Model teaching after Jesus, the master storyteller

By Beth Donze

Catechists at Catholic schools and parishes must continually ground their teachings in the awesome message that Jesus and his church are summoning their students to a “delicious banquet,” said Thomas Groome, addressing parish and school leaders in religious education and formation at the Summer Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership, held in June at Loyola University.

But to do this, these educators must be able to recognize and share the joy of the Gospel, tap into the deepest desires of their students and present the material in a persuasive rather than a coercive manner, said Groome, an author and professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.

Joy of the Gospel

Catholics are making strides in sharing the joy of the Gospel – by stepping up their reading of Scripture – but there still is much work to be done on teaching what Groome calls “the canon within the canon” of our Catholic faith – the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine.

“The centrality of historical Jesus is somewhat new to Catholic consciousness,” Groome observed, noting that while Catholics say his name all the time and can spout the definitions of mysteries such as the Trinity, “the carpenter fellow who walked the roads of Galilee” is not nearly as accessible as he should be.

For example, the Nicene Creed leaps straight from how Jesus was “incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man,” to “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

“It leaves out his life,” Groome said.

“I think we have to re-fix our eyes on Jesus, and I think we very often will find him in the bread lines,” Groome said. In short, those involved in religious education must form their students to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and not just give them a “sentimental feeling” of religiosity that is ultimately shallow and fleeting.

The art of storytelling

But how is this to be accomplished? If Catholic education and formation is centered on the person of Jesus Christ, what are the implications of this in parish and school life? How does it shape what is taught and how it is taught?

Conveying the joy of the Gospel given to us by Jesus means becoming better storytellers, Groome said, pointing to Jesus’ intentional and effective use of vivid parables.

“The word of God is alive and it is effective. It is the greatest story ever told. Sometimes we forget that and we just teach away,” Groome said.

“Every article in the Creed has a big story behind it, so tell that story rather than just the formula,” he added, urging the educators to deliver their lessons in the mode of the one who is receiving them, not from the lecturer’s perspective. He encouraged the teachers to experiment with different classroom approaches, such as giving students a 10-minute talk followed by a brain break and small-group discussions.

Teachers also should not be afraid of changing up a Gospel’s narrative, Groome said. He said one of the most effective lessons he ever taught as a high school teacher was re-telling the story of St. Peter’s denial of Christ from the perspective of the rooster. The rooster grew so tired of Peter’s lies, the animal spoke up – crowed – when the apostle disowned Jesus a third time.

Franciscan Brother Benedict Kelley, the director of religious education (DRE) at St. Joan of Arc Parish in LaPlace, said he often must remind his students that the stories of the New Testament, although amazing and often strange, are not fictional.

“Sometimes we forget to say that,” Brother Benedict said. “We have to remind them that they’re true, and not just stories we are telling.”

Effective strategies offered

The catechists in attendance shared how they shared the joy of the Gospel with their students.

Wanda Ashley, the DRE at St. John Evangeline Parish in Plaquemine, said youth mostly are craving a sense of belonging, purpose and want to rest in the knowledge that they are loved.

“In the Gospels, Jesus wanted all of us to belong – one united church,” Ashley said. “One strategy I use is to have my students look at one another, and I tell them, ‘That’s your neighbor.’ There has to be a broader sense of what neighbor means. The Gospels give us the opportunity to illustrate agape – unconditional – love. You do not have to earn it; it’s there.”

Ashley said her students’ “circuits are blown” because of their heavy schedules and being too often left alone.

“We’ve lost something in our emphasis on education and extra-curricular activities – a thread of our faith, because parents are the first nurturers of the faith,” Ashley said. To counter this, she asked her students to join with their parents in locating a photo of the day they were born and to look at the face of the person holding them.

“I tell them, ‘You were loved then, you are loved now, but life just gets hard,’” Ashley said. “Sometimes (parents) get so caught up in the survival, they forget they are not communicating those things of the heart.”

Ashton Cagnolatti tries to engage the hearts of his students at St. Stanislaus by reminding them of how Jesus elevates the status of young people – something radically different from Jewish culture at the time – by rhapsodizing about children’s faith some six times in the Gospel.

Frances Moody, a teacher and campus minister from Point Coupée civil parish, shared an easy lesson she uses every year: she has her seniors teach a religion lesson to the kindergarten classes.

“Every year they say their most significant learning experience was being with those kids,” Moody said.

Jesus leads the way

There is much to be learned from “teaching as Jesus did,” Groome said, offering ways teachers could model their own pedagogical styles after those of Jesus.

  • All are welcome to the table. Like Jesus, teachers and administrators must create a welcoming, inclusive and respectful community in their classrooms and throughout their campuses, Groome said. Jesus was distinctive for his “radical inclusion” – his outreach to ostracized groups such as the poor, women, children, foreigners, the very poor and the very wealthy. “The Samaritan woman at the well had two strikes against her: her gender and her nationality,” Groome notes.
  • Jesus was also known for not coercing non-believers to believe, but for humbly “bringing them along in faith,” Groome said. Christ empowers his pupils by allowing them to see things for themselves. “It’s fascinating how often he says to people, ‘Your faith has saved you.’ Never once did he say, ‘I have healed you,’” Groome said.
  • Like Jesus, teach justice coupled with compassion and mercy, with the knowledge that Christ desires an abundant life for everyone. Always remember that he came to call sinners and was more pleased when people showed mercy than sacrifice. Teach with a focus on “to all what they need, not just what they earned,” Groome said. “We have to try to model that more in our schools, in our parishes, in our pedagogy.”
  • Faith should be presented as a “living faith,” a whole way of life. Recall that Jesus described his message as “fresh water” that is never stagnant and that quenches the thirst of all ages.
  • Catholic educators must teach based on the basic premise of the innate goodness of the human person.
  • Jesus met people where they were, engaging them in their places of work, in their timidity and in their infirmity. Think of the fisherman, the scribe, the tax collector and the woman caught in adultery, Groome said. God reveals himself to us through all creation, all walks of life and all academic disciplines, he added.

The institute was co-sponsored by the Loyola Institute for Ministry, the Office of Religious Education and the Office of Catholic Schools.

Beth Donze can be reached at

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