Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Teaching the Life in Christ

by Virgil Michel, OSB


This article by Virgil Michel, OSB is about the relationship between liturgy and dogma in religious instruction. The author states that "The great losses to the faith that we have been suffering are sufficient evidence of the need of a religious instruction better coordinated with and orientated towards the prayer-life of the Church, fortified by the sacramental graces of Christ, and aided by the prayer-power of the Church."

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Orate Fratres



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Saint John's Abby, December 1, 1940, No. 1

One of the criticisms made regarding so much the religious instruction of the past is that it separated the classroom instruction and knowledge almost entirely from the actual worship by which the Christian gives living expression to the truths of Christ in his own life and thereby makes them into vital bonds relating him properly to God. Certainly the divorce between doctrine and dogma and the liturgy has been almost complete in many instances.

It is not too much to say that the divorce has at times almost amounted to a distortion of the Christ-life. The latter must be true to the nature of Christ if it is to be worthy of its name, and Christ is always undividedly the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The member of Christ, as a true “other Christ,” must share in all three of these aspects of Christ both in regard to his inner life of worship as also in regard to his life as an apostle of Christ before the world. The three aspects are but so many elements of the Christ-life, which may not be segregated one from the other without distortion of or failure to measure up to the standard of Christ. In regard to religious instruction we may name these elements of doctrine, morals or ethics, and worship, having to do respectively with truths of the mind, rules of conduct, and religious converse with God. The integral life of the Christian must contain all three elements and must contain them in their interrelation. Hence religious instruction is truly Christian only if it stresses properly all three and does so by emphasizing also their intimate integration according to the true Christian spirit.

That this has not been done by the common methods of instruction so extensively in use is one of the strongest indictments that can be made against them. Nor are the consequences of the deficiency difficult to point out. “The catechism-lesson,” wrote Cardinal Mercier, “should not be one in which the teacher dictates formulas to be committed to memory….With such a method of teaching, many children give up their religion very soon after their first Communion. I cannot help pointing out that the very cause of this early indifferentism is to be found in the faulty method by which they have been taught their catechism” (Quoted in Tahon, The First Instruction of Children and Beginners, pp. 78-9).

Many readers will able to add from the experience of their own lives to the statement of the eminent Cardinal and spiritual leader of our century. The classes in religious instruction have only too often been notoriously the least interesting to the pupils of all the classes of our Catholic curriculum. This may be in part owing to the lack of teacher training in a subject in which we have taken for granted that any Christian is ipso facto an adept; but it is still more owing to the abstract formalistic manner in which we have been appealing in our religious instruction exclusively to the understanding or even to the memory.

The remedy for this situation is to return to the traditional Christian method of teaching, to the liturgy of the Church, at least to the extent of knitting up the teaching of doctrine immediately and intimately with the official liturgical worship. That this cannot possibly mean neglect of the doctrinal aspects of our faith is evident to anyone who has a proper understanding of the Church’s liturgy and who does not view the liturgy merely in terms of its external elements. Unfortunately we are still far from a common understanding of this kind. Thus a modern expert on the religious instruction of children has given expression to the following opinion: “In the history of the Church, liturgy evolved as an expression of doctrine. And the evolution of liturgy from an understanding of doctrine is in harmony with the psychology of the Church and with all psychology that is sound and true. So it is doctrine and not liturgy which should be foundation of our religious courses” (America, Vol. LX, p. 211).

There can, of course, be no question of whether our religious instruction should be basically dogmatic on the one hand or else basically liturgical on the other. Any liturgical instruction must be basically dogmatic for the simple reason that the liturgy is Christian dogmas as prayed by the Church, and one cannot begin to understand the liturgy without an understanding of the dogmas underlying it and without understanding them as finding their realization according to the mind of Christ primarily in the liturgical life of the Church. The real choice is not therefore between dogma and undogmatic liturgy, for the latter is an anomaly, but between dogma in the abstract and dogma as prayed and lived by the Church.

If it is impossible to teach the liturgy for what it really is without giving preponderant emphasis to the doctrinal content, to the profound Christian truths that are prayed and prayed so repeatedly in the liturgy, it is unfortunately very possible to teach doctrine without relation to the liturgy. It has been done only too long and well. The consequence is on the one hand an intellectual grasp of dogma quite apart from its life-giving inspiration, so that only too often the impression is received that everything connected with our faith is dull and dry. On the other hand, the consequence is an attendance at liturgical worship that lacks sufficient understanding of the true nature of the liturgy and that must therefore necessarily be in large part external and purely formalistic. The very prevalence of these unChristian consequences is an indication of the need of an immediate change in our practice and the abandonment of a method that is really a distortion of the integrally whole thing that the true Christian spirit is.

