Why the USCCB's approved religious education book list is only slightly more useful than a magic eight ball.
My oldest daughter started First Communion religious education today at an undisclosed location. She was given twelve pages from the Blest are We series by Silver Burdett Ginn book to take home from the class. Having been to several catechetical conferences, I can say that the content is representative of every series out there except Faith and Life and Image of God.
As each week goes by, I will be doing a comparison of this series with Faith and Life to show just how useless most religious ed material is and also to show that just because something is on the approved list by the bishops doesn't mean that it actually teaches the Faith.
Blest Are We (BAW) – The pages are full-color and some of the art is actually good. The pictures are professional but questionable in content (more later). Each page is broken down into bits of information that reads more like a bulletin board than a text book. Each page is very heavy on pictures and graphics with very little actual content. Each paragraph seems to be an arbitrary collection of sentences that may or may not follow one train of thought.
Faith and Life (FL) – The book is meant for an entire 2nd grade year so I am trying to match up content between the two series. This series has a full-page color picture in each chapter but the quality isn't always great. The rest of the pages are text broken up by tables, charts questions and prayers. This series is definitely not as pretty to look at and it is unfortunate that instead of using classical works of art to illustrate the series, most of the pictures look like they were done by amateur pastel artists.
BAW starts out with this sentence: “Our parish church community comes together each week. We give praise and thanks to God and we celebrate our faith.”
Okay, this rather vague statement could apply to any religious group or even to your parish youth group. There is nothing here that gives any indication that this is the Mass they are referring too. In fact, the word Mass is used once in the entire lesson.
Note also the lower-case use of the word “faith”. The lowercase use of “faith” implies that the faith being celebrated is each individual's personal faith, not the Faith of the Church.
The page also has a picture of King David, a Hebrew Plaque in the middle of the page which is never translated and a picture of children clapping at Mass. A word about pictures in books. The pictures chosen for a book are always chosen for a reason. Cardinal Ratzinger personally chose and arranged the placement of the art in the Compendium of the Catholic Church. Keep that in mind next time you flip through the book. Now why would a religious education book about the Mass put a picture in it of children clapping at Mass? Because the authors want your children to think that clapping at Mass is normal.
FL starts off with a pastel painting of… well, I was going to say Abraham getting ready to offer Isaac as a sacrifice but there is an extra person in the picture. The picture is not identified anywhere and the text on the facing page doesn't seem to relate either. Grrr.
This unit is called “The Holy Mass” and starts with a scripture verse from Luke narrating the institution of the Eucharist. The page then goes on to explain that “Every Sunday we go to church to do what Jesus told the disciples to do when He said, ‘Do this in memory of Me.' You see, the Last Supper was the very first Mass.” On a side note, FL uses the word “Mass” 16 times in four pages while BAW uses it once in 12. However, to its credit, BAW does manage to use the word “Welcome” or “Welcoming” 17 times over 10 pages.
Page two of BAW has a brief song called “You Have Put on Christ” and a picture of a baptism of what looks like a one-year-old baby in the Granite Box of Death. Page three and four are things we are supposed to do at home to get our kids ready to learn that “This first chapter explains being welcomed into the community of believers and being a small part of something larger.” The main emphasis here is to get your kids to be welcoming and hospitable.
Page four has the following statement under the heading “Something to know about our heritage”:
“In the early Church the Eucharist was celebrated around a table, usually as a shared meal. During the great persecutions (should this be in scary capital letters in quotes?), the Eucharist was often celebrated using the tombs of martyrs as altar tables.
During the Middle Ages, permanent altars became quite ornate and eventually looked more like monuments than tables for a sacred meal.
Inspired by the Second Vatican Council, twentieth-century reforms in the liturgy called for the celebrant to face the community and for the altar to take the form of a table around which the people of God could gather for the eucharistic feast.”
I counted at least eight errors in this section alone.
- The Eucharist wasn't celebrated “as a shared meal” at any time. In the early Church it was sometimes done in conjunction with a meal but it never WAS the meal.
- The second sentence implies that the Middle Ages did something wrong in making altars ornate. I doubt that those in the Middle Ages and later would have made the mistake of thinking that the altar was a monument.
- The second sentence says that altars really should look like tables (I can't find any reference to back this up anywhere in Church documents) and
- that the sacrifice of the Mass is just a sacred meal.
- The final sentence implies that Vatican II was somehow responsible for the changes mentioned here even though neither thing mentioned can be found anywhere in the documents.
- The reforms following Vatican II made it an OPTION for the priest to face the people, they didn't call for it.
- Nor does any document call for the altar to look like a table that the congregation can gather around.
