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Teaching change needed, ND theology chair says

Davis Rhorer, Jr. | Tuesday, October 9, 2007

If some students find it difficult to engage in catechetical study, hearing doctrinal lessons from a peer teacher might solve the problem, the chair of Notre Dame’s theology department said Monday.

John Cavadini addressed ways to revitalize teaching theology, including the two-year Echo faith-formation leadership program. The program aims to allow new students of Catholicism to connect with other young people in the faith.

Cavadini spoke to a small audience, consisting primarily of theology students, in the Oak Room in South Dining Hall. He stressed the importance of having a clear belief in Catholic doctrine – rather than simply a distant knowledge.

“What’s at stake is the revelation of God’s love to us,” he said.

Experience in high school and college theology classrooms indicated to Cavadini how little U.S. students understand of Catholic doctrine, he said. He singled out poor instruction from parish catechetical programs. The age difference between students and their catechetical teachers – which averages 55 years – does not always facilitate classroom connections.

The Echo program is designed to train Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students during the summer to become catechetical ministers for other young students. The program’s period of mentor training in an area parish will allow the students to be sure of themselves in their teaching, he said.

“If you want to teach someone, the best way is not to hand them a piece of paper, but to live a life that is so transformed by the creed,” Cavadini said, emphasizing the method of teaching he hoped his program would provide to elementary students.

He elaborated further on the difference between knowledge and belief – and stressed that good instruction does not mean simplifying doctrine.

“Watering [doctrine] down is different from making it accessible,” Cavadini said.

Cavadini asked the audience about fundamental differences between living the faith and holding personal subjective views of it, a problem that he said is also an issue with modern interpretations of Catholicism.

“Catechesis must grant access,” he said. “It is the laying of information that is also formation at the same time.”

He joked about the difference between truly believing something in one’s heart and engaging in impersonal “cocktail party” conversation.

“One of the most salient features of our undergraduates is that they don’t know much about the Catholic faith,” he said.