The Improper Catechesis of Catholic Schools

Many Catholic schools seek to make the Holy Mass a “teaching moment.” The error of this is that the Mass is not about us, and it is not for us to decide what it is for.

Catholic schools are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Dazzled by the bright lights of technological progress and drawn in by the siren song of humanism, school leaders have succumbed to the temptation to subordinate the sacred to the secular. Many principals and catechists are intent on replacing God’s words with their own, adding “teaching moments” to sacred prayers and even the Holy Mass itself.

The rapid decline in vocations to the priesthood and the decrease in Catholics who faithfully attend Mass has often been met by a call for more catechesis. The answer, however, is not more catechesis but proper catechesis: this means less of our words—not more—for the sake of making room for Christ’s words.

There are two necessary elements of catechesis: learning about sacred things, and participating in sacred things. Likewise, there are three main pitfalls which lead to insufficient or counterproductive catechesis: to participate in sacred things without ever learning about them, to learn about them without ever participating in them, and the Catholic schools’ attempt to “kill two birds with one stone” by consolidating both elements into one. While the first two are insufficient, the third is the most dangerous.

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To participate in sacred things without bothering to learn about them is, at the very least, gravely presumptuous. The Holy Mass and the sacraments are for Catholics, and it is important that we approach them with knowledge and reverence insofar as we are able to (Sacrosanctum Concilium 9). Once we are of the age of reason, ignorance alone does not exempt us from responsibility for immoral actions if we are not genuinely seeking to know what is true (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1791).

This is, in part, the reason that we have Confirmation, Marriage, and First Communion preparation programs which often last one or several years. We are responsible for approaching these Sacred Mysteries with a knowledge of what we are doing. We are also morally culpable if we approach them irreverently and lead little ones to do the same.

Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to rendering to God what we owe Him. In fact, it’s the single most important thing we could know. The practice of simply hoping that knowledge of the Sacred Mysteries would come by participating in them leads to a Church of people who do not know Christ. Have we forgotten that “if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself?” (1 Corinthians 11:29). To fail in teaching our children about these Sacred Mysteries is a grave abdication of our duty as educators and a failure to fulfill the promises we make when baptizing our own children.

On the other hand, to learn about sacred things without participating in them is, in a sense, anemic. It is much like studying painting without ever actually painting. Perhaps even more accurately, it is like studying diet and exercise but never actually applying any of it in service of your health. Of course, both of these analogies pale in comparison to the knowledge of sacred things because knowledge of God is only revealed to us by God. It is impossible to know Him without Him revealing Himself to us, and we receive the grace to do so primarily through the sacraments and liturgies of the Church. 

Apart from active participation in the Church and sacraments, there can only be something which very vaguely resembles a spiritual life. Attempting to seek Christ apart from actually participating in His Church through the sacraments is like trying to climb a ladder without rungs. In the same way, a Catholic school that offers a religion class but only a monthly Mass and yearly confession (if you’re lucky) is massively failing in catechesis—a failure for which the school administrators and theology teachers are morally culpable. As Christ said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

Perhaps the gravest of these offenses, however, is the third. If you have good knowledge of the Faith but lack sacramental practice, you’re halfway there, and you will grow exponentially by entering into the sacramental life of the Church. If you regularly participate in the sacraments but lack a knowledge of the Faith, you will likewise grow rapidly through a dedicated study of theology. On the other hand, if your religious education has consisted of sacred moments with man-made “teaching moments” blended in, you have most likely encountered neither the Sacred Mysteries nor the Church’s teachings in a meaningful way. Rather, both elements become emulsified into a sort of lukewarm, unseasoned porridge that both tastes like and leaves us feeling as though we had eaten cement. The lines between Christ’s authority and ours must not be blurred. If your religious education has consisted of sacred moments with man-made “teaching moments” blended in, you have most likely encountered neither the Sacred Mysteries nor the Church’s teachings in a meaningful way.Tweet This

Many Catholic schools seek to make the Holy Mass a “teaching moment.” The error of this is that the Mass is not about us, and it is not for us to decide what it is for. It is about God, plain and simple. How proud and arrogant must we be to think that we can improve upon those sacred prayers given to us by Holy Mother Church? Not only do we usurp the authority of Christ, but we fail even more grievously in our goal of teaching our children about it by modeling a liturgy that is about our words rather than the Word incarnate made truly present in the Eucharist. It is not about God serving us, it is about us serving God—this is the act in which we find our fulfillment. We must not invert this order!

What message does it send to our little ones if the Mass is subject to our own picking and choosing? What does it teach them about the liturgies of the Church when their only experience with the sacred prayers is one that is interrupted and riddled with “teaching moments”? The entire point is to give ourselves wholly and entirely to Christ—all prayer, all sacraments, and the Holy Mass are, first and foremost, acts of surrender to Christ. Why are we so eager to replace Christ’s words with our own? Do we truly believe that we are better teachers than Christ the Teacher?

Lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of belief. If we demonstrate for our students that we have control over sacred things, we are driving them away from Christ not closer to Him. We are exposing them to something which is only Catholic in outward appearance but lacks all of the substance of the true Church. A weak faith is better than a strong heresy.

The point is this: we must stop replacing Christ’s words with our own. It is not “more educational.” It does not facilitate education but impedes it. The price of this is twofold: not only does the instruction not stick, but it leads to a liturgy which is irreverent, man-centered, and spiritually dangerous. 

As Catholic schools, we have the obligation to the universal and domestic Church to lead little ones into virtue, teaching them in the Faith and setting them on the course for Heaven. This cannot be done without dedicated religious education and participation in the Sacred Mysteries of the Church. When we celebrate the Mass with our students, it must truly be a solemn act of worship for the Blessed Trinity. We must not only teach them about the Faith, we must participate in the liturgies of Holy Mother Church alongside them with reverence and piety.

Perhaps the greatest “lesson” we can give our little ones is to model humility and devotion. To approach Sacred Mysteries with awe, wonder, and holy fear. To submit ourselves wholly and completely to Christ and His Church. This is not something which we tell them. This is not something which we “pretend.” It is something which we must truly be. So, my message to our beloved Catholic schools, and especially our administrators: If we try to blend our own “teaching moments” into sacred liturgies, we will find that we’ve created a chimera which is neither sacred nor educational but, rather, irreverent, misleading, and spiritually corrosive.

In the fullness of time, we are not judged merely by what we know, nor by what we do, but by who we are. Likewise, God’s promise to us was not just to enlighten us, nor was it to help us act better; rather, His promise was to actually restore us to wholeness and holiness through relationship with Him. When we are passing on to our children the Faith which was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), we cannot settle for merely enlightening them with religious education. It is written, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). 

Nor may we allow them to approach the Sacred Mysteries without knowledge suitable to their age. We must educate them by teaching them in all things, especially the sacred. Above all, we must educate them by being virtuous ourselves and accompanying them on their spiritual journey to holiness as it is worked by Christ through His Church. We must never replace Christ’s words with our own.


  • Joshua Long

    Joshua Long is an adult convert to the Catholic Church, as well as a teacher and musician.

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