Intensive or Extensive Religious Education?

Why do parish religious education programs so often seem to be one-size-fits-all? Whether a parish’s program is dubbed religious education, faith formation, or good ol’ CCD, parish-based catechesis of children tends to be rather cookie-cutter. And the cookie that’s cut is usually just 60–90 minutes once per week.

Having worked as a parish catechetical leader for almost ten years, I have some sense of the challenges parishes face in religious education. Although my data is largely anecdotal and my experience is purely my own, I am confident that anyone familiar with the ecclesial landscape can relate. Large numbers of our students in parish religious education are not living a sacramental life because their families are not doing so. Mass attendance is low, and the only time most of the students go to confession is when the religious education program mandates. Many students don’t know basic prayers because prayers aren’t said or taught at home. Parents drop their children off each week and too often abdicate their own responsibility to hand on the faith. Many parents are, through little fault of their own, ill equipped for this task anyway. When we ask or require more commitment of these families, we often encounter resistance or even hostility. In response, what we require tends to be very little.

This is a bleak picture, but I think it is an accurate depiction of many of our parishes.

One major problem that can be all too easily overlooked is how, in the midst of this situation, we minister to those students and families who desire more. What of the dedicated parents who are intent on handing on the faith at home, who dutifully teach their children to pray, and who enthusiastically live the sacramental life of the Church? When these parents turn to their parish to assist them in their role of educating their children in the faith, it seems inadequate that usually all a typical parish has to offer is 60–90 minutes per week.

We hear the critique that our students are bored; that they don’t want to be at faith formation after a long day of school; that they already have homework from class and can’t be expected to do real work for their religious education classes. But what of those students who are academically gifted? What about those that have a desire to learn more about their faith? What about those who have been given a special grace of understanding when it comes to these matters? What do we offer to these students other than the 60–90 minutes alongside peers that don’t share their enthusiasm?

In short, why have we fallen into the rut of offering only one option for parish catechesis, an option that, frankly, tends to cater to the least common denominator? Where is the option for the students and families who actively desire to be disciples of Christ and who long to be challenged in their faith?

Perhaps we could benefit from some wisdom from the past. In 1947, the journal Orate Fratres (later to be renamed Worship) published two articles by Pius Parsch in which he contrasted intensive and extensive pastoral care.1 Parsch, a canon of the monastery of Klosterneuburg, was a pioneer of the Liturgical Movement in Austria, and is known for bringing the movement from monastic and academic circles to the ordinary people, fostering their active participation in the liturgy.

The early Church, Parsch argues, engaged in intensive pastoral care. Like a farmer who focuses all his attention and resources on a small plot of land, amidst persecutions the early Church cultivated a relatively small number of individuals of great fervor and dedication: “The yield, as we know, was very high—a group of Christians schooled in perfection.”2 With the conversion of the Germanic tribes, the Church’s pastoral care shifted in approach, like the farmer who devotes less labor and assets to a much larger piece of land. “Thousands of converts, indeed whole nations, were received into the Church and baptized at one time. Naturally it was impossible under the circumstances for the missionaries to give their converts anything more than elementary instruction in the faith. Pastoral work had to be extensive in character.”3 Extensive pastoral care, however, has the drawback of often calling for the bare minimum: “to go to Confession every year at Easter, to hear Mass on Sunday, and to abstain from meat on Friday. Whoever met these requirements was considered a good Christian.”4 This minimalist approach coupled with a juridical model of the Church meant that pastoral “success” was measured by numbers—the number of bodies filling pews.

This approach, Parsch says, shifted again prior to World War II, when pastors began to understand once more that the essence of the Church is found in grace. “Christians are not cards in a file case, but rather members of the Mystical Body of Christ, which finds its concrete manifestation in the parish.”5 With a shift in the understanding of the Church from organization to organism came again the ascendancy of intensive over extensive pastoral care, a movement which Parsch saw as instrumental in the Austrian Church’s survival through World War II.

Hence, Parsch called again in his day for a reinvigoration of intensive pastoral care: “It means that we must forget about our minimum program and insist upon the maximum.”6 Pastoral success should not be judged by the number of names in our parish registry; we should be “less concerned with number of members than with their state of grace.”7 This, he says, will require a different approach to the whole question of pastoral work.

