Did you know that the era of textbooks came out of a need to move beyond the question-and-answer method of handing on the faith? The Baltimore Catechism, written by the United States Bishops, compiled from multiple catechisms that had been written in Europe and the UK. After the Second Vatican Council there was a great need to integrate recent developments in psychology and education into Catechesis. These advancements were seen as a more complete integration to the learning and developmental needs of children.
The question-and-answer approach to the catechism proved valuable in many respects and produced spiritual fruit for many centuries during times when communities centered their lives around the Faith. Priests and Religious sisters taught children the Catechism and simultaneously witnessed a living Catechism by their very lives. The Baltimore Catechism also enabled children to know the content of the Catholic Faith through the “learning by heart” method.
That being said, the second half of the twentieth century brought about numerous cultural changes. Children were taught less by priests and religious while more families experienced two working parents, moving children into the “latchkey era.” Additionally, the parish community no longer served as central to the social fabric of everyday life. These above factors contributed to the need for presenting and teaching the faith differently than in previous times.
Textbooks became more common and were believed to be a better means of meeting the developmental and psychological needs of children and of presenting the faith in a manner that would engage children. For approximately the past 500 years, the focus of learning has been on the mind/intellect at the expense of the heart. Despite the efforts of the New Evangelization, which has had an definite impact on both the evangelization and catechesis of children and adults, there remains a greater need to evangelize and catechize believers in a more unified manner.
What is Needed
Today we need a catechesis that not only reaches the cognitive dimension of the person, but also the affective dimension, i.e., the heart. Few would disagree with that statement. However, the question remains: How can we reach the heart today while also forming and informing the mind? What is needed is an incorporation of the senses which all knowledge comes through.
St. Thomas Aquinas asserted (and Aristotle before him), “Nothing is found in the intellect which was not first found in the senses.” This axiom is significant when considering how to engage young people. It’s different than merely tapping into peoples experiences. An engagement of the senses is essential. Gerard O’Shea, professor at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia states, “What a child touches with his own hands, sees with his own eyes, smells, hears and even tastes are the primary means of the initial stage of learning. The senses create curiosity and a desire to understand more.” This is the starting point for children. Engaging them with concrete materials is critical and lends itself to the most successful means of presenting the faith. For the first thousand years of the Church, the liturgy with its “smells and bells” engaged the senses (and continues to engage) in an exemplar manner.
Furthermore, what is needed is to engage the heart. The Church exists in order to bring about our union with Christ. How does catechesis engage the heart? It engages the heart though the proclamation and reflection of the Scriptures. It is the Holy Spirit who first and foremost touches hearts. The Scriptures are that doorway to the heart. Children are first engaged through the senses and drawn to wonder followed by the exploration of the Scriptures through a parable or a maxim of Jesus (e.g. I say do not forgive seven times but seventy times seven Mt. 18:22). Only after one has first engaged the senses, explored and reflected upon the Scriptures should the mind be engaged.
Propositions of the faith, i.e., doctrines, assist one to understand the realities that lie behind the words. It is imperative that the propositions are never seen as something that exhaust the mystery that is communicated, but help one desire to grow more in the mysteries of the Faith. Catechesis today needs to continue to present the Faith in a holistic manner. Methods that incorporate the senses, the heart, and the mind are key to integrating young believers (and old) to life in Christ and union with Him.