As Catholics, we rely on a great number of important texts to guide and inform our faith. Ask any strong Catholic leader you know about their collection of catholic books and they’ll surely show you dozens of books including the Bible, catechisms, Canon Law books, lives of saints, and more. Learning is a lifelong pursuit of the faith-seeker, and it’s very important that we as educators, parents and community leaders forge a love for learning about the Faith in our kids at a young age. But we can’t expect little ones to understand deep Catholic truths right off the bat – grown-ups have struggled with these concepts for centuries, after all! — so we must approach our teachings on a more simplistic level.
The best strategy for teaching kids about Catholicism is to lay a foundation and to help forge a relationship with Christ. As Pope John Paul II once said in an address at the National Catholic Educational Association, “Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others.” If you feel that you cannot adequately convey the broader intricacies of our religion’s history and dogma, know that as an early Catholic educator, there are resources to help you introduce these in a way children can understand. As kids grow into adulthood, with the foundation you gave them, they can learn to appreciate and understand the more complex aspects of the Faith.
You can have all the reference books, guidance and education in the world, but without compassion and understanding for your kids, your message will only get lost in the fray. There are some important things to keep in mind as you put the Catholic message in front of children.
- Show, Don’t Tell — As adult practitioners, we know that understanding our faith requires a lot of reading. Little learners, of course, can’t understand the same intricate concepts as we can, and we shouldn’t expect them to interpret the texts that theological scholars have studied for ages. It sounds obvious, but it truly is effective to present children with colorful images, movies and games to get them engaged. Stick to age-appropriate reference materials whenever possible. Also, your example is one of the most effective lessons you can teach. If your children see that you take something seriously, they will too.
- Speak Their Language — While imagery is important, religious education should still strongly focus on reading in order to lay a foundation that allows kids to delve deep into their faith when they’re older. The best way to teach kids to enjoy Biblical stories is through Catholic children’s books that have approachable language coupled with plenty of illustrations. You can start with books heavy on the illustration and then advance to chapter books as your child grows.
- Adjust Based on Age — Naturally, you will need to change the subject matter and approach of your lessons as your child grows from preschool age to high school. Don’t expect your teenage kids to get the same kick out of Veggie Tales as your grade school learners, and don’t try to force your little ones to grasp the nitty-gritties of the Catechism as well as your older kids. Many religious materials will include a suggested age range to help you know what will work best for your class.
- Be Forthcoming — As U.S. Catholic Editor, Catherine O’Connell-Cahill writes in a piece about how to teach your children the faith, “Don’t duck moral questions.” According to O’Connell-Cahill, surveys show that parents have the greatest impact on a child’s likelihood to engage in worrisome activities. In order for us to best teach our youngsters, we must tear down barriers and walls. Make sure that you have the right resources to answer tough questions and don’t shut off well-intentioned queries simply because they make you feel uncomfortable.
The right educational approach can and should be harnessed through the right resources. Building a kid-friendly Catholic library is important to ensuring that you have the right materials on hand to engage kids, answer their questions and teach them the Word in a way they can understand and connect with. The library of teaching materials should include:
- A kids’ version of the Catholic Bible
- A children’s catechisms
- A children’s missal and prayer book
- Coloring books and activity books
- Children’s books on the lives of Saints
A big part of our journey as religious educators is, of course, educating ourselves. If we don’t feel strong and well-informed in our own faith, we won’t be able to properly instill it in others. Don’t forget to include some religious education books in your library if you need help developing lesson plans and activities that capture kids’ attention.
The Bible is, well… the Bible of Catholicism! Not all Bibles are the same, and it helps to have a reminder of why we use the Bible we use. The Catholic Bible includes the 73 books (the canon) recognized by the Church, including seven books of the Old Testament that are not found in Protestant Bibles. It is one of the core elements that sets Catholics apart from other Christians. So be sure to use a kids’ Catholic Bible in your religious teachings.
