Call your mother: Human experience as a locus for catechesis

2 thoughts on “Call your mother: Human experience as a locus for catechesis”

  1. I had a fruitful conversation with a man who was baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2008.

    I asked him how his RCIA formation went, trying to gather feedback so as to improve my own methodology within the catechumenate, and to see if I could garner some useful methods from his own experience.

    He was a true blue catechumen before he was received: he had no religious background whatsoever, and his father lived as a proud, professed atheist.

    This man – let’s call him David – told me that he struggled throughout his catechumenate process and almost quit attending several times. I pried further to see why.

    David told me that in each session’s catechesis would begin with the leader asking the participants questions about their experience so as to bring their experience into play and to use it to introduce the teaching to them.

    Over and over again, the sessions would consist mostly of people “sharing” their experiences, which bored David to tears. He would sit there watching the clock tick away as his precious time felt wasted. Often, the session would go off track and the subject to be discussed would never be touched upon with any real coverage. Sometimes, the participants’ experiences contradicted what the Church taught, and the continual attempt to not belittle these experiences and respect them caused the catechists to dance around the teaching.

    All David wanted was to learn what we believe as Catholics, in-depth, with reasons for those beliefs, so that he could examine them, consider them, and believe himself. Thankfully, his fiancee was a catechized Catholic and fed him through the many resources she had on her shelves and through personal conversation.

    The catechumenate, for David, was more about jumping through hoops than really encountering Revelation and having that Revelation excite and transform his life.

    This particular RCIA team was trained by the North American Forum’s “Beginnings and Beyond” seminar and other Forum offerings.

    Can you help clarify the role of experience in catechesis so as not to have David’s experience become repetitive in other RCIA processes and turn people away?

  2. Hi Rebecca. Thanks so much for your comment. I’ll do my best to answer your question: “Can you help clarify the role of experience in catechesis so as not to have David’s experience become repetitive in other RCIA processes and turn people away?”

    As I tried to say in the post, the bishops tell us: “It is a task of catechesis to make people more aware of their most basic experiences, to help them to judge in the light of the Gospel the questions and needs that spring from them, as well as to educate them in a new way of life” (GDC 153 a). So it sounds like David’s catechists may have had the correct starting point. The starting point, however, is not the ending point. The job of the catechist is to connect those “most basic experiences” with living the Gospel and to use those experiences to educate the catechumens in a new way of life.

    When the bishops speak of people’s “most basic experiences,” they are speaking of the fundamental things that make us human. They are not speaking of trivial matters such as going to the mall or watching the game. Americans are not generally very good at reflecting on non-trivial experiences, and so we tend to speak only on the surface. This is especially true of catechumens who have not yet developed the language of faith. It is the job of the catechist to help them go deeper, to find the encounter with the Incarnate Christ in their lives, and to reflect on the questions that encounter raises in them.

    One red flag I noted in your description is David’s frustration that “the subject to be discussed would never be touched upon.” I’m wondering how he got an expectation that there was a “subject” to be discussed. If the catechists are relying on the basic experiences of the catechumens from which to draw lessons of the faith, it is their experience that is the “subject.” If the catechists had pre-determined another subject, and announced that to David and the others ahead of time, that could be a frustration.

    Another red flag for me was this statement: “Sometimes, the participants’ experiences contradicted what the church taught, and the continual attempt to not belittle these experiences and respect them caused the catechists to dance around the teaching.” Of course that is a mistake on the part of the catechists. If they were actually trained at an institute sponsored by the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, they would have learned there that their job is to align the experience of the catechumens with the authentic teaching of the church, not the other way around. However, if David was a “true blue catechumen” with “no religious background whatsoever,” I’m wondering how he would have known the catechists were dancing around church teaching.

    From your description, it seems David and David’s parish were relying on the weekly catechetical sessions to educate him in the way of faith. A full catechesis, as envisioned by the RCIA, cannot happen only in the catechetical session, one hour a week. We cannot expect David to experience “Revelation [that] excites and transforms his life” from one or two catechists on Wednesday nights. He needs to be immersed in the full and active life of the parish community. Most importantly and especially, he needs to be immersed in the liturgy. The experience of life in the church will teach him how to live as a Christian. It is very important to learn what the church teaches. It is even more important, however, to learn to live as the church lives.

    So the role of experience in catechesis is for the parish community to continually help the catechumens reflect on how their lives are conforming more and more to Christ each day. If the experience of the catechumens is diverging from Christ, the community challenges that and teaches the catechumens how to get back on track. If the experience of the catechumens is becoming more Christ-like, the community affirms that and teaches the catechumens how to go deeper.

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