jesus a gospel of love, that Jesus proclaims: “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and what will I but that it be kindled”; “I have come to bring not peace but the sword”; “Unless you renounce all you possess, you cannot be my disciples”; “Take up your cross daily and follow me”; “Anyone who loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.”
Our keenness to pass on the confidence to children is both reasonable and praiseworthy, but more than order, kids need spotlight. Children need the experience of living in a faith community-family, school, parish–where Christian values dominate all aspects of daily activity. They need the example of committed Christians who thrill to the wonders of God’s love, rejoice in praise of God’s goodness, and accept gratefully the manifestations of God’s wisdom and exposure to the expressions of faith by sharing in its liturgical and sacramental life in a manner consonant with their age and intellectual development.
“Religion is far better caught than taught,” Msgr. William H. Russell of the Catholic University of America loved to insist as he would remind people that Christianity is a life to be lived far more than a set of doctrines to be believed. Catholic schools deserve support for their valuable witness to the faith community at work–a service that makes the religious instruction they provide almost incidental.
Let’s face it: if the menu is to move from the milk of the superficial to the meat of the substantial, communities must make the move from the instruction of children to that of adults, both young and old. Embracing Christianity with passion calls for mature judgment, critical appreciation, and a realistic grasp of both requisites and consequences. When the ideal is creative responsibility and not mere conformity, one must be truly responsible and capable of responding. And when it’s a matter of life and growth, one must not settle for security and an apparent stability but willingly face risk and a smidgen of uncertainty.
But to agree to de-emphasize instruction for children and concern ourselves with adult formation is to raise a very practical question: how can we afford it–in terms of time, money, and personnel? Fortunately the major structures needed are already in place. It’s merely a matter of using and improving them. Look at the five tools at our disposal for growth in the faith: the homily, the home, reading, study, and personal prayer.
The homily is the ideal moment for forthright religious instruction, adult vis-à-vis adult. Enveloped in the Word, confronted by the Word, and enabled by the Word, it’s the opportunity par excellence for a hard look at what Christianity is all about (provided the preacher cooperates!). How often have you felt challenged by a preacher to face those radical demands the gospel proclaims? How often have you heard the invitation to intensify your life of prayer, expand your horizons by delving into the doctrine of the founders of the church, experience the beneficial effects of silence or simplicity, examine the encyclicals, or explore the council documents? How often has a homily set your heart aflame with greater love of God and neighbor or inspired you to greater devotion, a more active ministry, or a determination to work harder to establish peace and justice? Perhaps this tool needs sharpening a bit. Then again, perhaps congregations are simply getting what they deserve.
The church has always acknowledged and staunchly defended the right of parents to be the primary agents in the education of their children. To shift religious education from the classroom to the living room would be to restore a lost heritage as well as make clear to children that the spiritual arms with which they are being supplied are meant to be used, first and foremost, in the battles to be fought on the home front. Home instruction would provide an opportunity to revitalize traditional religious practices, enhance family celebrations, and literally bring home the lessons of liturgical seasons.