- Notice again the complete lack of the word sacrifice in the section. The word “meal” is used twice and “feast” once.
Also, the picture of an altar accompanying this paragraph looks like a giant cymbal being supported by demons or bats (I am not exaggerating).
Pages two and three of FL give the following reasons for going to Mass:
- To offer the same sacrifice that Jesus offered on the Cross.
- To celebrate the Resurrection as each Sunday is a “little Easter”.
- To praise God.
- To thank God for the good things he gives us.
- To tell God we are sorry for our sins and to ask His assistance in avoiding them again.
- To pray for things we need and for the needs of others.
Pages 5-8 of BAW talk about community and the different types of communities there are (family, neighborhood, classroom, Catholic Church). At the bottom of page five there is an arrow to the next page along with the question “How is the Catholic Church a community?” And the answer is… the story of Levi inviting Jesus to dinner. And how does this explain how the Church is a community?
“Levi invited Jesus and his friends to dinner. Levi made his guests feel very welcome. Our Church invites us to celebrate a special meal, too. Our Church community welcomes. The special meal we celebrate is the Mass. It celebrates God's love for us. We are God's People.”
Well, that sure cleared it up for me. Now I know that we celebrate a special meal called the Mass and that the Mass celebrates God's love for us.
First, the Mass is not a “special meal”. The Mass contains the Eucharistic sacrifice but that is not the entirety of the Mass. Second “It” doesn't celebrate God's love for us.
Page four of FL gives an explanation of the third Commandment and gives some ideas for how to keep it as the Lord's Day including:
- not doing any work that can be done another day
- wearing our best clothes to church
- not going shopping
- having a special meal with our family
- spending time together with our family
- spending more time thinking and talking about God
The page also lists three words to know: “Mass”, “sacrifice”, “praise”.
Pages 9 and 10 of BAW describe how a parish helped refugees from another country feel welcome by providing them with housing, food and education, and has an activity where the student draws a picture of people caring for others and a second activity where students can talk about how to make people feel welcome. At the bottom of the page is an arrow to the next page with the following question: “How can we celebrate being God's People?” Oh, I can't wait to turn the page!
“We celebrate being God's People by praying together. We welcome others by holding hands.”
Whew! And I thought that we weren't going to get to hold hands during this lesson.
FL ends its chapter with two questions: “What is the Mass?” and “Why is the Mass offered to God?”. The answers are condensed from the Catechism and provide references back to it.
As an added bonus, we received the home-prep work for Chapter two of BAW “We Belong to the Church”. Some activities include
- drinking water with a meal and talking about how water tastes and how we use water
- discussing the signs of Baptism
- discussing different kinds of activities that are done alone and in groups
The second page actually has some good content. First, it reminds everyone to bless themselves with water from the font as a reminder of Baptism. Second, there is a classical work of art by Priero della Francesca of the Baptism of Christ with a brief description of the piece's history and symbolism.
The page ends with a prime example of why most religious ed books are a waste of time and trees. The final two paragraphs (two, because that is where the authors arbitrarily decided to make a break) are so vague that almost everything in them could apply to any religion.
“Jesus gathered others around him (notice the lack of capitalization) to form a community. (I thought he gathered people around him to teach them the Truth to get to Heaven). As time went on, they realized who Jesus was and what they were called to do as his (no capital) followers. As others joined these original disciples, the Church was formed. (Actually, the Church was founded on Pentecost, not in some gradual process). Each new member was initiated into this community of faith (little “f” so it isn't any specific faith.)
Our membership in the Church is both an honor and a responsibility. We have been given faith by God so that others will come to see in us the reflection of God's unconditional love for all. (I thought we were given faith to help us get to Heaven.) Our model is Jesus, who is the very Word of God made flesh. In all his (capital) words and actions, Jesus was a sign of God's love.
Okay, so what's the take-away from each book this week?
From BAW, I have learned that being welcoming is pretty darned important and that the Mass (if I happened to catch the single use of the word) is a sacred meal that celebrates God's love for us. I have also learned that welcoming is important. I also learned that celebrating being God's people involves prayer and holding hands. Welcoming also seems to be of importance in this lesson. I also learned that the Middle Ages were bad because tables turned into monuments and it wasn't until the reforms of Vatican Two that things were made more welcoming by turning these monuments back into tables that we can all gather around to share a meal. Did I mention hospitality?
From FL I learned that the Eucharist was instituted at the Last Supper. I also learned that the Mass is the same sacrifice that Jesus made on Calvary and that there are several reasons for going to Mass, primarily to worship God. I also learned what the 3rd Commandment is and ways to observe it.
Now, it is possible that there will be greater substance and less distortion in the upcoming chapters of BAW. To find out, check back next week.