Religious Ed Follies

Reminiscences of Catholic education are required for any bona fide Catholic writer, of course, so I’ve to do my part. But take note. With this girl you’re not going to dig up memories of discipline, nuns and post-Vatican II’s 8th deadly sin – “rote memorization.” No. This is all about magazine clippings, Godspell, and Argus posters.

My memories of religious education before fifth grade are pretty fuzzy, except for some coloring in first grade, and the terrible day my parents, Argus Posterunaware that CCD wasn't meeting that day, dropped me off at the University parish in DeKalb (Northern Illinois University) anyway, and I wandered around, in a growing panic, wondering where everyone was.

I must have been prepared for First Communion, but for the life of me, I don’t remember it. I wasn’t part of a class, because I definitely recall being presented for First Communion in my little white mantilla all by myself, after having ascertained from my parents the exact word I was supposed to say upon reception. “Amen,” would do, they assured me.

By the time I was eleven – in 1971, in case you’re wondering, things had picked up a bit. I was definitely part of a CCD class, and I was definitely bored out of my mind. All we did, you see, was to bring in newspaper and magazine clippings to discuss. That was, I think, the curriculum for the next couple of years, up until my seventh grade catechist snagged some copies, probably on the black market by that time, of the Baltimore Catechism.

I was in heaven.

Isn’t that just sad? A twelve-year old girl digging the Baltimore Catechism?

As I recall, I devoured it. The catechist didn’t ask us to, but I think I even tried to memorize parts of it. I loved the old-fashioned pictures, and above all, I loved the certainty. Here, at last, someone was offering me answers instead of assuring me that what was most important was asking the right questions.

As you might expect, it didn’t last long. A couple of years later, you see, I started Catholic high school.

Freshman year wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty good – our teacher was a slightly eccentric young woman in ways, but she was smart and she was strict. We had to purchase a copy of the Documents of Vatican II and read the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation even before the trauma of our freshman initiation at the hands of the seniors had worn off. We were presented with copies of the Jerusalem Bible, inside the back cover of which, before another month had gone by, we had recorded the Scriptural citations for Jesus’ institution of each of the seven sacraments.

Again, I thought this was all very cool. So cool that I started reading on my own and keeping my own notebook filled with definitions and comments on Scripture I was ploughing through. I still have it all, admittedly rather hilarious evidence of some certainty, at least, in the midst of that mid-70’s contentless stew, words like “homoousios” and “epiclesis” recorded and defined in the squat, round handwriting with circles instead of dots above the I’s that was required of the teenage girl back then.

The rest of my Catholic high school career didn’t live up to that promise. We had 50-page long textbooks with lots of pictures, discussion after discussion on everything from whatever was in the news to whatever mindless saying was plastered on the latest Argus poster of a kitten. We listened to Godspell and sang most of it at Mass. When we weren’t singing "Pre -ee- pare Ye the Way of the Lord!" or "Day by by day...ooooooh dear Lord, three things I praaaay....." , we were warbling James Taylor or meditating to the newest song by Bread or America.

My senior year was a slight improvement. Our teacher was a young sister whom we all adored, and I think she did a decent job with the material at hand, although the two most vivid memories I have are not exactly stirring: a project in which we had to match up the lyrics of "The Impossible Dream" from Man of LaMancha with the Beatitudes, and our priest-principal drilling us repeatedly in how to receive communion in the hand.

(And even though she wore a modified habit, and I have my own, sometimes barely charitable views of the fashion choices of nuns out of habit, she told us a story I've never forgotten. She regularly visited and shopped for a blind woman, she said. And she reminded us that that woman couldn't care less what Sister Rose wore, but was more impacted by what she did.)

So there you have it. Can you imagine how I would have come out of all that if I didn’t have this strange interest in religion moving me to learn on my own? Can you imagine the fruit of such a religious education?

Of course you can. In fact, you probably don’t even have to imagine. All you have to do is talk to most Catholics under forty about their faith, and there it is: fruit that looks pleasant enough, but has absolutely no taste at all. Except perhaps a slightly bitter one.

Some reader thoughts:

Due to the mobility of my father's job (which meant, for me, 22 elementary schools and 7 high schools, mostly public), I wasn't always able to be enrolled in CCD. My father is a Korean War veteran, and subsequently supported his young family working as an aircraft mechanic/sheetmetal man for a government contractor's field service team, and is just as "salty" as one might expect a man with such a background to be. My mother is the product of 12 years of consistent Catholic schooling, and she was the gentling influence in our home, as well as my primary catechist.

Most of what I did experience in actual CCD classes is lost in the mists of time. However, I do remember one specific assignment, but only because of my father's reaction to it.

I was probably in the sixth grade or so, and came home after one CCD class to tell my mother that I needed labels from cans of tomato products for next week's class. Both my parents were puzzled as to why I would need such things for a religion class and asked me about the assignment. I told her that we were going to make collages with them. Still struggling to understand what tomatoes had to do with Catholicism, my mother asked me to explain.

"Well," I told her, "after we make the collage, we're supposed to write 'Mary was the reddest tomato of them all' on it."

My mother didn't say anything to that (she was probably speechless with shock), but my father yelled, "WHAT THE HELL IS THIS S***?!" His reaction, of course, committed the occasion to my memory forever, and has given me an amusing story to tell ever since.

And to show that this is not behind us yet, from another reader:

I just got home from our High School CCD ( oops, I mean RE , we can't say CCD anymore) teachers meeting and I'm in a severe funk. Our director has somehow got wind that I don't do "crafts" and has required that our classes produce several collages and poster this year along with journals. Yikes!

Up to this year I've been able to do my own style of teaching which comprised of teaching about the Catholic Church. Now what is a "guerrilla" instructor to do? If it wasn't so sad it would be quite funny. So keep me in your prayers. I will not go quietly--resistance is not futile and I will not be assimilated!

St. John Bosco, Pray for Us--hurry!

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