What’s Wrong with Burlap and Butterflies?

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.


  1. I think it might be a stretch to connect the falling numbers in active participation to the kind of catechesis you are describing. But then again, I have seen all kinds of theories formulated from similar seemingly unconnected “facts”. One would need to look at the catechesis patterns of all the Christian denomination from the 70’s and 80’s to say for sure that “proper” catechesis or lack of it is the cause for declining numbers. However, it is a favorite meme from certain elements in the church. I do have to agree that good catechesis, especially for adults, to help adults form a more mature faith life has been seriously lacking in the church for a very, very long time. I was catechized with the Baltimore Catechesism and CCD classes but the bulk of my adult faith formation was done at the university level by a very active Newman Center, and nothing like what they are today. I was fortunate.

  2. Others have touched on this matter (like here: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/70s-church). I suspect that whether content included puppets or sound Scripture-based lessons (or even both) that serious catechesis falls on deaf, if not non-absorptive ears if the targets are not yet disciples. So it’s no surprise to me that many Christians cite later-life experiences as key.

    Puppets every week? Wow. That takes a certain commitment whether it’s done right or done badly. But that may not be much different from a six-year-old’s view of Mass: a priest dresses up in unusual clothing and frequently addresses the adults in the assembly.

    Agreement that we don’t do well with adults. How does liturgy or the homily address this?

  3. There’s a chance that the doctrinal content taught through the puppets was driven into you so deeply that it became a part of your core, leaving the empty vehicle of puppetry parked out at the curb where it is still seen (even though you don’t recall what arrived in it).

  4. My university experience of working with experienced elementary and high school teachers is that they do not always have a sufficient grasp of the theology of the liturgy or its practice so as to draw forth the meaning from any “props” they might choose. The Directory for Masses with Children, perhaps idealistic today, calls for a balance in formation of human values and Christian values, involvement in a living parish, and engagement in “various kinds of celebrations” (not just the Mass), including “frequent celebrations of the word of God” (13-14). And what of the formative power of the liturgy itself (not puppets)? Further, Sunday liturgy of the word with children is not always “liturgy.”

  5. I think it’s not unusual to remember the form rather than the content. Especially if the visual and tactile elements are unusual, as they would be in juxtaposing puppets with the standard features of the sanctuary. This sticks in the memory, precisely because it’s not repeated, unlike, say, the message — which might be something infinitely repeated, such as “Jesus feeds us with his body and blood,” or “God loves us and wants us to be part of his family” or whatever the puppet show content might have been.

    In an older style of preparation, for my own first communion, I remember the priest had to “examine” us for readiness, and he sat in the hall in semi-darkness, outside our classroom. We went out one by one and recited things we had memorized. I remember the form — one never used before or since! — and not a scrap of the content. Ten years later they were into “film strips” instead, remember those? I’m not sure how much content kids remembered from that, either. But something probably does sink in, whether it’s the experience of feeling a little more at home in the sanctuary (puppets) or getting a little more contact with the parish priest (my experience) or becoming a little more aware that the stories of Jesus are important (film strips), or whatever.

  6. Thanks for these comments–and I’ve been reflecting on what DID sink into my core, or “stick” in my memory. We didn’t have puppets every week, but it was each week that the “First Communion” class had a special Mass–maybe once a month? High school youth group students were the puppeteers and read a script, and had a conversation with our parish priest (a good opportunity for older students to be involved, in retrospect).

    I think one component which did stick with me was, exactly as Rita notes, “being at home in the sanctuary.” In my experiences, moving about in the whole of the worship space–learning, listening, working, ministering, etc.–leads me greater comfort and stronger identification with a space (and a community) than simply sliding in and out of one particular pew.

    Now, becoming comfortable in a particular place might be quite different from being taught about the Eucharist…but, maybe the puppets provided the groundwork for thinking about the Body of Christ in the gathered assembly….

  7. Burlap is used for sackcloth, the rough fabric symbolizing penitence.
    Butterflies are an image of transformation, the drab insect emerging from its cocoon in radiant, flying colors reflecting Jesus, dead and buried, emerging from his tomb.

    The title is a great summary of the Paschal mystery as found in everyday life. It speaks of a catechesis of symbol instead of abstractions. The real concrete rough things in our lives, and the real living transformations.

    Im not sure what puppet shows have to do with any of this, but from your posts here, it seems that you learned the lessons well.

  8. In the early 80’s when we realized that our parochial school was not going to provide much more than religious atmosphere, we began an 80 minute program in the evening that consisted of 30 minutes of the “Chronicles of Narnia” or the like; 30 minutes of a full book length life of a saint and 20 minutes of the Baltimore Catechism ( sic).

    This was to prepare our 6 yr old son for the sacraments, since the school had practically nothing to tell him except God is love. Yes, they memorized a good bit of the BC, but we did not insist on excessive reverence- Just get the matter in your little heads. They learned it lying on the floor, dangling off the couch, twirling in the middle of the living room. The lives of the saints made it all come alive.

    The thing that astonished me was that listening to all this was our little 4 yr old daughter who simply absorbed it. They both were in what Dorothy Sayers called the Poll Parrot stage and LOVED to memorize things. See her “Lost Tools of Learning.” It’s online. In fact, one year for St. Patrick’s Day for our evening closing prayer I supplied the 36 line version of “The Shield of St. Patrick,” they stunned me by jumping up and down and saying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Can we please memorize this??!!” The love of learning and the desire for God had taken root in their hearts. After about two years of this we backed off on the BC because it was becoming too onerous, but in the meantime the kids had learned tons. Our little daughter entering first grade likely knew more of her faith, far more, than did the 8th grade graduates.

    There was NO social gospel per se, nor was there any need for it, since the lives of the saints supplied this by way of example. In her college years our daughter spent a couple of summers working in Mexico with the poor, and our son at least one summer there as well.

    Now in their 30′s he is at Mass Sundays with wife and 2 children; she is a contemplative nun. In short, it worked, BC and all. Thanks be to God!

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