Tried and true… and back

From time to time I have heard… always from liberals… that children shouldn’t be made to memorize when they learn.  They claim that, because children don’t "understand" what they are memorizing, memorizing is counterproductive.
Baltimore Catechism

The collapse of Catholic education was accelerated by, inter alia, the move away from memorization.

Thus, I was pleased to pick up from Ten Reasons that the wonderful Baronius Press has reissued The Baltimore Catechism.

Once upon a time I was called in to a hospital where a man in in his last minutes.  He had a hard death.  The old man’s daughter, fallen away, was very bitter, very angry and she unloaded on God by unloading on me. 

I tried to impress on her that he had lived a good life in an earthly way and now his life would continue, but in another and better way.

She was having nothing of it.  She was focused on the bad experience as he was dying.

She eventually fumed "Why did your God do this to him?  Make any of us at all if this is what happens?"

I responded: "Why did God make you?"

She paused.   The light bulb went on.

"God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven."

Someone had taken the time to drill that into her, and it was still there.

What had been buried for decades, memorized as a child long before she could "understand" what it meant, was there and ready for her in the moment she needed it.

Yes, I am in favor of children memorizing things.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. bookworm says:

    Of course memorization alone without understanding was not a good thing, but as in the example you cited, memorization insures that the knowledge is there when it finally does “click.”

    Memorization is also something children and adults on the autism spectrum, like my own daughter, tend to be very good at.

  2. Denis Crnkovic says:

    Memorization puts things in your memory so you can remember them. And memory, as some theologian or other once said, is a key component of Wisdom.

  3. worm says:

    I still remember my St. Jospeh Baltimore Catechism books.

  4. TNCath says:

    It’s nice to hear about the revival of the Baltimore Catechism. Yes, memorization is extremely important for retention of information. While kids may not understand what they are memorizing at first, in time, as Father Z. said, “the light bulb” will go on eventually. Unfortunately, in this high tech day and age, memorization is becoming a thing of the past. Nowadays, people don’t even memorize telephone numbers (much less the Truths of the Faith) because they are stored in their cell phones. With over 20 years of experience in the classroom, I have seen a direct correlation between the rise of technology and the decline in retention of knowledge, which also adds to the growing number of students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It’s time to get kids off the computer, off their cell phones, and back into books. The Baltimore Catechism is a good place to start.

  5. MarieSiobhanGallagher says:

    Amen to the concept of memorizing things!! As a math teacher, I find that those students who have not taken the time to memorize multiplication facts (and many other things that should be understood – then MEMORIZED) are woefully disadvantaged to those who have. True, some students may require more effort, but when they have those facts safely stored in their heads, students are FAR more successful with fractions and just about everything else to come. Certainly, it is important that the student understand where the numbers come from (i.e. 3 eights add to 24, thus 8×3= 24). But eventually, just memorize that!!!
    When I attended Catholic elementary school in the 70’s and 80’s, we used the Baltimore Catechism as a visual aid rather than memorize parts of it. As an adult, I endeavored to memorize it and it has certainly served me well in many instances. I am all for memorization!

  6. TJerome says:

    I’m not a professional educator but it is my impression that memorization is an educational tool among many. So to dismiss it out of hand is a big mistake. I can still remember after 50 years questions and answers from the Baltimore Catechism. Why did God Make me? To know Him, to Love Him, and To serve Him..” Has the Faith changed such that this statement is no longer true? Tom

  7. Cathomommy says:

    Yup. Love to hear my two-year old lisp out the Hail Mary in Latin. Did he learn it in some onerous way, having it drilled into him on fear of punishment? No. He memorized it because he heard it every night, with his brothers. Memorization does not have to be accomplished through draconian measures. Educational liberals often don’t realize that.

  8. r.j.sciurus says:

    I have this edition and it is very nicely done. And thank you for the story. I pray that the seed someone (perhaps her dying father) planted years earlier that later went dormant, blossomed after your meeting.

