ORTHODOX CHILDREN'S CATECHISM IS LAUNCHED INTO CYBERSPACE
ERIE, Pa.— This September, millions of middle-school-aged, computer literate students will be pressed into CCD and religious ed. classes, where they will yawn and fidget through the washed-out, watered-down, bland, and boring catechetical materials prepared for them by the liberal catechetical establishment.
That's unfortunate, because they could have a stimulating catechism class on their computers. Though this catechesis is computerized, it has all the personality of one of America's finest professional catechists, Fr. Robert J. Levis of Gannon University.
The program opens with a cheery, "Hi, boys and girls. Welcome. In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, I bless you and welcome you to study about your holy faith. Children have been learning about God, but not like this, not on the computer."
Once the Vatican approved the English edition of the new Catechism, Fr. Levis, 74, who has devoted a lifetime to training graduate-level orthodox catechists, moved into high gear to prepare a catechism for the cyberspace generation, one specifically written for children.
Dedicated to Mary, "the Queen of Heaven, earth, and cyberspace," the Catalog of Faith is a six-disc program for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders which follows the new Catechism, and is presented in a dynamic, even breezy, conversational manner.
"What we've done," he explained, "is simplified the Catechism without taking the muscle out of it for the different grade levels."
Almost every page is accompanied by a color graphic of stained-glass windows, statuary, or other artworks from local churches in Fr. Levis' hometown of Erie, Pa. There are even lots of smiling faces of local children.
Indeed, this cyberspace catechism is user-friendly. Not only is a cheery, upbeat mood maintained throughout the 120 or so lessons, but the program itself, Levis — himself a self-taught computer novice — says, is simple enough for any child to use.
(In fact, after Fr. Levis sent a copy of his Catalog to this reporter, it remained unopened in its package for two months, until my eight-year-old daughter plugged it into my computer while I was away on assignment. She figured out how to use it on her own, even though she had never — ever — played with a computer before.)
And the Catalog is a joy to read as well.
For example, in part I, the Catalog moves rapidly through the Profession of Faith, God Exists, God's Self-Revelation, Sacred Scripture, the Holy Creed, the Holy Trinity, Creation and the Fall of Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ and so on, following the outline of the original Catechism of the Catholic Church itself, but each lesson is offered in the grandfatherly voice of a teacher who loves his faith and children.
As a prelude to teaching the existence of God, Fr. Levis explains:
All children are religious. You come from God and you return to God. You try to serve and love God. You can know God, too, by looking closely at all things He made, both great and small. Look up at the billions of stars and planets in the sky. God made them all. Look down at all the tiny bugs and crawling things. God made them, too. He made everything, especially you! God has revealed Himself. We call this Revelation. God spoke to people about Himself and about you....
The next page discusses Abraham and Moses, the Ten Commandments and the Hebrew prophets, accompanied by a Renaissance-style painting of the Nativity.
A color photograph of the Holy Father accompanies the next page of the text, and the reader learns that the Holy Father and the Catholic bishops of the world wanted the reader to learn about God and the Catholic faith.
The first chapter ends with a statement on God's covenant with His people, and four possible answers to some questions: false, partly true/partly false, true, and I don't know.
A wrong answer brings the cartoon character of Brother Bartholomew to the screen, a little, chubby religious who, says Fr. Levis, "can't get anything right."
"He's a friendly reminder that the student didn't get the right answer, and when he pops up on the screen, the reader knows he has to go back to review the preceding material."
A right answer immediately takes the student to the next chapter, on Scripture, the Revelation of God's word.
What Fr. Levis offers is full-strength Catholicism:
"Who is the most important person in religion?," he asks his young computer whizzes.
"Who tells you all about God? Who tells you what you are, where you come from, and where you are going? Who taught you the Our Father? Who is the central Person in the Gospel? Who is more important than Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament? Who promised to save you? Who gave you the sacraments? Who loves you even more than your dear family?
"The answer is Jesus Christ. All these chats we are having are about Jesus. Every page and every idea is about Jesus. More than anything else, I want you to know Jesus Christ our Lord and to love Him more each time you turn the computer on to read this."
Not A Game
"It's not a video and it's not a game," Fr. Levis told the Wanderer in a recent interview. "This is catechesis in the medium kids are used to.
"This is the very first interactive catechetical project in the world — as far as I know," he said.
The idea for the interactive computer catechism came to him last year when he was returning from a catechetical conference in Australia.
