painted at Dormition Skete by Father Gregory, used with permission from Online Icons.
The Faith and Life Series
reviewed by Dr. Peter Kreeft
used with permission
Nature abhors a vacuum. This principle, happily, seems to apply to catechism texts, for this one fills a great vacuum.
For two decades Catholic children in America were cheated. They were given pablum instead of meat in their catechism texts. Instead of the miracles of changing water to wine, these text performed the almost-as-amazing miracle of changing the wine of the Catholic Faith into the water of pop psychology, fashionable politics, or cliche sociology. No kid who read those texts could ever get the faintest idea of how the Christian faith could possibly have turned the whole world upside down once, or how it could ever do so again. But they'd better find out soon, because our poor world has been standing on its head for a long time and is getting a gigantic headache.
But since nature ( and divine providence) abhor a vacuum, at least three good solid catechism texts have appeared in the last few years for adults: Alan Schreck's John Hardon's. and the German bishops' catechism, [to find out more, or purchase any of these catechisms, click on their names] in rising order of length, profundity, and difficulty. And now we have solid meat for elementary school kids, the FAITH AND LIFE SERIES.
There is only one major thing wrong about this series: nobody knows about it. How news as big as this had been so well hidden from most Catholics is a great mystery. I think the Devil must have something to do with it. He certainly hates and fears these books tremendously. This is news so good that it must be shouted from the housetops, not hidden under a bushel. Anyone who loves the faith and children must break into hosannas when they read these books, for after years of starvation rations, good food is once again available. If some wealthy Catholic philanthropist wanted to spend his money to the maximum effect and efficiency for the furthering and the future of the faith, he could do nothing better than to subsidize a massive advertising campaign to get out the good word about these books. Who knows? - there many well be some kid out there who brought up on these books, learns thereby to love the faith and the Savior and the Church so much that he or she will become one of the greatest saints of the twenty-first century, and the philanthropist will have subsidized a saint!
What's so good about these books? Five things, especially.
First, they look great. Kids react strongly to this, to appearances. (And not just kids) These books are strong and colorful - like the faith they contain. They are good beyond hope in their use of great Christian art. They are worth an adult's while if only for the literally hundreds of glorious full-page, full-color reproductions of magnificent, moving, heart-lifting masterpieces from Giotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Raphael;, and other lovers of God and of beauty. Christian education has sadly neglected the whole aesthetic dimension in the past. You can't argue with glory you see. Kids will know, even if they know nothing about art, that something great and grand and awesome is happening here - precisely the sense they never get from the tawdry, washed-out, wimpy books they're using now.
Second, they're complete. The whole faith is there, not just a supermarket selection for cafeteria Catholics. Not only is the fullness of the faith presented, but in the right proportion. The authors have no axe to grind, no specialty to sell, no program to push. They know they are mail carriers, not letter writers, for God. The tone is gentle but strong, like a knight; the faith is explained, but not explained away. Gone is the half-apologetic tone you find in the wimpy texts. Kids will sense the preciousness, the specialness, the infinite value of the faith. Yet the tone is never arrogant or militaristic either.
Technically, they are also complete. [The Catechism is organized into grade 'years'] Each year has three books: a text for the kids to read, an activity book for the kids to do things with, and a teacher's manual. Each book, though not over-thick, has plenty on each page. Teachers are told to 'over-plan' rather than under plan each lesson period. Their manuals go into detailed suggestions, eg. the excellent 'chalk talk' suggestions as to exactly what pictures, diagrams, and words to write on the blackboard.
Third, they stick to essentials. Though they do not cut down on the faith, they do not add to it either. This is a very honest set of books, unlike the current typical catechisms that commit both of the following opposite mistakes: they cut away or water down some essential doctrines of the faith and at the same time add currently fashionable things to it without clearly distinguishing the essence from the added accidents. The clear intention of this religion text is to be (of all things!) a religion text, not an ecology or self-awareness or group dynamics or community action or race relations or nuclear disarmament text, however valuable all those other things may well be.
Indeed, it is utterly up front about its purpose. It says to teachers on the first page: "You have entered...into one of the Church's most important sacred duties, that of making Christ better known and loved by his children, young or old. This duty of the Church entails handing on the message of God in its entirety and purity. You cannot mix God's message with political or social views without betraying the Divine mission. Political and social trends come and go, but the Word of God is always timely...The doctrine you hand on with your teaching is...the very word of God." That's what's missing even more than doctrine in the other books: the sense of the importance of the doctrine. This is a matter of life and death, a matter of immortal souls.
The Left will probably attack or ignore this as a 'right wing series', despite its overt and honest protest that it is not political. The attack is a lie, of course. Nowhere is the faith, covertly or overtly, identified with Americanism, militarism, capitalism, or any other political thing. This is not Right Wing Jesus or Left Wing Jesus. One would think that we would learn from the disciples' mistake after 2000 years and stop trying to shove the Infinite One into our dreary little political boxes. But Acts 1:6 seems destined to repeat itself endlessly.
This brings up a fourth excellence: its Christocentrism. The books take to heart Pope John Paul II words in Catechesi Tradendae: "It is Christ who is taught and it is Christ who teaches." The teacher is told: "You are Christ's instrument...You have a very important role in faithfully passing on the message of the gospel, the constant, unchanging message: Jesus Christ." If anyone rankles at the word 'unchanging,' he should read Hebrews 13:8. What is unchanging is not words but the Word.
Fifth and finally, the psychology is on target, probably because these books were not written by 'experts' on child psychology. The kids are respected, not patronized and not talked down to. The language is deliberately 'stretching' rather than confining; the teacher is told at the beginning of each volume: "You will notice immediately that it is written on a reading level hight than that of the average 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grader. This is intentional. We believe that children of this age deserve to hear more of the Good News of the Catholic Faith than a 'Dick and Jane; reading level would permit...the FAITH AND LIFE SERIES present Catholic doctrine in a style designed to arouse wonder and challenge the intellect of the child, thus avoiding the boredom that is often fatal to catechetical efforts."
Right. Know your enemy. Boredom is the Devil's primary anti-catechetical tool. Here, a sense of more-ness and mystery is deliberately cultivated. Kids didn't understand all those Baltimore Catechism questions, did they? And they emerged with the sense that there was something here that was bigger than meets the eye. more than they could presently appreciate. Well, here are the catechism questions again, from the Pope Pius X Catechism, neatly set out, slightly revised and reordered, inviting that old, ignored mental facility - the memory - to get back into the act. Why not? Why not use the whole soul?
Dr. Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of dozens books on Catholic philosophy and spirituality. He is married with four children.
The image at the beginning of this article was obtained from 'Online Icons.