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Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I wish to speak on the subject of memorization as the key to learning the Catholic faith. Memorization, in teaching religion, has been considered an out-dated form of pedagogy. Behind this judgment about memorization being old-fashioned is the invasion of error about the Catholic faith and a mistaken understanding of Catholic education. What is the underlying error which has made memorization so out-dated? The error is that people do not realize that we believe with the mind and unless the mind is fed with the truths of faith, there is no Catholic education. To have the virtue of faith is only to have the power or the faculty of believing. A newly baptized infant has the virtue of faith. But that is not enough to be a believer. There must be truths on the mind for the mind to actually believe. My plan for this presentation is, first, briefly to ask WHAT is memorization; then, WHY memorization is indispensable for teaching Catholic education; and finally, HOW to learn the Catholic faith through memorization.

What is Memorization

Memorization is the practice of remembering past experience. Behind memorization is the will. We remember only what we want to remember. We must immediately distinguish two kinds of memorization. First, we can remember words, the sound of syllables, or some physically perceptive experience. We can remember something in our bodily faculties. Animals have memories. We are animals, but, by definition, we are rational animals. Hence, the second form and level of memory, we can memorize the ideas that are expressed by the words. Our minds can remember the truths embodied in the words we memorized. These tow levels of memorization can obviously be separated. We can remember words. We recall these words as we remember the past. For six years before I entered the Society of Jesus I was on the stage. Depending on the play I was in, I had to memorize thousands of words. Otherwise, I would not be saying anything in the play. But as rational beings besides words we can also memorize the ideas, or concepts behind the words. The very fact that we use the expression “concepts of the mind”, means that words are to enter the mind and become conceived as ideas. I repeat, we can memorize words or sense experience, or we can memorize not just the words, but also the ideas and judgments which these words are meant to embody.

There is a close relationship, obviously, between these tow forms of memorization, called verbal memorization and mental memorization. We cannot separate these two because we cannot expect to have ideas on the mind unless we first have some sense experience, something we hear, touch or see. As we teach in Catholic philosophy - “There is nothing in the mind that is not first in the senses.” Without sense experiences, the mind would be empty.

But then we ask: Are the words we hear or read, are these experiences to be memorized? Emphatically! But the purpose of memorizing these sensory experiences is in order to conceive and retain in the mind the ideas contained within those words. We therefore reach our first conclusion: The memorization that is indispensable for Catholic education is memorization of ideas through the memorization of the words which contain the ideas. Can people memorize words without memorizing the ideas? Yes, indeed. People can have memorized many big words. They can have a large dictionary vocabulary, but an empty mind.

The Need to Memorize

Why is memorization so indispensable in learning the Catholic faith, and for you, the teaching of your children? I begin by saying that without memorization, there is no education. Words are memorized in order that ideas may be nourished in the mind. Faith, we are told by St. Paul, comes from hearing. I like the Latin, Fides, ex auditu

Someone must open their mouth, and behind their open mouth must be a believing mind. The believing mind expresses words. Those words enter another person’s ears. Those ears receive the sound of the words pronounced. Those words pronounced are to be remembered. They better be remembered, because those words are the indispensable means for sowing ideas from one human mind into another human mind. Only believers reproduce believers. There is no other way of obtaining the faith.

Faith comes from hearing. Faith is taught by speaking. Faith is absorbed by listening. We can hear without wanting to hear. The will of the hearer must want to hear, then what was heard is listened to. First the bodily memory remembers the words, but the will must want the bodily memory which has remembered the syllables to feed the mind with the ideas behind those words. So much for the why, and now the how.

Over the years in teaching, I told my students, and I share with you the three most important questions, better, the only three questions that we should ever ask or ever have to answer. What, Why, and How is all there is to Life.

How to Learn Through Memorization

We begin with an axiom of Catholic education; there is neither any teaching, or any learning of the Catholic faith without memorization. If all faith comes by hearing, somebody must listen. But what that person heard and listened to, must be retained, and the retention of what is heard is another term for memorization. Memorization of the words is necessary, but behind those words must be a living faith in the one who teaches and an openness to believe in the one who listens.

