Father Longenecker has observed that parents frequently tell him that their kids have either left the faith or have a bored disinterest with the faith. This sad reality illuminates that Catholics are abandoning the faith of their parents and grandparents at a record rate. A Pew report revealed that Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than any other religious affiliation in the U.S.
As Catholics begin to leave the Church in legions during their young adult years the seeds of their disregard for all things Catholic was planted in their younger years. Therefore, the indifference in the faith during grade school years likely acts as a trigger for hitting the gas pedal off the exit ramp of the Catholic highway when they reach their 20s. We now come to the crucial dilemma in which we (the members of the Church) attempt to bring kids into the faith during these highly impressionable years (ages 5-14), but instead of kids jumping all-in to Catholicism, they generally respond with a yawn of indifference. Subsequently, they become disenchanted and only go to religious education or church because their parents persuade them to come. The second they gain any independence on having a decision to go or not (ages 17-21) they are gone from the Church faster than a toupee in a hurricane.
Here, we come to the catechists’ current quandary. A catechist is tasked with teaching the faith to kids, yet the kids don’t care about the faith. Instead of eagerly listening to the catechist, kids sit there with a zombie-like boredom on their faces. As kids become aloof to the teachings, catechists, in turn, become agitated as their important message is met with a blind indifference. Being disenchanted the catechist can lose that teaching zeal they first had when they embarked on their journey.
The kid’s dullness in the Catholic faith reveals a fracture in how we go about evangelizing them. If evangelization is to spread the good news and kids don’t care about the news, then the good news will never saturate in them. There needs to be an opening in the child to allow the good news to soak into them. However, the modern culture has been hard at work to ensure this opening is blocked.
While it will always be a challenge undoing the damage in which the culture trains children that religion is a dull nuisance, we can receive a glimmer of hope by looking at the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas began his massive volume of Christian morality not with law, rules, or habits of the Christian life. Rather, he began with the concept of joy (what he called beatitude). Here, Aquinas first presents the Christian faith not with the ethical edicts of “do this,” “don’t do this,” but instead with the joy of the faith. Once the wonder embedded in the faith has been established, Aquinas then moves into breaking down the ethical aspects of the faith with law and logic. Too often evangelization starts with the Ten Commandments or the need for the sacraments. All of this is essential of course. But, when the technical aspect of the faith is the starting point for kids, they’ll likely tune you out.
A real-life example will help clarify. I first introduced my son, Jack, to hockey by taking him to a Predators game. He was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the sport. I presented him the sport of hockey through the lens of an exuberant experience. He was in awe of the flow of the game, the sound of the puck hitting the stick, the speed of the skaters, and the energy from the fans. In short, he was drawn to the joy of hockey. Once he was fascinated about the game of hockey, he naturally displayed an attentive interest in the game and eagerly begin to ask what makes this game so great. Then, his attention fixated on the more technical questions – how do you learn to skate backwards? How do you stick handle? What is the best way to skate fast?
It is the joy of the game that leads a child naturally to ponder what are the moves and the laws of this game so I can play it. Through Aquinas, we’ve discovered the ideal rhythm of evangelization. That is, you don’t begin with the nitty-gritty procedural details. You begin with the joy of what you are presenting to the child. In the faith, joy doesn’t always equate to a giddy emotional experience. Joy and wonder is seen through many facets; the lives of the saints, knowing that we, as humans, are God’s pinnacle of creation, believing that the God of the universe thinks you are greater than the universe itself, and comprehending that we are asked to be adopted into the Trinity.
To be sure, unlike my son’s experience of immediate joy at an NHL game, a child won’t likely encounter instantaneous joy when they hear that they are a gift of God’s infinite love. While going to an NHL game can invoke a stirring attraction to hockey for a child, going to Mass won’t be met with that same stimulation. Human sin acts as an impediment to joy being received instantly. Nevertheless, the key hinges on the presentation of joy first and trusting the Holy Spirit to let it be received on His time. Once the joy of the faith is sufficiently offered (again it may not be received for some time), then we can transition into incorporating the particulars of the faith. It is important to note when this transition is made, joy is not abandoned in the rearview mirror. The joy of the faith and the teachings in the faith work in harmony. The move from joy from the faith to action in the faith repeats over again. In evangelization, one will always be drawing off both aspects of the joy of the faith and the technical application in the faith for ministry is a dance with a back and forth quality in order to have the child experience the full picture. I’ve seen this parallel with my son’s hockey experience. As his joy for hockey increases the more he wants to develop the sound habits in hockey. And the more he cultivates the “hockey habits,” the more his joy of hockey expands.
Aquinas demonstrates the connection of the joy of the faith and honing in on the specifics of the faith when he introduces the idea of the Catholic kerygma. “Kerygma” is a Greek word that means “proclamation.” Aquinas puts it more concisely that “the kerygma” of the faith means proclaiming the core message of the gospel (i.e. the good news). In this sense, really what we are saying is the kerygma is announcing God’s main point. The kerygma brings clarity to what we are presenting people with. Because we are bombarded with unceasing messaging in our culture, our brain can process a concept better when it is put in a simple, precise form. Imagine a person being sold an idea with a multitude of slogans and attributes attached to the idea. Being consumed with rival noises and little attention span, the person will finally say to the salesperson, “Give me a basic two-sentence reason as to why I should buy your product.” In other words, keep it simple so I can clearly process it and make a prudent decision. Well, the same applies as we teach the faith to children who have an insect-level attention span. While the culture and various personal opinions are all over the board about what the Catholic faith is, the kerygma cuts out all the “noise," alleviates confusion, and brings a precision to the faith that even a child can realize. So, what is the simple message of the kerygma? As Aquinas lays it out:
God created you, loves you, and desires to be with you.
