Memorization and Catechesis: What really works?

The following was written by Kolbe Academy theology teacher, Mr. Nicholas Senz.

Recently America Magazine featured a school that is scrapping its traditional junior high faith formation program in favor of what it calls “conversational catechesis.” A seminar-style format encourages students to “talk openly about difficult and complex questions of faith.” It is hoped that such an approach “could be the starting point for truly forming the whole person and nurturing a living faith for the young members of our church.”

Citing statistics that suggest young Catholics who drift from the Church do so because of a perceived lack of relevance of the faith to their lives, the conversational catechesis model favors “authentic relationships” and “moments of encounter” over “dissemination of theory.” For example, the authors of the article, themselves teachers in the program, asked their students who they knew of that emulated the actions and figure of Moses, and one student responded with the name of a Nobel Prize winner.

The authors of the article set their new method in opposition to a fact-based or memorization-heavy form of catechesis. “Young adults no longer need to memorize historical facts or quotes from lofty literature—they have Google for that,” the authors write. “Rather, we need to help our students exercise an ethical conscience, apply creativity and cultivate innovation.”

The goal of the program is to move catechesis beyond facts and terms. “How can we foster faith in students with merely rote memorization and inaccessible vocabulary?”

There is nothing new in the issues raised by this article and the catechesis method it puts forward. For decades, particularly in the Church in the U.S., a certain sector has eschewed “Baltimore Catechism-style” faith formation in favor of a discussion or reflection-oriented approach. The topic of “memorization” has been a particular target of these advocates. But does the Church have anything to tell us about the subject?

In his apostolic letter Catechesi Tradendae (Catechesis in Our Time), Pope St. John Paul II specifically addressed the subject of fact-learning within faith formation:

A certain memorization of the words of Jesus, of important Bible passages, of the Ten Commandments, of the formulas of profession of the faith, of the liturgical texts, of the essential prayers, of key doctrinal ideas, etc., far from being opposed to the dignity of young Christians, or constituting an obstacle to personal dialogue with the Lord, is a real need, as the synod fathers forcefully recalled (CT 55).

Far from denigrating memorization, both Pope St. John Paul II and the bishops who attended the synod saw it as an indispensable component of the formation of young Christians. The pope went on to explain why:

We must be realists. The blossoms, if we may call them that, of faith and piety do not grow in the desert places of a memory-less catechesis. What is essential is that the texts that are memorized must at the same time be taken in and gradually understood in depth, in order to become a source of Christian life on the personal level and the community level. (CT 55)

The pope reminds us here of the purpose of memorization in faith formation. It is not simply to have the information ready to hand—if that were so, then the ubiquity of smart phones and search engines actually would obviate the need for memorizing key texts. Committing a quotation or fact to memory adds to one’s understanding, to one’s person. When we learn such things, we are literally in-formed—that is, formed inwardly. We cannot internalize the words of the Gospel unless we know them. We cannot be configured to Christ unless we know something about Him, and that is not something Google can replace.

Here one is reminded of the play off of Socrates’ famous phrase: “The unexamined life is not worth living, but the unlived life is not worth examining.” We might re-work that for this context as: “An unreflective faith is not worth having, but a content-less faith is not worth reflecting upon.”

Pope St. John Paul II would seem to agree as he wrote specifically against the experience-focused method: “It is also quite useless to campaign for the abandonment of serious and orderly study of the message of Christ in the name of a method concentrating on life experience” (CT 22).

Often paired with arguments against memorization is the complaint that Catholic terminology is too difficult or obscure for children to learn—or as the authors of this article put it, “inaccessible.” Yet this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Terms are only inaccessible when they are inadequately explained. Too many catechists have neglected to teach the meaning of the key words of our faith, only to lament that the children do not understand them, and then declare that they must be set aside. Yet when it comes to other subjects we don’t make such pleas. Apparently incarnation is too difficult a word to learn, but photosynthesis isn’t?

We also notice in this article the repeated emphasis on moral formation. While this is an important aspect of Christian discipleship, it is not primary. Such an approach leads not to morality, but moralism, or even Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The authors say that students must feel free to ask questions, and catechists must accompany them through uncomfortable or difficult moments. This is certainly true, yet it only prompts a further question: accompany to where? Unless the catechist has something to propose, unless the catechist is accompanying the learner into a deeper appropriation of faith, then just what is the student being accompanied into?

The familiar appeal to relevance is made. While students must be helped to see where the content of faith touches their lives, too often the reverse is assumed, and the Church becomes desperate to make the faith seem relevant to the world, rather than holding the faith as the standard of truth against which the world must measure itself.

Memorizing prayers and Scriptures and definitions of terms will not in itself create a disciple. It is not a sufficient condition, but as Pope St. John Paul II affirmed, it is a necessary one. Such is the content, the foundation, the material upon which a life of faith is built. It is the way in which the substance of the faith is appropriated by the young. Only when these bones are in place can an individual’s faith be fleshed out. But without that underlying structure, that faith is sure to collapse.

I will often hear parishioners of an older generation speak derisively of their Baltimore Catechismupbringing. I will sometimes gently point out to those same parishioners that that formation led to a life of faithful practice, whereas their own children were formed in a more experiential mode, but no longer attend Mass. While there are certainly a host of factors involved in that phenomenon, the mode of catechesis involved cannot be dismissed.

Republished with permission from the Catholic World Report.

Nicholas Senz is a husband and father, and the Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX. He received a B.A. in Communication Studies (Journalism track) from the University of Portland, and an M.A. in Philosophy and M.A. in Theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas has served as a Master Catechist in California, and taught faith formation and catechist training courses in parishes across the country. He has also been published in several Catholic websites and periodicals, including Catholic DigestCatholic Herald (UK)Catholic World ReportCrisis Magazine, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Nicholas lives in Texas with his wife and three children. 

If you are interested in reading more of his work, please check his webpage, here

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