Assistant Director, Notre Dame Vision
Coordinator, Notre Dame Catechist Academy
I almost don’t remember the days I would wake up early to watch “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” before kindergarten. I’d usually wake up right at 7:00am and run to the TV with just enough time to catch him picking out his sweater.
Before the days of Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO Go, I had one shot to catch the episode. Wake up too late, and I’d miss King Friday XIII presiding over the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
These days, almost any programming is available on demand. Plan your schedule around the most popular shows on prime time? No need. Want to watch all three seasons of House of Cards or Parks and Recreation? No problem. Now, any time is prime time.
Traditionally, prime time refers to the period when the most eyeballs are on the television, usually between 7:30 and 11:00pm. Prime time programming is designed not only to capture, but also to hold the attention and interest of the broadest section of viewership.
Advertisers have realized that more viewership and attention during prime time means greater exposure for their commercials. More attention increases the likelihood that they will have greater success educating (and convincing) us of the necessity of their latest products.Pedagogy experts have studied and applied the success of the “prime time concept” to classroom teaching. In the Notre Dame Catechist Academy, we have extended those insights to the task of catechesis.
In this piece, we explore how catechesis invites us to look at our fundamental identity as disciples, and how we train our catechists to grow in that identity using prayer in catechetical “prime time.” We have realized that prayer is the essential foundation that helps our students grow into disciples – both in the classroom and in the world.
The Concept of Prime Time
Like advertising, classroom prime time refers to the periods when the most students are paying attention and their capacity for retention is highest (normally at the beginning and end of each class session). Ideally, this is the time for teachers to share the day’s most important concepts. Catechesis, while seeking to make use of the “prime time concept,” differs from advertising and normal classroom prime time in that it moves beyond mere concept acquisition. St. John Paul addresses this in his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, where he writes that “the primary and essential object of catechesis is…the mystery of Christ” (5).
Since our goal is to direct students toward mystery, catechetical prime time cannot (and does not) focus merely on a rote rehearsal of important concepts.
The Role of Mystery
St. John Paul II does not use mystery here in the normal sense of the word, that is, to refer to something that cannot (and maybe will not) be known.
Rather, he invites us to think of God as a being so “other” that we cannot think of him in terms of concepts that can traditionally be mastered or comprehended like 2 + 2 = 4 or a² +b² = c². Rather, when referring to the mystery of Christ in catechesis, St. John Paul II seems to be directing us to consider God as someone who can be “infinitely known” rather than “not known” at all.
To put it bluntly, seeking to know God does not end in a formula. It ends in discipleship.
The Model of Discipleship for Catechist Formation
In the Incarnation, Christ reveals himself to us as a human person. The truth of the fact that God comes to us as a human person demands different catechetical formation.
Let me illustrate this by means of example. No matter how well we might know another person (our friends and family, for example), that person will always remain a mystery in some way to us. Try as we might, we will never be able to understand that person completely or know how that person will act in every given situation. Does that mean we turn away from our friends and family? No. People are not concepts to master. We would never say that we have “mastered” our friend John or our sister Stacey.
Proper catechetical formation in light of the mystery of Christ should follow in the same way, and the relationship between Jesus and his disciples can serve as a good example. Even though the disciples did not understand Jesus and his teachings all the time, they continued to walk with him. In walking with him, they gained strength for their own journey of faith.
As catechists, then, a relationship with the mystery of Christ looks like the journey of discipleship. Like those early Christians, we too should continue to place ourselves in Christ’s presence so that we can be open to the ways that we can grow in relationship and knowledge of him for our own journeys of faith.
St. John Paul II puts it this way, again in Catechesi Tradendae:
“The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (5).
In this way, we do not proclaim or merely rehearse a laundry list of Christ’s important qualities as we form our catechists in the Catechist Academy. Rather, we continue to invite them to grow as disciples, constantly inviting them deeper into intimacy with Christ, to probe the depths of his mystery in their lives and the life of the world.
Prayer in Prime Time
In the Catechist Academy, we turn to prayer most frequently as we invite catechists deeper into this life of discipleship. Pope Benedict XVI addresses the implications of this relationship during a General Audience address in 2011: “The main objective of prayer is conversion: the fire of God which transforms our hearts and makes us capable of seeing God and living for Him and for others.”
In the Catechist Academy, then, we follow this lead. Since prayer allows us to so consciously place ourselves in the midst of the presence and mystery of God, it is the focus of our catechetical prime time. We use intentions and Lectio Divina at the beginning and end of each class to help our students become more “capable of seeing God.” By meditating on the scriptures and inviting their deeper meaning into their lives, our catechists become more capable of speaking Christ’s truths not only in their classrooms, but as disciples in their everyday lives.
Without prayer, conversion toward discipleship becomes more difficult. If catechists don’t invite God’s truth into their hearts, they close themselves off from hearing the ways he wishes to use them to become disciples and to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).
For all of us too, making time for prayer not only gives us the time to share our joys and concerns with God, but the opportunity to hear his voice speaking back to us. When we can most fully hear his Word, we can then be more capacitated to act upon it (c.f. James 1:22).
In the Catechist Academy, prayer will continue to be the foundation of our pedagogy and our prime time. We have seen that a renewed focus on prayer will serve not only as the foundation for better catechesis, but for discipleship. When our catechists are better able to hear the echoes of God’s Revelation in their hearts, they are better able to respond as disciples, forming their students and themselves to be better citizens of heaven.