I loved this post by Jennifer Fitz over at Patheos: “The Hero Complex That is Destroying the Catholic Faith” (yes, I know the title is over the top, but give the article a chance anyway). I know there’s something laughable about someone with a Ph.D. in theology saying “catechism doesn’t take my family’s needs seriously,” but I honestly think there is something gone awry. The structure of our catechetical ministry (more than the catechists – this is not a case of individuals making mistakes) assumes that Catholic parishes, not Catholic parents, are responsible for bringing up children in the faith. Yet, you know, it was my husband and I, not the parish catechists, that promised to do exactly that?
I want to repeat, to prevent misunderstandings: I don’t think this is a problem because catechists don’t know enough, or are doing it wrong, or God forbid, are not working hard enough. These are structural problems that persist in parishes I’ve attended where the ministry team knows a lot, is doing their best with good skills, and is working all the time (maybe too much!). Structural problems demand structural solutions, which no particular catechist is in a position to implement, but which the liturgical community, working together, might be able to provide.
The first part of the structural problem is the large anonymity of many of our parishes, where catechists don’t actually know the families they minister to. This makes it easy and tempting to assume that all the families are the “default” kind. Obviously this is a fact of contemporary American culture, exacerbated by the fact that many nuclear families are living far from their natural (familial) support systems.
The second part is that we have as our “default” American Catholic family an essentially non-practicing Catholic family, and so that (through #1) becomes our catechetical norm. There is a stereotype I’ve heard both in pastoral writing and in theological education that the “normal” American Catholic family is, basically, not Catholic. And unfortunately, this presupposition is not usually challenged by getting to know practicing Catholic families, because our parishes are large enough that we often don’t get to know one another.
The third part is that those of us who are practicing domestic Catholicism (imperfectly, of course!) feel marginalized because we’re not heard. Two quick anecdotes: when I attended baptismal prep for my second child, with my spouse and her godparents, I was scheduled to give a presentation on baptismal spirituality at my parish, two days after my daughter’s baptism. As I walked into the baptism class, the parish priest laughingly forbade me from saying a word, “especially if I get anything wrong!” He meant well, and we had a good relationship, but I do have spiritual needs, and I heard in no uncertain terms that they weren’t going to be the focus of the evening. So no community building with these neighbors I had never met, no sharing of insights into Christian parenting, and no prayer! Just basic theology. Another: I asked my son what they had discussed on the second Sunday of Advent in faith formation, and he shrugged and showed me the page in the textbook. It was an introduction of Advent, with a basic theology of waiting, and a plea that the children might suggest to their parents doing something special for Advent, like maybe getting an Advent wreath. The rest of the paragraph described the Advent wreath. Thomas was unimpressed. He loves Advent, but he lives it, and he needs a text that can live into it with him.
It’s no wonder, I think, overall, that the myth of the “typical” American Catholic family (of nonbelievers) doesn’t get challenged. There’s no forum in our catechesis for going deeper. Now my son wants to leave faith formation classes and learn his theology at home with us. I want him to have the friendships and deep sense of community connectedness that should come from the parish faith formation, but that doesn’t seem to be a result of the system as we have it. What can be done?