New Texts the key to reshaping religious education

New Texts the key to reshaping religious education

Msgr Peter J. Elliott

The religious formation of children and young people is of interest to all Christians and people of good-will, for it is through commitment to the transcendent that sound values are held and transmitted, so that the family and society can flourish in freedom and truth.

An Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education in Melbourne is the direct delegate of Archbishop Pell, with executive oversight for all Catholic religious education in the schools, parishes and catechetical centres of the Archdiocese. While I do not form part of the Catholic Education Office, I enjoy a good working relationship with the office and its experts who work in this field.

The first practical task entrusted to me by Archbishop Pell is supervising the preparation, writing and editing of religious education texts for all levels in our schools. This is the key to the "reshaping" of religious education, recently described as a "turning point" in the archdiocesan journal Kairos.

Resource for teaching

But the idea of a break with the past ought not be over-emphasised - rather continuity, a "reshaping" that builds on and enriches what others have achieved. The good-will and dedication of men and women teaching in this field is remarkable. They face many challenges today and their task is often difficult, even discouraging. We hope that offering them a good resource for teaching will make that task much easier.

However, the decision to prepare set texts as a core curriculum is in accord with overseas trends. Texts as the basis of the curricula are already in place in New Zealand and in the United States and Italy; this approach is quite normal. Recently some superb modern texts prepared in Mexico were received. We have good models to follow.

Nevertheless, to study the feasibility of texts and to promote transparency and collaboration, last year Archbishop Pell convened a committee of enquiry, chaired by Professor Bernard Daffey of Australian Catholic University. This committee received 270 submissions, most in favour of texts. The Archbishop’s decision to introduce texts is thus endorsed in the Report of the committee, recently published and sent to all schools and parishes. Based on the 270 submissions and entitled To Know, Worship and Love, this Report raises possibilities and problems and makes some very useful suggestions.

Apart from the texts, other areas call for enrichment. In Melbourne we need to re-write our outdated resources for the first sacraments. We need to develop a family-based approach to education in human sexuality, a field where I have worked over the past ten years as an official in the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, which produced the educational guidelines for parents, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. I am also currently working on a program of enriching the prayer life of our school communities. Firstly, though, let us consider a "fresh vision" for religious education.

To explain this vision of religious education, one could begin with the title of the Report of the committee on texts, To Know, Worship and Love. These words are taken from the Declaration on Catholic Education, Gravissimum Educationis, of the Second Vatican Council. Note the order of those words 1. know, 2. worship and 3. love. We must first know the God we are called to worship and love. We cannot worship a God we do not know, as St Paul pointed out when he preached at Athens (cf. Acts 17: 26-28). Through knowledge and worship, cognition and communal experience, we come to love God and one another.

Based on these principles of Vatican II, we might hope to see thousands of young Catholics emerge into Australian society who know God personally, who worship Him in the Eucharist every Sunday, who love Him in prayer and through the way they serve others. Already, in our schools, I find a strong sense of this process and commitment to it.

From knowing, worshipping and loving flows the grace to act justly, to be a person who serves others, a mature active Christian whose prayer overflows into fearless action, even evangelisation. It is to be hoped that, in spite of "peer-group pressures" and media propaganda, many more young Catholics will leave school practising their faith, or, at least they will know the religion they have, for a time, abandoned, which means they will know how to return at the right moment in their journey.

This vision takes a more precise form because it is based on a theology that leads to a strong emphasis on cognitive learning. Divine Revelation is normally propositional, that is, God reveals himself to us, not primarily through experiences, but rather it is in and through human language, that the Eternal Word continues to "take flesh" through our words, propositions and concepts; and through Church teachings and doctrines.

Cognitive dimension

Only through human language can we grasp the meaning of the good news of those saving events through which God revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

This is why a strong emphasis is placed on the cognitive dimension of RE, while not pretending it is the only dimension. We do need to reflect deeply on our life experiences in the light of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, who transforms and breaks open those experiences as he calls us to conversion, discipleship and union with him in his called people, the Church.

In practical terms we should give children more credit for a capacity to absorb concepts. Certainly the television affects the attention span and we must use electronic media, computers, websites, etc, because these are part of the lives of children today. But let us not be intimidated into pessimism about the capacity to learn.

Even the smallest children are able to grasp and memorise key doctrines. I have spent the last ten years working in the Vatican’s Council for the Family, travelling extensively every year around the world, constantly in touch with the hopes and concerns of parents in many varied cultures. Because parents are the first educators, this vision is based on the family, while recognising the interaction of family and school and the role of well-trained teachers.

The "fresh" vision could be summed up as follows: you can best have a truly Catholic heart when you have a tough Catholic mind. One thinks of heroes who exemplify these words: St. Thomas More, Cardinal Newman, St Therese, G. K. Chesterton, Blessed Edith Stein, C.S. Lewis, Daniel Mannix, Mother Teresa, Bob Santamaria and, still with us, our beloved Pope, John Paul II.

