Catholic Religious Formation: it’s not Just for Kids


Written by Fr. Anthony Salim, Pastor of  St. Joseph Maronite Church, Olean, NY and author of Captivated by your Teachings

Fr. Anthony SalimWhen Jesus taught the people, he taught simply. The Evangelist Mark remembered this way, in the 33rd verse of his Gospel’s 4th chapter: With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.

In one of those parables, Jesus compared the Kingdom to that of pearls, for which, if one was willing to do the important work to discover them, this discovery would be worth more than any other treasure. As Matthew recalled: Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it (13:45-46).

Indeed, one of the greatest Teachers of the Syriac Church Tradition, out of which much of our own Maronite Tradition flows, compared the teaching of the Church to a fine, yet hidden, pearl. If we wish to discover it, we must be willing to pay the price. That price, of course, can be paid in joy and enthusiasm; if so, we will enjoy the results all the more.

Religious education is one way that our common Catholic Tradition uses to discover the precious pearls of Christian wisdom that help us discover what is truly meaningful for our lives and our Syriac-Maronite Church is no exception. Under the guidance of the teaching office (teaching responsibility) of the bishops of the Church, known as the “Magisterium,” under the watchfulness of the Bishop of Rome, the truths revealed by God from Jesus and found in the Bible and in the Tradition of the Church are made known to us.

However, the bishops generally don’t teach us directly on a regular basis. They entrust this day-to-day task of teaching to the pastors of parishes, and with them, the catechists (religion teachers) in parishes and schools. It is on this very local level that the Catholic Community of Faith learn the truths of that Faith (dogmas and doctrines) as well as how to live it (morals). Through these very dedicated, and—it is hoped— trained individuals the pearls of Catholic wisdom is passed on from one generation to the next. Or, to put it another way, through these good people, the call goes forth in the teaching, and is echoed back in the learning. Indeed, the formal word for this interaction in faith is catechesis. The Greek basis for this word is in fact “to echo” (kata, “back,” or “on,” and echo, “to call”).

The next thing to consider is this: To whom does the call go out? To children, to young people, to adults—or is it to all, the whole community? Who is to find these pearls?

For too long now in formal theories of catechetical instruction, or formation, the presumption was that children were to be the primary focus of formation. After all, many people think, where else should we begin in people’s lives? Don’t we need to form children from the beginning to know, love and serve the Lord? Then shouldn’t we extend that to teens?

As important as this is, there is another view that is being emphasized today. It is this: Adults need to be formed properly first. Then they will be in a position to help pastors and catechists form children and young people.

To understand this requires a big shift in our traditional way of thinking. Sad to say, many in the Church in general, and our Maronite Church in particular, the prevailing thought is that after a certain time religious formation is not necessary any longer. Often this is mistakenly judged to be immediately after one’s reception of First Holy Communion. Another “wrong” time is after the child finishes Middle School. Or, if a family can still persuade one’s children of the value of staying on religious formation classes, this may be after high school. One danger, of course, is that, like Tom Hank’s character in the movie, “Big,” we may actually have a lot of children, in religious education terms, walking through life in big people’s bodies. Take a moment to think about this to see whether this is in fact true in general; even more, take a moment to observe whether it is true in yourselves and in the members of your family.

What people fail to realize is that religious formation is life-long. Ask yourself: Can we ever truly learn all there is to learn about the Faith? The answer, of course, is no. One may then ask: If this is so, why bother to keep learning? Here we have two extremes—not having learned enough and not being able to learn it all. The answer lies somewhere in the middle: what does it take to be a fully mature Christian in Christ’s Church?

The goal is, in fact, to be a mature Christian. As St. Paul says, we must work: to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming (Eph 4:12-14). The Christian Community then is as mature as its members.

In recent times the Vatican has published documents that clearly emphasize the importance of the formation of adults. In the General Directory for Catechesis (addressed to the whole Church) as well as the National Directory for Catechesis (which is scheduled to be published in English for Catholics of the United States), the bishops of the world urge pastors and catechists to offer to adults effective formation of the People of God entrusted to their care. In addition, the bishops of the United States have issued a very important document entitled, “Were Not Our Hearts Burning within Us?” This document has met with great approval in the catechetical community in America. Yet its implications are yet to be fully understood and implemented.

This is our task. In practical terms, what can we expect from embracing the concept of adult formation? We should be able to demand of our pastors to organize adult religious education formation classes. These might take many forms, from Bible Study, to parish renewal programs and adult faith discussion groups. It may also mean learning more about our Maronite liturgical tradition, the history of our Church; or our theology and spirituality.

The resources for such classes are plentiful in the United States. All one needs to do is to contact such groups as the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL), for example and request their catalogue or speak to the staff at their national headquarters. Until May of 2006 I serve as Vice-president of this organization and can assist. Also, I have written a one-volume resource text specifically designed for the express purpose of the religious formation of adult Maronites entitled, Captivated by Your Teachings: a Resource Book for Adult Maronite Catholics, now at the end of its second printing. The people of our own eparchy have an eparchial director of religious education who might assist.

I close with the thought of St. Paul again, who urged: All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you (Phil 3:15).

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