ASK FATHER: Catechizing apathetic children

From a reader…


Do you have any advice on catechizing children who have an apathy for the faith, and whose family come to Mass, but that’s it there is no teaching going on in the home. The kids I teach at the church are in 5th-7th grade and don’t even know how to make the sign of the cross. I am some what demoralized by this.


I’m hearing this constantly – people are reluctant to get involved in teaching catechism at the parish because the kids are so uninterested/unprepared, or the parents undermine ever lesson the teacher tries to get across. I think what’s needed in many places is a shift in focus – CCD teachers need to think of themselves as evangelists – almost imagine that they’re introducing kids to the faith for the first time, and that they’re the only one’s from whom these kids will learn the faith. I think of the opening scenes of the movie “The Mission” where Fr. Gabriel goes up into the mountains to the pagans who’ve just crucified the last missionary sent to them. Yet, he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t run away – he draws on the strength of the Holy Spirit and dives right in. We truly are in a culture that has largely shrugged off it’s Christian identity. We can no longer think of handing on the faith the way our grandparents and great grandparents did. We have to think like missionaries.


I wonder to what extent interest is being squelched by the power of the little screens kids stare at all day long.

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  1. An Opus Dei bishop was once asked how to go about getting kids lost to the aggressiveness of society interested in the faith.

    Response: Offer Holy Mass better.

  2. guans says:

    Reminds me of the time Mother Angelica fell into similar circumstances with a group of 1st and 2nd graders:
    (start at the 33:00 mark)

  3. Kathleen10 says:

    We have to take the opportunity God has given us to try to effect the culture. In the states, we are a divided nation, almost right in two. God must have known this would happen, since He gave two categories of people in scripture, sheep and goats. He didn’t say sheep and goats and cattle.
    Right now, we have a temporary reprieve from the brink. It is a time for getting involved and doing our little part to change the culture. If the kids are ignorant, teach them. If your message is rejected, teach it anyway. But I don’t think it will be. Young people often act disinterested but come around and remember and love what they learned later. In CCD, you get to transmit the reality of God’s majesty and power and interest in our lives. If they can understand that God is far more powerful than any superhero or game figure, yet still concerned with their lives and even died for them, that is compelling to many children. Even more important than information seems to be that overall sense of that reality. If children can understand He holds the sun and the moon in orbit but still loves them personally with a burning love, and hopes they come to love Him as well, what child can resist that.

  4. pjm88 says:

    You have an ally particular to each child, who can put light into the heart of that child, and request and give strength from God: call on the Guardian Angel of each child. He can also drive away the evil spirits from the little dev… darlings.

    If St John XXIII, back when he was a papal nuncio, dealing sometimes with Nazis and Commies, would call on their guardian angels, why not here?

    But most important: a deep spiritual life. That great book “The Soul of the Apostolate” (bedside book of St Pius X) was originally written for catechists.

    Fr Paul McDonald

    P.S. I spent most of my time not doing RCIA, but E.R.C.:
    Emergency Remedial Catechesis.

  5. Chiara says:

    This subject hits very close to home for me. Why not enlist the childrens’ Godparents if the parents will not do their duty?

    I have 3 lovely Goddaughters. Goddaughter #1 is also my niece, 18 years old, and lives in Istanbul with my sister and her husband, a Muslim. My sister and her husband have estranged themselves from me, and she has been a very lukewarm Catholic all her adult life. I have very little hope or expectation that my Goddaughter was brought up in the Faith. But I pray for her daily and request Masses to be prayed for her intention. It isn’t much, but God listens.

    Goddaughter #2 lives nearby. Her parents are divorced. Her father is a Pentecostal who has relocated down South, and regularly pesters her to “become a Christian and be saved.” Her mother is a hit-and-miss Catholic. She believes, but she does not always take her Catholic duties seriously. Because there is no support from her ex, she has to work a swing shift. Fortunately, her elderly mother makes sure my Goddaughter gets to Mass regularly, and I have emphasized that I am always ready and willing to do so if Grandma cannot. I was also her Confirmation sponsor, and we had a really delightful time preparing for her Sacrament with the other teenagers. Whenever there is a service project at my parish (decorating the church for Easter or Christmas, preparing supplies for the homeless, etc.), I always enlist my excellent Nicole, and she loves doing it. She is a sensible, thoughtful girl. For the time being, all is well.