  9. Hartmeister says:

    I would also note that the Baltimore Catechism (1-4) is available at on Project Gutenberg and can be downloaded to your Stanza e-reader if you have an iPhone. Of course you can any number of ebook readers to read these wonderful works of the Church.

  10. gloriainexcelsis says:

    Amen to memorizing. I also agree with the mathematical reference. When my children were not taught the times tables, they became lost in math. How many today rely on their calculators, because they can’t do the math? I remember my Baltimore Catechism from some 70+ years ago. It has, thank heaven, had a resurgence, and for the sake of my family I have Baltimore Three to pass around. When we had to memorize poetry in school, besides learning the great poets, it trained the mind. I’m still memorizing to stay sharp. The same principle applies, as I have said before, in storytelling to small children. Don’t dumb down the vocabulary. The words will stick and later be understood when seen on the printed page. Memory is a vital necessity. It needs to be trained and kept nourished. By the way, how many of us today can recite the Six Precepts of the Church, or the Four Cardinal Virtues, or the Corporal and Spritiual Works of Mercy and so on? We DID memorize them long ago.

  11. Marlon says:

    I am convinced that memorizing the Baltimore Catechism when I was young not only planted important ideas in my head so that I could access them later, but it imprinted on my brain good vocabulary and sentence patterns. I think that the fact that our children do not memorize hurts their vocabulary and their writing ability as well.

    We use this the Baltimore Catechism in our CCD program at the Oratory of Saints Gregory and Augustine in St. Louis County. I am thrilled to be able to teach from it.

  12. capchoirgirl says:

    LOVE the memorization. When I was in seventh grade (at a Catholic school), we had “religion spelldowns” every week. We went around the classroom answering questions until there was only one person left standing. GREAT way to motivate memorization (and yes, I still remember all the titles of Christ in the Bible…and the different types of crosses…etc., etc.). Memorization is fantastic.

  13. MattW says:

    Catholic education wasn’t the only education to suffer because of the latest, “best” pedagogy (and even saying “pedagogy” can get you blackballed in some educational circles). As a language teacher, I get blank looks when I tell students that they just have to memorize verb endings. A few daring souls will come outside of class for recommendations on HOW (!) to memorize material as they’ve NEVER been asked to to it before. Even allowing for students’ typical hyperbole, it’s very telling.

  14. jmgarciajr says:

    The tenet among the educational bien pensees is that requiring memorization is to “drill and kill.”

    I have been a catechist since 1996, and have been using the Baltimore Catechism. When confronted with the verrrrrry specious argument that one shouldn’t memorize what one doesn’t understand, I reply that one cannot understand that which one doesn’t know. Understanding is like decor, knowledge like the masonry of a house. Without the former, it’s not a home, and without the latter, it’s just a useless pile of stuff in an empty field.

  15. Sandy says:

    Amen! I memorized the Baltimore Cat. – showing my age :) I’ve also heard the refrain from progressives that memorizing isn’t enough. The fact is, the adult or mature knowledge builds on the memorizing, fleshing it out. How many hours did I spend listening to my kids memorizing times tables! It’s always there!

  16. Thomas S says:

    Umm, what’s the significance of the “No. 2” on the cover? Is the Baltimore Catechism multiple volumes, or does that refer to a second revised edition?

  17. Christina says:

    Thomas S,
    I believe the Catechism comes in multiple volumes; I’m sure others know better.

    Also, I have multiple of my own that show the benefit of memorizing Scripture verses, and we all know how helpful memorized prayers are!

    Besides, memorizing can itself lead to understanding in SOME cases. My high school English teacher once ridiculed the Catholic Elementary schools for making their students memorize a list of prepositions. “What good will that do?” he asked. Which of the students in the high school English class could identify prepositions (even those that weren’t on the list they memorized)? The ones who memorized lists.

  18. Memorization increases brain capacity but more importantly, it “files away” information that can be retrieved later when it is needed. Understanding may not have been complete at the time of the initial memorization, but as in the case you cited Father, the light bulb does go on when it is retrieved later. Understanding is not always necessary at the time of the memorization. The human organism needs repetition to learn, and so too it needs time to understand it from a developmental viewpoint.

