Word Magazine November 1966 Page 17-18
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Fr. Richard L. Tinker
St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, Brooklyn, New York
A short time ago I was discussing religious education with a Roman Catholic priest. I have always felt that it is a good idea to shop around for ideas, moving on the assumption that someone else may have solved or at least learned to live with a problem that is currently troubling you.
The priest described himself to me as one who was “up to his neck” in religious education. His parish is a large one: over six thousand parishioners attend Sunday Masses, the earliest of which begins at 5: 30 am. His parochial school, a huge complex of three buildings, educate nearly five thousand students, many of whom are not even members of his parish. The priest also directly supervises the Released Time Religious Education Program. Under provisions of the program, hundreds of students are released from the Public Schools in the neighborhood an hour early on a specified day each week in order to attend special religious instruction classes in his school. When they arrive, they are taught by dedicated nuns especially trained for that work. The classes are conducted in modern classrooms, furnished with beautifully illustrated textbooks, and cram-med with the latest audio-visual aids. I remarked that he was working under near perfect circumstances, and that his program must be succeeding rather well.
He nodded, sat back, and with a wry smile, said: “I wish it were, Father. The plain fact is that we are not. Oh, the kids come, all right. They learn a lot about the Church, but I’m pretty sure that we are going to lose most of them.”
As we got deeper in conversation, I began to see what he meant. Here was a priest who was telling me that vast expenditures of money, a perfect plant, and qualified teachers are not necessarily answers to quality religious instruction. When I told him that we were a long way from even these things, although we were striving to get them, he suggested that perhaps they weren’t necessary after all. At that point, I became interested in what he really thought was the answer to the whole problem. He told me quite simply that it was a matter of getting the parents of these children involved in the spiritual well-being of their offspring’s, because, after all, it is the parents who have the prime responsibility of handing down the faith. He also made another significant remark: “Father, what children need is not so much training in the technicalities of the faith. They can read a book on that. What they need is training in virtue. No book will give you that. Only good example and continual practice will achieve results.”
I left this priest with a deep sense of gratitude, not so much because he had said something new, but because he had succeeded in articulating a few notions which had been swimming about in my mind for some time. His words, and the concrete examples he gave me of his own mistakes and fumblings, set me to thinking. As someone wisely said: “If you can see the problem clearly, you are half-way to the solution.”
* * * *
The concept of the “Sunday School” as a means of religious instruction in the faith is a relatively new thing. It arose out of pure necessity when the home, as a center of Christian family life, declined. When parents, for one reason or another, began to fail in their obligation to train their children in knowledge of the faith, virtue and piety, the Church had to rush in and fill the vacuum. What the Church did in establishing “Sunday Schools” was only a stop-gap measure. It can never be a substitute for home training, and, in many instances, it is a detriment because it lulls parents into thinking that their obligation to teach and instruct is being satisfied by an outside agency. It can, however, be an adjunct, a supplement, a sort of enrichment source. But it can never be the whole source of instruction, and, unhappily, that is precisely what it is being used as by many parents.
You see it all the time. The children are rousted out of their warm bed and sent to church and Sunday School. Sent, not taken. And the parents, warm in the knowledge that they have fulfilled, their Christian duty, slip cozily back in bed. Later on, when the children grow up and disgrace the parents, if the parents have enough sensitivity left to be disgraced, loud cries are heard, along with the inevitable: “What? Didn’t we send you to Church? Didn’t we do our best to raise you well?
“ . . . It is a matter of getting the parents … involved in the spiritual well-being of their offspring’s … ” No program of religious instruct ion, no matter how well planned, how well carried out, or how well endowed, can survive the continuing indifference of parents. It would be somewhat unfair to rest the entire burden of religious education on the parents in our own archdiocese because, in all fairness, we have to admit that they are not as well prepared to carry out the responsibility as could be desired. The Orthodox Church is still in the mission-stage in this country, and we are still in the throes of reclaiming our people from the sects who took advantage, and are still taking advantage of the many internal problems the Church has had to face in America. But I think that our strongest asset is the inherent generosity of our people, and their willingness to cooperate, once they are asked to do so, and once they are shown how.
