Last fall, I was the teacher instead of the student for the first time. Faced with a room full of 15-year-olds, I decided to begin an activity to get to know them. After asking them a few fun questions about themselves such as “Do you like spicy or bland food? Rap music or country? Chocolate or vanilla?” I nonchalantly threw out the question I really wanted to ask: “OK, everybody, I want you to stand on this side of the room if you believe in God with certainty, and stand on the other side of the room if you don’t believe in God at all.”
I watched them, and they watched me. Four kids tentatively went to the “believing” side, five marched defiantly to the “non-believing” side, and the rest stayed somewhere in the middle. I glanced over at the non-believing side and saw one girl pushing firmly against the wall. Eyes flashing, she declared, “If the wall went back any further, I’d be there.”
A juvenile hall? A public school? No; this was the confirmation class at a Catholic parish.
As the year progressed, I realized the majority of my class could not explain the words Trinity, Incarnation, or Eucharist. They didn’t know the Ten Commandments, the seven sacraments, or the eight beatitudes. They weren’t familiar with what Jesus Christ said and did. Yet, at their young age, they did know the “problems” about the Catholic faith continually addressed by the secular media: priests are pedophiles, the Church hates science because of Galileo, creation doesn’t exist because evolution explains everything, and the Church discriminates against gay people by not allowing them to marry.
These kids were also masters of current culture. It surprised me that I, who six years ago considered myself a pop and alternative music junky, now knew fewer than 30% of the rappers and musicians they mentioned. More information is available to increasingly younger adolescents, and with so much entering through their senses, their filters for judging the morality of this information deteriorate almost as fast as the information enters through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and iTunes.
It’s fine if teens want to be experts in pop culture, but they need to be experts in something else as well – something that will give their lives meaning, fulfillment, and happiness. Common sense and life experience show us that young people cannot love something or someone they do not know. They cannot love a movie if they have never seen it, or love a book they have never read. Knowledge precedes love. How can young people be expected to remain Catholic and love their Catholic faith if they do not know it? Moreover, how can they love Christ as their Friend, Creator, Brother, and Savior if they do not know him?
With negative values such as materialism, selfishness, and the exaltation of pleasure bombarding them for roughly 167 of 168 hours a week, is one hour at CCD class enough to equip these kids with a sufficient knowledge and understanding of their faith? From my experience last year, I say it isn’t. Teenagers do not learn to love and defend their Catholic faith through osmosis. They need loving guides who will take the time to listen to their doubts and help them find answers. Most of all, they need the support of their parents. The Church affirms that parents are the primary educators of their children. If parents show such concern for their children’s ballet lessons, basketball games, tutoring sessions, and doctor’s appointments, how much more should they ensure that their children know and love their Catholic faith, the source of their eternal happiness? Parents’ role in educating their children in the faith starts early, but adolescence is the most crucial time for a person to interiorize the beliefs that they will hold for the rest of their lives. A vague idea of Catholic teachings and little personal connection with God will not be enough to last through the turbulent teenage years and early adulthood. CCD gives kids a starting point, but in order for it to make a difference in their lives, their Catholic faith needs to be reinforced at home.
There are countless little opportunities to form children in the faith if families decide to use them. For starters, going to Mass together on Sunday can lead to a great discussion in the car on the way home about the meaning of the Gospel or the priest’s homily. From a newspaper article slamming the Pope or Catholic Church arises an opportunity to determine the truth or falsity of its statements. Flipping through the Catechism of the Catholic Church – or even better, the new youth-friendly version Youcat – can give answers to the many ‘whys’ of the faith. Family prayer – even a simple blessing before meals or a decade of the rosary in the car – sets the foundations for a relationship with God. Young people learn about the Catholic faith primarily through witness, so quality time – going for a run, turning off the iPod and talking, or eating a meal together – is a starting place for teachable moments.
As the year went by, after much patience and effort, little by little, I saw a change in the kids I taught. Their hearts began to open. By my last class, I decided they were ready to watch The Passion of Christ. Still, I wondered how they would react to the realistic portrayal of Christ’s passion and death. Would they make fun of the fake blood and subtitles? Would they say the movie was an exaggeration?
As the scenes unfolded – of Jesus’ unfair trial, his crowning with thorns, his way of the cross, and finally his crucifixion – instead of acting bored or mocking the movie, they watched with concentration and interest. They would even turn and ask, “Why are the soldiers so mad at Jesus?” “Who is that woman?” (The Blessed Virgin Mary) “Why doesn’t Jesus fight back?” “Did it really hurt Jesus that much?” I saw eyes that were, some for the first time, full of pity and compassion for Jesus; eyes that truly pondered that all of this had to have been real after all.
Accompanying a classroom full of teenagers in the discovery and realization of the importance of their faith was a challenging but beautiful experience. Persisting amidst many questions and doubts, my hope was to awaken a thirst for God in them. Sowing seeds takes time, but when it comes to our faith, it’s necessary. I’m thankful for being able to do just that by accompanying those kids in their process of discovering that our faith is real and for everyone.