Holistic Catholic Education

By: Mike Van Vranken

Almost forty years ago, I heard someone respond to the question “what do Catholics believe” with the confident answer: “We believe it all!”  Over the years, and often resulting in confused looks, I have repeated this response myself many times. But what does “believing it all” really mean?  And, how do we “teach it all” to our children?

For me, “believing it all” means, yes, we believe in the Trinity, the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, prayer, the sacraments, the importance of ritual liturgies, the living word of God in scripture, and the doctrines and traditions of the Church.  But there is more. We also believe that the experience of all of this in everyday life is crucial to being a follower of Jesus. Unless we put legs to the doctrine, to the statements in the creeds, to the ritual of liturgy and sacraments; unless we allow these experiences to change us, to transform us, to cause us to be reborn every day, then we only believe part of the Catholic reality – not all of it.

It is a beautiful and holy moment to experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But, unless we then go out and experience Christ’s Real Presence in the people we live with, work with and meet on the street, and these experiences change who we are, we are failing to “believe it all.”  If I can see Christ in the communion bread, but cannot receive new sight to see Christ in the unemployed person who needs my help, then I really don’t “believe it all.” If I can experience God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but am not reborn into a new person and therefore I fail to forgive someone who has wronged me, I have missed the transformation God wanted in me.  Or, as St. Paul put it: “if I have all faith as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Cor. 13:2. For truly, to experience Christ in everyday life can only happen if we are living, changing and evolving into who we are called to be.  We don’t just memorize and know Catholic Social Teaching.  We are personally called by Jesus of Nazareth to live it.

Another aspect of “believing it all” is our personal, intimate conversations with God. Devotional prayers, such as rosaries, novenas, chaplets and more are part of our Catholic faith. They are good, holy and helpful to our life in Christ. Additionally, the spirituality of our Catholic identity also includes opening our deepest emotions, thoughts, memories, understanding, ideas and needs to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus did, we go away and not only talk to God, but listen quietly and patiently for his response. God is not somewhere out in another galaxy.  “He is with us and in us always” Mt. 28:19; John 14:23. To experience him is to fall in love with God so deeply that we take time for personal, sensitive and intimate conversations with him, which sometimes means sitting with him in silence.

Unfortunately, many of us do not learn this experiential following of Jesus, this transformational aspect of our Catholic faith, until we are adults. But what would happen if, in our PSR classes, in our Catholic School curriculum, we taught our young people how to contemplatively sit with God and then share what we experience with him?  Share our blessings, our gifts, our love and our very lives with those in the world around us?

What would happen is, we would change. That’s right. We are not called to change others. We are called to receive God’s grace to change ourselves. Once we are transformed into the new person God has called us to be, our living as Jesus lived will inspire others to be transformed as well. Consequently, this entire world, all of God’s creation and everything in it would be transformed. And, if we read the gospel stories, this is exactly what you and I are called to do.

As this new school year begins, let us allow ourselves to be transformed right in front of our young people; right in front of our school students. Let’s explain that knowing about our faith is important. But Catholics living our experience with Christ is who we are called to be. Let’s model for them lives of deep, intimate and unitive experiences with God.  Then, we can allow God to place the desire in their hearts to also be transformed. This could be the school year when we teach our children to truly be Catholics who “believe it all.”