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Visions and Realities Part IV

by Eugene Hemrick
In: Modern Masters of Religious Education



The National Scene

In 1974 I had occasion to be in Washington D.C. While there, I visited Wilfred Paradis and Mariella Fry, who were directing the National Catechetical Directory (NCD). I asked them how they envisioned the implementation of the NCD’s recommendations. The reply was, “How would you implement it?” I responded that surveys might be conducted on a regular basis. On the one hand they could track the NCD’s progress. On the other, the items on the surveys could act as catalysts and become an educational tool. I commented that sharply constructed questions enliven thinking. They also provide categories, or a construct which can help religious educators see the whole and its parts.

I do not know whether it was this conversation, my writings, or having established a catechetical school that influenced Wilfrid Paradis. In 1975 he invited me to become coordinator of research for the Bishops’ Conference’s Department of Education. When the offer came a close friend told me that I would not last two years. He contended the bureaucracy would “chew me up.” At that time I also had been reading The Education of Henry Adams. I have never read a more incisive, realistic, and pessimistic account of politics and work at the national level.

After weighing the negative with the positive I opted for D.C. I felt it was a challenge. I needed a change. Most of all, I believed I had something unique to offer. This offer was the promotion of creative thinking, better use of existing ideas, and support to church ministries through a research approach. Both Wilfrid Paradis and Bishop James Rausch, the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference, shared this vision. I might add here that my background also made me feel prepared for a new challenge. I had been rector of a small group of seminarians. While directing the catechetical school I was in charge of the formation program of permanent deacons and was likewise in campus ministry. At the college I taught Scripture, liturgy, and teaching methodology. In retrospect I felt like a “Man For All Seasons” and probably would have burnt out or had a heart attack had I continued to nurture this messianic complex.

During the first two years at the conference I conducted a national study of parish catechetical programs. I also directed a national symposium on catechetics. The study assessed the position of DREs and the various responsibilities they undertake. The symposium brought together catechists and experts in psychology, sociology, and research to address all areas of catechetics. Here again I experienced the value of a support system from the people at the conference, the Boys Town Center for the Study of Youth Development at Catholic University, and the National Conference of Diocesan Directors (NCDD).

Thanks to the success of these projects and the confidence of Wilfrid Paradis and Bishop Thomas Kelly, the new General Secretary of the Conference, I was made director of research for the entire Conference in 1977. This promotion cast me into an entirely new role. I now found myself conducting studies on the permanent diaconate, campus ministry, SEARCH programs, migration trends, inner-city schools, and social justice. In addition to conducting these studies i also became deeply involved with the world of computers.

During the last six years the various experiences at the conference have deeply affected my understanding of catechetics and catechesis. Living in a staff house with a black and Hispanic priest and men from every part of the country I have become more cosmopolitan in my thinking. This growth has been enhanced by the wide range of dialogue I have had with every part of this country. As a consequence, I have come to believe that catechetics must be more universal in its approach and appeal. It cannot be directed to one class of people or one type of lifestyle. Rather, there must be a sensitivity among its leadership to adapt the Word of God to multi-cultures and local situations within local situations. Translated on the parish level this might mean two or three catechetical programs instead of one to which all are expected to adapt. It also means writing textbooks which are attuned to ethnic differences. I believe the argument that this is not economical both financially and personnel-wise is unfounded.

I have also learned that the concept of catechetics goes beyond parish boundaries. There is catechesis in campus ministry, when a deacon visits a hospital or jail and works to promote social justice.

This may sound simplistic. In retrospect, I must admit that in embracing a speciality, I over stressed one area of concentration and often was oblivious to other worlds. Working on a national level I have come in contact with the pain of foreign refugees. These people have no country, have difficulty in being understood, and suffer unspeakable humiliations. On vacation I have bicycled through Europe and have become very conscious that his continent is on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. I have spoken with exiles from the Orient and heard of unbelievable misery. I shall never forget those eyes I looked into which expressed a hopeless longing to return home.

