No matter how determined I am to maintain a pristine desk and bookshelf, each semester’s end brings massive amounts of bulging file folders, paperclips, and books piled anywhere I’ve touched for the last four months. Sifting and sorting through copies of student handouts is one story, but I also needed to tackle my bookshelf—which not only was thriving with my own volumes, but strewn with library copies I’ve checked out over the course of the year. I have a special fondness for mid-century volumes, especially liturgical-catechesis resources, and regularly troll the library shelves to discover new treasures.
As I cleaned out my own shelf yesterday, I came across a volume I’d picked up earlier this year which, while later than my favorite period, came from an era with which I’m much more familiar: 1987. The volume was a religious education text designed for children from preschool through third grade and, as its introduction states, was intended to help children “express their thoughts and feelings in dialogue with God” through “activities that [would] help children see the meaning of the Christian holidays in their own lives.” This particular volume had fascinated me because of its title: Burlap & Butterflies. The big brown letters stretch across a (fittingly) burlap-patterned background, with one giant, fluttering orange butterfly hovering nearby.
As I stood in my office, reminiscently flipping through its pages, one of our theology majors walked by, and asked me what I was doing. I showed her the title of the volume, at which point her eyes grew wide. “Really?” she asked. “Why burlap?” As my student is interested in pastoral ministry, we began flipping through the pages together, and saw instructions for making construction-paper chain links, baking pretzels, and pasting cottonballs on cut-out cardboard sheep. And, perhaps proving my vintage, I noted that I had distinct memories of paper chains strung across my gradeschool classroom, of baking pretzels in the school kitchen, and of kids playing with glue while they were supposed to be sticking cottonballs on their sheep. But, as we paged through the book, suddenly, another gradeschool memory burst into my mind: I vividly recall crouching uncomfortably on carpeted sanctuary steps, watching puppet shows during Mass. Lots and lots of puppet shows. “In fact,” I voiced, as I grew reflective, “almost the entirety of my First Communion catechesis was done through puppets.” My student reeled back in horror.
Burlap & Butterflies is not alone as a religious education text—the proliferation of such resources in and of itself suggests there was a demand for them—and I would argue that the goal of this resource was a constructive one. Burlap & Butterflies sought to creatively relay age-appropriate, economical activities associated with the liturgical year. The activities detailed within it served not only to engage children holistically, but were designed to be easily grasped and taught by instructors and catechists.
But, “why burlap?” as my student asked. First, Sacrosanctum concilium called for the laity to actively, intelligently participate in the liturgy; and, the liturgy itself is a source of education and formation. However, SC also suggests that, in order for the liturgy to convey its meaning most clearly, elements attentive to particular cultures may be used (SC 37). In particular, elements of communication and education, such as language or symbols which are common to a culture, “may be of great advantage to the people” (SC 36). That is, as long as such elements are not riddled with “superstition and error,” cultural tools and artifacts may even be incorporated into the liturgy itself (SC 37), and presumably, into catechesis about the liturgy.
Therefore, for a North American, westernized audience, not only might a vernacular language, such as English, be of great advantage, but other “tools” common to the culture of the time: hence burlap, butterflies, cottonballs, and puppets. In particular, the 1970s enjoyed an aesthetic which embraced earth tones and common materials, while celebrating creativity and streamlined designs. Then, the 1980s brought us butterflies, felt banners with bubble letters, and, yes, a proliferation of puppets.
Religious education tools produced during this era, then, sought to teach children to participate in their faith actively by engaging cultural forms, from languages to craft materials, and to recast “secular” aesthetics into avenues through which sacramental and spiritual catechesis could be advanced. Certainly, engaging the entire person develops stronger associations for children, as well as adults. I remember the puppet shows. Sadly, though, I don’t remember what the puppets conveyed…only that there were puppets.
My question, then, is this: is there anything wrong with burlap and butterflies? Is it my own, particular fault for “remembering” only the cultural form (puppets) and not the content (Eucharistic catechesis)? Or, is there a wider, more systematic gap in religious and catechetical education from the 1980’s-1990’s which failed to relay the content of faith as equally as the form in which it was cast?
The effectiveness of catechesis which took place twenty and thirty years ago might be evidenced by falling numbers in participation in sacraments, such as baptism or marriage in the Roman Catholic Church. On the one hand, I find myself reluctant to dismiss the methods of an era, even if I know my undergraduate students are. Just earlier this week, I heard another student describe how the Church has a “great need for contemporary catechesis” and how “we really didn’t have any back in the 80’s and 90’s.” My first wonder was, “how would you know, you were born in 1997…?” But, on the other hand, I only remember puppets.