Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Search for best practices in teaching Religion

When I started teaching Theology to freshmen students at the University of Asia and the Pacific in 2011, I was intent in learning how to be effective and to do the job as St. Josemaria taught: to work like best or better than the best. More so since the job I was doing is about giving the most important knowledge of all: the faith.

My students after their oral report
The following year, in my work at the Parents for Education Foundation (PAREF), we also started reviewing how to improve the teaching of Religion. So we researched on the best methods of teaching religion and to our pleasant surprise, we found a treasured document of the Catholic Church which was unknown to us: The General Directory for Catechesis. More and more documents and literature started coming in as that was also the time of the preparations for the Synod on the New Evangelization, then later came Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium.

In all these literature, the four things I found most important were: First of all, a clear statement of the problem, “Catholics are catechized but not evangelized”. Secondly, we have to focus on the one goal of all catechesis established by the Church: “intimacy and communion with Jesus Christ”. Thirdly, the key way expressed by the Synod:  The objective is “not only the intellectual adherence to Christian truth, but also the creation of a personal encounter.” Lastly, Pope Francis’s point: the kerygma is the oft-repeated central message.

Soon enough I saw how effective implementing all the guidelines was in bringing about changes in my students. I had a student, a Protestant, who was one of the rowdiest I have ever seen.  He always came to class uptight, with angst, talked loudly with people across aisle, and even when I asked him to stay in front, he would look back and talk with another person.  Inevitably, this student was failing all his subjects. Two-thirds through the semester, I organized an activity to help the students have a personal encounter with God. It is a 15-20 minute prayer in the chapel called Time Alone with Jesus. I explained how powerful it would be if they converse with him in a heart-to-heart way.

This boy decided to go to the very front of the chapel, bowed down for a full 20 minutes, and prayed intently. He was transformed. He passed my class at the end of the semester, and his other subjects too. Every time I would meet him in the university he was beaming, with deep gratitude for that class. He always looked relaxed, all the angst gone. Around two semesters after, he told me that his average was 1.9. Because of this result, and because of other things I learned through time, I have come to add the practice of holding two-minute pauses during class as an opportunity for everyone to discuss with God what they learned, and I would always stress what St. Josemaria taught: As you acquire doctrine, you can meditate, you can realize that God is looking at you, and that you are looking at him.

At the start of each semester, after clarifying the relational goals of the course, I usually do two things. First, explain the importance of truth, relativism as the greatest problem of our time, and the rational foundations of the truth of our faith. I love to say that Christianity, as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it, is the Religion of the Logos, the religion of Reason. Then I teach the students the synthesis of Christianity, the kerygma: God loves us, then a summary of the four parts of the Catechism which reveal this.

For the first, I ask the students to give an oral report on one of these topics: why God is real, why Jesus Christ is the real God and why the Catholic Church is the one Church of the real God.  To guide them, I give out a one-page leaflet titled A Most Intelligent Choice that contains the summary of the key reasons for these three points. The only criterion for grading their report is that their argumentation is convincing. I found out later that, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this is in fact a building block of any catechesis: to examine the reasons for belief. And good results came in every time.

The latest one was revealed to me two weeks ago. One of the students introduced himself at the beginning of the semester as a Born Again Christian. All the rest in the family are Catholics, but he converted because he loved the atmosphere he found in Born Again meetings. After two to three months of classes, he told me about his doubts, and we went through, in more detail, a one-page handout entitled Ten Reasons the Catholic Church is the One True Church of Jesus, and I referred him to the website Catholic Answers for his other questions. And so two weeks ago, he came to see me after class and he told me: Sir, I went to Confession and I am so happy. I feel like a new born baby! I saw him in the hallway a few minutes after that, and he told me he likes praying to God when rides the bus and is thinking of becoming a priest, and that he has been talking to a friend to come and see me so we can talk about the Catholic faith. 

Another student who turned around was probably the most brilliant student I have ever had.  Her essays were perfectly structured. Her two-minute report finished at 1 minute, 59 seconds. She said at the beginning that she was an atheist, and I would see her seated in class, face down, writing notes without joy. Two weeks after the beginning, she gave her report. She said that two things struck her on the first day of class. First, that no one threw Holy Water at her when she said that she was an atheist. And secondly, the question written in the very first power-point slide: Why is God important? Her report was a beautiful exposition on how meaningless life is without God. Through the weeks, she would, little by little, look up, becoming more interested in class, and interact with her classmates. Two-thirds through the semester, she went over to my desk right after class, with an excited smile on her face: Sir, I have decided to go to Confession today.

A third result was that of a Catholic boy who was never taught anything about the faith until my class. He was deeply in love with a girl who belonged to one of the Christian sects in the Philippines. And her father told him he could not continue the relationship unless he converts to their sect. Heartbroken and psychologically shaken, he went to see one of the Chaplains telling him that he needed help since he was convinced from class that the Catholic Church is the one true Church but he had this dilemma. He went to Confession for the first time, broke off with his girlfriend, and became a strong advocate of Confession. He would later explain in class that Confession is much better than going to a psychiatrist. It not only gives clarity of mind. It gives us back God's life and is free of charge.

The idea of ensuring that the students have a personal encounter with God pushed me to keep on looking for other ways to make this encounter happen. So I introduced the visit to the poor and sick. I announced this as a field trip, getting the students to rejoice at the thought. The most striking effect happened after I was accosted by four of my girl students one day. One of them was crying, distraught due to family issues and problems with her grades. She said she wanted to commit suicide. I tried to help her the best I could, gave her advice, and asked her three friends to support her. By sheer providence, we had our “field trip” scheduled the following week.  On the first class after our visit to the hospital, I asked for feedback. Immediately, the girl who earlier wanted to end her life raised her hand. There was a light shining on her face. She said, Sir, I was touched by grace! I thought that my problems were so big, but I realized that they were nothing compared to the sorrows the patients suffered.

After seeing such results, I shared my experiences of implementing the Church’s guidelines with other religion teachers. On the occasion of the Year of the Family in the Opus Dei and the Year of the Poor in the Philippines in 2015, we encouraged family visits to the poor in all the PAREF schools. To help push this, I wrote another one-page leaflet, Loving the Poor, containing the teachings of the Popes, St. Josemaria, and Blessed Alvaro. The reactions of the parents and the kids were beautiful. One parent of a Grade Three student said, echoing the sentiments of many parents: This is something we plan to do regularly. Another parent said: This activity was an eye-opener for both children and adults. One remarked: It makes us feel good and better persons knowing that a short time spent with the children creates happiness and an unforgettable experience.

The adventure of teaching religion in the key of the new evangelization –the only way it can be best taught—is only beginning. And what a great horizon there is ahead. As I write this, news about the one-page evangelization leaflets which can be mass produced has just arrived from Vancouver where a parish is using them for its parishioners. But this is another story for another day.

Written February 2016 

The Church guidelines mentioned in the article are summarized here: THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF EDUCATION: GUIDELINES FOR CATECHESIS. This guide, useful for family and parish catechesis and teaching Religion in school, condenses the teachings of the Vatican’s General Directory for Catechesis (GDC), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Popes and the Synod on New Evangelization (Synod)

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