I recently heard an excellent catechesis on the distinction between venial and mortal sin, complete with illustrative props and an amusing subtext. I thought to myself that second graders preparing for their first confession would enjoy and remember it. Unfortunately, this catechesis was not being offered to second grade children, in fact, not really to children at all. It was presented as part of a Sunday homily to a predominantly adult assembly. In that context it was, to quote one attendee, “insulting.” I can’t disagree.
Catechists and parents are wise to heed the old adage, “Know your audience.” It is a basic rule of communication and it is especially relevant to transmitting the faith, both to children and adults. The lessons that we teach our youngest children, essentially about how much God loves us, are the foundation for their faith development, but not the sum total. We are learners throughout our lives, getting to know God more and more, building a relationship with Him. We still understand that He loves us, but that is hardly sufficient for an adult relationship.
The best catechetical resources follow what is called the Pedagogy of God. Taking their cue from the way in which God revealed Himself, they turn to Salvation History as a primary source of Divine Revelation. In other words, by telling the stories of God’s covenants with His people and the fulfillment of them through Jesus Christ, a narrative develops that makes sense. Too often, we hear disjointed stories that provide positive lessons but do not “connect the dots.”
In the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, there are readings from the Old Testament and the New Testament, intended to show how God’s plan for our salvation was at work from the beginning of time. A good homilist will join those dots while explaining the relevance of those readings to our daily lives. It is, admittedly, a tall order.
As I mentioned recently when discussing reading aloud, we aim to select material just above the level of our audience. The object is to stretch them a little beyond their current level of comprehension. For example, if we are reading to a second grader, we would choose a book written at the fourth grade level, thus improving their vocabulary and increasing their interest in developing their own reading skills so as to be able to read more entertaining books on their own.
When it comes to teaching about Jesus, the same principles apply. The catechist (or parent) should teach some things that are a little beyond what the child comprehends, not so much that we lose them, but enough that they want to understand more. They are far more capable than we tend to think and they will soak it up like little sponges. This is something that I observed many times when homeschooling. Teaching aloud to my fifth grade child in the morning, I would later find myself answering questions about that material for my second grade child who had been working nearby, taking it all in.
When we underestimate our audience, we risk losing them for lack of interest. An infantile presentation of our beliefs attracts no one and does such a disservice when we consider the richness of our Catholic faith. We should draw our audience deeper into the mysteries of faith and trust that the Holy Spirit will be there to help.