Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic invites readers to reflect on a “Big Question.” One reader responded to April’s question, “What should we do about the ‘nones’?”
Due to extraordinary circumstances surrounding COVID-19, we will not have a Big Question in this month’s issue.
One of the most valuable and lasting impacts of the COVID-19 stay-at-home experience may well be a renewed appreciation for the role of the teacher in American life. Since mid-March, millions of parents have become de facto homeschoolers, and while the situation has given rise to amusing memes and YouTube videos (like “A Desperate Mother’s Prayer”), the educational challenges highlighted by this strange new world are no laughing matter.
Among the more obvious hurdles, like internet access, overseeing our kids’ work while working from home ourselves, keeping our kids on task and maintaining a climate of order and charity (who hasn’t been tempted to throttle those with whom we’re living in close quarters?) lies a deeper challenge. It is the gradual shift in education over the last 50 years from teacher-centered to student-centered learning.
In the iconic Catholic classroom of the late 1960s and ’70s, the student’s job was to acquire the knowledge the teacher possessed and use it to build an adult life. The teacher filled the role of “sage on the stage” (to quote the now-classic designation) and commanded attention, set limits and expectations, and served as the arbiter of student success.
The seismic shifts in culture brought on by social, geopolitical and even religious (think Vatican II) events ushered in an educational philosophy that made student individuality and experience more central to schooling.
Let me hasten to affirm much of this calibrating as timely and even necessary to address varying needs and contexts. However, the resulting role for the teacher, the “guide on the side,” highlights a particularly difficult reality that I believe is at the heart of our catechetical challenge as a Church. In reducing the teacher’s function to determining what is relevant to students, we have unwittingly put youth in a consumer role and given them disproportionate input for their own growth in wisdom.
The recent “Big Question” raised by The Central Minnesota Catholic in the April issue asked “What should be done about the ‘nones’?” All three respondents acknowledged the complexity of the problem and gave passionate and creative responses to this question. In light of their wisdom, I’d like to recommend: Let’s make the goal “belief” instead of “belonging.”
The Lenten season we recently completed reminds us of our roots in the early Church, where catechumens spent three years acquiring the beliefs and behaviors of the faith community before they were initiated into belonging at the Easter Vigil. In our current Church, we have exactly reversed this order: people often seek a sense of belonging before they ever attain the beliefs and behaviors which characterize the community of faith.
Not that belonging is a bad thing: As humans, we all crave it. But if belonging becomes the measure of identity, particularly a belonging that makes us feel relevant, we are faced with a perplexing problem. Much like the teacher who molds curriculum to the changing sensibilities of 13-year-olds, we spend precious time and resources trying to be relevant to the ever-changing culture instead of attracting people to the timeless truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, on which all our meaning is based.
Not to imply that this is an easy task. On the contrary, it requires our best efforts, our creativity, passion and even fortitude. Even St. Paul himself didn’t get it right all of the time. But like him, we must invite people to belief in Christ first, that they too may become “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). For ultimately, it is belief that keeps us all in.
MAUREEN OTREMBA is an adjunct instructor of theology at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.