In our society we force people to go to school for a certain number of years during childhood. Have you ever considered how strange that is? We’ve decided as a society that we want everyone to have a certain amount of education, becuase it’s better for them and it’s better for society as a whole. People who are educated more often live longer, get better jobs, have less health problems, go to jail less, and have more stable families. It was normal in the not too distant past, like all thoughout the 19th century and during the Great Depression, for children to begin working as soon as they could. We now consider it normal to put off working, and thus making money, and even to pay extra money to go to school, because it prepares us for life.
Religious Education, of course, is different. No one is legally forced to get religious education, at least in the United States. It’s something that we choose to do. So, why would someone choose to learn more about God, the Bible, and the teachings of the Church, for themselves or for their children?
There are some practical reasons. We want our children to be baptized, receive First Communion, and receive Confirmation. Without Baptism and First Communion we can’t fully participate in the life of the Church, and without Confirmation we can’t be Godparents. These are valid reasons, and I’ll accept any reason that gets someone in the door; however, we also want to convince people to continue with religious education after the formal classes end through spiritual reading, personal prayer, Bible studies, Catholic online resources, and, most important, Sunday Mass. Here are three reasons this is not just important, but necessary, for all of us.
If regular school is supposed to prepare us for life, then religious education is supposed to prepare us for heaven. We dedicate between 8 and 20 years of our lives to school to prepare for 80-100 years of life. The afterlife will last far longer than that, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll end up in heaven. The Lord Himself said, “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it! (Mt 7:13-14),” and “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth (Rev 3:15-16).” We can’t take our salvation for granted, but must “with fear and trembling work out your salvation (Phil 2:12).”
Learning more about God and growing in the faith will also help us in this present life, and not only in the life to come. The lives of the saints are evidence that living a life of faith brings great joy. It’s not an easy life. The spiritual life is about learning to set aside our own wants and desires and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in life, to follow God’s commands, and to follow the Lord’s example of sacrificial love. For these are the things that make life worth living and bring the greatest joy. Mother Teresa is probably the best example of someone who lived a life of extreme sacrifice for the sake of the poorest of the poor, and yet exuded such great joy and zeal for life. As St. Catherine of Sienna said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
We want to learn more about God not only to live a good life and get into heaven, but because we love God. When you love someone or something you dedicate yourself to it. If you have a hobby you spent time learning about it, practicing it, and sharing it with other people. If you love a person you want to spend time with them, learn about them, and work for their good. Practicing a hobby or being with someone you love is its own reward. These things, as good as they are, only reflect the goodness of God. In an even greater way God is Good in Himself. Love of God is its own reward, because He is the summum bonum, the highest good or ultimate goal, which we were all created for and without which we cannot ever be satisfied. This, ultimately, is why religous education must be voluntary, and why it must continue even after formal religous education classes have ended.
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Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.