Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

February 14, 2018

Reflections on Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace that Illumine Our Lives by Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Catholic adolescents are no different than Catholic adults: Both groups of Catholics often find it difficult to tell their own personal stories of faiths. Leonard DeLorenzo has taught thousands of teens and young adults to think about and share their moments of grace from their personal lives in a way that is compelling, convincing, and free of clichés and vague generalizations. In Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace That Illumine Our Lives, DeLorenzo shares seven guiding principles for doing so. They are:

  1. Tell it as a story
  2. Begin with what happened
  3. Express it in style
  4. Modify it for your audience
  5. Ensure there is sufficient closure
  6. Embrace natural emotions and
  7. Pray and practice

How might the approach offered in Witness be applied first-hand to a Catholic high school theology course? Eric Buell, religious studies chairperson at Presentation High School in San Jose, California, has attempted the process within coverage of a typical course curriculum. He offers some reflections here:

Imagine seeing your life full of grace.  What is needed however is the correct lens to parse through the triumphs, the challenges, and the mundane to discover this light.  The first introduction I had to the concept of  “stories of grace” was my junior year at the University of Notre Dame as a part of the Notre Dame Vision program.  If you have had the opportunity to spend some time at this program or have spent some time with Dr. DeLorenzo’s book, the concept is at once familiar yet unique.  Personal narratives have taken center stage in online news and entertainment media.  This text provides a practical guideline of how to tap into this type of personal narrative, not as a therapeutic catharsis, but as a way to understand the movement of God’s grace in a person’s life and, the ultimate goal, to come to see ourselves in the light of and through the eyes of God.  This text provides practical steps and serves as a good supplemental resource for teachers wishing to bring their students into a more personal, narrative driven reflection that digs past the clichés that a secondary theology teacher can often encounter.  

Over the past decade teaching high school, I have sought for ways to bring my students into a deeper engagement with the course material (most of which is now outlined by the USCCB Doctrinal Elements for Curriculum).  In the context of my course on prayer and spirituality we have developed what I call “Chapel Fridays.”  No matter where we are in the course curriculum, the class moves to the chapel whenever we happen to have class that day (this is normally between 7-9 times a semester).  Using chapter 2 (“Bending Light”) as a guide, students use a variety of the seven principles laid out by DeLorenzo to open up the course material (primarily focused on sacrifice, grace, redemption, and sin) to bridge the gap between the academic and the formative.  Allowing students the freedom to choose which of her their stories to engage with is a tremendous opportunity to discover what is important to them, what has formed them into the person they are today, and how they grapple with understanding the presence of God in their lives.  

The most challenging academic concept I have had to teach throughout my high school’s curriculum is grace.  It is easy to memorize the definition, fill in the blanks, or apply it to the seven sacraments; but how can students be given the opportunity to hang on to a more concrete notion of grace?  The stories that my students have been able to produce in a variety of media (poetry, film, essay) have been inspiring.  Allowing students to share their stories (after a semester’s worth of editing, adapting, and discussing) is the most meaningful experience of the semester.  Instead of hearing about “grace” from the teacher, students encounter the variety of ways God has been present to their peers; this type of witness is what is needed to evangelize students in the classroom.

This text is most useful for the upper division classroom that has room in the curriculum to carve out space for storytelling.  If schools are providing a sacraments course in the Junior year, there is a prime opportunity to develop a secondary track of looking at the stages of a student’s life in terms of where they have been initiated, healed, or in the context of service, and have them develop a way of looking at these various experiences in the context of God’s grace.  In this respect, teachers can focus on the primary stages of sacramental theology while also developing student narratives that correspond to the respective stage.  This type of essay could serve as a capstone assessment for the course in conjunction with a semester review; students could share their personal stories of grace alongside the review of material.  There is opportunity to make a more formal essay alongside this story by having the students use sacramental imagery or a thoughtful understanding of symbol within their personal narrative.

This text might also serve as a great resource for teachers engaged in Catholic Morality, Social Justice, or Vocations courses.  Having the students use DeLorenzo’s seven steps while developing thoughtful reflections in these previous areas provides a more robust experience with the curriculum.  If schools require service hours with these courses, there is an opportunity to engage students in more thoughtful theological and Christological reflection by allowing class time to consider the people they were serving and how God not only provided an experience for them to reflect on the dignity of the human person in the context of direct service, but how they see grace emanating and illuminating the organization or person they served.  If your school is requiring service hours, carve out some space for students to think seriously about the presence of God in their local community.  This text will provide a concrete and practical overview of how to structure a meaningful theological reflection for your students.

Eric Buell

MA Theology, University of Notre Dame

MA Educational Leadership, Santa Clara University

If you are interested in a copy of Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace That Illumine Our Lives, ordering information is available here. If you would like more information or to dialogue on how to use this book in a high school theology course you may contact Eric Buell at ebuell@presentationhs.org

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