RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY
As parents, we know that we start teaching our Catholic faith to our children at the earliest age, long before they are ready for any formal lessons. As a priest once said to me, ‘I don’t really expect to see a child for instruction before 6 or 7 – until then the catechesis is best done at the mother’s knee.’ I think that’s true, and it is, anyway, a joy to pass on the faith to our little ones. If we feel inadequate to the task because our own knowledge of the faith is somewhat lacking, this is the perfect opportunity to make good our deficiencies. I had a typical Catholic education in the 1970’s- 80’s – which means that I left school thoroughly ignorant of the most basic truths of our faith. Consequently, I was rather daunted by the idea of having to teach those truths, but in fact this has been one of the greatest blessings stemming from our decision to home-educate. When you are teaching a four or five year old, it is not too demanding to educate yourself to that level in preparing to teach your little one. Nor is it so difficult to stay a few steps ahead, consolidating your knowledge as you teach each child, expanding in your knowledge as your older ones grow. By the time I had prepared a few children for their First Holy Communion, I knew the Penny Catechism fairly well and was in a better position to deal with any tricky questions which arose! Once you are more confident in your own knowledge of the basics, teaching any younger children you are blessed with will be a much more rewarding, rather than a daunting, task.
Unfortunately, good UK based materials for this subject are seriously lacking. Most parents I know use either the Baltimore catechism series or ‘Faith and Life’, both of which are American (more details on the following pages). There are no courses available which are based on the English ‘Penny Catechism’, at least not in a readily accessible form (you might get some old textbooks second hand if you are lucky). First Holy Communion prep is somewhat better served and some of the newer books are actually quite orthodox compared with what was being produced a few years ago. I do not know of any books used to teach the faith in our Catholic schools which are of a decent standard (and some, such as the ever popular ‘Here I Am’ scheme, or the older ‘Weaving the Web’ are dreadful). The outline I aim to follow with my own children (using a somewhat eclectic range of second hand books, a Penny Catechism and my own materials) is shown below. As you can see, it follows a repeated three year cycle in which the main sections of the catechism (Faith, Hope and Charity – corresponding to study of the Creed, prayer and the Sacraments, and the Commandments/living a Catholic life) are repeated in increasing detail, first from ages 7-10, then ages 10-13, then ages 13-16.
As I explained on the Literature page, in a Catholic curriculum philosophy is not an obscure added extra for the very academic child. Every Catholic has a duty to know and understand his faith – that is, to understand at least the most basic theological truths contained in the catechism – and part of this is to understand (even if on a very basic level) the philosophy which underpins that theology. This doesn’t mean that every Catholic has to read Aquinas! It simply means that every human being has a philosophy of life (whether he calls it by that name or not), and unless he thinks about it and applies his judgement to it, he is very likely to fall into following whatever happens to be the dominant philosophy of the society in which he lives. The current dominant philosophy of our secular society (which informs almost all of what we see and hear in the mainstream media), can be characterised as subjective and relativist: i.e. there is no objective truth (one person’s truth is as good as another person’s) and there is no objective morality (what is wrong for one person may be right for another). This can appear a very attractive philosophy to Catholic teenagers, suggesting as it does a sense of being tolerant and non-judgemental and, so the popular argument goes, ‘authentically Christ-like’. Without some understanding of the reasons why this thinking is wrong headed and fundamentally un-Christian, your average teen is going to find it very hard to resist its attractions. He is, at the very least, more likely to ‘go with the flow’ than openly profess the Church’s perennial teachings at the risk of being derided as a narrow minded, old fashioned, intolerant bigot. Reading the right books at the right time might just give him the capacity to understand both what is wrong with the predominant philosophy or our times, and to see the truth and beauty of the teachings he is called on to profess.
GCSE: There is no exam specifically testing knowledge of our Catholic faith. However, there are Religious Education exams available which contain at least some elements of Catholicism. There is also an exam which is pure Bible Study (on one of the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles): this is the ‘O’Level in Religious Studies offered by CIE.
Basic prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, Grace, Guardian Angel prayer)
Aim 1: Knowledge of basic prayers and major feasts
At this age, prayers such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, Grace and the Guardian Angel prayer are best learned simply by praying them in home and church. Feast days are similarly best explained by celebrating them as fully as possibly – live the liturgical year with all its feasts and fasts and you will teach your child more than any book will at this age!
Aim 2: To be familiar with well known and patron saints
Read together! If your child likes to colour, print off some pictures; if you’d like to encourage good habits of listening then retaining and articulating what has been heard, use the method of oral narration: read the story once through, making sure your child is paying attention, then have him tell back to you what he remembers. If you like, write down his version and let him illustrate it (or stick in a coloured picture). This way, he can make his own ‘saints book’ to keep and take to Mass.
