Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, asked teachers to name the biggest obstacle to good teaching. The answer he almost always got was “my students.” If we asked a similar question of RCIA catechists about the biggest obstacle to their formation efforts, I wonder if the answer would be “the catechumens and candidates.”
I don’t know if it would be the first answer, but it would be high on the list. I often hear complaints about seekers who won’t talk, won’t show up, and won’t come to Mass. They have little knowledge of the Catholic Church or Christian living and do not seem sufficiently motivated to learn. They’re bored and passive.
I also hear diagnoses about why this is so. It is the fault of the culture and the way seekers were raised. They have a sense of entitlement, as though the world owes them something just for showing up. Or the ills have to do with broken families, overt violence and sexuality in the media, and a lack of standards in schools.
Jesus didn’t heal healthy people
Whenever I hear language like this, I feel the need to go to confession. Because some of it is language I have used in the past. And it isn’t true. Or if some of it is true, it’s not relevant. The only relevant question is, how am I failing or succeeding in forming the seekers in faith? Palmer says talking this way is similar to a doctor complaining that the patients are sick. If only healthy people would come to the hospital, life would be so much easier!
Palmer says about teaching: “The way we diagnose our students’ condition will determine the kind of remedy we offer. And the dominant diagnosis in teaching is that the ‘patients’ are brain-dead.”
RCIA on life-support
There is some evidence that we make a similar diagnosis of our catechumens and candidates. Palmer says that if we assume the students are brain-dead, we will employ brain-dead pedagogies that deaden their brains. It’s a vicious circle. And if we assume our catechumens and candidates are similarly catatonic, we will provide a catatonic formation process.
Palmer’s key insight about seemingly sullen, unresponsive students is that they are not brain-dead. They are full of fear. And this insight is what stirs up my guilt. I didn’t always recognize that the unresponsive catechumen or candidate was scared silly to even show up at a Catholic church — much less have me “inquire” about why he was there and what he knew about God or Jesus or the pope. Palmer says:
Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard…. What does it mean to listen to a voice before it is spoken? It means making space for the other, being aware of the other, paying attention to the other honoring the other. (The Courage to Teach, 47)
An RCIA team challenge
At the 2013 World Youth Day, Pope Francis issued a challenge to the Brazilian bishops that we could also accept as RCIA teams.
We need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a church that accompanies them on their journey; a church able to make sense of the “night” contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a church that realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture. Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus….
It is important to devise and ensure a suitable formation, one which will provide persons able to step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearings; able to listen to people’s dreams without being seduced and to share their disappointments without losing hope and becoming bitter; able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity. (Emphasis added.)
I don’t know if Pope Francis was consulting his copy of the RCIA when he wrote that talk, but RCIA 75 says that we have to provide a suitable catechesis for our seekers. If we have diagnosed them as “brain-dead,” the catechesis we provide will be deadening. But if we take up the pope’s challenge of accompaniment, we will accompany our seekers on a journey that teaches them how to “step into the night without being overcome by the darkness.”
Let’s figure out how to do that!
What is your best brainstorm for providing a catechesis that teaches seekers how to “step into the night without being overcome by the darkness”?