    Good on you for helping to trigger that response which at the right moment, was finally understood. As you said, “What had been buried for decades, memorized as a child long before she could “understand” what it meant, was there and ready for her in the moment she needed it.” Amen and amen.

    As Plain Catholics we also promote the memorization of Scripture which, in the moments when it is most needed, come to the fore and God uses that Scripture in ways that help us when we most need it.

  19. Daniel A. says:

    I’m a High School English teacher (in an American public school), and I think that memorization is a good thing. In fact, though “memorization” as such is much-maligned in educational circles, “vocabulary” is considered one of the most important things there is. And of course, in truth, learning vocabulary is memorization, specifically through repetition.

    I discovered the other day that I have memorized Shakespeare’s 18th Sonnet (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, etc.). I did not set out to memorize it, but I did read it with all five of my Sophomore classes, in addition to my preparation time when I read it and went over it to figure out how to teach it. About the fifth time I had to read it to the class, I found I didn’t need the book and could simply recite it.

    Then, I found I was having new insights about the poem: because it is in my brain and not just on a page, I can go over it any time I wish and consider every aspect of it. Memorization allows us to think. We have to have some material to think about, and the only material we have are the things we have in our memory. As far as I have heard, there is no “upper limit” to what the long-term memory can hold. The short-term memory can hold seven items (try it some time: find a willing partner and ask him to remember about twenty separate letters. He’ll remember probably the first four and the last three.) The long term memory does not have that limit to its capacity, so it isn’t like one wastes “hard disk space” by having sonnets, or the Baltimore Catechism, or prepositions, or baseball statistics, or anything else memorized.

    Now, I do have a student who claims to be able to willingly “delete” items from his memory, and he does so to “make room” for new information. I haven’t heard of any studies on that topic, so I’ll leave that alone for now.

  20. wanda says:

    I still remember some things from the Baltimore Catechism. A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace, e.g.

    As a kid, I probably had the notion that it was ‘our’ Catechism – located here, in MD, near Baltimore.

    Christina – I still remember my list of prepositions. It’s been a loooong time since we memorized them.

  21. Thomas S – See for what each of the volumes of the Baltimore Catechism are.

  22. lucy says:

    We just successfully got permission and had confirmed four of our LM community’s 12 year olds (well, one is actually 14). But, during the meetings (read – interrogations) we were told that the Baltimore Catechism is outdated and antiquated. The rest of us kept mum that this is what we use in our homeschooling of our kids. May God enlighten our priests who are immersed in the 60’s-70’s garbage. To the rest of our good priests, thanks for understanding our desire to teach the real faith in all it’s richness and beauty. We are so thankful that we were able to make a change where one was so desparately needed, with God’s help.

  23. hmschoolmom says:

    Lucy, I was thinking along the same lines. Neither the Baltimore or St. Joseph’s edition Baltimore catechism are on our “bishop’s approved” list. We’re forced to choose b/t the 6-8 really lame choices. Most of the homeschoolers I know use one of the Baltimore catechisms and those are the kids who are really learning our Faith.

  24. Papabile says:

    Yeah…. our Bishop tried to say the Baltimore Catechism was not allowed.

    I asked a friend who is a canon lawyer to write an opinion for me as to whether our Bishop had the authority to reverse a decision of a plenary council properly invoked and given recognitio.

    The Bishop relented, but only in my individual case, because he know I would be aggressive about it, and he wouldn’t ultimately “win”.

  25. Thomas S says:

    Oh, I see. The four numbers are age specific, but cover much of the same ground. Thanks, Jonathan.

  26. lucy says:

    hmschoolmom – yep, the choices are pretty much lame. Good luck in your quest for your children. I believe that we were able to make a change for our little community alone for the future. Our diocesan seminarian told me he thought we were all awesome to fight so hard to get what we knew was right. I think he sees the ridiculousness of it all. I could tell he had been privy to conversations within the parish office by his smile. He told us to keep up the good fight, and that we are a doing a great service to our children. There is hope for the future with the new priests who are up and coming. Thanks be to God.