    Goddaughter #3 is a joy. She is 8 years old, a recent Mexican immigrant. She is living with her Aunt and family because her father died and her mother cannot afford to raise her in Mexico. Also, it is healthier here – their water had lead in it, and she is suffering losing her teeth and weak gums because of it. When she was being prepared for her First Communion, her aunt asked me and my husband to be Flor’s proxy Godparents. In Mexican culture, Godparents are vital to a child’s spiritual upbringing. We are very honored and blessed to do so. My Flor regularly leads the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet, in Spanish and English, for adults and children at my parish and our sister parish. She has a very trusting and vibrant Faith, thanks to her good aunt.

    As a godmother (or comadre, in Flor’s case), I am always gratified to be asked to help in any way with my Goddaughters, spiritually or otherwise. Perhaps there is some way the parish priests could request the assistance of Godparents when they see the children in catechism classes are ill-prepared. I know it is awkward for the priests to ask, but this is really important – childhood is short, and it is easier to pass on the Faith to children before they are absorbed by worldly culture. After all, as I look at it, being a Godparent is a lifetime commitment to the spiritual wellbeing of another soul. I think many Godparents feel the same as I do.

  6. kiwiinamerica says:

    Don’t take them anywhere near traditional liturgies.!! They’ll get sick and become “rigid”!!!

    C’mon, Father. There’s a large elephant in the room about which you’ve so far, said nothing. We’re waiting with baited breath…………

  7. Chiara says:

    Sorry to monopolize your comments, Father, but I wanted to add a bit more.

    I am not a parent, but I have noticed that at many parishes, especially those without parish schools, there is little activity for children until they are college aged. I think it keeps the children engaged if they are given jobs to do to support the parish and parishioners. It helps them to focus on God and on their fellow parishioners.

    Only so many can be altar servers, but there are other ways to include the children. As I mentioned above, they can be asked to help clean and decorate the church, assist in feeding the poor and preparing supplies for them, leading prayer, such as the Rosary, and other small, supervised duties around the parish.

    Over the years, I have been involved in various activities at my parish, and there are often ways the children can help. Invariably, with encouragement and supervision, they take their jobs seriously and even look forward to them. I always told the children that the other parishioners complimented the good work they do and how much they are needed and appreciated.

    It helps keep the children connected to the parish and ultimately to God to know they are needed and missed when they are absent. They look forward to being at the parish and coming to Mass. At least, this has been the case in my experience. It does not replace catechism and PSR classes, of course, but it does help keep them interested. They look forward to being at the parish and they come to know the other parishioners.

    Just a thought, and again, I apologize for going on so about this. It is a subject close to my heart.

  8. dahveed says:

    I teach fifth graders about the Faith. I think you’re probably correct about the little screens, although I believe a number of things are allowed to assist. And as you’ve said regarding liturgy, certain things make a huge difference. When little reverence is displayed, the children learn from that, f’r instance.
    To the person who has asked about this, try to look at it this way: you may be the proverbial link in the chain that helps one particular child to grow up to do a certain thing, whether it’s honoring the call to the priesthood, or simply following the Faith throughout their lives to the best effort they can make. I was a child of the sixties and seventies, who fell somewhat away from the Church for several decades, partially through my own stupidity, but also because greater effort was made in, well, Arts and Crafts than teaching me the One True Faith. When I returned to the Church, I had to read everything I could, and still pore through whatever I can. My own work with fifth graders is entirely in hopes of helping them avoid my mistakes. While I am truly grateful that I didn’t suffer the sudden, unprovided-for death, I would do any and all that I can to help those kids not to have to worry about that. So, if Jimmy has never prayed the Rosary, and Susan needs your help understanding Purgatory, remember that your efforts might be the remembered thing that pulls them through in a time of trial. Keep the Faith, and give them the background you can, to help them do the same someday.

  9. VARoman says:

    I can speak to this as a catechists for my daughter’s 7th grade CCF class.

    I am a traditional Catholic. I prefer the EF of the Mass. I am the only catechists that is requested by the kids every year.

    I have a class full of kids that are, at times, apathetic, uninformed, disillusioned and distracted. I fight this (seemingly successfully) three ways:

    1. I do not lecture, we discuss, openly. I set the agenda, provide background from the Gospel, then draw the kids into the discussion by asking their interpretation/understanding.

    2. Every class has a heavy dose of living Christ’s mandate. We have open, student lead discussions about how to live the Faith in the world today. This seems to give the kids ownership over their expression of the Faith by determining, for themselves, what is the Catholic response to modern society.

