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Posted August 5, 2004

Thoughts to ponder by lay leaders and priests
engaged in teaching/preaching religion

Visions and Realities: Part One

Eugene F. Hemrick
Taken from Modern Masters of Religious Education
Edited by Marlene Mayr
Religious Education Press, Birmingham, Alabama

A Context

Some call it legacy, others heritage or background. No matter how you phrase it, the words suggest we are not a composition of self unto self. Rather, we are composed of innumerable outside influences. Why certain influences take hold of us more than others I leave to the wisdom of a Sophocles. What follows is a mosaic of inspirational moments, the persons who were behind them, and how they influenced my thinking in the world of catechetics. Before starting, I believe a need for contextualization is in order.

Reflecting on this chapter has made me conscious that my approach to catechetics has been very unlike that of my peers. It has developed from a feeling that if the catechetical world is to be changed, the use of reflection is the best way to achieve this. It is this action of reflection which seeks to understand essence, causes and relationships — in short, to define existence. In contrast to many of my peers, I have not focused on the content of theology in order to develop a new theology, or to develop new models and programs. My content, on the contrary, has been the operations within catechetics. These consist of such processes as teacher training and evaluation, administrative policies and procedures, and learning outcomes. I have approached religion teachers with two simple questions, “What are we doing to students?” What are the students doing to us?”

I feel that although one cannot totally measure the depth of a person’s faith or fully understand the effectiveness of catechetics, an assessment can be made of the means we employ to cooperate with God’s grace. There is a responsibility for good teaching and administration and creative approaches in catechetics. The effectiveness of these processes can be identified, analyzed, and through analysis improved.

It is also my belief that the tenets of faith are not as much a stumbling block to catechesis as are the poor pedagogical procedures that are employed in transmitting them.

This desire to analyze the causes of impact have led me to picture my lifestyle as one continous experiment after another. I further find I am greatly fulfilled when I pass on the findings of these experiments to others for application t their particular situation. I hope this brief explanation will help the reader de-complicate the complicated writings of this author.

The Period of Inspiration

If a child’s heart is reached by storytelling, then I was, and still am a child at heart. My first memorable contact with formal catechetics came not in the classroom, but rather from the pulpit. On Sunday we were often treated to wholesome homilies by my pastor. He was a master storyteller. During those ten or fifteen minutes our minds would weave in and out of the Holy Land. He had us talking with Hebrews, St. Paul, and of course, Christ. He knew how to personally draw you into the theme and be “there.”

As I drew closer to my pastor I came to better understand his gift of preaching. He had traveled throughout the world. >From these travels he had gathered an inexhaustible list of lived experiences. They provided exciting anecdotes. He was a copious reader in more than one language. His presentations were very orderly, reflecting long hours of preparation. But most of all, he loved to preach. I would often visit him on a late Saturday evening and watch him relish polishing an idea to be presented the next morning.

Years later, when studying the derivation of the words educator and scholar, I came to realize this man was both.

In Hermann Hesse’s book Magister Ludi there is an opening episode in which a young talented musician, Joseph Knecht, performs his first duet with the grand music master of the country. There then follows a description of the rhapsodic excitement Knecht discovers anew in music; how he sees the “world of Mind behind the music, the joy-giving harmony of law and freedom, of service and rule; and how he vows at that moment to unite his life to this higher order.” This sacramental union, as Hesse calls it, was what I sensed between my pastor and the liturgy of the Word. I also believe that a similar union was being forged within me at that time.

Recalling another type of catechesis I received, I remember particularly a church history teacher, much like my pastor, who taught me a love for history. He too, was well-traveled and employed imaginative ancedotes in his class. Most appealing of all was his logic, a beautiful road map with many exquisite details. He started from a set-point and methodically led to a well-rounded conclusion. Because of his orderly presentations he seemed to be in continuous control of the subject matter, and thus be one with it.

In addition to these two men, later there were retreat masters, professors of theology, Scripture, and philosophy who had that same engaging gift of touching the imagination.

As I reflect on my major seminary days in particular, I feel my attraction to imaginative thought is a very healthy stage of growth all youth undergo. At eighteen my mind was feeling its muscles for the first time. The surge of new ideas and the exhilaration of power in manipulating them was intoxicating. Looked at through the pedagogical categories of process and product, one might say I was enamored with the process of mental gymnastics which was operating in a philosopic-theologic product atmosphere. I don’t know what I loved better. On the one hand there was the enjoyment one finds in gaming with ideas, turning them upside down, combining them and creating new insights. On the other hand there was the feeling of adventure in entering the historic world of the church, of ancient Greeks and Romans, and vicariously experiencing their golden ages of creativity.

I must admit that a seminary environment, in which much of this inspiration was born, helped immensely. There were no distractions. I was young, very idealistic, and I felt a definite calling. The spiritual exercises, the hours of silence, the absence of newspapers, magazines, radios, and television in one way deprived us of the sensations most people live on daily. And yet, the deprivation was compensated for with a sense of oneness with self and the higher order of learning.