  27. Curmudgeon says:

    I am a DRE and I make kids memorize things. But they don’t memorize anything that we don’t teach. Meaning, if they memorize the Apostle’s Creed in third grade, we go over all the articles of the Creed and make sure that they understand, as much as a third grader can, what we are saying.

    I’ve also discovered that memorizing old Baltimore Catechism questions and answers works, but we package them differently. For example, I have a whole work up (and suspense) before we tell the the “mystery of the meaning of the secret of life” in fourth grade. I.e. “Why did God make me?” It is the meaning of the secret of life. By the time it is ‘revealed’ they can’t wait to memorize it!

    So, we use all that memorization (and lovely full color certificates issued for each benchmark) aa a ladder on which we build the rest of the curriculum. They can spit it out, but they also know what they are saying.

    Teaching it by rote (and I learned a lot myself this way) is of minimal value. A more interactive and innovative approach that includes ‘learning by heart’ seems to work well for us.

    But, I’m the kind of person who thinks they should know the multiplication tables by heart. Our brains work. Why not program them?

  28. Kate says:

    Educated in Catholic schools in the 70’s and 80’s, I never saw the the Baltimore Catechism. Teachers talked about their “bad old days” with it; instead of being turned off entirely, I had a nagging sense of wanting to see that book. I was thrilled to learn that it was still in print and when I bought it for my children, I learned right along with them. It’s a great little book that makes many of the truths of the faith understandable. I love the drawings, too.

  29. TonyLayne says:

    Kate: I’m right there with you. When I worked fast food–an unfortunately long part of my resume–the younger people were in awe of me since I could make change in my head. I remember plenty of songs I sung in high school as part of the chorus, and as a member of a barbershop chorus, simply because we’d rehearsed them over and over again. But because the REs of my parish abandoned rote memorization, by the time I went through Confirmation I had little more than a passing acquaintance with the Faith. Fortunately, there’s a program available through called The Faith Database, which includes the Baltimore Catechism, though I may eventually spring for the books.

  30. Lee says:

    Memorizing the Baltimore Catechism was difficult and obnoxious, of that there is no doubt. I well remember the sickening fear that sister would call on me. I thoroughly understand the animus against it.

    The problem was, I believe, that instruction started way too late, at age 6 and 7. In her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers talks about children at “the poll parrot stage” when memorizing things is wholly delightful, and that stage is much earlier, in the years of language acquisition.

    In trying to compensate for the very weak preparation of my son for his First Holy Communion, we took him through the Baltimore Catechism. At one point he knew 26 questions and answers about the Mass as a sacrifice…but the dumbfounding thing was that so did his 4 yr old sister who had been listening in.

    No, if I had a four year child now I would not drill her in the catechism, but my wife and I would drill each other in it, with my daughter playing with her dolls in the same room. And she would learn it as well. Children want to learn! As Dorothy Sayers put it, “The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things.”

    I am convinced that when Stephanie entered First Grade at St. Joan of Arc School she knew more about her faith, far more, than its graduates from 8th grade.

  31. Margaret says:

    What had been buried for decades, memorized as a child long before she could “understand” what it meant, was there and ready for her in the moment she needed it.

    Bingo. Memorizing the BC is certainly not the completion of a child’s religious education, but it is a darned fine foundation. And when some of the “fancier” elements of religious education have gotten dusty or fuzzy, having something basic but solid to fall back on is irreplaceable.

  32. Lee says:

    Just a few more words…

    We had for many years a program of family reading that included memorizing the Baltimore Catechism. Since it was the most important thing, I insisted that we do it first, but the kids were very restive and wanted to get into the next chapter of the Chronicles Narnia, or The Swiss Family Robinson. Then one night to accommodate them we read Narnia first and suddenly it was time for bed, 9PM.

    “Okay kids, off to bed you go!”

    “Daddy, daddy, daddy, couldn’t we please, please, please stay up and study the Baltimore Catechism!” they said jumping up and down. Anything to stay up late.

