May 04 2009

Poster Board and Glitter

It’s funny how sometimes you find yourself encountering the same thought or conversation from different sources all at once.  I’ve found myself talking to a few different people lately about Catholic education and how dismal our generation’s was, and then I ran across this podcast called “Catholic Traitors” by Michael Voris of St. Michael Media.  (It was originally a video, but the podcast is free.)  If you went to Catholic school or CCD/PSR/Catechism classes in the US in the past 40 years or so, you’ll probably find yourself nodding along with him in several places.  It’s 45 minutes long, so for those who don’t have time to listen right now, here are a few money quotes and my comments.

By the time the 1970s dawned, religion classes had been replaced by Arts and Crafts.

That was the line that hooked me, that had me nearly pumping my fist and saying, “Yes!”  (But I try not to talk and gesture too much when I’m out walking the dog and listening to podcasts.)  That sums it up right there.  There was lots of drawing, lots of making banners and gluing things on posters.  There were workbooks filled with smiling children.  (I don’t remember if they were always carefully ethnically distributed, but I’m sure they are now.)  There were sessions of sitting in a circle telling the other kids what you loved about them (although we were never taught what “love” meant).  Egad, I’d better stop there before I start having flashbacks.

There’s a generation of parents who have been betrayed by Catholic educators, and now there’s a generation of students, on top of their parents, who have likewise been betrayed by Catholic educators.  These parents are sending their children to Catholic schools and programs where they learn nothing about Jesus Christ.  They learn nothing about the faith.  They learn nothing about what Jesus Christ Our Blessed Lord came to earth to do.  They hear nothing.  In fact, they’re being taught things that it’s probably better they didn’t hear at all.  Stop sending them to schools that are polluting their minds and distorting them and making them lose their souls.  It’s disgusting and it’s disgraceful.

Wow.  That’s putting it bluntly, but it’s the truth.  Not that no one ever tried to teach us anything real about the faith.  I’m sure here and there someone tried to teach us something concrete, but they were swimming against the tide, to say the least.  I think we did learn the Ten Commandments, so there was that at least, but we didn’t get the grounding to learn anything more.  You can’t suddenly teach algebra to a bunch of kids whose previous teachers refused to teach them arithmetic.  I do remember a good dose of environmentalism (pollution was the big concern back then) and fretting about nuclear war, which was equally true in public school.

One thing that occurs to me now is that, in the process of trying to make the faith accessible to us and make it fit within our larger culture, they just made it antiseptic and boring.  The Catholic religion is actually very…sensuous, for lack of a better word.  There are the smells of candles burning and incense wafting.  Then the sounds: organs booming, choir and priests chanting and singing in a special language, bells ringing, rosary beads clinking as people pray together.  Most of all, there are the sights: beautiful statues and paintings and stained glass windows, people dressed in their “Church clothes” as we called them, the priest decked out in vestments proclaiming the season or feast, the altar and crucifix drawing our attention forward and upward.  There’s even the pain in your knees after kneeling a long time.  Until a few decades ago, there was so much more to the experience of being Catholic, but most of that was gone by the time my generation came along, and what was left we weren’t taught about.  Why incense?  Who’s that on the window?  We had no idea.

Which brings up the history of the Church, which gets really interesting: saints, martyrs, warrior priests and monks, mystics, angels, emperors, wars, crusades, missionaries, and more martyrs.  What young boy or girl wouldn’t rather learn about St. Joan of Arc leading armies across France than glue felt on a poster?

There are so many amazing stories just in the lives of the saints, but we got none of that.  (Well, maybe a bit about St. Francis and the animals now and then, with a bit of a nudge toward vegetarianism.)  Angels alone are a fascinating topic you could probably study for years, and the most we learned there was that we might sort of have a guardian angel, but it was presented as sort of an imaginary friend who might keep us from tripping over our shoelaces if we asked nicely, not a mighty creature who could protect us from anything.  The rest was murky stuff from the past that we got the feeling we shouldn’t look too closely at, as if it were mostly shameful.  So Church history was taught much like secular history: we all got enlightened in about 1965, and with a few exceptions, most of what happened before then was bad.

A couple Sundays ago, I saw a boy holding a copy of the Baltimore Catechism, which used to be what kids (and adult converts) were taught from, before we all went to smiley workbooks and the group-therapy method of education.  Now, maybe the Baltimore Catechism wasn’t perfect, maybe it’s awfully dry and blunt, but at least it provides a foundation for a teacher to start with.  If you don’t know why we pray before statues and relics, you can look it up.  If you don’t understand or disagree with the answer, you can go to other sources or argue with the teacher, but at least you’ve got a solid reference point to start from.

If we didn’t get the basics, we sure didn’t get the more peripheral stuff.  How many Catholics today know that the Church teaches that animals have souls?  How many know what a Mary Garden is, or that numerous flowers and plants were once named for Mary or other aspects of Christianity?  How many American Catholics know that missionaries were running around parts of North America long before the Pilgrims landed?  How many know that when an infant dies, the priest wears white at the funeral because the child is assumed already to be a saint in heaven, and we can even pray to that child?  (Is that cool or what?)

It makes me mad to think how much I missed out on, and how many kids are still missing out on it.  Sure, even if we taught the faith perfectly, some people would still fall away from it as they got older.  But at least they’d know what they were leaving and be making an informed choice, not drifting away from boring posters and sappy music because they didn’t know there was so much more.  And if they came back twenty years later, they wouldn’t have so much to relearn when the brain just isn’t as nimble as it used to be.

Whew, that’s a rant that’s been building up for over twenty years—parts of it anyway.  I’d better stop there, and see if anything else percolates to the surface now that that’s out of the way.

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