. Tenth and
eleventh grades are combined into one class for a two-year intense
preparation for Confirmation. I teach these students the same material
found in the RCIA/Adult RE Class which I shall describe below.
We use the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Our goal is to
bring the students to Confirmation prepared to live the Catholic Faith
in its fullness, to understand it themselves and be eager to share it
Students are given a test at the end of each of these two years
consisting of a set of moral and theological problems. They must answer
using quotations from Scripture and Catholic teaching. They must make
100 on each test. A few examples at the end of this article.
We teach about abortion throughout our program. In grades 1 through 5
the teachers read Before You Were Born and discuss it only as
initiated by the children. This is a beautiful story book published by Our
Sunday Visitor. It gently introduces students to the development of
the unborn child.
This prepares them for the class on abortion which I teach in each of
our sixth grades. I use photographs of a premature baby's treatment in a
hospital nursery. I also use models of pre-born children at different
stages of development.
Students at this age need special sensitivity on the part of the
teachers. They appear more sophisticated than they really are. They
often express themselves very maturely but have no idea what they are
For example, one year a sixth grade girl made an emotional statement
about coat hangers, stating that women will have to use them if
abortions are made illegal. A boy in the class asked what coat hangers
were for, anyway. She didn't know! She had obviously heard the argument
on the evening news or one of the talk shows.
In the Junior and Senior High we teach the economics of abortion and
euthanasia as well as the moral questions. We use videos as well as a
special class on fetal experimentation and assisted suicide and other
areas which seem to be proliferating in our prodeath society. Most of
the material used is available from HLI.
During the last two years of Confirmation preparation, students write
letters to public officials praising or deploring their stand on life
issues. I am always gratified at election time when I receive phone
calls from former students asking where the candidates stand on abortion
and related issues.
We have had parents who didn't understand a program with meat in it.
Some are our greatest supporters now but others, sadly, have left or
continue dissatisfied that there aren't more balloons, field trips, arts
and crafts, soccer games and parties.
Most of the time, however, we have parents react as one did recently.
After observing a junior high class, one mother, new to our parish,
raved about what her child is learning. She said "The church we
left is still playing hangman with the kids and here, they are learning
something. I've never seen anything like this in my life."
God has blessed us here and it all works together. Students in the
religious education program know what Catholic life is all about. They
often bring their own parents close to the Church. What is taught in
class is reinforced at Mass and vice versa. The result is a vital parish
with people of a vibrant faith.
CONFIRMATION CLASS TEST
Answer questions using the Bible and Catholic teaching, not your
opinion. Write at least 3 sentences and no more than 6 sentences for
1. John tells you that Jesus was a great teacher like Buddha or
Mohammed but not God. How would you defend the Incarnation using the
Bible and Catholic teaching?
2. Mary says Confirmation is no big deal and you are wasting your
time in class. Explain the Holy Spirit's place in our lives and the
importance of Confirmation.
3. Hilary tells you that she doesn't need to confess her sins to a
man, as Catholics do. She goes right to God to tell Him she is sorry.
Explain to her why Catholics go to confession and why we know we're
forgiven if we are sorry and confess our sins to a priest. Use a quote
from the Bible.
4. Joe says that Mass isn't important. You can pray anywhere, and the
Eucharist is just a piece of bread. Explain Catholic belief in the Real
Presence and answer his other statement, using the Bible and Church
5. Margie confides to you that she is pregnant and thinking of
abortion. She says the Catholic Church just made up this law against
abortion because it hates women. Answer her.
6. Your mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. She wants you to
promise to kill her if the pain gets too bad. What can you promise her?
What is necessary and unnecessary treatment?
7. Mike is thinking of having a vasectomy so that he and his wife
won't have any more children. They have two now. What could you tell him
to really help him, in line with Church teaching?
8. Zach and Michelle are Catholics. They tell you they are going to
live together, that they don't need a piece of paper to make them love
one another. Explain the beauty of the Sacrament of Matrimony and God's
will for marriage.