    I do not limit the discussion in anyway. We tackle issues the kids bring up. So far this year we have discussed “gay” marriage, abortion after rape, “transgender” people and an entire class devoted to examining each of the Presidential candidates from a Catholic perspective.

    As a caveat to the above, I am in constant communication with the parents about what we discussed in class. I have never gotten a responses of concern.

    3. Lead by and with examples. Two weeks ago, I took the kids over to the Chapel. I made sure all knew how to enter a Church, the importance of silence, then I lead them through some of the finer points of the Mass. I stressed how it makes more sense to worship ad

  10. VARoman says:

    Sorry! Hit the wrong button!

    I was going to say, stress how ad orientem worship makes more sense and how we have lost the gift of silence in the ordinary form.

    Finally, I draw from examples from my life. Three weeks ago I asked the kids to think about how I can help my nephew (a pot smoking, unemployed faithless young man). The experience was astounding.

    Good luck and keep at it!

  11. Ipsitilla says:

    I used to teach catechism to 5th graders, and agree wholeheartedly with what both priests said – we kept having to confiscate the little screens just to get through the lesson!

    One additional thought: the director of our catechism program extended the evangelistic approach to the parents too – some weeks there was a meeting before class for all the students, catechists, and parents, and the director would have one group of children lead everyone in praying the Rosary together. She made a point of using every interaction with the parents to gently evangelize them as well.

  12. MrsMacD says:

    Parents need catechism too.

    Send them home with catechism movies!

    Give them little treats, medals, Holy Cards, McDonald’s has the right idea, most kids love simple
    prizes and kids will come back for more

    Talk to children individually, listen to what they have to say, play with the children, if they think you love them they will love you and take everything you say to heart.

    Read about St. John Bosco’s method, it’s invaluable

  13. lhibou says:

    Your addendum goes far to explain the problem, Father- but not just the kids’ noses on those screens…

  14. Iggy75 says:

    I have taught 7th grade Religion five of the last six years. The best thing you can do is remember that you are a witness, like the watchman in Ezechiel. Witness first that YOU are serious about faith, then that you know what you’re talking about, and that you clearly care for them as your students.

    Teach religion as a subject, not as a feel-good art-and-drama-therapy-sort-of-thingy. The catechism is not supposed to be as demanding as chemistry, but have tests and writing assignments with requirements comparable to what is asked in English and social studies in your school. That tells kids: this is serious stuff, so take it seriously.

    Make sure your room looks Catholic. Crucifix? Images of Mary and the Saints? Or do “no bullying” and other self-esteem and be-nice posters dominate? Do you treat prayer reverently and expect reverent behavior at Mass? Please don’t retreat before any kid-agnostic grumbling. Just say: “Whether you believe God expects respectful behavior from you, have not doubt that I DO!”

    Alway give the Catholic answer when there is one, whether in religion, science or anywhere else (and don’t damage your credibility by giving one where there isn’t or where the Church allows prudential judgment, especially in political questions). Know what you’re talking about. Field questions from your non-Catholic kids respectfully, but don’t back down trying to avoid “offense”. No teacher would dodge the truth in mathematics or science or history, so why do that in matters of the True Faith?

    Finally, pray for yourself and your students and stick close to the Sacraments. In the end, you can’t save more than your own soul. Be a good witness and let the Spirit take it from there.

  15. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I don’t know how well it would work, but – Fr. Gabriel’s oboe! – I’d be inclined to try to find ways to share the varied riches of long, deep Christian identity: encouraging them to try ‘The Mission’ on their (bigger) little screens – or watch (some of) it together, ‘do’ a little Gregorian chant, organize a museum field trip (if possible). To be deeper in (Church cultural) history, might be to start ceasing to be so apathetic.

    Fr. Ferguson also makes me think how various early missionaries had to refresh and rebuild where there had been falling away.

  16. myfivefish says:

    As the mother of 5 (15-1), I beg: Please do! Many of today’s families and kids are being pulled in many directions and can use all the help we can get. We have added a family Angelus this year, and I was thrilled when my 15 yr old recited it from memory. It turns out this was a regular part of class with 2 of her 7th/8th grade school teachers. Those exceptional teachers have since moved to a non diocesan Catholic grade school; they are also the ones who led me to Fr Z!