Good texts should thus also place emphasis on forming a Catholic mind in a broader cultural sense. Amidst the pressures of a culture war, religious education should also transmit a Christian culture. It should help children claim their heritage of ethics and justice, but also transmit love and appreciation for Christian art, music, architecture, our literature, poetry and humour, respect for our various ethnic traditions and for the diversity of liturgical rites, Eastern and Western.

The process of preparing the Melbourne texts really began with the work of the Archbishop’s committee of enquiry. It will continue through discussion of the committee’s Report which began with a historic forum of religious education specialists held on 6 May 1998 at Simonds Hall. At the same time, teams are being formed to write texts in response to the Report, that is, books that resonate with our situation in Melbourne, books to equip our children with knowledge that strengthens faith.

This is why texts will present core doctrine and some prayers to be memorised in line with the new Directory for Catechesis published last year by the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome. As the Report of the committee on texts reveals, there is still disquiet about the lack of doctrinal knowledge and we have to take this seriously. But doctrine must be understood by children, hence explained, recast in language and concepts that a child can grasp, related to the situation where we live.

Knowledge should lead to action. Faith is meant to be lived. The texts should therefore include many stories, numerous lives of saints and heroes, the role models who contribute to our great story. These stories not only give children and young people a positive sense of Christian history, but offer examples to follow and personalities who inspire. Let us never forget how St Ignatius was led to conversion by reading the lives of saints

People ask about what will become of the Melbourne Guidelines for Religious Education as we enter the era of texts. The Guidelines remain in place. They merit respect as the fruit of experience and expertise, and over the next few years various themes in the Guidelines crystalise in the texts. But we cannot treat the Guidelines in a fundamentalist way. They were not written in concrete and they remain "guidelines". The Report indicates that they may develop further through interaction with the new texts.

The Report also suggests that the content of the texts should be derived from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the doctrinal sections of the Guidelines. What emerges from the Report is a strong emphasis on content in areas such as Scripture, doctrine and Church history, accompanied by systematic, but flexible, methods, adapted to different situations.

Of course, deriving content from the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mean simply repeating paragraphs from this master Catechism, because the language must be adapted to the needs of children and young people. Nevertheless, we may hope to see Catholic word-power develop among the young, so that the working vocabulary of our faith improves in a similar way to the growth we expect in literacy programs.

We are entering a phase which modifies an approach to religious education which required one method (or was misunderstood in that way) and then did not offer precise or detailed content for teacher or student. This is why we are moving from vague content and rigid method to clear content and freedom of method. In fact, that sums up the reshaping process.

When we reflect carefully on that principle, clear content and freedom of method, the texts are good news for teachers and parents. In the hands of the child, the teacher and the parent there will be a modern clearly-written book. Alongside this text we hope to devise a teacher workbook, that could be easily republished in an updated form as needed. The workbook or manual would allow freedom of method through various approaches, options, suggestions, etc, and it would indicate the latest electronic resources, videos, CD-ROMs, etc, another development underlined in the Report on texts. Our catechists will also need to be equipped with their own workbook to help them adapt the text to a restricted weekly time span. The text and accompanying manuals should sustain weak or inexperienced teachers, who may be intimidated by the Guidelines, at the same time, encouraging those with more developed skills to go further.

Teacher-friendly and child-friendly texts need to be modern in style, set out according to modern pedagogy and lesson planning. They also must speak within our situation in Melbourne, so the content must include the different ethnic cultures that make up our complex Catholic community. Texts need to be adaptable in different learning situations. They should also appeal to children and young people by being visually beautiful, interesting, interactive at the Primary levels and open to research projects at the Secondary levels.


What provision will be made for the "first educators" of our children, the parents?

In the Declaration on Christian Education, the Second Vatican Council taught that parents are the first educators of their children. This truth is beautifully expressed in the Rite of Baptism of Infants, when prayer is offered that parents may also be the best of teachers by what they say and do. We Catholics do not believe that the State, or even priests, religious or teachers are the first educators. It is in the family, the natural living cell of society that the first school of the virtues is provided by parents.

However, parents are not the exclusive educators of their children. In most cases, they delegate their teaching role to professionals because they know that these dedicated men and women have skills and expertise not usually available in the home. Nevertheless, we must never see this delegation as parents abandoning the education of their children. For teachers and parents, education should be a joint enterprise. Therefore, we need to develop better structures to link the home to the school.

Some people complain about the failures of schools to meet certain family needs, just as others complain about the failure of families to cooperate with teachers. To eliminate this negative approach we should recognise and overcome an Australian tendency to be pessimistic - about the family and the school. Mutual respect between parents and teachers must be based on the virtue of hope, shining through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because the reshaping of religious education is in fact a deepening process, it challenges us to prepare teachers better through teacher training and in-service programs. But this also applies to the first educators, the parents and those who take their place. We need to develop strategies to involve parents more in the process of religious education.

Stronger links, via the texts, between the school, home and parish, was a theme that emerged from submissions made to the Committee on texts. Therefore, I welcome suggestions, proposals and fresh ideas from parents, so that we can prepare resources that relate to the family situations and needs of children and young people today. Through doing our best, with the Holy Spirit to guide us, we can help prepare the coming generations not only for a creative life in this world but for citizenship in the eternal Kingdom.

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