‘Once Upon a Time Saints’ (and the sequel) by Ethel Pochocki are very popular for this age group. These are very American in style but written in a very engaging way and make the saints come alive for young children. For very young children, a focus on dates and historical settings is not as important as simply drawing out some significant moment from the saint’s life which the child will remember, dwell upon and love. One wonderful set of books is ‘The Story Library of the Saints’ by Joan Windham, published in the 1970’s. This is out of print but worth looking for. Cenacle books have a nice selection of books on saints.
Aim 3: To be familiar with well known bible stories
As with the lives of the Saints, read together, illustrate and perhaps do some oral narration. I tend to focus on Old Testament stories in the autumn term in the run up to Christmas. This links in nicely with the Jesse Tree craft and the whole idea of the Old Testament leading up to the coming of the Messiah. For more details on the Jesse Tree idea see age 5-6 Catechism. (There’s no reason why you can’t do a Jesse Tree every year, at whatever age – we do!) Then, in winter/spring, in the run up to Easter, the focus shifts neatly to the New Testament and the gospel stories about Our Lord.
The Golden Children’s Bible is very popular, as is Fr Lovasik’s New Catholic Picture Bible. These both have well-written quite old fashioned text and realistic rather than cartoon-type illustrations, which personally I think are better. However, my children have also enjoyed this book (not Catholic), which has a more modern feel to it: ‘The Story of Jesus.
Aim 4: To grasp the basic outline of what happens at Mass (NB all references on this site to the Mass, and to books about the Mass, refer to the traditional rite of the Mass, not the new rite of the Mass).
Obviously, the only way to really teach your child about the Mass is to take him/her to it as often as possible. Since we assist at the old Latin form of the Mass, we have no children’s liturgy so our children get the full benefit of being present through the whole Mass from day one. Given that your
actual teaching moments are rather limited during the Mass itself, a little background preparation is helpful. At this age, focus on the central action of the Mass, the fact that Jesus becomes really and truly present in a very special way. Encourage your child to observe the behaviour of the adults around him as they are all silent, focussed intently on what is happening.
If he’s keen, encourage him to look at a simple missal, such as this Marian Children’s Missal, or the lovely little book, ‘Jesus Make Me Worthy. The words may mean nothing to him at this stage but he will love the pictures. Take along whatever saints and bible book you have been reading to him so that you can link home and church. Mass can be long and it can be very difficult to keep a small child happy and focussed. If he complains, try to talk to him a little about it, but suggest too that he ‘complains’ to Jesus – for a little one, this is a very valid basis for a conversation with the One he has come to Mass to meet!
It may seem odd to treat Christian Culture as a subject in itself, but it seems to me that at this point in time, as our culture is rapidly becoming predominantly secular, this is something we need to do: to pass onto our children in a more formal way all that is good and noble in the Christian civilisation of the past 2,000 years. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Catholic historian Christopher Dawson insists in his enlightening book, The Crisis of Western Education, that ‘the study of Christian culture is the missing link which it is essential to supply if the tradition of Western education and Western culture is to survive, for it is only through this study that we can understand how Western culture came to exist and what are the essential values for which it stands….if modern education fails to communicate some understanding of this great tradition, it has failed in one of its most essential tasks.’ With this in mind, it seems a good idea to treat more formally (and make liberal use of as subject matter) all those elements of our own culture which we would normally pass onto our children in a more general way. I’m thinking here of things like lives of the saints, art, architecture, literature etc. There is a lot of scope for imaginative planning here! What follows offers a very broad outline of a suggested approach, but I would be interested to hear about others’ thoughts on how to tackle this subject. In the primary years, this might be taught by tying in the lives of the saints to our historical studies (and if you don’t study history formally, here is a roundabout way of fitting it in). So, for example, while a child is looking at the era from 0 – 1,000 AD, he might study the Saints of the Apostolic age (1 –300), the Patristic Age (300 –650) and the Carolingian Age (650–900), and so on up until the present day. In the middle years, he might focus not so much on the lives of individual saints as on the manifestations of Christian culture during whatever historical period he has decided to specialise in (see History overview). For example, when studying the Normans, he might investigate ecclesiastical architecture, illuminated manuscripts and the development of religious orders. Finally, over the three years of Secondary level, he might cover Church History more formally, from Apostolic times to the present day, using a text such as Fr Laux’s monumental ‘Church History’.
The overall aim of education for our children is for them to attain eternal salvation. We want them to have an academically excellent catholic intellectual formation. We wish them to have a life long love of learning and to give them the tools to be able to learn independently. The basis of our intellectual formation will be spiritual formation based on prayer, Mass, discussion and reading. Our curriculum will be infused with the faith. Throughout the curriculum we will emphasise observation, description, debate, self expression, analysis and research, rather than concentrating on specific subjects in their own right.
Use La Miche de Pain, the Children’s Bible and catechism books to tell stories of Jesus and Mary. Ask the child to recall them and write them in her bible book to be illustrated. From age 5 use SSPX catechism.
Continue Bible book, follow the Liturgical year with craft, art and discussion. Re-tell stories and write in her own words in her Bible book. Encourage her to write sentences.