Institutional Failure

One of the hardest working groups of people in the church today is the men and women who serve as directors or coordinators of religious education. Some of my closest friends serve in these roles, so the conversation I had the other day with a DRE unnerved me. Usually, I am quick to defend, but somewhere deep inside, her story irritated me.

I was at a meeting, listening to complaints, suggestions, and the like. One expressed concern that the idea of reimagining faith formation was overwhelming because she was, after all, the only one doing anything in her parish. (More on that at another time.) At the end of the meeting, a DRE came up to me and said, “You are not going to believe this,” as she relayed a story of a mom bringing her son in for an interview for Confirmation. (More on that at another time.) The DRE asked the child to name the seven Sacraments. The young man could not. The DRE was flummoxed. The mom demanded the Sacrament. The DRE wondered aloud to me about her predicament. “How can I say that this child is ready when he cannot answer the simplest question?”

I do not think she liked my answer. If a child gets to the ninth grade and cannot name the seven Sacraments – especially after nine years of religious education – he or she is the victim of institutional failure. His parents have failed him. His religious education program has failed him. His catechists have failed him. And yes, this holy woman standing before me telling her story has failed him. Every person responsible for his faith formation – including himself – has fallen short.

The reality is this: we have to rethink the way we prepare parents when their infants are baptized so they understand their role as first teachers. Then we need to give them to tools to accomplish this. Moving backward, you could even make the argument that we have to rethink how we prepare couples for marriage so they know the responsibility that lies ahead. We have to rethink early childhood education so something actually happens between Baptism and First Reconciliation and First Communion. We need to rethink comprehensive ministry to, with, and for young people. We need to rethink Confirmation prep and stop calling it the graduation it becomes because that’s what we keep calling it. If we want young people to stay involved in the parish, why not provide a place for them from a very early age so the parish community is an extension of the family, not a sacramental marketplace where we check in once in a while.

I could go on and so could many of you. Directors and coordinators of religious education have a really, really tough job. Parents often abdicate young people’s faith formation to these men and women, some of whom are prepared for the challenge while others are not. This happens, in part, because mom and dad do not have the skills to talk about their faith. But it also happens because we have become a society of letting someone else take care of the hard stuff.

If you have children, take responsibility for your children’s faith formation. Talk to them. Read with them. Study with them. Ask them about the presence of God in their lives.

If you are a catechist, coordinator or director of religious education, put the textbook down and have a conversation with your students. Find out what they know and what they believe. See if God is real to them or if they are just going through the motions.

It takes a village to raise a child but only if the villagers work together.

Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis said, essentially, that the Church is a love story, not an institution. That gives me hope.

Because love never fails.