    I was the deer caught in the headlights and really did not know what was happening. Were they putting me on? But no, they were too young and innocent…so I “reluctantly” agreed. And I allowed myself to be badgered into studying the catechism for many evenings after that, you may well believe.

    What joy! What delirium. I would gladly spend my eternity with my children on either side of me listening to the Chronicles, doing the Baltimore Catechism. It was utterly, utterly glorious.

  33. Joan A. says:

    The DRE at our small parish, after going thru the assorted drivel recommended by the diocese, finally made the bold decision to use the OLD St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism books to teach the children. There was a stack of them buried somewhere. The first thing that became apparent was how uneducated many of the teachers were, some converts. Good and sincere, but they had never had this complete presentation. The second thing was the surprise that the children liked them, the now-nostalgic pictures and drawings appealed to them as a refreshing break from TV and computer screens. The third interesting response was from the parents, who found them sensible, logical and easy to use. The only unsettling thing was one couple who were “shocked and dismayed” to find we were using materials “outlawed at Vatican II”! I believe they even threatened to report us to the Bishop, ha ha, that would be interesting.

  34. TCistercian says:

    What I remember, at age 64, from the Catechism question I memorized in the third grade (56 years ago): “Why did God make you?” “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, so that I may be happy through Him in this life, and with Him forever in Heaven.” Yes, I believe there is value to memorizing what we might not completely understand.

  35. Daniel_Nekic says:

    Yes, I’ve seen these books on their website. I intend to purchase them when I get married in 2 years in anticipation of many wonderful children who will use these books well, under my fiance’s and my careful tutelage.

  36. helgothjb says:

    I agree that memorization is a great tool in acquiring wisdom. St. Thomas Aquinas memorized the whole Bible! One does not get far in philosophy or theology without memorizing the four causes, the difference between ends and means, the definition of nature, and all sort of other definitions that aid one when thinking deeply about numerous topics. We tried the BC, but it left us flat. Our son knew the answers, but I found some of them deficient (gasp!). Plus, they did not seem to do quite as good of a job provoking thought about the material or follow a systematic presentation. So, we abandoned them in favor of a book called St. Patrick’s Summer and Catholic Family Land’s ‘Family Catechism’ (for which they have an interactive website with videos from Cardinal Arinze, excellent drawing, etc.) It has question to memorize, discussion questions, wonderful drawings that teach the catechism through art, and more. So far, we are very pleased. Onward with the memorization.

  37. Good! We’re all agreed: Memorizing can be good.
    Now, how to get started…hmmm. Pick up a copy of a wonderful and fun book for adults about the memorization techniques which St. Thomas Aquinas himself used. You can Amazon this one: MEMORIZE THE FAITH, by Kevin Vost, Sophia Inst. Press, Manchester, New Hampshire, 2006. Hours of fun and laughter with friends and family have made this one of my favorites. I hope this helps. Also, memorizing is a great way to pass the time during ‘Snowmaggedon’s.

  38. eulogos says:

    I grew up in an unbelieving family in a very Catholic town. The school had ‘released time for religious instruction’ on Tuesday, when all the Catholic kids-there would be 3 or 4 kids left in the classroom after they were gone, were bused down to the church for catechism. These were working class kids who were not really very into school and studying, but they were in awe of the nuns, so on Tuesday morning, they quizzed each other on their catechism on the bus on the way to school. Therefore, I too, grew up learning the answer to “Why did God make me?” Later in my life I sometimes remembered it with a thought like “If only that were true!”

    A now very serious Catholic who is 20 years younger than I am told me that she grew up Catholic having no idea whatsoever that Catholics believe Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. She learned this from a Baptist who was telling her about what crazy things Catholics believe! She told him this wasn’t true, and went home and asked her husband, also raised Catholic, who didn’t think it was true either. So they looked it up. She was so shocked she stopped taking communion while she thought about it.

    My jaw dropped when I heard this story. Didn’t everyone know that Catholics believed in the real presence?
    I couldn’t remember not knowing this. I didn’t know it in any deep and integrated way; I couldn’t recognize eucharistic imagery in literature or movies, for instance. But I knew it as a fact, because of those Baltimore Catechism sessions Tuesday mornings on the school bus. I also heard from my friends that only the hands of the priest could touch the host, and that the floor was scrubbed if one were dropped.