Parsch argues that for the health and vitality of the Church, Christians need to be amply nourished by those essentials which he saw as lacking in his day: the Eucharist and the Bible. This reinvigoration, however, would need to take place intensively, not extensively. “It will be the work of relatively few strong and healthy individuals. This means, practically speaking, that each pastor must devote himself to the spiritual development of the elite in his parish.”8 We may balk at the use of the term “elite” in this context, given our democratic and egalitarian sensibilities, and perhaps it is an infelicitous turn of phrase. But the idea is only this: any pastor can identify those individuals and families in his parish who manifest a desire and willingness to live as radical disciples of Christ. Parsch’s suggestion is simple: “Now the call is for intensive care of the healthy and strong members of the Mystical Body.”9 This, after all, was Christ’s pedagogy, who gathered a small band of intimate followers, a group he formed intensively, who then in turn went out and converted the world.

Lest Parsch be misunderstood, it should be clearly noted that he is not suggesting this intensive care of the few to the exclusion or neglect of the rest of the Body.

Am I then to leave the ordinary run of Christians to their own devices and devote my efforts to a few who give promise of spiritual leadership? Certainly not. The pastor is the shepherd of the whole flock; he must ‘become all things to all men’ so as to save them all. But that involves being all things to the spiritually advanced, too. Certainly many of us, if we examine our conscience on the point, will have to admit that we have given such people too little attention.10

He sums up his point succinctly: “In every parish there should be some provision made for the guidance of those who seek to live the Christ-life more fully. Is such the case?”11

Parsch set a goal that I would suggest deserves our full attention today: “In the face of the modern crisis, we must in our pastoral work too set up a ‘maximum’ program. The so called ‘heresy of numbers’ has exacted too costly a toll. Better Christians in our parishes, rather than merely a large number, must be our goal.”12 Attention reader! That quote ought to be reread and given some consideration.

So, Parsch asks pastors to consider: “What can and must I do for those of my parish who are striving for perfection?”13 Of course, an answer must be prudent and strike a reasonable balance which considers every soul in the parish. In point of fact, however, Parsch suggests that the intensive formation of a few will have an evangelizing impact of the whole of the parish. “It is up to the pastor to train these elite Christians not as a separate little exclusive group, apart from normal parish life, but as the leaven within his parish.”14

Parsch was a luminary of the Liturgical Movement, so his concrete suggestions for this intensive pastoral care naturally involve the liturgical life of his parish, specifically the systematic forming of a small group in Scripture, the Mass, and the Divine Office. How, though, can these insights from the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement impact our approach to parish religious education?

Perhaps it’s time to consider a two-pronged approach to parish catechesis, one that is both extensive and intensive. Imagine families registering for religious education next year being offered two choices. “Option 1”: What is already done; what is usually in place at most parishes—the 60–90 minutes, once per week, with the normal expectations. But also “Option 2”: Religious education offered three, four, or perhaps even five days per week; highly trained catechists; more challenging textbooks; homework assigned and graded; quizzes and tests; participation in the sacraments assumed and required; greater parent involvement in the program and at home required; confirm students not at some arbitrarily determined age, but when they desire the sacrament and display the proper dispositions.

Will many choose “Option 2”? No. But why on earth shouldn’t we put forth extra resources and effort for those Catholics who wish to take seriously their baptismal promises and the promises they made at their children’s baptisms? Aren’t we supposed to “meet people where they’re at”? Often that phrase refers to those who are far from the heart of the Church. Can our religious education programs meet dedicated enthusiastic disciple where they’re at?

Obviously this won’t work at every parish due to very real limitations of size, interest, and manpower. But many larger parishes and clusters of parishes could easily offer more intense programs of catechesis for those who desire it. Catechetical leaders may have to get creative in new ways. Does this mean offering faith formation classes before school and working out carpooling? Does it mean grouping some grade levels instead of having a class and catechist for each grade?

I am convinced that if a parish offered these two options consistently for a number of years there would be a snowball effect. Those few families who engaged more deeply would act as evangelists for their neighbors and friends. The benefits of discipleship in their family and in their children would be visible, attractive, and contagious. These families would become a greater asset to the parish because the parish would be a greater asset to them.

