Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 2, 2009
From catechism to 'lived knowledge'
Religious education in Catholic schools has taken a major turn since Vatican II
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
The emphasis in religious education has moved from knowledge of facts from the catechism to "lived knowledge" of the faith, says a religious education consultant with Edmonton Catholic Schools.
When Ken Bracke was attending school, sacramental preparation was the purview of the schools. Today that responsibility falls under the responsibility of the parishes.
"The sisters taught us and they were also in charge of getting us ready for our sacraments. That's one kind of religious knowledge. Because of the dynamics that we have in society today, most sacramental preparations are no longer under the aegis of schools," said Bracke, a religious ed consultant.
Eighty to 90 per cent of junior high students could recite the Our Father with accuracy, not because it's taught in the classroom, but because most students have knowledge of the prayer through their own church experiences, he said.
"Religious knowledge has taken a shift, and what I find with a lot of kids now is that they wouldn't have what I grew up with. But what they do have is a very foundational and fundamental awareness of goodness and sacredness in their own lives," said Bracke.
Alongside reading, writing and arithmetic, religion is unofficially the "fourth R" of Catholic education.
The Alberta religion curriculum is based on that of the Ontario schools and takes a different tack than in generations past thanks to changes at the Second Vatican Council.
"The emphasis at that time was placed upon the foundation of the students' religious experience, how they have experienced that gift of faith that God has already planted within them," Bracke said.
As an example of "lived knowledge," Bracke cited the Grade 6 curriculum. There, students learn about Moses and the exodus. Rather than memorizing names, dates and historical facts, the students' emphasis is on exploration of their firsthand experiences with covenants and promises.
Reciting the Ten Commandments is viewed as less important in religious studies than students' ability to understand how those commandments apply to their everyday lives.
Students in Edmonton Catholic Schools see "signs of God" all around them, he said. When asked to define prayer or share how God is affecting their lives, the students constantly amaze Bracke with the depth and profoundness of their answers.
"The source of religious literacy, ultimately, is God. We don't give those kids religious literacy in that sense. The way to speak of God's presence in one's life is already there. It's been there since birth, and it's been there before we understand what it is," he said.
"What we're trying to do as Catholic educators is draw that knowledge into their conscious awareness."
Religion is taught in every grade, from K-12, at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Provost. An estimated 75 per cent of the teachers teach religious studies. How would their students fare on a Bible quiz?
"I think it depends upon how you phrase the question. If I were to ask my students to name off minutia, most would fail miserably. If I were to ask them to state concepts, they would do much better," said Elaine Willette-Larsen, a Grade 9 and 12 religious studies teacher at the school.
"In students' ability to reference the Bible, I think, there has been at least a slight drop. Their ability to explain concepts has not changed," she said.
By junior high, some students have become "rather disenfranchised" with religion, said Willette-Larsen. The students are often facing tremendous peer pressure in all avenues of their lives, including spiritually.
"The Grade 9 students are emotionally and physically at a point where their spirituality is very hard to verbalize," she said.
Senior high students in Alberta's Catholic system study world religions. This does a great service to the students because they can reflect on their own Catholicism as it relates to other faiths. They build tolerance for people of other beliefs. Studying Confucianism and Taoism provokes reflective and active thought, she said.
Parents choose a school for their children based on such factors as location, academic excellence, athletic options and Catholicity. For some young people, in fact, school might be their only connection to the Church.
"Parents want their kids to have a faith-built education. Not all of our kids are Catholic, but some of their parents think it's important for them to have a Christian faith in some way, and so they enroll their kids in a Catholic school," said Sandra Talarico, coordinator of religious studies at Archbishop MacDonald High School in Edmonton.
Catholic education might well produce knowledgeable Catholics, but not necessarily practising ones over the long term.
"Church, for the kids, is school. They graduate from school and, unfortunately, some of them graduate from Church," said Talarico.
In elementary school, religion is often implemented in all classes and permeates the day, said Talarico. But in junior high and senior high, religion becomes like other classes - separated from their daily lives.
While most Catholic elementary school students have already learned about the Bible, Jesus and the sacraments, many of them no longer continue applying what they learned as they get older.
"This doesn't mean they don't have the knowledge. There's a difference between knowing something and applying it. It would be like learning your math equations, but maybe not having an opportunity to apply the knowledge you have," said Talarico.
For Edmonton Catholic Schools, the Grade 10 curriculum calls for the study of Christ in culture. The religious education teachers use resources supplied by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
KNOWLEDGE OF SCRIPTURE
Jesus of History, Christ of Faith is an American text used in Grade 11.
"The Grade 11 curriculum deals with the Old Testament, Christology, and a little bit on the letters of St. Paul. That is probably the one grade where they get their Scripture knowledge the most.
"That's not eliminating what happens in elementary and junior high - there's a lot in those grades. But in terms of high school, Grade 11 is where the brunt of Scripture study is taken," explained Talarico.
"Most Grade 11 students in our district should have a good understanding of Scripture if they are taking the course, which they are required to. They have to take Grade 10, 11 and 12 religion in order to graduate from an Edmonton Catholic high school," she said.
The text used for religious studies in Grade 12 is called The Search for the Good, developed in Ontario. Based on Scripture and early philosophy, it's an ethics and morality course.
Comparable to a first-year university philosophy course, the class examines the great thinkers (such as Kant, Leibniz, Aristotle, Plato) and explores how students can integrate those belief systems into their everyday lives.
To attain a contract with a Catholic school board in Alberta, teachers must be Catholic and need a minimum of two religion courses, usually from either St. Joseph's College or Newman Theological College.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.