You may have noticed that recently, at Mass, I asked the young people who attend our religious education program to stand up. Of the 250, give or take, who attend the program, I counted about 50 or 60 at all the Masses. Our teachers have done wonderful work. They have made great sacrifices for the sake of the religious education of our children. They have not failed. The 50-year-old system that they inherited has failed. We are using a model that was created before cell phones, soccer practice, twitter, facebook and video games. The model we are using is older than the Beatles. It’s as old as I am.
We inherited a system from the good old days of flourishing Catholic schools another failure which was lovingly remembered in the book, “The Last Catholic in America,” a charming reminiscence about Catholicism during the 1950’s in which young Eddy Ryan loses his faith. Religious education was called C.C.D. or the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. In this usage it refers to a form of classroom style religious education for children in public schools. It was, at least in my youth, the threadbare cousin of Catholic schools.
Catholic schools, by and large, have become failures themselves. There are some splendid Catholic schools, but in my experience of 40 years in ministry, increasingly, especially in large urban areas, Catholic schools have become inexpensive private schools for middle class people who have little or no interest in the Catholic faith, maintained at great expense by Catholic parishes. Catholic schools are, for the most part, over.
We may have a few parish schools still plugging along, but are they Catholic? It seems that all we have left to us is the threadbare cousin. All our resources and energies go to maintaining the private school in the building next to the church. While the world is starving for Christ, we are giving them bingo and bratwurst, raffles and dinner dances, all to keep the school going.
“But,” I can hear you say, “this is our major form of evangelism!” Aren’t you paying attention? The few kids from our schools who go to church don’t go because the school has converted them. They go because they have parents dedicated enough to bring them every Sunday, even in summer. Even in soccer season. Those kids may end up Catholic, not because they went to our schools and religious education programs, but because their parents were the first and best of teachers. In a recent conversation with a local pastor who runs a school of 250, give or take, I asked how many of his students and their families attend Mass during the summer months. He said, “about thirty of them.”
In order to commit a mortal sin, a sin that severs one’s relationship to God, one must have sufficient knowledge that what they are doing is mortally sinful. Our kids come to Catholic schools and religious education where, presumably, they learn that it is a mortal sin to skip Sunday Mass without a serious reason, such as illness or inability to travel. That means that by allowing children to come to religious education or to enroll in Catholic schools when their parents don’t come to Mass, we are enabling them to commit a mortal sin by giving them the sufficient knowledge to damn their eternal souls.That’s a plan.
We have tied our religious education to the public school system of kindergarten and eight grades. The sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation have become graduation rituals, rites of passage, instead of the beginnings of a life of faith and commitment. We have turned sacrament into sacrilege. When you “get your sacraments” you’re “outta” there. (“Out of there” for those who don’t speak Chicagoan.) The Sacraments are an ending instead of a beginning. I can’t do this anymore. I believe it is morally wrong. The last time I brought this problem up, angry parents called the bishop. I remember one agitated parent who railed at me for questioning his Catholicism. He said that he was perfectly good Catholic. He went to Mass every single Easter and every single Christmas without fail.
When I realized that Eastern Rite Catholics from the Middle East don’t have Communion and Confirmation classes, a light went on in my head. They receive first Communion and Confirmation when they are Baptized, even if they are infants. They have religious education for the rest of their lives and, consequently, they have a spiritual life. They are prepared for the Sacrament of Penance, but not for Communion and Confirmation. The result is that they have a vibrant spiritual like that they have maintained in the face of 1,300 years of unremitting persecution. In this country, we can’t manage a religious life because we are up against team sports.
I intend to drop the classroom model and go to a discipleship model that is called Youthchurch. It will involve Bibles, catechisms and water balloons. And maybe doughnuts. I will know the program is a success when I find that the kids are mad at their parents for missing Mass on Sunday.
I no longer intend to prepare children for First Communion and Confirmation. There will no longer be First Communion and Confirmation classes. How and when will the children receive Communion and Confirmation? They will receive when they are ready. When are they ready? They are ready when they want the Sacrament. How do we know they want the Sacrament? When they understand it, can tell the pastor what it is and why they want it. If they are not in ongoing religious education and they are not coming to Mass on regular basis, they don’t want the Sacrament.
I am tired to distraction of having to chase young people down the aisles in church to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament because they have no clue what it is. A year or so back, I was offering a funeral Mass and a teenaged girl came up for Communion, took the host, looked at it, turned it over and began to walk away holding it in her palm. I followed her and asked, “Have you made your First Communion?” She said simply, “I’m Jewish.” I smiled and said, “Perhaps I should take that from you.” Quite a few of the mourners were furious with me for my discourtesy.
At another funeral not long ago I saw a passel of tattooed and pierced adolescents coming down the aisle at a funeral. It was a large funeral so a number of priests were helping with Communion. I had finished my line so I stood about ten paces from the celebrant, a visiting priest. The first of the young Goths received the host, looked at it curiously and as she passed me I asked, are you Catholic? She said, “no.” I said “Perhaps I should take that.” So there began a curious ritual, of clueless youths. One priest would say “Body of Christ and the second priest would say “I’ll just take that.”
I’ve had it. My efforts will be directed to preparing people for the Sacrament of Conversion (Maybe you call it Penance or Reconciliation. Whatever.) Then maybe the little dears will understand that Communion is more than an edible poker chip. Registration will take place over the summer. I will be doing it personally. If you are registered in the parish and using envelopes, that will be the first step to getting your child in Youthchurch. How else can I tell if you are coming to Mass? As I’ve said before I don’t care that money’s in the envelope, I care that you are in the pew.
PS. How much will it cost? Books will cost something, but there will be no tuition. If you are coming to Mass every Sunday, I presume you are throwing in the basket already. I don’t want your money. I want your souls. On the other hand, I have nothing against your money. The west wall is still falling down.