With my own three-year-old son, my wife, and I will soon have to make decisions about his education. We know we are the primary educators of our son, and it is our duty to hand on the faith. When looking at the average parish religious education program, we’re left wondering what the point would be. What benefit would be gained from those 60–90 minutes if we’re really doing our job? I, for one, would warmly welcome a parish in our area offering a more robust faith formation program. I would readily volunteer my time in such a program. And I know I am not alone.

So, pastors and catechetical leaders, why not take this possibility seriously? Why not devote time and resources to intensive religious education? Why not try?

  1. Pius Parsch, “Intensive or Extensive Pastoral Care?,” Orate Fratres 21, no. 10 (September 7, 1947), 433–38; “Towards Christian Inwardness,” Orate Fratres 21, no. 12 (November 2, 1947), 535–40.
  2. Parsch, “Intensive or Extensive Pastoral Care?,” 433.
  3. Ibid. (emphasis added).
  4. Ibid., 434.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 435.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 436.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 437.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Parsch, “Towards Christian Inwardness,” 535.
  13. Ibid., 536.
  14. Ibid., 537.
Dr. Michael Brummond About Dr. Michael Brummond

Dr. Michael Brummond is assistant professor of systematic studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, WI. He holds an STD from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary.


  1. Avatar Peter Northcott says:

    All I’ll say is that I know of a whole movement which has implemented catechesis outside the Catholic Church. It is thriving and growing like wildfire: mostly initiated by the parents and the kids themselves.

    • Avatar Bill Beckman says:

      “Outside the Catholic Church?” Do you mean outside the formal programs or structures of the parish?

  2. Great article Mike. Option 1. The minimum, Option 2. The maximum. I know of many men and women who chose the maximum and now are in religious orders and the priesthood. And how many men and women choose the Marine Corps because they want the max. Give people a choice and they will surprise you.

  3. A factor that was not explicit in your essay is that of the need for good spiritual direction, for both parents and children. The descriptions of options 1 and 2 sounded to me to be excessively academic, lacking a rightful concern for the developing interior life of prayer, or life of grace in the soul. This interior life is intended to grow, beginning with the beginning of its life at Baptism – a life that affects the whole person and integrates all good catechesis. That is, a person could in theory could become an “expert” in scripture studies, Catholic doctrine and moral principles, right liturgical expression and multiple styles of prayer – and yet never discover God within, never experience His life within.

    So that would be a suggested addition to your new catechesis, which otherwise makes good sense. Thank you!

  4. Avatar Bill Beckman says:

    I commend the author for some good analysis and well-made points. I share his admiration for the work of Pius Parsch but think that Parsch would recognize the baptismal catechumenate as essential for effective renewal of parish catechesis. Parsch’s work, The Church’s Year of Grace (5 volumes) is a magnificent exposition of the liturgical life of the Church rooted in the catechumenate. Parsch and his fellows in the liturgical movement were key to the Council’s restoration of the catechumenate through the RCIA. The full flower of their understanding can be seen in the General Directory for Catechesis.

    When our bishops and pastors decide to fully implement the GDC provisions on the baptismal catechumenate at the center of all parish catechesis, we will achieve intensive and extensive faith formation.

    • You nailed it, Bill. We must rediscover the CATECHUMENATE!!! It’s all there in the documents, but we keep trying to pour it into the old parish wineskin. May the Lord give us eyes to see that he has already given us what we need in this time of crisis.

  5. Avatar brian ulmen says:

    Good article, I will bookmark for reference. It boggles the mind the lack of emphasis placed on teaching not just the children effectively in their Faith, but their parents. The parish has a golden opportunity to reinforce with the parents the church teachings that their children are learning in rel ed/ccd. I don’t mean reviewing the same material, I mean teaching the parents the adult version of Church teachings. While the little ones are in class, what do the parents do? waste time until class is over. Instead what the parish should do is hold the parent version at the same time. Use the deacons or an available priest, or even an approved catechist. its doesn’t have to be full up RCIA, but a focused discussion each week. But alas the parish priests claim no time, no budget, when in reality its no willingness to teach.


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