The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 22, 2000 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

An increasingly important ministry

A catechist may be the only person who prays with a child all week

By Bishop Robert Banks

Education is at the center of this year's presidential race. Both Gov. Bush and Vice-Pres. Gore promise to improve the education given in our public schools. Gov. Bush is even willing to think about letting parents choose the kind of schools to which they will send their children.

However, there is one thing that neither one can do to improve the education given those who attend public schools. Neither one can promise to make religious formation part of the public school curriculum. And I don't think most Americans would want to see that happen. But it does mean that many children grow up with little, if any, formal education in the area of religion, ethics or morality.

Pres. Clinton has asked that public schools provide programs of character education for the students, and there are serious attempts to do so. Public schools have invited guest speakers to address behavior issues, but it is difficult to find a speaker whose views will appeal to every parent. I remember there being an outcry in some Massachusetts communities when the school invited in lecturers to speak on the subject of AIDS and AIDS prevention.

Sometime ago, the well-known Harvard psychiatrist, Robert Coles, wrote an article for the New York Times in which he lamented the fact that public school personnel avoid taking a directly moral approach to behavior problems and resort instead to psychological or emotional explanations of inappropriate behavior.

He writes, "The teachers are comfortable with the abstract, distancing phrases of the social sciences ... But psychological comments and interpretations are not substitutes for the day-to-day moral lessons that shape a child's conscience ... Boy and girls need to know "no," and need to have absorbed any number of "no's" within their thinking and feeling minds.

He goes on to point out the absence of religion in public schools. "In recent decades we've taken every scrap of religious faith out of the public schools, and civic religion -- the flag, for example -- has become in many minds suspect. With God and Country gone, what remains to guide our children and teachers ethically ... ?

The lack of some kind of moral education for all our children is a problem for our nation, but especially for our children. But there is a partial answer - the religious education programs offered in our parishes for the children who attend public schools.

I lift these programs up for our attention and thanks not just because they offer a basis for character/moral formation, but because they invite the child and young person to know and love God and Jesus whom God sent as their friend, guide and savior.

Precisely because religion is no longer allowed into public education, our Church's religious education/formation programs are one of the most important services we offer the Church, our local community and the nation.

For that reason, if an adult would want to do something significant for the Lord and for our country, volunteering as a teacher or catechist in a parish religious education program would top the list.

As soon as our catechists begin to teach, they realize that what is really special is the relationship they have with the youngsters. Just this past week, I met with some of the catechists who teach in the parish program at St. Lawrence in Navarino. What was obvious to me in our conversation was the interest and affection which they had for the young people they taught.

What is often less apparent to the catechists is the long-lasting effect they have in the lives of those they teach. I still remember Miss Brennan, the teacher I had in second grade Sunday School. I wouldn't be surprised if she had something to do with my vocation to priesthood.

The relationship between the catechist and the young person is so special because the catechist is not simply teaching answers from the catechism. The catechist is leading the young person to believe in Jesus, to pray to God, to follow the Gospel and to have a better appreciation of how important he or she is, especially to God. And the catechist does that most of all by sharing how he or she believes, prays, lives the Gospel and values the young person.

Unfortunately, despite the importance of the catechist, many parishes have difficulty in finding volunteers for catechetical ministry. Potentially good candidates feel they don't have the ability or the knowledge or the time. The time is a sacrifice, no question about it. But that should make involvement even more rewarding for the person who wants to do something for God.

As for knowledge, the best way to learn anything is by teaching it to someone else. And as for the ability to teach, you find out if you have it by teaching.

As I have told our catechists, in today's world catechetical ministry is more important than ever. Too many children are growing up in families where there is little mention of God and where the only contact with Church is the religious education program. Sunday Mass is not part of the family's life. That means the catechist is perhaps the only person to talk with the young person about God, to pray with the young person, to tell and show the young person how much God cares about him or her.

It is my hope that many of our people will volunteer for this increasingly more important ministry.

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