There is a putsch on coming from some political sectors, and others searching for certitude and simplistic answers within the Catholic Church to take religious education back to methodologies that might have been successful in earlier epochs in history where the broad body of the faithful had far more limited education, and where different social conditions prevailed. Fr Daniel Donovan has been searching around in the archives also. In this commentary he brings to our attention a pioneer from the early 20th Century, Canon Francis H. Drinkwater, still lauded in professional education circles for his insights into the problems facing religious educators, parishes and parents today in the challenge of "passing on the faith".
Teaching the Faith or Memorising the Catechism?
Recently while reading through copies of Orate fratres from 1948-49, it was interesting to come across an article entitled, "Catechesis and the Liturgy", by Canon Francis H. Drinkwater (1886-1982). It is sixty years (1948-2008), since the article was published and therefore it is of value to reflect on its insights into catechesis and faith education. Specifically, it needs to be shown the relevance of such insights for catechesis and faith education today.
In those days before Vatican II, there was a realisation that the "… making the mass and the altar the centre of the celebration, with the teaching effort as an overflow from it." This approach has much to recommend it and contrasts sharply with the return to catechism style teaching which re-creates all the problems and pitfalls which Canon Drinkwater and other religious educators of the day tried to address with differing degrees of success.
Who was Canon Drinkwater?
Drinkwater was a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He was ordained in 1910 and during his early priesthood (1914-1918) served as a chaplain in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme and other theatres of war. In an obituary published in the English Daily Telegraph, the author writes of Drinkwater:
His experiences in the trenches among men little sustained by the style of religious education they had received turned his mind towards the need to revitalise catechetics or instruction in basic Christianity.
In 1919 he used his savings to found "The Sower" magazine which is still extant. It was a forum for discussion of religious ideas and education.
It was the beginning of his life's work to help ordinary men and women to understand and value their faith. In the days when the catechetical movement was young and raw, ill-understood and slightly suspect, he established new modes of thinking which stood the test of time.
From 1922-1954, he was the inspector of schools in his Archdiocese. In 1934, he was a delegate to the Conference of Munich which established a new method for teaching the catechism. However Drinkwater nursed reservations about the Conference's "overteaching". Time was to prove his analysis of this initiative in catechesis, correct and thus the Munich Method as it was known had little impact on the Church's efforts to renew its catechetical methods.
As a priest and religious educator, "he lived on the frontier between the Church and the world and its problems…". His life had taught him that the starting point for faith education must be experience and must be relevant to the person's ongoing experience. In the trenches of war, the young chaplain discovered that faith was not sustained by memorised doctrines but by liturgical participation. Catechesis must stay close to the liturgy explaining "the real inward meaning of the Mass or of sacrifice, as between man and God."
Drinkwater writes of the catechism which dominated religious education after the Council of Trent that it had more in common with the "lecture room" than the altar. His observation is reinforced by Sister Mary Charles Bryce explaining that this period created a "product" rather than personal faith. "Schooling was the shape, books, the instruments; and the catechised child the product". A further effect of this catechism period was to characterise catechesis as an activity limited to the school rather than life long.
Therefore a new approach to catechesis was imperative. The Church needed a "fresh activity" which would nurture personal faith using liturgy, scripture and Church history. Drinkwater believed that this fresh activity would allow the person to "receives his (her) religion as a living thing, not dissected." The celebration of the Mass must be the heart of catechesis because the Mass celebrates "all aspects of the Christian life".
Catechetical and Liturgical Movements
Drinkwater refers to the "catechetical movement" as a young lady wooed by two suitors, the "liturgical movement" and the "canonical movement". While the author believes that "Mr C. Law" is a dominating personality and therefore dominates his rather retiring rival, the liturgical movement. Yet Drinkwater is quick to point out that the content taught in the catechism has its genesis in the celebration of the Church's mysteries as "explanations of liturgical happenings".
…the Creed which is entrusted to us at our baptism: of the Paternoster, the pattern of all prayer which we use in the Mass to prepare for communion; of the Ten Commandments, which expand the two great commandments given at baptism, and which are needed also for the sacrament of penance; and the seven sacraments which are the liturgy itself.
