Teaching Through the Senses

[U]ntil we account for the knowledge which an infant has of his mother . . ., what reason have we to take exception at the doctrine, as strange and difficult, that in the dictate of conscience, without previous experiences or analogical reasoning, he is able gradually to perceive the voice, or the echoes of the voice, of a Master, living, personal, and sovereign. .? But still, if a child of five or six years old, when reason is at length fully awake, has already mastered and appropriated thoughts and beliefs, in consequence of their teaching, in such sort as to be able to handle and apply them familiarly, according to the occasion, as principles of intellectual action, those beliefs at the very least must be singularly congenial to his mind, if not connatural with its initial action. . . The child keenly understands that there is a difference between right and wrong, he is conscious that he is offending One to whom he is amenable, who he does not see, who sees him.  His mind reaches forward with a strong presentiment to the thought of a Moral Governor, sovereign over him, mindful, and just. It comes to him like an impulse of nature to entertain it (Cardinal Newman Grammar of Assent, 103).

Cardinal Newman is saying that in order for a child to understand what he is learning, he must first see the methods of the parent. This method of catechetical instruction bears to mind the unique nature we hold as children of God. Our faculties are endowed with the presence of the Divine, meaning we carry the image and likeness of our Father in heaven. We bear His image of us. When instructing anyone in the faith, it is not necessarily what is spoken that captivates the mind of the person taught. At first glance, sight, experience, and witness, typically lend the person to seek more. Doctrine for example, becomes tangible when we see its actual application. The liturgy looks beautiful when we display the beauty of the procession, the altar linens, the liturgical colors, incense. However, greater clarity is achieved through the senses when we actually participate in the Holy Sacrifice.

The Sense of Doctrine

The term catechesis carries many definitions, two in particular standout; “re-echo and “hand-on” (See: Psalm 18). A parent should understand these definitions well since they are the primary educators of their children. The aim of any parent is to expose and teach doctrine to their children as early as possible (age three and above). I propose a catechesis of the senses may greatly enhance a child’s understanding of Church doctrine.  When catechizing a child, the first principle of instruction is exposure to the saving realities of God by what’s around them, in other words, revealing the beauty of God and his creation. Catechesis in its basic form reveals the love of God for his children through His Son Jesus Christ. Sacred Scriptures provides many examples of Christ using the senses to teach.

  • Jesus turns water into wine – Jn 2:1-11
  • Healing of the paralytic man – Mt 9:1-8
  • Jesus feeds the five thousand – Mk 6:32-44
  • Bread from Heaven – Jn 6:33
  • Resurrection – Lk 24:36-53
  • The Demand for a sign – Mt 16:1-4
  • The Transfiguration – Mt 17:1-8

Educating the Senses

Blessed John Paul II reminded us that the specific character of catechesis has the two-fold objective of maturing the initial faith and of educating the true disciple of Christ by means of a deeper and more systematic knowledge of the person and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Catechesis In Our Time, 19) Children will understand the importance of the true presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist if they first “know” and “understand” who Christ is and second, if the child is exposed to the area of beauty where we celebrate Christ’s presence in the Mass. The formation of a child’s senses should coincide with the intellect. Doctrine becomes more relevant when the senses reinforce the “why” of doctrine.

Learning by Doing

For a child, stimulating their doctrinal senses allows them to understand the Church’s teaching for what it is, a living breathing reality instituted by God through His Son Jesus Christ. The crux of this entire equation is that we learn by doing. Children are formed not only by experiencing knowing but by actively engaging it i.e. doing.  An essential part of this method reflects the use of testimony (visible faithful witness of the faith in action) and imparting Church teaching gradually. Why go this route? Because we want the child to experience a living faith that is real, tangible, and organic.    

What are some practical examples we can follow to stimulate the doctrinal senses in children?

  • The use of Sacred Art (e.g. the Annunciation-Fra Angelico; the Last Supper- Da Vinci).
  • Sacred Music i.e. music that reflects awe and wonder (e.g. Gregorian Chant, Beethoven ).
  • Sacramentals (i.e.Holy Oil, Holy Water, Crucifixes, Rosaries, saints medals, scapulars).
  • Visiting the Confessional and going to confession.
  • Viewing the Baptismal Font and blessing yourself with Holy Water.
  • The use of Sacred Scripture in a holy prominent way (e.g. sacred space in the home).
  • Examples of intercessory prayer i.e. petition, adoration, contemplation, thanksgiving.
  • Examples of the Lives of the Saints.
  • The Catechist’s authentic witness of living the Catholic faith.
  • Eucharistic Adoration.

The goal is to drawchildren into the mysteries of Jesus Christ and His Church so they in turn begin to live, experience, and witness these realities not only within themselves, but flowing from those around them.

Marlon De La Torre, MA, MEd. is the Director of Catechist Formation and Children's Catechesis for the  Diocese of Fort Worth. Over the last fifteen years Marlon has served in multiple catechetical diocesan positions in Memphis and Kansas City. He is regular guest on the "Sonrise Morning Show" with Brian Patrick and Matt Swaim.  His new book is Screwtape Teaches the Faith: A Guide for Catechists based on The Screwtape Letters and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His EWTN discussion about the book with Fr. Mitch Pacwa is here