By Mary DeTurris Poust
Catholic schools versus religious education programs? I've looked at that life from both sides now. I've got one child in Catholic school, one child in faith formation, and one child waiting to enter our parish's religious education program next year. Oh, and I teach fifth-grade faith formation as well. I am very much smack dab in the middle of a not-so-pleasant relationship.
Unfortunately, it seems there's always been a deep and dark chasm between Catholic schools and religious education programs (as noted in this editorial from the January 30 edition of OSV.) I remember it from when I was a kid in CCD class, always feeling like a second-class citizen compared to the kids who went to the Catholic school. And I've felt it in more dramatic ways as an adult.
It's tough on both sides. Kids in the school feel as if their stuff is always at risk because hundreds, if not thousands of kids move through their classrooms during a week and something is bound to get touched, broken, moved, or taken now and then. The kids in faith formation feel as if they have no home. They are always visitors in their home parish, never really welcome in the space reserved for them.
Teachers certainly feel it in the fact that we have to cram a year's worth of religious education into one hour a week, with too many classes off for holidays, breaks, or snow days. When we put on a Nativity pageant, our kids do it with 15 minutes of practice time, some sad looking pieces of fabric for tunics and and a little piece of cardboard for a creche. Nothing like the school performance, where the kids can practice for days on end and the costumes and set aren't stuffed in brown paper bags in a little supply closet that serves as a central office. There are just some simple, basic realities that are inevitable, I guess. Religion class once a week simply can't "compete" with religion class every day, but therein lies the problem. This shouldn't be a competition.
The tension that often exists between these programs isn't necessary or inevitable. Rather than working together toward a common goal, schools and programs, teachers and students are often set against each other, vying for funds, space, supplies, attention. For the good of our kids and our parishes, we need to find ways to see each other as allies in a struggle to transmit the Gospel to kids who may or may not get much religious instruction at home.
I look out at my class of fifth-graders and, as much as I'd like to think that these kids will all be church-going Catholics 10 years down the road, I guess that at least half of them will be lost along the way. Are the children in Catholic school immune to that? I don't think so. We, as a Church, need to look at our young Catholics (and their parents) and do whatever it takes to keep them in the pews -- or get them there in the first place. And that's going to mean forging a new cooperation between Catholic schools and religious education programs, one where we use every resource at our disposal -- no matter who "owns" it -- to give our children the foundation they need to build a life grounded in the Gospel.
I see a little light in this dark tunnel in my own world since my new pastor has started shaking things up in our parish program and is reaching out to families. He has begun a limited program for the parents of children in the First Communion year -- both in the school and in religious education -- and is teaching the classes himself. Still, a lot of these tensions between school and religious education have nothing to do with the pastor and everything to do with years and years of built-in expectations and prejudices.
I'm on both sides. But for the life of me I can't understand why there have to be any sides at all.