Beyond classroom faith

As a Confirmation (Form Five) catechist, I am the last official faith educator many of these teens will meet, unless they pursue religious studies or take an interest in catechetical matters.

Oct 15, 2021


By Karen Michaela Tan
In a world of instant communication, it is not unusual for permanently loggedon people like me to get tech fatigue. However, there is a ‘ding’ I look forward to every day at 3.00pm. It’s a notification from a young man, now in Singapore, inviting me to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet with him. He is often at work, so we text each other, “For the sake of His sorrowful passion.” “Have mercy on us and the whole world.”

It has not always been this way in the five years that we have known each other. Five years ago, a message alert from him at 11.00am (class began at 10.30am) telling me he would not be in catechism that Sunday, would be normal. He was the teen remembered by previous catechists for all the wrong reasons – from his disruptive behaviour in his First Holy Communion class to his relentless and repeated questioning about Church dogma and clerical abuse as a teenager.

As a Confirmation (Form Five) catechist, I am the last official faith educator many of these teens will meet, unless they pursue religious studies or take an interest in catechetical matters.

I don’t take my duty lightly. I sought my faith. I was not born into it. Although my mother is Catholic, my father, at the time of their wedding, was not. I was ‘denied’ Sunday school and convent catechism because my father said it was “better for me to choose my own faith than to have it thrust upon me.” I resented him for some time, especially because the Catholic girls who attended Mrs. Eunice Cheow’s Friday faith classes at St Teresa’s Convent in Brickfields would get a shiny 50 sen coin after each lesson!

But God’s ways are not our ways, and this came to light when, because of my insistence on becoming a fully practicing and partaking member of the Church, I embarked on the RCIA programme, which my then58-year-old father joined. He and I were baptised and confirmed together.

Having always known that I had the interior desire to know God fully, I understood how a pre-decided faith could have worked against me. Many teens don’t enjoy being in catechism. They have gone through 12, sometimes 13 years of enforced faith studies. The Boston catechism is fine for six-year-olds who parrot, “Who made me? God made me. Why did God make me? God made me to love Him, serve Him, and be happy with Him in heaven.”

But when hormonal fluctuations begin, and tweens get sucked into the business of online personalities, cyber bullying, and immersion into the sexualised nature of music and movies, many faith educators are not equipped to handle it. There is not enough training available to prepare our teaching laity for the hard questions they need to be able to answer when they are faced with rebellious, confused, hormonally-aggressive teens.

So, teens on the cusp of adulthood, sitting for the exams that, for many, determine the foreseeable course of life, continue to be taught by well-meaning faith educators who teach by rote, intent on syllabus completion amidst multiple Confirmation Mass practices, camps, and fundraisers.

Call me naïve, but I embarked on my faith educator life with the goal of helping my young adults see the gift that they have been given in their faith. I wanted to challenge them as they challenged me. I set out to answer their questions, no matter how hard they were. And I promised them that if I did not know, I would consult texts and Church documents and call on priests who did know.

I was not universally embraced. But I persevered. And by my honesty, and my sarcasm, compassion, humour, and street cred (who else had a catechist with a knife wound from working with drug-dependent kids?), I won most over.

And oh, how I gave. The friends I asked for favours: cash to sponsor the kids who could not afford Confirmation Camp fees, Grab credits for the teen whose single mother worked on weekends, a scholarship for the promising athlete. I held nothing back. I loved my faith so much that I wanted my students to see the joy that could be gained in the emptying out of self.

I wept over the ones who were so hardhearted that the love of God, which I tried to channel, could not soften them. I would despair until Scripture comforted me with John 17:12, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.”

As I taught, I was also instructed. I learnt that my place in the classroom was to do what I could to the best of my abilities. There was only one Saviour. And I was not Him. And therefore, I needed to accept it if I seemed to lose a few of the lambs entrusted to me. Because all things happen in God’s time, not mine. My objective was to tell these outliers that God would never give up on them, and that He would always beckon and call.

My Singaporean prayer mate was one of them. He decided not to be confirmed. He had too many questions and he was not sure. After a dismal SPM, he went to work as a mechanic in Johor. When he crossed over to Singapore, he realised what a market there was for his mechanical talent. While his contemporaries struggle through their degrees and the world after university, my boy is sending money to me for the teens who cannot make Confirmation Camp fees.

He plans to return to Malaysia in a few years to take care of the ageing aunt and uncle who raised him. He tells me he will enrol in RCIA, “I follow your style, ‘cher’”. With God there are no losses. Just waits.

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