So why not start with the standard adult version of our Bible? The Bible is not easy reading and has many stories that aren't really kid-appropriate. Instead, we recommend a kid-friendly version, such as The Catholic Bible for Children. Simpler language and vivid imagery help to capture and keep the attention of little ones. You can supplement with fun, visual extras, such as kid-friendly DVDs. The goal of any kid-friendly Bible teaching is to retell the important Biblical messages in an uncomplicated manner.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Baltimore Catechism — the two major catechisms of our faith — are essentially resources explaining the fundamental Catholic truths. The former was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 and is the one that we typically mean when we refer to “the Catechism.” It organizes and neatly presents all Catholic doctrine, primarily with regard to faith and morals. Typically, a catechism (including these two primary examples) follows a question and answer format for quick reference.
What sets the catechism apart from the Bible is its plain language and straightforward approach to faith — no interpretation necessary! You can see why this text might be of special value to young or converted Catholics who may not fully understand what Catholics believe. You can also see why it’s a fundamental in teaching Catholicism, whether your pupil is a preschooler or a senior citizen. Even though catechisms are written to be approachable, educators must still consider that the concepts and some of the language may not be suitable for young learners.
For this reason, we would recommend selecting a kids’ Catholic catechisms to add to your curriculum. There is an assortment of different catechisms specifically for kids at all ages, so be sure to choose one recommended for your specific age range. Popular catechisms such as “My First Catechism” are great at teaching elementary-age learners fundamentals like prayers, holidays and concepts like forgiveness. Fun interpretations, like “Catechism of the Seven Sacraments” — which uses photos of Lego figurines to tell Biblical narratives — are great for older kids.
Undoubtedly, the two most important pieces of literature for budding and lifelong Catholics are the Bible and a catechism. However, these books don’t always show the bigger picture of Catholic morals, values or culture. Keep a few supplemental books on hand to fill in whatever gaps may arise in your teachings.
- Teaching Kids All About First Communion — For young Catholics, First Communion is one of the most exciting and celebratory events of childhood. It makes sense to teach little ones approaching their First Communion all about the Eucharist and the seven sacraments as a whole before this special rite of passage. Pick out an educational First Communion book and encourage some fun and self-expression with a Eucharist coloring book. These also make fantastic First Communion gifts.
- Engaging Materials for CCD and Mass —It can be difficult to keep kids engaged during Mass or CCD, but some special books and activities just might help them grasp the concepts of the day’s homily or scripture reading. Pick out children’s Mass books — including children’s missals, prayer books and guide books — to help strengthen your child’s understanding of our most significant rites and traditions. Activity books and coloring books are good for elementary-age kids whom may need a little distraction still in church.
- Answering All the Tough Questions — They say there’s no manual to life, but sometimes a little bit of guidance can help us press through the difficult yet inevitable moments. Faith-based resources are available to help you answer a wide range of hard questions related to both faith and life, whether you need to delicately untangle current ethics issues or help kids understand the Holy Trinity. These books are especially useful when teaching curious teens.
- Helping Kids Communicate with Christ —A big part of Catholic education is, of course, prayer. It’s also one of the lessons that kids love the most at CCD or during home teachings. In addition to helping kids understand how to pray and why we pray, it can be beneficial to provide them with a few children’s prayer books that they can use when they pray in mass and at home or when they simply need an uplifting message.
- Filling in the Gaps with Digital Resources — No one gets all their information from hard-copy books anymore, including information and advice related to faith and religious exploration. It helps if you have an online community where you can pose tough questions, like if you aren’t sure how to teach a certain aspect of the faith or if you’re struggling to find faith-based media for a child at a particular age. Seek out blogs, YouTube channels, forums, Facebook groups and other communities to help you pull together a well-rounded lesson plan.
Developing an engaging, effective Catholic curriculum comes down to broadly understanding how to teach kids about faith and bolstering lessons with useful materials. Our history as Catholics includes deep, philosophical musings and intense theological criticism, but every Catholic scholar starts with the basics — even if it’s anthropomorphic vegetables or Lego figurines teaching moral themes! Remembering the bigger picture and taking cues from the experts can help you guide your youngster to a life of Catholic learning. Aquinas & More is always here to help you find the right faith-based teaching and learning materials for every student and age group.
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.