Be sure that the ideas behind the words are understood. So many teachers teach, but the soul of education is not to teach words. The heart of religious education is to teach revealed truth expressed in ideas. Be sure of the ideas which you teach; and be sure that the children have clear ideas about the truths you are conveying.

A salutary reminder. We are not angels. Angels do not have bodies. So they can hold conversation without the use of words spoken or listened to. We poor creatures of flesh must use words to convey ideas. The human spirit cannot communicate with another spirit but through the body.

To repeat and re-emphasize make sure that words are understood, first by you the teacher. Know what you are teaching, understand it. Otherwise, what you are promoting is rote memorization. Rote memorization is the memorizing of word. Animals practice rote memorization.

The faith is taught through learning the truth, and truth is the mind’s conforming with reality. Certainly we must use words when we teach religion. But the purpose of those words is to communicate to others what we know is true about God, about creation, about redemption, and about the means of reaching our eternal destiny. Truth is the soul in contact with reality, and that is specifically in the mind.

We Catholics hold that faith is held in the mind. The most basic error of the sixteenth century and even today is the denial that we believe with the mind. According to Luther and his followers faith was defined as trust in the will that I am one of those pre-destined by God to reach heaven. Having been on the faculties of several Protestant seminaries, I have never been asked to teach Protestantism. They want to learn about the Catholic Church because we as Catholics hold what we believe in the mind.

We define faith as the assent of the intellect to the truths which God has revealed in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. These revealed truths must be memorized through words. There is no choice no other way by which one believing mind can pass on the truth to another believing mind except through words. What is to be memorized, however, is not just the words; it is the living faith that one mind communicates to another mind. But is must be a living faith. Nothing is more important in giving religious instruction. We can learn all the techniques to have a good memory. Simplify the words, use pictures, anything you can do to help the sense memory to learn. But be sure that behind the sense memory is the deep faith that you as a believer communicate to another mind. All a believer has to do is to open his mouth and speak words that are animated with a strong faith. Be a divine alchemy, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

You communicated the words to those who want to believe, but be sure you know the basic meaning of the words you are using and make sure those you are teaching understand their meaning too. Otherwise you are wasting your time and theirs. Teach your children in clear and simple language the wonderful truths revealed by Jesus Christ.

There is more locked up in this recommendation than meets the eye. The danger in using unfamiliar words in teaching the faith is precisely what we must avoid. The danger is that the mere words, as words, will be memorized, without nourishing the believing mind with the food of God’s word. For my last section of the “how” I still have something to share with you which I call the implication. All we have been saying can be summarized in one sentence. In teaching religion, we use words which are to be remembered; so that through words, the faith is memorized. Thus the truths of faith become part of the believing mind. If the apostles had merely memorized the words of Jesus Christ, there would be no Christianity today.

The virtue of faith is conferred by baptism. The virtue of faith is conferred by the Holy Spirit, the moment a child is baptized. But the virtue of faith is only a power. Virtue, in Latin, means “power”. It is a power of the mind. If not for this power, the mind would be empty. As a power, the mind has the capacity to believe the truths provided for the potentially believing mind to believe. There is no other way for the mind to believe. There is no other way for the mind to believe if it was vacant on the inside. Another mind, the mind of a believer using words, feed this potentially believing mind so that it can actually believe.

But that is only the beginning. The believing mind must continue to be nourished by other believing minds. How? By the memorization of revealed truths that are new in number and in depth of understanding.

After all these years, you would think that we would be bored of eating. “Oh no, not again,” and not just once a day, but three times a day? God wants to be sure of our reliance on other people, that they will feed our bodies. The same God wants other people to continue feeding our minds. In other words, the children must continue to be fed. The feeding of the mind is the memorization of words, and behind the words are the truths of God’s illumination. His memorized truths must be more deeply understood, and it is your responsibility as parents to deepen that understanding. You are to make sure the believing minds of your children see how they are to put these truths into practice, in this way you will be fulfilling Our Lord’s final commission to His apostles when He told them - and is telling us, to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, teaching them to observe all that He has commanded us.

On the last day, we shall be judged especially on our practice of charity, in feeding the hungry. The deepest hunger is the hunger of the soul for God’s revealed truth. You parents have the privilege, and the duty to satisfy this hunger mainly in your children. You will do this effectively if you nourish their believing memories with the loving knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Truth.

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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