“If God loved us, why would he give my mom cancer?” asked a 12-year-old girl when prompted to write down one major question she had about God. Other students asked: Why does God so easily send us to hell? Will God still accept me if I’m gay? Why do only some people receive miracles? Why do we need God? As teachers at a coeducational Catholic prep school in Minnesota, we often encounter such questions as we talk about faith with our students.
Teachers, parents and catechists in parish faith formation programs always hope that we can answer questions about God appropriately. But the questions can reveal a deep sense of doubt among adolescents. Questions of existence—suffering, purpose and the presence of a divine reality—are ones that people often reflect on, but they are rarely part of deep conversations with others. Ineffective catechesis programs may be one reason for this absence.
Questions of existence are rarely part of deep conversations with others. Ineffective catechesis programs may be one reason.
At Benilde-St. Margaret’s School, we are taking a radical approach and throwing out the traditional theology curriculum in junior high in favor of “conversational catechesis.” Seminar-style theology classes allow teachers and students to talk openly about difficult and complex questions of faith. Parish faith formation curricula using this model, partnered with volunteer catechists who are willing to engage in students’ authentic questioning, could be the starting point for truly forming the whole person and nurturing a living faith for the young members of our church.
This method should not be new to teachers. Young adults no longer need to memorize historical facts or quotes from lofty literature—they have Google for that. Rather, we need to help our students exercise an ethical conscience, apply creativity and cultivate innovation. Education needs to embrace the muscles of learning so that our students can develop into future leaders for a global world.
Unfortunately, the muscles of learning have long been neglected in the study of theology as seen in the high-school curriculum provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The core curriculum, “Who Is Jesus Christ?,”dives into the dual persons of Jesus and floods students with the incredibly complex teachings of Nestorianism and monophysitism. But the curriculum does little to promote critical thinking and moral development. How can we foster faith in students with merely rote memorization and inaccessible vocabulary?
The curriculum does little to promote critical thinking and moral development. How can we foster faith in students with merely rote memorization and inaccessible vocabulary?
Like all teachers, catechists must help students strengthen the muscles of learning. This gets more complicated when we begin to talk about faith formation in a parish setting. With classes that meet only once a week and often include unwilling participants, transmitting the faith is already an uphill battle. Conversational catechesis offers volunteer teachers and students the opportunity to build authentic relationships and begin to teach the faith through moments of encounter rather than the dissemination of theory.
For example, this fall we asked students, “Can you think of a person or time in history that emulates the actions and figure of Moses?”
Immediately, a hand went up in the air, and a girl said, “I think that Malala is like Moses,” referring to Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and advocate for the education of girls in her native Pakistan. “Because she was willing to endure violence and guns in order to free girls who were being oppressed and not allowed to go to school.”
In response, we asked, “And how old was Malala when this happened?”
“She was our age!”
That’s right. She was 15 years old when she listened to God’s word and changed the world.
Conversational catechesis is much like a conversation that bends and turns as young minds think through the abstract landscape of faith. If we simply study Exodus without bringing to the Scripture questions from our own time, we may never understand the relevance and impact that Moses continues to have upon us.
By creating a space where students can ask questions without judgment, teachers in schools and parishes become spiritual companions, walking with young people as they become aware of moments of consolation and desolation in their life. Adult companions need to lean into those experiences of students, rather than shying away from them because they are “uncomfortable” or too difficult to deal with, all the while keeping in mind appropriate boundaries. In October, The New York Times published an op-ed by the religion writer Jonathan Merritt making this same point: “It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God.” It is refreshing to see acknowledgment of this crisis in secular publication, reinforcing the need to reframe how we talk about God and faith.
In January, Saint Mary’s Press released a study titled “Going, Going, Gone” that assesses the disaffiliation of young Catholics from the church and explores the reasons they have chosen to step away from their church community. The research indicates that those who have “drifted” away from the church have done so because they perceive a lack of “real world relevance.” A 2017 survey of Benilde-St. Margaret’s students produced similar data, with only 26 percent of junior high students saying that their religious faith is extremely or very important to their daily lives.
In order to appeal to a young mind, we must employ conversational catechesis in our classrooms, parishes and homes as we teach kids about faith. Understanding God will always be complex, but talking about God should always be easy. Our adults need to model this behavior as we raise a future generation of Catholics.