Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Catholic Nook: Catechesis and Ongoing Formation, Part II

Today's Catholic Nook post is brought to you by guest author, Shauna'h. :) Catch Part I of Shauna'h's story here

Part II: Down and Dirty With the Catechism

To say I was terrified before teaching my first 7th grade Faith Formation class would be an understatement.

What if the students hated me and found me boring? What if they asked me a question I either didn’t know the answer to, or was uncomfortable discussing (each week I had a litany of “please don’t ask me about divorce/same sex marriage/abortion/etc. etc.” running through my head)? What if they were wild, unruly beasts and I couldn’t handle them? What if I’m just not cut out for this?

Seventh graders are a tough crowd to teach in the best of times. They can be even more challenging when most of them have been forced into giving up part of their Tuesday evenings by their parents to learn about a God that many of them weren’t really so sure about. I had my moments of wanting to secretly list some of them on Craigslist (“One belligerent 13 year old boy, free to a good home!”), but overall it was a wonderful experience. I felt I connected with the students, and a few months into the year I began letting my guard down more. I began crafting my signature style of proclaiming the teachings of the Church, while serving as an honest example of challenges I’d come up against in my own life. I like to think my students appreciated this, and enjoyed having a catechist closer to their age than their parents.

Speaking of which, I was something of an exotic bird in my parish’s Faith Formation community. I was literally the only catechist without children enrolled in catechesis. It seemed to me that most catechists signed up as a way to evangelize the faith, to be sure, but also to do it in a convenient way that synced up their family schedules. Teachers would drop their kids off in their class(es), and then continue on to set up their own class. I was doing it purely for the love of faith and education, so I got all sorts of “I think it’s so amazing that you do this without kids!” comments each week. I felt like I was getting much more out of it than the kids were, frankly, but I appreciated the sentiment.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the experience was how much my own knowledge of and appreciation for my faith grew. Each week I learned something new, even if it was something small. Confession time: I never really
got the Holy Trinity. God and Jesus, sure, but the Holy Spirit? He’s a dove, right? And I’m supposed to feel Him/It? I just never connected with that part of Church dogma, until I suddenly had to teach it to middle schoolers. My text book suggested a demonstration of the various phases of water: solid, liquid, and gas. H2O can be ice, it can be water, and it can be steam, and each of these phases are different and unique, but they are all water. This was profoundly eye-opening for me, and now I love teaching about the Holy Trinity.

As the year drew to a close, I felt strongly called to come back as a catechist the following fall. I was particularly interested in teaching during a sacramental year, so I signed up as an 8th grade catechist for the students working towards their Confirmation. Thus began my academic year of, quite honestly, moaning and groaning about how difficult my life was.

I had to co-teach (with a wonderful, kind man). I’m not so good at sharing, particularly when it comes to lesson preparation. Also, Confirmation classes all took place on Sunday night following the evening Mass. I was enrolled in a Master’s program at the time, and my assignments were due Monday morning. This meant I needed to plan ahead (*gasp*) and get my work done, so that I wasn’t rushing to do it after getting home at 9pm. Thirdly, the 8th grade curriculum had been designed by a church volunteer years ago, and it just was not to my taste. Lots of emphasis on general touchy-feely-ness (“Jesus loves you! Let’s sing!” If I wanted to sing about Jesus loving me I would’ve been a Baptist. Northern Catholics are so much more subtle), and the overall content structure felt loosey goosey. Lastly, the curriculum included two mandatory retreats, as well as frequent community service outings during which I was needed as a chaperone. All in all, it felt like a large time commitment during an already busy time of life, and I just wasn’t connecting with the material and my students the way I had the year before.

I found my way, however, and formed a strong bond with my co-catechist. It
was nice having backup for kid wrangling, and his strong faith and knowledge further enlightened me. As we drew closer to the Confirmation ceremony, we were also rolling up on an event I had been dreading (and trying to weasel my way out of) with every fiber of my being since August: The spring retreat. All of the classes were driving two hours into the mountains of North Carolina, to a place called Teen Valley Ranch (TVR, as the cool kids call it), a non-denominational Christian youth center. We’d be stuck chaperoning wild teenagers for three days, singing cheesy Jesus songs, and doing outdoors-y things. Essentially my worst nightmare. I whined and WHINED to my husband and sisters about having to go. This was just so not my style.

By the second day, however, I found some of the songs oddly catchy, even a bit moving. It was fun to see my kids break out of their shells and be more vulnerable with each other. But by far the best part was the mandatory quiz/consultation we did with each of our students.

Each female student (my co-teacher took the males) scheduled time to meet me on the quiet front porch of the cabin we were staying in, and had to answer some required questions to demonstrate the necessary knowledge needed before undertaking Confirmation (questions about the Sacraments, graces of Confirmation, etc.). It was meant to be casual, and I quickly decided to take the opportunity to try to go a little deeper with the students. It was an occasion to ask them to open up to me about how they truly felt about their faith, and what it would look like once they were no longer required to attend CCD. Would they stop coming to Mass? Was their family supportive of their faith? I had some wonderful conversations.

One in particular stood out to me. This student was very studious and well-behaved. She confessed to me that sometimes she has doubts, and doesn’t know if Jesus is really God. And what was Catholicism really good for in her life? I felt inspired to share my reversion story with her, and confronted her doubts head on. It was liberating and moved me profoundly. By the end, she was feeling renewed and inspired, and she hugged me with tears in her eyes. I cried once she was out of view, my soul stirred by this incredible opportunity to share faith and a deep human connection with a young woman.

That spring retreat wound up being the best thing to ever happen in my faith life. It reaffirmed my core beliefs and my increasingly strong ties to my parish community.

Becoming a catechist not only brought me closer to the students I taught, but to my fellow catechists, the Faith Formation office, and my parish as a whole. After some time, I started running into people from church at the grocery store, or discovered that some of my students lived in my neighborhood. It was the beginning of really acclimating to my new life in the South. We moved back North for new jobs last year, and leaving my parish has been one of the toughest parts of that transition. I’m in the process of trying to carve out a place for myself in my new parish while simultaneously juggling children, school, and work, but I’m certain that catechesis will play a role.

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