There is another aspect to the question of the liturgical orientation of all religious instruction, one that transcends in importance the points so far discussed and that makes it almost criminal to neglect the liturgy in religious teaching. In a descriptive leaflet of a series of religious instruction books the following statement occurs: “It is through the sacred liturgy that Christ instructs and transforms souls into Himself. The work of the teacher in religion, then, is to bring children to a conscious participation in the sacred liturgy, wherein Christ Himself teaches and sanctifies them.” This statement is true not merely because the liturgy is the embodiment of the doctrinal truths of Christianity, so that next to Scripture the liturgy is the foremost source of Christian theology and foremost witness to the traditional dogmas of the Church. It is true not only because in the liturgy the truths of Christ are expressed in prayer, are therefore lived after the manner of Christ Himself, and so form not only mind but also heart after the mind of Christ. It is most literally and above all true because the liturgy is the ordinary channel of God’s grace, without which no supernatural effects can be attained.

In the great welter of contemporary discussion on the teaching of religion, much is said about content of courses, methods of instruction, teacher training, and the like. From all the discussion one might readily conclude that the whole problem is concerned only with human means of achieving human results. Yet this is far from being true. Religious instruction and education has a supernatural purpose. It must necessarily aim at supernatural ends which cannot as such be attained by human efforts, no matter how sincere, unsparing, skillful these may be. To act as if true religious instruction can be achieved by human efforts alone is to act as if growth in the Christ-life could be attained apart from Christ.

Too long has catechetical instruction been divorced from channels of grace, from the only source of divine life and growth in Christ, of the formation of “other Christs.” Instruction of this kind, never connected up consciously to the sources of divine grace, could of course not produce the best fruits before God, since it was not consciously made an integral part of the supernatural life both of the teachers and of the taught. Yet the whole purpose of it was an increase of the theological virtues of faith and hope and charity, precisely the products of the sacramental action of the Church. The great losses to the faith that we have been suffering are sufficient evidence of the need of a religious instruction better coordinated with and orientated towards the prayer-life of the Church, fortified by the sacramental graces of Christ, and aided by the prayer-power of the Church.

Whatever efforts at instruction are made by both teachers and pupils should, as it were, be immersed in the channels of God’s graces, in the sacrifice of the altar, the sacraments and the prayer-life of the Church. Thereby they receive not only the added inspiration and motivation found in these, but they are by conscious connection with these official channels of grace elevated to the supernatural efficacy of the energies of Christ which alone can produce the ultimate effect that is being aimed at. In the abundance of our efforts we have indeed planted and watered, but we have almost forgotten the most important of all, that God alone can give the increase. We may have given the divine increase a small opportunity by reciting a prayer in common before beginning the instructions; but we have not thought of giving it a maximum opportunity of operation and attainment by constantly referring all efforts at teaching and study to the divinely established sacramental means of all growth in Christ.

The principle is well illustrated in the recent change towards the early first Communion of children. The older practice of our time was a maximum of instruction and of human effort through many years before giving the Eucharistic grace of Christ a chance to be effective. The new practice, after the minimum required amount of human effort, immediately connects up with the essential source of God’s grace through early Communion. That has the great advantage of giving God’s grace an opportunity to be operative in the souls of the children throughout all the subsequent years of instruction. These subsequent instructions will have a much greater chance of being fruitful because of the presence and operation of the sacramental graces in the souls of the children, even where this subsequent instruction is not consciously linked up, as it should be, with the frequent offering and the reception of the Eucharist. If it is consciously linked up, however, what opportunity is there not for the full operation of God’s grace in hearts seeking Christ above all and still free from the many hindrances that the transgressions of an older age place in the way of this grace?

There is yet another pedagogical aspect to the proper orientation of all religious instruction towards the liturgy and towards active participation in the Church’s worship. We say much today of the problem of carry-over from school days to later life. Where the religious instruction is of the abstract, intellectual type, divorced from its proper relation to liturgical worship, what carry-over is there from the classroom to later life? On the other hand, there is the carry-over of the purely mechanical unintelligent performance of liturgical worship out of a sense of duty, the momentum of which may only too readily wane as persons grow older and are free from the external conditions of compulsion in school and home which were influential in enforcing a regular attendance at Church services.

It is not necessary for every Christian to learn how to use a missal at Mass. Some may not have any aptitude for that. But it is necessary to teach children to pray the Mass in some way that is consonant with the nature of the Mass, therefore to participate in it heart and mind in accordance with their intelligence and abilities. It is moreover necessary to teach children to center all the efforts of their life in the altar of God, to unite them there with the sacrifice of Christ, and to derive from the latter, both as sacrifice-oblations and sacrifice-banquet, the help of God that is essential for giving their efforts the needed supernatural efficacy—in other words to coordinate and integrate all their daily efforts, especially their religious endeavors, with the action of Christ unto continued growth in the divine life. Only in that way are habits of Christian life formed in growing children which they can continue to exercise throughout their later years; only in that way can the much needed carry-over from school to later life be achieved, the absence of which in our day has been so detrimental to the growth of the mystical body and the spread of the kingdom of Christ on earth. But for this purpose, to repeat, all efforts at religious education must be centered in the liturgy and in active participation in the liturgy, since the latter is for all the members of Christ the essential way of living the life of their divine Head as long as they are on this earth.

© Orate Fratres

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