"I was on a plane thinking about a query by Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, who kept goading me with a question, 'What am I going to do for the kids?' He kept asking the question, and I really didn't have any idea. During a 36 hour delayed ride with a terrific holdover in New Zealand, the question kept going through my mind. So, I thought, maybe I could get the engineers at Gannon University to program something. By the time I got to California, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do: two programs, one for little children and one for older ones.
"I wrote the text on my trusty Macintosh, and then, with the help of photographer Paul Lorei, we got the best art we could in the area. Then I hired a secretary, and bought a Hewlett-Packard scanner and learned to scan a picture into the text. When it was all done, putting text and picture together, I thought I should put in some questions to make it more interesting and interactive. Every three screens, I put in some questions. Then I hired an artist, Laurie Wagner, to draw the cartoon characters of Brother Bartholomew.
"He's what makes the program so wonderful for children, who really relate to him. They love him.
"Then a wonderful man, Stephen Brown at Gannon, a real computer expert, helped me program the Catalog and reduce it to six diskettes. By the middle of April, we received an imprimatur from Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, and on May 1st, we were ready to begin marketing the program on IBM-compatible and Macintosh."
As soon as the program was finished, the diocesan newspaper in Erie did a story on the Catalog, which was later picked up by Catholic News Service, and word of the Catalog spread all over the world.
Though sales have been "gratifying, they're not terrific yet," said Levis. But he's pleased with the initial interest. A Hungarian Jesuit inquired about translating the Catalog into Hungarian for use in Catholic schools in that country, and other inquiries about marketing the program came from Canada, Australia, the Union of South Africa, Kenya, and England.
"What I'm trying to do is combine the child's most cherished pedagogical tool, the computer — because children don't like books anymore — with the most ancient doctrines. This is a strange bedfellowing here, and it does raise eyebrows.
"And it is definitely a commandeering of catechesis by the orthodox. We're using the latest technical equipment with the latest expression of the faith. What child would spend hours with a catechism? They will with this one."
The program is very popular with home-schoolers already, but the difficult job now, he says, is trying to get the program into the Catholic schools.
As a longtime leader in orthodox catechesis, Fr. Levis doesn't believe the general catechetical situation will improve soon.
"It took 50 years for The Catechism of the Council of Trent to take hold, so I would expect it will take a much longer time for this new one, because the cultural situation is so much more difficult for the faith to permeate," he said.
With the exception of a few bishops, who are moving vigorously to promote the new Catechism in their schools and religious education programs, the opposition to orthodox catechesis remains in charge, and is perhaps more powerful than ever.
"I don't think the Catechism has converted these people in any way. Americans believe their culture with its sensate elements can be part of the Christian Gospel, instead of the other way around. So I don't expect the Catechism to be a deus ex machina and cause an immediate change. It will take many, many efforts to bring the Catechism into use in Catholic schools, as Cardinal Bevilacqua is trying to do in Philadelphia.
"It's going to take a decade to get an orthodox catechism into the schools. There just isn't the support yet."
As Fr. Levis prepares to market the second edition of the Catalog, a program with a menu and a few other technical improvements over the first edition, he's planning a third program, this one to evangelize high school students.
"It will be specifically designed for students who do not want to be confirmed, who have been turned off from the faith for some reason, but who still have an interest in the Catholic Church.
"This new program will be addressed to freshmen and sophomores, and will be more evangelistic than catechetical. It will recognize that there are hundreds of thousands of baptized youngsters who are alienated from the Church, from God, and from their families.
"I hope they will enjoy looking at this, because they still like to play with their computers.
"In an anecdotal way, I will try to show the outcomes of four characters from the Gospels, put into the contemporary situation. It will illustrate various characters and show in art and text how they end. One will die of AIDS at 27, another will be divorced and remarried three times, another will have three abortions, and one will become a priest.
"We'll ask the student if he wants to know whatever became of Chad, press A, or Darcy, press B. It will be very dramatic. I'll have them in their sin, then all of a sudden, the whole computer screen will be filled with Christ, one will reject, one will be moved for a while, and so on.
"With the one character who converts, I'll give a lot of information on Penance, Confession, Confirmation. Children at this age will be gripped by this, and this program will make them want to take their faith seriously — to be a serious adult Catholic."•
The Catalog of Faith for Middle Schoolers is available from Gannon University, 109 University Square, Erie, PA, 16541-0001.
The August 3, 1995 issue of
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