Passing on the Faith: A Religious Education Program That Works

Author: Marianne Alpha, C.V.


Marianne Alpha, C.V.

Marianne Alpha, C. V., is Religious Education Coordinator at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church, 1975 Daytona Dr., Lake Havasu City, Arizona 86403.

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 enough room.

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.

Choosing teachers

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 program.

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 their children.

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 with others.

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 really saying.

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.


Answer questions using the Bible and Catholic teaching, not your opinion. Write at least 3 sentences and no more than 6 sentences for each answer.

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 teaching.

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.

Taken from:
The June/July 1995 issue of HLI Reports.
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