Sunday, January 31, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #1: My First Catechism Lesson

Seminal events shape our lives and set us on a path. This is the story of one of those moments as I remember experiencing it.

Dad told me that it was time for me to begin catechism classes at St. Edward School. I asked, “What is that?” He said, “You will learn about God.” This seemed like a good idea, because I didn’t know much about God. Now I could learn. I was six years old.

On the day of my first lesson Dad took me to St. Edward School. He accompanied me to the school office. Someone else escorted me to the classroom and introduced me to my catechism teacher, Sister Mary Luke.

Sister Mary Luke was seated at her desk. She looked different. She wore what I would later learn is a habit, the garb that Dominican Sisters wore at the time. Sister also had freckles---like me. She asked me some questions, like my age, the grade I was in, my name, address, and telephone number. I hesitated when she asked for my telephone number, because I didn’t know it. So she said, “It’s important for you to know your telephone number. Learn it and tell me next time you come.” Sister also mentioned that I had missed the first catechism class, so I would need to "catch up." Then she gave me a little grey catechism book and assigned the desk where I would sit. It was the first desk in the second row from the windows. I liked it 'cause it was right up front.

I sat down with my little book and peeked around to see the other children. I recognized two of them Pat Gutting and her brother Danny. They also went to Palmer School. Pat was a year older than I, and in second grade, and Danny a year younger. I soon learned that the children in this classroom were mixed ages and grades ranging from Danny Gutting in kindergarten to some who were in eighth grade. It was like a one room schoolhouse.

I paged through the skinny, plain, grey-covered book. I saw lots of letters and words inside, but I didn’t know how to read yet. So I closed it and waited. I looked around some more. I noticed a very large statue, which I would learn latter is a depiction of Mary as Our Lady of Grace. She was stepping on a big snake. In front of the room I noticed the American flag and a crucifix. We had a crucifix in our house.

Soon it was time for the lesson about God to begin. Sister Mary Luke stood up and took her place in front of us. She wore a long, creamy white dress with a black belt. Her hair was covered with white material in such a way that only her freckled face showed. On top was a black veil with a white lining. The top of the veil was heart-shaped. When she turned around to write something on the blackboard, I saw the back of the veil was very long and pleated. It came to a point below her waist. All sorts of interesting things hung from Sister Mary Luke’s belt. She had holders for a watch, like a pocket watch, a pencil/pen, and keys. There was also a long, long rosary that hung from her waist nearly to the floor. The rosary beads rattled when she walked. I thought she looked nice. ☺

Sister Mary Luke looked at the girl sitting next to me, on the window side, and asked her, “Who made you?” I thought that was an interesting question. The little girl said, “God made me.” I was very surprised to hear her answer. I scrutinized her carefully, because I wanted to see what someone God made looked like. Sister Mary Luke asked the next child the same question, and this one answered the same way. One after another was asked the same question, “Who made you?” One after one they answered in turn, “God made me.” I was amazed, almost overwhelmed, to think all these kids were made by God. I began to wonder who made me.

Then, it was my turn. Sister asked me, “Who made you?” I looked right at her and told her I don’t know. No one had ever told me. I guess I had never asked or even thought about from where I had come or how I was made. I honestly did not know. Sister gave me that same look as when I didn’t know my telephone number. I thought, “I better find out who made me.”

After every student---about 40---had answered that first question, Sister Mary Luke asked another, similar question. “Who made all the people in the world? Here was another good question for me to contemplate. But I didn’t do so for long, because student after student gave the answer, “God made all the people in the world.” Although I was still a newly minted six-year-old, my powers of deduction kicked in. “If God made ALL the people in the world, then God made me!”

This revelation, this insight, filled my little mind and heart with wonder and awe. I was excited to think that God, too, made me! I visualized God making me. I somehow saw him taking a head, and arms and legs and putting me together, sort of like a doll, but alive.

Next I found out that God is a “Supreme Being who made all things and keeps them in existence.” I knew this meant that God was very important and special, even if I couldn’t fully fathom the notion of “Supreme Being” or “existence.”

By the end of my first class session of religious instruction I had also learned my destiny and the meaning of my life---the reason why God had made me. “God made me to show forth His goodness and to share with me His everlasting happiness in heaven.” Sister Mary Luke talked to us about heaven and about happiness. Heaven is where God lives, and when we get there we can see God face to face. And heaven is a place where it is happy all the time. This idea of being happy all the time certainly attracted me.

Next I learned that to get to heaven “I must know, love, and serve God in this world.” So, this was why I would be coming to catechism classes. This was the place to “know” about God. I didn’t yet understand there was another kind of knowing that would lead to the loving and serving part. But a new “vision” had emerged for me. This was faith. My faith came alive. Hearing the answers to all those questions about God resonated within me. I was sure it was true, and I accepted these truths with joy. Faith comes through hearing. (cf. Romans 10:17)

This knowledge of God fired my very young imagination, and I think it was the beginning of my consciousness of a spiritual life. I began to understand that God knew who I was and that He cared about me, and I really wanted to know more about Him.

When that first class session was finished, I took my little grey catechism book with me and followed the children to the front door of the school. Outside there were what looked to me like hundreds of grown-ups waiting. I looked for my dad’s face, but I didn’t see him. Panicking I started to cry. I thought he had forgotten me. I didn’t know my way home. Someone---one of the bigger kids---looked at me and said, “Don’t be a cry baby.” I felt embarrassed. In a few seconds Dad was there. What a relief.

In the car I told Dad everything I had learned about God. From then on he helped me with my catechism lessons. There was a lot of "learning by heart" in those days.

I was very fortunate to have a father who was thoroughly schooled in Catholic thought and who could explain the difficult concepts to me, like “Supreme Being” and “existence.” He could also answer my questions about God, of which I had many, in a way that I could understand. My enthusiasm for my faith grew. I couldn’t be more grateful.

I know from experience that young children are capable, with the guidance of faith-filled parents and teachers, to understand the mysteries of God. It’s a real deprivation when parents procrastinate or deprive their children of developing this relationship.

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