The problem of catechism in a rural diocese

Debbie and the Catechism Class

Catechism is an essential part of the task of the Church. If you don’t know something, than you are also not able to either appreciate or to like or love it. Theoretically, it is more than evident that our children should grow up in the living faith of the Church. I said “theoretically”, because quite often, the reality gives us another rather sad picture of the concrete situation in which our children have to live in.

In mainly catholic countries, the whole situation was quite easy. Children were born into practicing catholic families, where daily life gave them the best example possible. On Sunday, the whole family went to church, which made it easy for the children to follow in the footsteps of their parents, and, during the week, there was the catholic school, where every teacher, religious and non religious, was a trained catechist. When they left the primary school, our youngsters were ready to enter the adult world, where quite a number of church organizations waited for them to accompany them in such a way that they only became still stronger in their faith.

The situation here in South Africa was and  is “slightly” different and turns catechism into a real hard and harsh job. The mainly protestant character of the country created an enormous gamma of different denominations, which, on their turn, produced a number of new sects.

Final result? In one single street you can have families belonging to the Catholic, the Anglican, the Congregational, the Lutheran, the Moravian, the Presbyterian and the Dutch Reformed Church, and in the mean time, we have to mention the Old and the New Apostolic Church, the Full Gospel Church, the Assembly of God and the different temple denominations.

In that same street, children play together, grow up together and enter a world with a very hardly to define religious background. Love is blind and does not know any barriers, also not religious ones, and that creates opinions like “Church is Church” and “One Roof, one Church”.

The whole population of a village has the knowledge of a very vague catechism, based on some Sunday school songs and pictures, taught in a government school and that is the end of the story.

With such a background, we have to prepare children for first communion and grown ups for confirmation: what a task! Mother Church thinks still  that the Parents should be the first and the main catechists and She is right, but what about parents who know just as much as their children know?

So, what to do? At Queenstown St. Theresa’s, we had the good luck to have had for years a retired lady teacher who was willing to give catechism on a Friday afternoon. She did it for years and that with a lot of passion and dedication. But the years went on and on, and the day came that she had to give that up: it simply did not go anymore…

In the mean time, a younger lady volunteered to take over, and gratefully we accepted her proposition. So, Mrs. Deborah (we call her “Debbie”) Naidoo started enthusiastically with a very small group, the very first one of that kind in the history of the mission. The reason? Once upon a time, the “popular government catechism” taught the people with the help of televison following slogan: “Be wise, condomise!”

Debbie is happy with her small class, and I am happy for her having the opportunity to work herself slowly in into that special domain.

But even that small group shows the problems we have in general. Every child receives a penny catechism with extremely clear questions and answers, and that catechism must become their common knowledge and religious backbone for the years to come. Although all the children do have the minimum age of 10 years, some of them can hardly read, and that is already a problem in itself.

Others are quicker and risk to experience the whole lesson as a boring business and may be tempted to stay away.

Even there we try to stimulate the children to come up. From time to time there is a surprise, and yeah, there is a presence list which is checked every Sunday after Mass….

There is also a custom that parents send their children to Sunday Mass, but they themselves stay at home, or… come to fetch them by car after Mass and…that is not a good example at all!!!

And, year after year, the story ends the same way: a beautiful, moving First Communion celebration during a Solemn Mass on the Feast of Christ the King, the patronage feast of the Diocese of Queenstown.

A packed church with a lot of Protestants in it, witnesses the solemnity and after the liturgy we hear following comment: “Ah you Catholics, you have it!”

But the next Monday the whole cycle starts again and every time we hope for more and better!

Fr Edward Tratsaert SAC