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 CNS Story:

VATICANII-EDUCATION Oct-21-2005 (770 words) With photo to come. xxxn

Council's impact on religious education still felt in U.S.

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Religious education in parishes and Catholic schools is not what it used to be.

Students no longer recite the Baltimore Catechism as in decades past, nor do they focus on personal experiences and feelings as they had done in more recent decades. Instead, according to those in the field, religious education strives for a balance in handing down content and relating it to personal faith experiences.

Msgr. Dan Kutys, deputy secretary for catechesis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said trends in religious education over the past several decades have been like a swinging pendulum.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, he noted, religious education primarily focused on content. In the '70s and '80s, the focus was more on how the content was taught, he told Catholic News Service Oct. 5.

The pendulum, the priest said, came back to the center with the 1992 publication of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," which he said helped "reclaim universal truths" of the Catholic faith.

The catechism and corresponding texts that have followed it, such as the Vatican's General Directory for Catechesis, the U.S. bishops' National Directory for Catechesis and the Vatican's "Compendium of the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church,'" currently available only in Italian, provide guidelines for religious educators on what aspects of the faith should be taught. Religious educators today also implement modern teaching methods focusing on different learning abilities and the importance of linking doctrinal studies with personal faith experiences.

Jerry Baumbach, director of the Center for Catechetical Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said he thinks the dissonance is waning "between the content and methodology concerns of the past" referring to the disconnect some have perceived with handing down authentic teachings and focusing on how that is done effectively.

Instead, he told CNS in an Oct. 19 telephone interview, "authentic catechesis is a rich sharing of content and methodology working together."

Baumbach, who was a parish catechetical leader in the '70s in the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., just as the church was implementing Vatican II changes, said "a lot of good emerged from the council," and noted that it was an exciting time to be working in church ministry, which he left a career in the U.S. Air Force to pursue.

One immediate change for religious education was the newly emerging role of lay people in a ministry once primarily reserved for priests and women religious to carry out. Another change was the development and availability of tools, texts and background materials to use in teaching the faith.

Along with this new set of lay teachers and materials came necessary teacher formation and a means for determining if the newly published religious texts were in line with church teaching.

Marie Scanlon, coordinator of assessment for catechesis for the USCCB, recalled leading a catechist formation program in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the '70s that was not met enthusiastically by all participants, primarily because it was a change in the usual way things had been done.

Today, she is involved in the review process of catechetical texts. Once these are approved by a bishops' committee, the texts are deemed to be in conformity with the "Catechism of the Catholic Church."

Scanlon told CNS that just as Pope John XXIII said he wanted to open the windows of the church to let in some "fresh air" with Vatican II, "a whole new window opened for religious education" after the council.

The council specifically dealt with education in one of its 16 documents, the Declaration on Christian Education ("Gravissimum Educationis"). This document affirmed the right of parents to choose the type of education they wanted for their children, upheld the importance of Catholic schools and defended freedom of inquiry in Catholic colleges and universities.

But Scanlon pointed out that all of the council's documents "have messages for educators" and her own copy of the documents, collected in a paperback version, is well-worn.

"The documents refocused our efforts," she said. "They spoke to educators about what we were to do."

She noted that educators are constantly evaluating their approach and thus in recent years Catholic leaders are taking a close look at what has been gained and lost in current religious education.

As a result, there has been a renewed interest among educators to have students memorize basic prayers or even learn them in Latin.

"The pendulum is not static," said Scanlon, referring to the shifts in focus in religious education. "We are constantly searching for better ways to teach the faith."


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