These experiences have led me to believe that catechetics must include, but go beyond, the teaching of doctrine or moral values. We must attune our people to the human cries of man’s inhumanity to fellow man. Before further developing a theology of liberation I wonder if we should not first develop a philosophy of awareness. How easy it is to be provincial and unconsciously become an isolationalist.

I have learned other lessons on the national level. Often interest groups look for national studies to solve local problems. Because a national office provides a cosmopolitan response, the response is sometimes of little value to a particular local situation. One needs only read Rahner’s distinction between principles and prescriptions to understand that national studies are limited by nature of their being national. A national study of catechetical programs can recommend that DREs have a role description. It can demonstrate the bad effects of not having one. But a national study cannot set a policy that all DREs must have one. This must be carried out by the local church. The lack of the control of taking a study from beginning to end and implementing its results has been a frustration to my specialist bent. In a laboratory-teaching situation, to which I was accustomed, I had full control over formation. I was the chief change agent. Perhaps I wasn’t always successful, but at least I had the option. On the national level I must now be content with generating questions and ideas. If they are good I must then have faith they will be acted upon. However, others must take over as chief change agent. This realization has greatly sharpened my understanding and practice of delegation. It has also tempered my messianic complex.

Other changes in my thinking have occurred because of being in Washington. As a specialist I frequently find myself wanting to delve into a study in its entirety. Underneath this desire I believe there is a defense mechanism against becoming involved with the political ins-and-outs most national positions experience. I often feel a disgust with those who seem to be concerned about who’s who, who is influential, or how someone reacted to this or that situation. Like Henry Adams, I have concluded certain types of people live off of political gossip.

And yet one cannot put one’s head in the sand. If one is going to cause any type of change whatsoever, there must be a certain level of political awareness. I believe this principle has much to say to religious educators. It is not enough to seek out the truth and design programs. People must be sought. They must be assessed. Persuasive techniques have value, especially where thre is a true mission involved. At times there is a legitimate need to know how people are reacting to us, as persons. To know the political climate and to engage it honestly, is a prerequisite for pre-evangelization. To overly indulge in a drawing board atmosphere and forget to shake a few hands, make telephone calls, or market a program is to disregard a very important step of catechesis.

Apologia Pro Vita

Over the last eighteen years my relationship to religious education has gone from the desire to develop the specialized art of communication to that of taking a strong interest in other ministries and social justice issues. Most of my interests have been generated through personal or national research. As I look back on the many hours devoted to question design and analysis., I sometimes wonder if that time might have been better spent focusing on the study of Scripture, which I cherish. Instead of being in a national office concerned with cosmopolitan thinking and national trends I might be in some university inspiring young minds with the Scriptures. Would this not be more in line with my vocation?

As nice as it would be to be a professor of Scripture I truly believe the world of catechetics, and the church as a whole, is moving into a new era. Whether we like it or not the age of the computer is creating a more profound sense of analysis than ever before. The better we use the tools of this age and analyse how our youth experience their faith, the values our society needs, and the means for making that faith strong, the better will be the world of catechetics.

The laws of philosophy, and especially logic, are considered the working tools of theology. I see the tools of the social sciences much the same. They attempt to define the terms, to justify the major and minor, to review the evidence and to defend a thesis.

Unlike theology, they cannot make a leap of faith, or conclude with a de fide proposition. Mystery is not in their vocabulary. There inability to deal with eternal realities seems to create a lacuna.

Although the social sciences differ from theology in regard to their range of possibilities one cannot deny they offer a positive assistance heretofore underutilized in the field of catechetics.

Computers and new analytical methods are not in themselves the answer for solving the many problems of religious education. Much credit must be given to God’s grace. But grace works off of nature. I believe it is the nature of our times to improve our reflective thinking powers. I further believe it is the nature of mankind always to be on the prowl for new methods of conceptualization. In taking nature for what it is, and working with it for what it desires, I feel I am somehow mysteriously cooperating in God’s grace. I also feel I have been blessed in making my contribution to religious education in this manner.