The catechetical movement, like the scriptural and liturgical movements, developed in the late nineteenth century within the Catholic community as it attempted to renew religious education by a more comprehensive use of scripture and liturgy. For most Catholics however the Bible History would remain the major contact with scripture until the 1960's. Liturgy on the other hand, benefitted from the reforms of Popes like Pius X (1903-1913) and Pius XII (1939-1958). These Popes through their reforms encourage the development of the dialogue Mass and participation of the people in the liturgy. The structure of the Tridentine rite and the use of the Latin militated against any real authentic participation and compromised the spiritual benefit which the community derived from the celebration. The New Order of the Mass which was approved by Pope Paul VI in 1969 eventually allowed these initiatives to come to full fruition.
These grass roots movements in the Church reached a climax at Vatican II (1962-1965) which took seriously the intimate connection between active participation in the liturgy and faith maturity.However, there are ominous signs that this form of catechesis is currently under attack. The new movement is back to the catechism with the emphasis on memorisation rather than participation. Catechisms (of any complexion) present the faith under three articles: creed, cult, code. These translate into Creed, Prayer and worship and Commandments. A major shortcoming of any catechism is its deductive teaching style. There is an assumption that the faith can be equated with knowledge.
Since the late 1990's, community leaders have suggested that there should be a "new evangelisation" which would be centred in Catholic schools with the specific purpose of addressing the catholic identity of the school. Of major concern is the issue of "unchurched" students in the school community. Drinkwater would not be surprised at this situation however he would not be suggesting that the schools would be the centres in which to address the problem. Schools teach and produce "catechised" students. Parents are the first educators of their children in the faith but the problem of "unchurched" children would indicate that parents believe that they are fulfilling this role by sending their children to a Catholic school. Parents seem to also, believe that there is a "new evangelisation" happening in the schools.
The role of the local parish…
Readers would have already, spotted the problem of this scenario, namely the role of the local parish. Parents are opting not to take their children to Sunday mass and schools cannot and should not be expected to become surrogate parishes. Back in the 1960's, parents sent their children to a Catholic school because they were attending Sunday mass. Today it is the reverse. Parents return to Mass because their children are attending Catholic schools. Sacramental programs, school liturgies and the like become times when many non-practising parents return to their parishes. Herein lies the rub. There is a new clericalism in the parishes which is more concerned with laws and the role of the ordained minister than community participation as if to promote one is to jeopardise the other. Those who stress the principle of participation agree that the role of the ordained minister is important but in the context of the communal celebration. Parents must experience in eucharist (alongside the role of the priest) their own role as the first educators of their children in the faith. Eucharist must set the pattern for the ongoing faith development of the whole community (clergy included). Through the authentic participation of the whole community in the paschal mystery, there will be a bridging of the "disconnect" between the liturgy and daily life. Relevance is the issue. There is little point of launching a "new evangelisation" in a world which sadly no longer trusts big institutions, including the Church. On the other hand, there is a consuming thirst for Jesus who invites the weary to come to him and find rest (Mt 11:28-30).
Liturgy must not only sustain the faith of the young but stimulate faith development across the whole community. The issue is not "new evangelisation" but rather faith development. In this regard, Jesus provides a model. At Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13-16), Jesus asked his disciples a basic question. "Who do you say I am?" Jesus was not really interested in local beliefs about him but rather his disciples' experience of him. Peter's insight into Jesus' identity is a faith response inspired by God. Jesus seeks personal confession nourished through active participation.
In Canon Drinkwater's obituary, he was described as having "lived on the frontier between the Church and the world" which put him in touch with men and women today. Christian life is sustained and nurtured through "participation in the liturgy" (DMC# 8). The Christian community itself must be the context for faith development. Catechesis must be seen as life long and intergenerational. Families, schools and parishes each make a unique contribution to living faith.
Today the hunt continues for the right text or the unfailing process to pass on the Christian message. The community itself is both the text and the process as it continues to obey the command, "Do this in memory of me". Ultimately, catechesis is about formation not knowledge, Canon Drinkwater expresses it as follows;
We educate to some extent by what we say,
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008 Fr Daniel Donovan