So many people, and especially parents, have admitted to me that they realize that their own religious training has been sketchy. They realize (and certainly I do) that this is not their fault. But still, realizing their inadequacy, they want to see that their own children do not suffer because of it. And so they ask, “What do you think I should do?”
I always start by telling them to see that their children develop good habits. Teaching and instructing all have their place in perfecting an Orthodox Christian. But grace can accomplish more than all our human efforts combined. And the source of grace is the Sacraments. See that your children take advantage of the Sacraments at every opportunity. There is really no excuse for children remaining away from the Sacraments to the extent that they do. Many parishes have established a Sunday during the month at which children are urged to communicate. Very well and good. But once a month, although it is a vast improvement over the once-a-year or four-times-a-year-concept, is still a minimal thing. A person should communicate — stronger — is commanded to communicate whenever the chalice is presented. And that, although it may shock some, is at every Liturgy. People are continually saying that they feel unworthy to approach, when what they should be saying is that they are lazy. Communion that frequently costs something. It means giving up certain sins which seem to ‘‘make life worthwhile.’’
But children have not developed that deep-rooted attachment to serious sins as yet. That is why we call them innocent, and that is why Christ loved them so. And so, what is to prevent them from communcating frequently? If anyone is ready to receive Christ, it is our children. And yet, through custom, through a lack of urging on the part of parents, and through a lack of good example on the part of parents, they are permitted to go weeks or even months at a time without approaching the altar. That is a shame, and the situation continues because parents, who panic when a child does not touch food for a day, are unconcerned when they starve spiritually.
Of course, a parent who urges his children to frequent communion does so at his own risk. And it is a risky business. For, after continual urgings and compliance on the part of the child, the question is bound to be asked: “Dad, if it’s such a good idea, why don’t you go more often?” Be prepared for that one. And if your child is as bright as you’ve been telling the neighbors he is, the question is bound to be asked.
Children have to be given a sense of continuity in what is taught to them. They are quick to pick out inconsistencies, and although they are smart enough to know that, under the circumstances, they shouldn’t voice their conclusions out loud, nothing in this world will keep them from thinking them. They will quickly see through the dubious situation of having religion preached to them one hour a week, only to come and find that God is absent in their own homes.
And so it is with urging a child to have a prayer life. Suppose we are able to have them attend Sunday School, and train them to prayerful participation in the Liturgy. What happens when they come home? They enter a vacuum. Daddy is there. Mother is there. The dog, the television set and a refrigerator chock full of goodies is there. But God is waiting back in the church. As one little boy poignantly put it as his parents drove him away from church: “Goodbye God.., see you next Sunday…
There is no getting around it. It is difficult . . . and embarrassing . . . to start public prayers in the home when you haven’t done it before. Most men frankly do not have the stomach for it. Most women, who have always been accused by the menfolk as being religious fanatics anyway, are reticent at breaking the ice. But for the sake of your children, don’t you think you should? You really can’t expect from them what you don’t do yourself.
How do you start? Get a little icon from your church, and hang it on the wall someplace. Then, when it comes time to put the children to bed call your wife out of the kitchen for a moment, and gather the whole family in front of the little icon. Turn the television off. The effect of the silence will probably be shattering. When everybody is quiet, make the sign of the cross yourself, and bow your head. That’s all. No prayers, no words, nothing but thirty seconds of silence. The next night, you can repeat your actions. If you are besieged for explanations, you don’t have to give any, except to say: “Oh, it’s just a little something I thought we’d do all together.” Several days later, you might get up enough courage to say the “Our Father,” or a few words you make up on the spot. At least, this is a beginning. The rest is up to you.