On the first Sunday this year, I opened with interest a small insert in our church bulletin. It was a plan for a full year of family worship. I was excited. My many years of homeschooling have left me with an instinctive appreciation of pre-made plans. I studied it carefully. On one side of the page there was a list of Bible passages, with the goal of reading through the whole New Testament in a year. On the other side, a list of catechism questions to memorize.
It didn’t look intimidating. The first few months are going to be especially easy. We know these questions already. As I turned the small pages, however, I realized that there will be new questions soon and, at that point, we will need a stronger commitment... and I was actually quite content to go without new resolutions this year!
I have lived through enough new year resolutions to know what a lasting commitment requires: a strong motivation, good planning, and lots of patience.
I became absolutely convinced of the importance of catechisms several years back, during a casual conversation with a relative on the importance of reading the Bible. I was in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) at that time, still fairly new to the Reformed faith, and was helping my children to memorize the Shorter Westminster Catechism.
In the course of our discussion, this relative asked me a familiar question, “What does the Bible teach?” Years earlier, I would have been fumbling for an answer. I might have given a generic reply, “It teaches about God,” most probably reinforcing his belief that he had already grasped that message. This time, instead, the answer came effortlessly, “It teaches what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” (cfr.
His interest perked up. “What duty does He require?”
“Obedience to His revealed will, the moral law, which is summed up in the Ten Commandments.” (cfr.
As the conversation continued, covering man’s inability to perfectly keep the commandments and the answer to that problem, I realized that most of his questions were in the catechism, and I had answers - not only ready, but written and revised with amazing precision and care by godly men of old. Besides, these answers kept our conversation focused on relevant issues rather than generalities. More than ever, I wanted to pass on such an effective tool to my children.
Most of us are familiar with Dorothy Sayer's 1973 essay on "The Lost Tools of Learning," which decries the loss of clear answers and definitions in progressive education while advocating a return to the medieval trivium (grammar, dialectic, and logic). I see this loss quite frequently as an Italian instructor. While older students are a little rusty in their study and memorization habits, they have a tremendous advantage because they have studied grammar with its proper definitions. They can easily understand why the word molto, which means both “much” and “very”, changes its ending when it refers to nouns but is invariable when it refers to adjectives or adverbs. Their minds immediately relate to adjectives as modifiers of nouns and adverbs as modifiers of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. When I talk in these terms they nod, while my younger students look absolutely puzzled.
I found the same need for definitions in my Sunday School class. A few years ago, when teaching 1st-3rd graders, I realized that in order to facilitate our communication and impress specific notions, I just had to use words like justification and sanctification, and the catechisms provided clear definitions. There was no way around them, just as a school teacher needs to explain to the class the definitions of "polygon", "triangle", and "equilateral", so that they can talk about an equilateral triangle without having to repeat each time that they are referring to “a flat shape with three straight lines, all of the same size.”
With the help of the catechisms, children can understand theological definitions quite simply. It is also reassuring to a parent or teacher to know that, when talking about realities like faith or providence, they and their children can have a common understanding of their meaning.
Katharine Olinger, a baptized member of Calvary OPC,
Marti Calderaro, a 16-year old baptized member of Chiesa Evangelica Riformata Filadelfia in
Marti began studying the Heidelberg Catechism about a year ago. She had never learned a catechism before, but didn't find it difficult. "It has been fairly easy, because our pastor, Andrea Ferrari, explains it very well."
Besides, learning the catechism as a family has other advantages. “It has set up an environment where theological questions come up naturally as we cover the various questions and answers,” said Roy Lopez, elder at Christ URC in
A Plan and a Method
We all know how quickly new resolutions become discarded when we don’t plan how to include them into our lives. That’s why the insert I found in our church bulletin is so helpful. The portions are well marked and within reach - a long catechism question or a few short ones every month. It's a very simple plan, and some families may choose to go beyond it.
While churches using the
“At the end of every year I try to plan what the family will do next in our devotions,” he explained, “something that can be done in one year. Several years ago we memorized Colossians which broke down into roughly two verses a week. It was great because we had the context and the rhythm of the whole passage. The Catechism seemed too long to memorize in a year (comfortably). So I went through all the questions and answers and broke them down into what I figured we could memorize per week. Sometimes it will be one or two per week and sometimes it will take two weeks to complete a long one. We mainly practice at night at the beginning of family worship but sometimes we practice in the car while we travel."
Just the fact of memorizing together day by day, week after week, brings results. Some parents, however, have come up with creative ways to "spice-up" catechism memorization. “Last Spring, I used it as penmanship practice,” explained Donna Link, a homeschooling mother of ten from
Margaret Laning, a homeschooling mother of eight from
"Some are more auditory learners," she continued. "I have a friend who had her kids record themselves saying the questions and answers on a tape or CD-recorder and then listen to it over and over. Doing both is great. Some other kids are kinesthetic/tactile learners. They seem to enjoy working with index cards. I have also heard of some cutting out footprints and writing parts of the lesson or verse on each foot, and taping it to the floor. The next part of the verse or lesson is on the foot ahead, and then another foot ahead of that. So, they read out loud the lesson as they jump from foot to foot. I have never tried that, but some younger children may really enjoy it."
