Changing with the times: Culture and catechism

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Sr. Marie Kolbe Zamora smiles Friday, Oct. 26, at the Diocese of Superior’s Fall Conference. A theologian, she did her dissertation on St. Bonaventure. She spoke on adult catechesis at an afternoon breakout session. (Catholic Herald photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff
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Back when Sr. Marie Kolbe Zamora was growing up, there was a certain way to catechize. It involved teaching rules, definitions, concepts, “the soul leads the body” and a structured way to lead a moral life.

But the 54-year-old Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity, who has a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree and chairs the Department of Theology and Ministry at Silver Lake College, Manitowoc, knows the times have changed.

Today’s students are not interested in rules, she said Friday, Oct. 26, during a breakout session at the Fall Conference at St. Joseph, Rice Lake. In this new era, students don’t live by definitions, and they don’t care about definitions. “Life as they live it is their point of departure,” she said.
She sees this as the reason why some Catholics struggle to understand Pope Francis. He speaks to the current cultural context – with storytelling, with creativity, basing his teachings on experience, without emphasizing rules and definitions – and she believes Catholics not raised in that mindset find his style confusing.

When Sr. Marie was in seventh grade, she was supposed to get confirmed. Although her mother was a director of religious education, and the future nun was “hyperinterested in God,” she elected not to be confirmed with her class.

“I’m asking every adult I can think of why I need to get confirmed, and I can’t get any good answers,” she recalled.

Although she eventually changed her mind and was confirmed with her mother’s help, Sr. Marie used the story to illustrate a point: current research indicates children decide whether to leave the Church at age 13. She believes her decision to get confirmed as a 16-year-old was the starting point of her theology vocation.

“I’m a theologian,” she added. “I’m not a catechist, but I have a deeply catechetical heart … I do theology to nourish faith.”

Before opening her presentation, Sr. Marie asked everyone in the room to identify their ministries, which varied from RCIA and jail ministry to children’s catechesis, men’s group facilitation, Catholic education and more.

Sr. Marie observed that Diocese of Superior catechists had not used the Catechism of the Catholic Church for their formation. The Diocese of Green Bay has such a program, she said, but it was easier to facilitate there because the region is not so spread out.

“It would be beneficial if all catechists in a way could be led through the catechism together,” she added.

Sr. Marie remembers well the time before the Catechism was released. She earned her undergraduate theology degree in 1989; although she could intuit what was Catholic truth, someone else would deny it.
“It was a free-for-all,” she said. “Now, we don’t live in that age of confusion.”

When she teaches the Catechism, Sr. Marie sees herself as a tour guide or a cook – she presents the work in digestible chunks, and it is up to the receiver to “chew” and “digest” it – to interpret it as individuals.

“If I were training you in the use of this text, I would treat this not as an end, but as a doorway into a 2,000-year-old tradition,” she said. “I would take you behind the book. The only way for catechesis to work is if the people we catechize do their own chewing.”

As a theologian, she also emphasizes the need for the Catechism to be in dialogue – studied alongside – other catechisms – the Didache, Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechism, the Baltimore Catechism, papal statements, the Roman Missal, and other works.

The fundamental fact, as Sr. Marie emphasized, is “Catechesis is not the communication of information. Rather, catechesis is and must be the communication of life.”

Her example: Grey’s Anatomy. The show is popular with her students, so Sr. Marie watches it to understand them.

“It’s not a moral show at all, but the reason I watch it is because my students are Grey’s Anatomy,” she said. “This teaches me how to teach to the minds of Grey’s Anatomy.”

On the show, she sees “sexual promiscuity, right, left and center.” She also sees “a good story,” and a world where “everyone is looking for life, and everyone is looking for love.”

“If I’m a catechist that pays attention, I learn that story, and not information, is what I need to convey,” she added. “So what am I gonna do? Am I going to walk into the Grey’s Anatomy office with the Ten Commandments and John Paul II’s encyclical?”

She teaches “the experience of humanity with God in such a way … that my experience of my life fits in with the experience of humanity.”

Her suggestion for a first pedagogical method: begin with experience. Catechists should write out a secular history of themselves, with a timeline of significant events. Next, in prayer, they should transform that secular history into a sacred history – add in meaningful moments in their faith lives.

“We need others’ help to read our secular histories in the key of God,” she added. The exercise also shows people where they need to grow – if it is all about achievements or academics and not about relationships, they realize they need to go back and reflect, and perhaps make life changes.

In religious education, catechists should lead those being catechized in the same exercise.

She suggested as a second pedagogical method that catechists should lead with the Scriptures, “because the Scriptures are life changing.”

God “does all kinds of open-heart surgery with the Scriptures,” she added, and they have a similar impact on the mind.

Leading with Scriptures is only possible if catechists contemplate their own life in the key of the Gospel, Sr. Marie said. For catechizing others, create situations and opportunities for those being catechized to identify the mercy of the Lord at work in them.

Next, she said, lead with liturgy. She advocates recovering the liturgy as a source for catechesis, and she advises catechists to buy the Roman Missal and pray at home, then take the book along to catechesis to help people enter more fully into the liturgy.

People learn by asking questions, not by answering them, so she suggests catechists teach their students to ask good questions.

“We are so brainwashed into thinking the asking of questions makes us look dumb,” she added. “Faith is a mystery. If I’m approaching it with my mind on, some things won’t add up.”

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