Parents are the primary catechists

Echoing the Faith - Dr Steven Selvaraju

Apr 19, 2024

In the previous article, I highlighted the role that parents play in the faith formation of their children. In this article, I will examine further why the Church calls parents the “primary catechists” of their children.

An individual’s deeper attitudes are formed primarily in early childhood
Studies by certain experts suggests that a child learns the Catholic faith the same way he or she learns other things. Intellectually, the most rapid rate of growth of a child takes place before the age of four years. By the age of six, or even earlier, the child’s basic personality, emotional life, moral conduct and basic attitudes and values, including those towards God and faith, are formed. The subsequent experiences which the individual undergoes merely reinforce or expand deeper one’s attitudes and values.

Generally, a child learns certain attitudes and values early in life and these persist throughout his or her life. Deeper attitudes acquired in childhood can rarely, if ever, be reversed or extinguished. These attitudes can only be reinforced, given new significance or expanded to take on different colorations. Therefore, what is taught in the parish catechism can match no more than one-tenth of parental influence on an individual’s basic attitude structure.

In addition, most of the attitudes which an individual holds conditions a person’s approach and subsequent response to life values in later years. Attitudes also condition virtually all learning, including religious education. The differences in what individuals learn, as well as the rate and amount they learn, are often due as much to their individual attitudes as to their intellectual ability. As far as catechesis is concerned, children forget in a relatively short time much of the facts, concepts and theories which they acquire in catechism. The attitudes they learn, are lasting.

The family as the “first school of human values”
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) Pope Francis calls the family the “first school of human values”. He states that most people learn basic attitudes and values in childhood which become deeply rooted that they remain throughout life. Many people think and act based on what they learned from their earliest years (274). According to the Pope, the family is the primary setting, “...where we first learn to relate with others, to listen and share, to be patient and show respect, to help one another and live as one” and “how to live alongside others who are worthy of our concern, our kindness and our affection.” (274).

The Pope mentions that it is in the family that faith is first handed on to the young generation. In spite of current lifestyles, work demands and the complexity of today’s world, the home must continue to be the place where we learn “to appreciate the meaning and beauty of the faith, to pray and to serve our neighbour” (AL, 287).

This highlights the importance of parents as the primary catechists of their children and the family as the key setting for catechesis. It is parents who exert the principal and deepest influence of faith on a child. The home is where the first catechism lessons are taught and learned. As such, parents must not see their role as merely delegating the work of catechesis to the parish or to think that they are to supplement the work of the parish catechist. Instead, it is the work of the parish catechist that supplements the work of the parents and family.

Avoid the mentality of delegation
Imagine that there is someone who skips three basic meals daily and depends only on dietary supplements to survive. What will happen to him or her after some time? Basically, he or she will grow weak, gradually experience severe health problems and may even die. Now, let us apply this analogy to catechesis. What can happen to a child’s faith if his or her parents consistently delegate the major responsibility for the faith formation of their children to the parish catechist, expecting the latter to provide the “three basic meals” of catechesis, while they see their own role as providing the “supplements”?

The parish catechist meets a child for about an hour a week. In the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, for example, a parish is expected to have 32- 34 catechetical lessons per year. If the lesson is for one hour, and a parish has 34 lessons, then in total, the child attends catechism for about 1.8 days in a year. If this figure is multiplied over 12 years (from ages 7 – 17 years), it means that a child attends about 21.6 days of catechism in 12 years. That’s about 21.6 days out of about 4,380 days! Basically, it means a child spends less than 0.5 per cent of his or her time attending parish catechism in 12 years.

If this is the case, how much difference can the parish catechists really make, even if they do their best at every lesson?

Therefore, it is parents who have to provide the “three basic meals” of catechesis, to their children. The role of the parish catechist must be regarded as “supplementary”. The parish catechist is basically a reinforcer or amplifier (to expand) of the parent’s work in faith formation. It means that the parish catechist helps enhance (by refining and giving new meaning) the individuals attitudes and values learned from the parents and family during the earlier years.

It is not my intention in this article to blame parents for their lack of commitment for the faith formation of their children. As I have stated repeatedly, the responsibility for the ministry of catechesis falls on the whole Christian community. However, parents have to understand that they have a fundamental role in the faith formation of their children. While they can rely on the parish to assist them in this task, they can never completely delegate this responsibility to others. They are the first and principal faith educators of their children.

The key ideas of the article are presented a simple illustrated format below. The illustrations are my own.


(Dr Steven Selvaraju, STD, STL, holds a Doctorate in Theology with Specialisation in Catechetics and Youth Ministry from Pontifical Salesian University, Rome. He serves as Director of the Archdiocesan Catechetical Centre, Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.)

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