There is a large variety of activities and games that can be used in catechism memorization. Often, it's possible to modify an activity or a game suggested for academic learning or for Bible memorization. My children and my Sunday School students have a few favorites. Once they mastered a catechism answer, for example, I asked them to say one word each, going around in circle. When one makes a mistake, he or she is out. This works well in large groups. Parents and teachers, of course, participate in the game, and they are often out sooner than the children.
A variation of this, still in large Sunday School classes, is dividing the class into two groups, and dividing the white board so that each group can go up and write one word of the catechism answer at a time. It's like a catechism relay race. To win, a team has to get the whole answer right, not just finish first.
Ideas to motivate and inspire the children are countless. Of course, there is always "candychism" (a word apparently coined some years ago by Rev. Leonard Coppes to describe the practice of rewarding children with candy for memorizing catechism answers). "I am not a big fan of 'candychism,'"
Katharine, on the other hand, loves the idea. "I wish my parents used candychism! They had the same kind of thought, only instead of little things for each question, they gave a big privilege for saying the whole Shorter Catechism in front of the session. For example, when I finished, I was permitted to get my ears pierced - something I had been wanting for quite a while."
The goal, however, is not only to motivate the children to memorize but also to help them to understand what they are saying, and that can be done, in small ways, even with younger children.
Being a logical thinker, I have usually tried to break down the catechism answers for the children, memorizing one section at a time, and sometimes drawing diagrams on the board to emphasize the organization and progression of thought. For example, in HC21, the first two sentences describe one part of faith, the next two another part, and the last sentence shows three things we believe God has given us, and three ways in which He has given them (freely, merely of grace, and only for the sake of Christ's merits). I have found this useful with the long paragraphs typical of Puritan writers.
To help the children to understand the meaning of difficult words, I have tried to use them repeatedly during the same lesson (or the same day, if we are at home). For example, since most children don't know the meaning of "merely," I explained that it means "only," and then used it often in my common interaction with the children, by saying, for example, "we have merely five minutes left."
"I try to relate each question to something that was said in a sermon or something that has happened to us recently or to the children in school," said
Catechism vs. Scripture Memorization
The most common objection I have heard to teaching the catechism to young children is the obvious need to give a strong foundation of Scriptural knowledge. The concern is quite founded. Some Reformed children today are well versed in the catechisms and basic theology but are unfamiliar with biblical narrative and find it difficult to find passages in the Bible. What we often forget, however, is that the catechisms were never meant to be a substitute for Scriptures. On the contrary, they were to be used in synergy with a thorough study of the Bible, the preached Word, and pastoral instructions. In particular, the Puritans who wrote the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity were steeped in Bible knowledge, which permeated every facet of their lives, and they expected other Christians to be likewise.
For most of us who are far from the Puritans' devotions, striking a balance between catechism and Scripture memorization can be difficult, but it is again a matter of planning, including both in our family worship or Sunday School curriculum. In this respect,
“Memorizing the catechism is a great way to learn the doctrines of Scripture: it teaches theology in a very succinct way,” said Donna Link, a home-schooling mother of ten from
Used in synergy with the Bible, the catechism becomes all the more valuable. We can memorize Matthew 10:29-31 and Luke 21:18 and find comfort in the promise that every hair of our head is counted, or Romans 8:28 and know that all things work together for our good, but when we see those verses in the context of HC1, and are reminded that those same promises are given to us because we belong to Christ, in virtue of His sacrifice and in conjunction with the great benefits of forgiveness of our sins and deliverance from all the power of the devil, those words become much weightier and firmer in our minds.
This school-year, I have been teaching the trials, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ to my 4th-6th grade Sunday School group, using the Heidelberg Catechism alongside each lesson, as an aid both to emphasize the overall importance and meaning of the Bible account and to notice the significance of often neglected details, such as the mention of Pontius Pilate in the Apostles Creed and the relevance of the cross as instrument of death.
One of the most comforting thoughts I have learned as a parent in a Reformed Church is that we are just to do what we are commanded and let the Holy Spirit work in our children’s lives. We take our children to public worship every Sunday, let them hear the preached Word, and prepare them to receive the Lord’s Supper. At home, we have times of family worship and learn the catechism together. It sounds reassuringly simple.
Whatever our plan may be for memorizing the catechism as a family, whether we set a very approachable goal of one or two questions and answers per month, to allow for the unexpected and to give more time to review, or we take up the challenge of memorizing it all, small steps are easier to maintain at a regular pace.
"We memorize a different line pretty much every day and by Saturday or Sunday we recite the whole thing together," explained
With these affordable steps, Kristen Lopez,
By now, the Lopez family has discovered that their persistence had paid off. "What started as a decision has become a discipline and is now our habit,"