Many who go through the seminary disapprove of this type of tradeoff. They abhor the isolation of the seminary and consider it an unreal world which ill prepares us for the real world in which our priesthood operates. They contend it desensitizes us to family life and social-justice issues and thus dehumanizes us. Personally, I never felt this way. It is this strong positive feeling about my education that has influenced me to bank on it when writing on such topics as “burn-out.” In these articles I find myself encouraging DREs to develop a love for reflection and to create a space similar to that which comes from prayer and silence. My enthusiasm for history and philosophy prompts me to advise them to combine the wisdom of the present age with that of the ancient philosophers and spiritual writers.

Leaving the seminary after ordination I received my first opportunity to emulate my heroes of the word. Whether it was a honeymoon experience, or people just being nice to a newly ordained priest, I do remember the thrill I received when first preaching and teaching religion. There were good first experiences.

I also experienced a wholesome support system in my first parish. The pastor encouraged me to continue my studies. The other priests in the rectory worked hard on their homilies. Frequently they taught religion in our elementary school. The Sisters were into the newest theology and loved to challenge us. This community spirit and the challenges it presented were an ideal setting for a beginning.

The Period of Specialist

The experiences recounted in the last couple of pages motivated me to study more intently the dynamics of good preaching and teaching. I had always wanted a specialty. I thus began to gravitate toward an area I enjoyed, and in which I was receiving strong support. I believe the desire to analyze the art of communication was what first caused me to think about research and its connection to the field of catechetics. I felt if I could somehow identify and quantify the particular variables that were operating in an inspirational class I would cultivate one of the most valuable qualities of my priesthood. I wanted to be able to imitate those teachers who captivated me as a youth!

The scientific aspect of this pursuit likewise caught my imagination. (I often wonder if my awe for working in a laboratory setting might have stemmed from the seven years of a quiet seminary setting in which the library or the study were considered the fonts of wisdom?) To picture myself analysing and conducting field experiments has great appeal. Through such a discipline I proudly thought of myself making a great contribution to religious education.

After five years of parish life and graduate studies at Loyola in Chicago, I pursued a doctorate in education at Notre Dame. There I had the opportunity to test whether research was for me and the world of catechetics. I was again blessed by a strong support system. Thanks to persons such as James Michael Lee, Walter Doyle, William Tageson, Raymond Whiteman, William Friend, and the Holy Cross Brothers I received the needed encouragement to complete my doctorate in the specialized area of my choice. I chose as my specialized area the study of teacher behavior as it affects religious education. I say “my choice” because so often a person studying for a doctorate ends up doing a dissertation on a topic far removed from his or her area of personal interest. Sometimes this is caused by a self-serving director. Often it is the fault of the student who has no specific vision of where he or she is going. I often wonder if we, in higher academia, might serve graduate students better if we required them to specify some type of present and future vision prior to their entering our programs. In any event I experienced great freedom at Notre Dame not only in the choice of my dissertation, but in all other academic phases as well.

Beginning in 1970 at Notre Dame, until the present, my heart’s desire to be a specialist found its fulfillment. I have videotaped not only religion, but also college, business, and television presentations. In each analysis I have searched for those particular gifts of communication, which if captured, could create a Knecht connection.

In the effort to identify the essence of effective communication I have discovered a variety of fascinating models. Some examples of these are the Abba Eban model in which exact wording, perfect diction, and exquisite logic are a hallmark; the Vince Lombardi model in which clarity, details, contextualization, visual aids, and a well-ordered presentation are prominant; the Johnny Carson model which utilizes interment humor to loosen the atmosphere for better dialogue: the Lawrence Oliver model which emphasizes demonstrative sentences to create emphasis; and finally, there is Mother Teresa whose poverty of spirit transcends any model and goes directly to the heart.

During my research on teacher behavior in religious education I have likewise developed a list of favorite skills. These, I believe, greatly improve teaching. A good story well told is a winner always. No matter whether the story is told to a sophisticated group of scientists or a mother’s club, people love the ancient art of storytelling.

An observation on storytelling is in order here. I have found, after studying religious education programs, that teachers often will rely more on a film than on themselves to tell a story. Films do make a strong impact. But I wonder sometimes if they are not relied upon too heavily, which robs us of that extra-special personal touch. It is enjoyable to listen to a violin or piano concerto on the latest stereo equipment with all the flaws screened out. And yet one does not really experience music until the artist himself or herself is experienced. There are so many added dimensions in a concert hall a record cannot duplicate. So too, is it true regarding audio-visual aids and the artistry of the teacher.

I am realistic enough to know that today’s religion teachers compete against the overwhelming odds of attractive television programs and marketing techniques. These have a way of calling one’s best teaching skills into question. They also entice one to use modern media. To employ the latest technology, and yet maintain personal contact, seems to be a problem of our electronic age we have not faced up to in religious education.