  17. Janol says:

    In my experience I’ve found having (1) small classes of no more than 10 or 12 seated around a conference table, (2) all boys/all girls, and (3) using the Socratic method of posing questions, teaching “critical thinking” and leading to the teachings of the Faith, have been fruitful.

  18. AnnTherese says:

    Jesus loved the children, and taught the adults. Somehow this got turned around, and hasn’t worked so well for us. (That’s why RCIA has been successful.) I agree that evangelization precedes education. A kid can graduate from 12 years of Catholic education and know all the prayers, doctrine, etc., been fully initiated into the Church– but if their hearts aren’t on fire with faith, it won’t serve them or others much.

    Without a doubt, our kids’ lives and priorities are all wrapped up in cultural trends, such as the screens in front of them at all times, as Fr Z noted. If they aren’t passionate or even a bit interested in faith/religion, their parents are likely not so enthused, either. Sure, they might go to church, maybe pray grace before meals, but it takes more than that to nurture faith. Faith needs to be woven into every aspect of family life. Kids need to hear their parents living their faith, not just preaching it. Or forcing it down their kids’ throats.

    Take this divisive and hostile election season, for instance. Did your kids hear you defend a candidate in light of your faith? Great! But if they also heard you slamming the other candidate with ugly names and insults, then here’s what you accomplished: your child has learned more about hate than love. (“…And the greatest of these is love.”)

    Our Church needs to get adults excited about their faith, teach them effectively, help them apply it to everyday life, and empower them to evangelize and catechize their children.

    Religious education programs that aren’t family and multigenerational- centered do very little good, and can produce many “former Catholics.”

  19. THREEHEARTS says:

    Fr Z if you will allow my correction. It is not a little screen. It is the devil’s magic lantern.

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Fr Paul McDonald,

    I don’t know “The Soul of the Apostolate”, but find it is scanned in the Internet Archive: thank you for the tip!

  21. hwriggles4 says:


    I taught CCD for two years and I still substitute. I prefer middle school students – 6th through 8th grade. Why? This is an age where the boys in the class need to see good men who are walking the walk. Boys will be more attentive to a good male teacher who acts like a man.

    I have also been fortunate to have a DRE who doesn’t object to teaching The Baltimore Catechism (some of the CCD texts are wishy-washy), and although the kids didn’t know it, I do pull material from Fr. Trigilio’s Catholicism for Dummies.

    Good Catholic men, CCD needs your help.

  22. Ben Kenobi says:

    People reached out to me. Now I get to reach out to others. :) That the children don’t have a great understanding of their faith is the reason I started teaching catechism.

  23. jameeka says:

    When Bishop Vasa was bishop of Baker, Oregon, he did a 16 part series on the “Soul of the Apostolate” in case some of you adults want an extra source of learning along with the book.

  24. Sue in soCal says:

    As a long time teacher I can tell you that children, even teenagers, want to move, not sit, and one of the biggest motivators is CANDY! If you can get some activities in the lessons where the children move into groups for specific tasks or can move from space to space, they learn better. If you offer rewards – did I mention CANDY? – they will pay attention and learn. Oh! Did I mention CANDY is a great way to make things interesting and fun? Children will kill for CANDY! (Well, not quite that extreme but you get my point.)

  25. michael de cupertino says:

    With apathetic kids, go deep. Talk about martyrs, the Four Last Things, specific symbolic aspects of your church’s architecture — all real meat-and-potatoes truths of our faith. The beatitudes are shocking when taught right. Come to think of it, so is much of the Gospel. Try to convey how counter-cultural is the true faith.

    Also, invite questions and let them grill you (make everyone write down three on a slip of paper). I had to follow the somewhat lame assigned text, but I just ad-libbed the lesson, made them read the referenced scripture passages out-loud, and from the assigned text basically only used the short chapter-end quiz.

    I’ll second hwriggles4 — children need to see adult men taking the Faith seriously.

  26. MamaKid says:

    What I find demoralizing is the refusal of the PRIESTS to believe in the Catholic faith, have reverence for the Mass, and worship our Eucharistic Lord and Savior. Who’s evangelizing the priests? And how do we, when they refuse to listen or give parishioners the time of day? What do these priests do all day after one daily Mass, they disappearand are never available nor show up to teach CCD, RCIA, chaplain the KofC, etc. Why should kids care when the priests don’t and feed them garbage Masses? If I could take kids to a proper Mass even one Mass, as long as there’s chanting etc, I wouldn’t have to say a word as a Catechist. They’d be begging to learn: what is this? I want in, how do I join?

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