Teaching the Rite Way

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Students in the Liturgy of the Church class at O'Gorman High School study the Rite of Penance over several days in a process that involves "understanding" through reading the Rite, and "doing" by actually scripting our Advent or Lenten celebration of the sacrament. Details are given in this short article straight from a teacher's classroom!

Mix a little ancient Chinese with some fifth century Latin and you have "the rite thing" for teaching sacraments. Let me explain.

I hear, and I forget.
I see, and I remember.
I do, and I understand.

--Ancient Chinese proverb

Someone shared this saying with me early in my experience as a religious educator, and it has encouraged, guided, corrected, and renewed me at every turn. The American Heritage Dictionary defines to do as "to create, invent or compose" and to understand as "to grasp or comprehend the meaning intended." Doing and understanding, creating and comprehending are partners in the dance of authentic learning. Add the maxim: "Lex orandi, lex credendi. . . . The law of prayer is the law of faith (no. 1124, The Catechism of the Catholic Church)," or more simply put, if you want to know what the church believes, listen to what the church prays. If we want our students to grasp the meaning of the sacraments, we need to let them hear the prayers and help them create their own.

Students in the Liturgy of the Church class at O'Gorman High School study the Rite of Penance over several days in a process that involves "understanding" through reading the Rite, and "doing" by actually scripting our Advent or Lenten celebration of the sacrament.

Comprehension begins with students naming everything they know about the sacrament. This opening discussion generates a knowledge bank, a record of the things they already know. Strengths, weaknesses, and misperceptions come to light in the next movement. Students use actual copies of the liturgical material from the book The Rites of the Catholic Church (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1990), limited for practical purposes to the Decree, parts of the Introduction, and the entirety of Chapter II, the Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution. Working with these sources, and equipped with the question, "What do these prayers tell you about what we believe about this sacrament?" students make additions and corrections to the knowledge bank. The students' insights are always rewarding. They refresh prior learning, noting that the sacrament is rooted in the paschal mystery. They discover that despite a popular tendency to see Reconciliation as personal, the Rite emphasizes the relation of the sacrament to the community.

Contemporary students express tremendous confidence in a forgiving God; theirs is not the juridical God of my childhood who tallied my sins, thank goodness! But when they revisit contrition, "heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed along with the intention of sinning no more"(no. 6a), they note that God's graciousness doesn't license them to act willy-nilly and then pop into church for absolution.

The Rite directs the next step, the planning of our communal celebration. The directives (no. 24) give three-fold instruction for selecting the readings: they are to be a call to conversion, a reminder of the paschal mystery, and a light for the examination of conscience. Chapter IV of the Rite lists some one hundred possible readings with key phrases to help in narrowing the choice. A sense of the church season further informs the process. Bible in hand, students work in groups to choose one or two readings and a psalm. The groups present their choices and explain why these readings would be effective for our community.

Once the readings are settled on, we follow paragraph 26, which instructs that the word be the starting point for the examination of conscience. The tone becomes more reflective as together we listen to the Scriptures, perhaps several times through. Students jot down words and phrases that touch them in particular. They need not know exactly why, but they are to allow the Spirit to name the lines that they most need to hear.

We share the words and phrases, compiling a list of those that seem most powerful. Five or six surface as key. From here we build the examination of conscience. For each phrase, every student journals ten questions that the reading poses to them. I later work up a composite examination from their contributions.

These questions were written by students in response to Matthew 3:3, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths":

  • Have I used this Advent season as an opportunity for growth in my relationship with God and others?

  • What obstacles do I place between myself and God, making the distance between us greater--false gods such as drugs, alcohol, jealously, fear, cheating or inappropriate sensuality?

  • Have I sidetracked myself or others by giving in to temptation or pressuring others to go along?

With the selected readings as a guide, the students pick from the prayer options in the Rite. Music is planned. Often, the class adds a symbolic gesture to accompany the reading and question session.

Finally, the liturgy students conduct the celebration, proclaim the readings, and lead the student body in the examination of conscience that they have prepared. For most, this is their first opportunity to lead prayer, and many have commented that it is a growth ex-perience.

Comprehending and creating with the prayer of the church, these students learn about the sacrament of Reconciliation the rite way.


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Published October 1, 2000.