    One of my young friends explained to me about “the temporal punishment due to sin.” Sister drew a circle on the blackboard-that’s your soul. She made chalk marks on it, those are sins, blackening your soul. She erased them, that’s what happens in confession. But there are still these smudges, eraser marks, and it will take purgatory to get those off. Now this may not be very theological, but it was quite a bit for a young elementary school student to have any idea of.

    I also distinctly remember sitting on the grass in my backyard when I was very young, while a friend tried to teach me to say the Hail Mary in Latin. I knew these Catholics had something very special and mysterious going.

    In contrast, my own children’s total content from years of church religious ed programs seems to have been “Catholics have to be very very nice to people” “Jesus was a man who loved everybody” ” the eucharist is our family meal as Catholics” -I really can’t think of anything else they learned. It certainly wasn’t awe inspiring or mysterious. It didn’t inspire respect.

    When I became Catholic, I read all sorts of things. But one thing I did was to read the Baltimore Catechism, whose phrases all seemed so familiar, although I had never actually held one before.

    Susan Peterson

  39. I love to read the “New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism No 2”. I read it daily with sections from “My Daily Bread” too. Children need this to learn the faith and adults too.

  40. rinkevichjm says:

    It’s also in the CCC: 1721 God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so to come to paradise. Beatitude makes us “partakers of the divine nature” and of eternal life.[21] With beatitude, man enters into the glory of Christ22 and into the joy of the Trinitarian life.

  41. Geoffrey says:

    The Baltimore Catechism was long gone in my youth, and yet thankfully I turned out okay, but I do intend on using it with my own children one day.

  42. Melody says:

    Amen, that was such a moving story. Also, I was terribly behind with math until my grandma hired a tutor who worked almost completely with memorization.

  43. smallone says:

    I’ve already found the St. Joseph First Communion catechism to be helpful with my five year olds. We don’t really need to drill them because the “cheesy” pictures help them remember the concepts.

    The Baltimore Catechism is, IMHO, an essential adjunct to most parish religious education programs these days!

  44. The Cobbler says:

    Of course, but let’s not annoy the heck out of them by focusing on memorization without explanation or, worse yet, teaching them watered down substitutes for understanding (yes, I know that’s stereotypically a liberal thing, but I’ve seen it happen with conservatives and would like to mention it in the general context of education). They will never memorize things like they should if they hate you for making them repeat things you won’t let them understand.

  45. Rachel says:

    Oh, wow. What a great story! Thanks for sharing it, Father.

  46. Snappy says:

    Oh, how I wish that I’d had a chance at the BC! But alas, CCD was to be my curse that would take many years as an adult to rectify. Then I found the BC online somewhere one day, and many things clicked into place for me.

    One time, at some catechism meeting or something several years ago, I had sighed about wishing I’d had the BC as a kid, and a cranky rabid Boomer N.O. advocate just about melted in rage. I replied, “Why is learning the Catechism ‘by rote’ bad when the answers are *right*?”

    A lot of buh’s and errr’s followed, and finished with a harrumph. Reminds me of when I defended the TLM by saying that it should be and should always have been on the same footing as the NO (this was before BXVI made it so)… the same meltdown by a person in the same age group, just a different place, time, and topic. What are they so afraid of?

    Thank you, Father.

  47. cruckdeschel says:

    Father Z and others,

    I encourage all of you to take a look at the Classical Liberal Arts Academy: My children are enrolled. This academy uses the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism #4 for Catechism instruction. My children have learned a great deal about their faith through this program. Also, knowing their are many Latin enthusiasts here, you may be delighted to find a program for Catholic children that has literally recreated, with today’s technology, a classical liberal arts education that the Jesuits used to offer! The children start with Nichomachus’ Arithmetic, Latin Grammar 1 with prelections from chapter 1 of St. John’s Gospel, etc.

    Thank you Fr. Z for all that you do!

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