If you go to any parish website in North America, you will get the very strong impression that children’s faith is formed in a classroom. Parish websites list expectations describing what children are to have learned by the time they reach each grade level. If you were to actually visit one of these parishes, you would see children sitting in desks, listening to a teacher explain to them the theology of Jesus or of the church that met the learning requirements for each grade. The teacher is likely using a teacher’s version of a textbook that all the children have. The children probably have homework they have to do, and they are likely tested regularly on their mastery of the material.
There are a lot of negative consequences of this model of formation, but here is the one that concerns me the most. More and more these days, parents are not baptizing their babies. When some of those parents later have a change of heart and bring their seven- or eight- or ten-year-old to the parish to get him or her baptized, we treat that child as someone who is behind in school. Instead of rejoicing that the child is at the beginning of an awesome faith journey, we fret (sometimes out loud) about how we are going the “catch him up” with the other children in his grade.
The six core principles for the catechumenate
When we are forming unbaptized children of catechetical age, our guiding document is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The formation of these children should not be based upon grade-level expectations, but rather on the six core principles of the adult catechumenate:
You can find the six core principles in paragraphs 4 and 5 of the RCIA
- The initiation of catechumens is a gradual process
- that takes place within the community of the faithful.
- By joining the catechumens in reflecting on the value of the paschal mystery
- and by renewing their own conversion, the faithful provide an example that will help the catechumens to obey the Holy Spirit more generously.
- The rite of initiation is suited to a spiritual journey of adults
- that varies according to: the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place.
I cannot break apart each of these principles in a single blog post. We do have an entire course for children’s RCIA catechists that gets deep into the nuts and bolts of how to base a formation process on these principles. In this post, I want to briefly highlight the second principle, that the formation of child catechumens takes place within the community of the faithful.
The Three Manifestations of the Christian Community
The primary manifestation of the Christian community for children is their family — the domestic church. It is true that families these days are often broken, and some have little or no understanding of how to live as Christian disciples. Nonetheless, the family is the first place of formation, and the parents are the primary catechists for their children. Therefore, a huge aspect of the formation of child catechumens has to include the formation of the entire family. That will be a challenge for most of us, and it will require more skill and creativity than we might think we have. But it is essential. There is no way around it. If your formation of child catechumens is the best there is, but the family remains weak in faith, it is unlikely the children will grow to be strong disciples.
Right along with family as a manifestation of Christian community is the Sunday assembly. Children and their families must be regular participants in the worship life of the community. Liturgy is the premier place in which we encounter the risen Christ. It is this encounter that is the very essence of what it means to be a disciple. When a family says they want to get their child baptized, they are saying they want to be part of the worshiping assembly (even they are not yet fully aware that is what they are saying).
A third manifestation of the Christian community is in our public witness. We live in the world, not as bystanders, but as people on a mission. Our mission is especially oriented to the poor and the marginalized. Every child catechumen and her family must grow in faith by actively announcing the good news of Jesus’s saving love to the world.
Are you providing conversations, or classrooms?
As the children experience the Christian community in the domestic church, the worshiping church, and the serving church, it is important to help them name what is happening to them. To do that, we have to design regular and meaningful conversations. These conversations are different from classroom teaching. A classroom teacher tends to tell children what they should know. An RCIA catechist instead asks children and their families what they have experienced and what they have learned from those experiences. It is through these meaningful conversations that catechists will be able to affirm children and their families in areas where they are growing in faith. And catechists will be able to guide children and their families in areas where they might make adjustments in order to conform themselves more closely to Christ.
I completely understand this is an ideal vision. That’s the point, isn’t it? Who among us wants to strive for a compromise, a less-than-best vision of discipleship? By striving for a full vision of discipleship, we are better able to see what small steps we might take today to move closer to a formation process that creates lifelong followers of Jesus.
One small step for you might be to deepen your learning. As I said, TeamRCIA has an entire course for training children’s RCIA catechists. If you’d like to join us, click here to find out how.
How have you structured catechesis for children in your RCIA? What has it looked like when you’ve given them a full experience of your faith community, outside of a classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo by Trust Tru Katsande | Unsplash
See also these related articles:
- How to think about Confirmation in the initiation of children
- How to fit in square pegs when our formation process is a round hole
- Q&A: How do RCIA teams discern the readiness of children for becoming catechumens?
- RCIA shifts and corrects our understanding of confirmation
- Why children in the RCIA need a community, not a classroom