Other winning qualities I have found within a presentation or dialogue include the use of concrete, colorful examples, narratives within a narrative, and the timely use of details, similies, and contrasts. A good sense of humor is a must, as is the ability to listen and accept other opinions that need sounding out. Finally, there is the need of a sixth sense to understand an audience’s disposition and the mood of the times. These qualities are what I feel to be the creme de la creme of an artistic teacher.

In working with teacher training I have learned that the best way to improve the pedagogical procedures of religion teachers is not found, however, in superimposing on them a list of skills. Rather, teachers should be studied first by observing how they teach. These observations should then be carefully analysed to identify those particular qualities and skills which are their unique, par-excellence, style. Feedback should follow which aims at reinforcing what is effective in that pedagogical style, and improving those areas that could be more effective. Hence, I start with the teacher’s qualities, rather than preconceived list of desirable skills. If and where possible, new skills are encourage only after existing ones are solidified.

For a moment I must comment on one of the greatest frustrations I have encountered in teaching catechetics. I have found that some people take to teaching religion like a duck takes to water, while others take to it like fish out of water. The reason why some can teach and others cannot lies hidden somewhere in the parable of the talents. As I mellow with age I accept as fact that you cannot fashion a person into a good teacher. If a person has innate talent in teaching one can improve it. If talent is lacking the best one can accomplish is to help a person become less dangerous to himself or herself. These remarks are not meant to sound a note of negative fatalism. Rather, they come from the feeling that persons who lack teaching talent should be channeled into those areas of catechetics that do not require teaching.

A word must be said here about the volunteer religion teachers who have good will but are not effective teachers. Many parishes rely on volunteers who are unprepared. Even if they were prepared, they should not teach. These parishes rely on such persons because they have no one else.

It is true, good will and zeal often are better witnesses to the faith than polished pedagogy. And yet we are told “the blind should not lead the blind.” St. Teresa of Avila felt that priests who were poor confessors did more damage than good. Having analyzed well-meaning, but poor, teachers, I have seen many so overmoralize their students as to demoralize them. The take the very health out of religion.

If a person is good hearted however, should we not let our heart be overruled and accept them? Is there not a justification which says in such love community is born and God works in his own mysterious way for the good? Is it not also true that some parishes, and especially missions, have no choice?

I have a hard time accepting the proposition that one can get backed into a corner and have no choice when it comes to catechesis. Programs can be designed to utilize well-meaning persons who are not teacher types. Sometimes a little extra effort in screening or recruiting can avoid the dilemma before it arises. I believe reflection and ingenuity can overcome the paucity of talent. If we cannot fill our classrooms with good teachers perhaps another model of teaching should be employed that utilizes nonteachers as part of a team under qualified teachers. If a parish has no creative talent to develop new models, perhaps it should combine programs with another parish that is more fortunate. There are many “if-this-is-not-so-perhaps-that-is” possibilities that offer hope.

This realization has led me to several related conclusions. I believe religious education cannot rely on a classroom model solely, which in turn relies on good teachers. Talented educators are not all that available. Some religious education programs are fortunate to have on good teacher. Other support systems must be brought into play. These systems might include good homilies and liturgies, the example of works of charity, parish sensitivity to social justice issues, community spirit, and the witness each person gives.

Closely related to this is my response to the question, “What are the most important areas of concern on which a DRE should focus for success? Having specialized in teacher training my first tendency would naturally be to say teacher training should receive priority. Good models of teaching have deeply influenced my understanding of the faith. I have experience the power of the well-spoken word. I like the professional feeling that comes being a specialist. And too, for DREs to specialize in one area and not be distracted by many others is much better for keeping themselves under control. Yet, when I reflect on the environment in which my professors taught and the support I received from the surrounding environment of my experiences in the seminary and the university and my first parish, I am now more prone to tell DREs something else. “Include the teaching model but look beyond it.: I feel they should attend more to the community spirit of the pastor, associate pastor, parish committees, parents, and the faculty. Do those youths or adults we are trying to instill with the faith sense a healthy spirit of teamwork and collaboration from the instillers? Is there a strong effort by the staff to create a sense of personal responsibility among all parishioners concerned, rather than only being concerned with the catechists and a school model? Is there a fear of loss of control if the attempt is made to involve those parishioners whose personal involvement can speak louder than the spoken word?

No doubt the holistic approach recommended here requires of DREs a new style of management. More systems must be included within the system, and, thus, more personnel employed. Burn-out is a threat. And yet, if the concept of “division of labor” is employed and DREs adhere to the principles of community-building, I believe they have an adequate arsenal ready to meet the challenge of this approach. Is it really too much of the “Brave New World” thinking to suggest that DREs consider one of their roles to be that of a “systems analyst”?