Our choice to sin separates us from God.
God became a man in Jesus, set up a Church with sacraments and prayers to get us back to God.
Will you live out the faith?
I recall those days I was selling a multifaceted consulting service to busy executives. They always wanted me to get to the point rather than go through an elaborate narrative with excessive platitudes. In short, they wanted me to keep it simple. Sales executives are trained to state the problem their clients have and succinctly explain how their service provides a solution to the client's dilemma. The kerygma plainly lays out a similar plan. The kerygma announces the problem (step 2) and our solution to the problem (step 3) all the while starting out with a joyful presentation (step 1). It even ends with a call to action (step 4) that compels one to make a willful response, thus eliminating a child's typical lukewarm reaction.
The moves of the apostles were steeped in this mold as they were able to sell others on the faith using the kerygma formula. As the Apostles began the work of preaching Christ, they proclaimed a message that was rather basic. To be sure, more extended teaching or instruction would come later- after baptism. But the initial proclamation of Christ was simple and to the point (see Acts 2:14-36, Acts 3:12-26, Acts 4:8-12, Acts 5:29-32, Acts 10:34-43, Acts 13:16-41, Acts 14:15-17, Acts 17:22-31).
While the kerygma is easy for its audience to grasp, it’s also helpful for those articulating it. Even more so, given its simplistic nature, the kerygma prevents any tinkering of the divine instruction by prideful showmen. In an age when politicians and corporate monarchs train their people to “stay on script” and stick to the choreographed message of their often fishy narrative, God uses this same concept. However, unlike the dubious agenda of world and business leaders, God’s messaging is sacred, holy, and pristine. Thus, the kerygma is God’s way to helpfully announce to us “please stick to my message.” Because the Church realizes that human pride creates a scene where one gets cutesy concocting their distorted version of the faith, Mother Church draws us back to God’s mantra in the kerygma. Not only does the kerygma curtail flawed teachers from “going rogue” from Christ’s Gospel, it also allows children a straightforward means to understand the faith.
Let us also notice that the kerygma begins with a message that first presents joy. To hear that the God of the universe places you ahead of all his physical creation – greater than planets, stars, and galaxies, is a concept drenched with wonder and fascination. Here, the kerygma matches the Biblical approach as being littered with instances proclaiming profound news with joy. In the Bible, when the angel greeted Mary at the Annunciation, “rejoice” is his first word to her. Mary herself said, my spirit “rejoices” in God my savior (Luke 1:47). At the climax of his teachings Jesus asserted, “I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you and your joy will be complete.” (John 15:11). A cursory read of the missionary efforts of the apostles illuminates that wherever the disciples went they evangelized with joy (see Acts 8:8, Acts 13:52, 1 Peter 1:8-9, Romans 15:13, 2 John 1:12, Romans 14:17, Hebrews 12:2, John 16:22).
Again, this presentation of joy might not incite an instant response of delight in children. As catechists, we are first attempting to arouse interest. If (through God’s grace) we can muster up an attention to the faith, we will have created a small crack in which the Holy Spirit can work in flourishing the soul.
While the kerygma begins with joy, it should be noted that the kerygma is not some mere happy-clappy proclamation that everything is rosy. The second point of the kerygma highlights the frank declaration that we are sinners and need God’s mercy. But, by leading with joy the kerygma acts as a light to draw children into the truth.
If the Church leads with its philosophical teachings it can devolve into a mere intellectual debating society. If the Church leads with a bullet-point reading of its moral teaching it can devolve into a finger-wagging puritanism. When the Church leads with the joy of the proclamation of the kerygma she is mirroring the early apostles. Getting the evangelization equation backwards will make our jobs harder as catechists for when we begin with ethics and laws it won’t take root in the human soul. If we lead with laws and rules we tend to skew the message of the Gospel just like if I first introduced hockey to my son by explaining positions and rules about offsides I wouldn’t have effectively presented him with what hockey is all about. However, when I presented him the sport of hockey through the lens of the moves of the game, the sound of the action, the speed, the flow of skating, the movement of the puck, I am giving him a vivid and engaging picture into the sport. The Catholic faith has a vast richness in intellectual thought, history, inspiring lives of the saints, beauty in art, liturgy, and a loving message that can ultimately inspire joy. Joy has a magnetic effect in drawing people in.
While the shenanigans of the culture continuously hinder our efforts to cast religion as the premier encounter of awe and happiness, people's yearning for truth and wonder won't be satisfied from the septic ideology of the culture. With the Catholic faith, we have the joy that people are desperately craving. We just need to unleash the awe and wonder of the faith to spark interest in adults and kids alike.
Whether in sports, a career, or the faith when joy is the front-runner of the message, more heads will perk up in interest. And when there is interest, a catechist can begin to plant seeds that will inevitably set souls on fire.