He Said What?! The How and How Not of Teaching by Personal Experience


“He said what?!”

 These were the first words that came out of my mouth when I heard my Confirmation teacher explicitly go into detail about how it was perfectly all right to have sex with your girlfriend if you truly “loved” her. Naturally, he told us he had sex with his girlfriend because he loved her at the time. Imagine being in a room full of teenagers ranging in ages from 14-18. Then visualize these teenagers’ thoughts triggered by a story advocating pre-marital sex as true love.

This is how my Confirmation teacher began his catechetical instruction on sexual morality. Why, you may ask, did he have the need or even the thought of sharing a moment like this? Whatever the reason may have been, it did not provide a sound moral outlook for these students, including myself, at the time.  Any genuine appreciation of the virtues of purity and chastity, let alone a healthy outlook of sexual intimacy within the bonds of holy matrimony, was lost in this critical teaching moment.

Concluding with the story, this poor teacher eventually told us that if you truly love someone then having sex is perfectly fine.  His reasoning reflected “the right” to express your love in the “fullest way possible.”  Therefore, you could imagine what the boys in my class were thinking.  Immediately they began to say, “I love you” to the girls because my Confirmation teacher just opened the door for all of us to reconfigure the notion of love in our minds. The definition of “love” had taken on a false definition. Love only has a physical component and not a supernatural one before the eyes of Christ.  A perversion has taken hold where physical lust replaces true intimacy with Christ.

The moment he crossed the line into doctrinal ambiguity and, even worse, utilized his own personal experience in a distorted way, the teaching moment became irrelevant. Fortunately, I knew back then that his instruction was completely misguided. He had the souls of these kids to contend for.  Knowingly or unknowingly, he was encouraging them to engage in a behavior that would potentially lead their souls away from Christ and provide a distorted view of sexual morality.

After this unfortunate instruction, I raised my hand and asked the teacher one question. I asked if he had married his girlfriend. He was not amused with my question. His response somewhat surprised me. He said no! I then proceeded to tell him, “Then I guess you truly didn’t love her.  My second point is this: your instruction on sexual morality is a direct contradiction to the teachings of the Catholic Church.” With that statement, he threw me out of class for being belligerent and misleading. Go figure!

What was his intent in all this?  As I look back, I believe he was trying to find a way to relate to us and grab our attention. There was an assumption that we needed to hear a unique story relating to the ideologies of the day in order for his instruction to take hold. I believe that this was the first of many errors in method and doctrin he engaged in at the spiritual and intellectual expense of the class.

Common Teaching Errors

Let us break down this actual event and see where it went wrong. This example may bring back memories of similar events you may have experienced yourself, hopefully not like my own. The craft of using personal experience is one by which the teacher can effectively articulate instruction to an audience based on his/her understanding of the instruction.  It is a method of relating to those being taught. A parallel might strike us: the use of parables by the Divine teacher, Jesus Christ Himself. The experience of the healing of the Centurion’s servant in Matthew’s Gospel [1] reflects the witness the centurion gave of his faith to Christ (8:5-13), this model can serve us well because it’s anchored on a submission to the will of the Son of God.

When we engage an audience, our experience should direct the student to engage those truths anchored in the saving realities of a Divine Deposit of faith. This unique Deposit of Faith becomes an animator for more truth. Rooted in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture [2] we reflect on the heritage of the Church handed down by Christ to the Apostles (see: Mt 16:16-19; Acts 2:39-42) [1]. Our experience must not be used to profess a personal platform that digresses from these saving realities e.g. the sacraments, the Ten Commandments etc. Our instruction must always put people into a communion and intimacy with Jesus Christ (Catechesis In Our Time, 5) [3].

Experience can be negative if it deviates from revealed truth — in the worst case, deviating from Christ. The art of personal experience is a form of preparation or calculated disengagement leading the student to desire more of the “story [4].” This “story,” centered in Jesus Christ, leads to genuine instruction and proper faith formation.

The potential danger in purely experiential catechesis is the student will merely dwell on the experience of the teacher without anchoring into a firm foundation of how this relates to Christ and His Church. All experience must direct itself to the revelation [5] of Jesus Christ. In other words, experience is fine if one, it is truly authentic and two, it leads the person to holiness. This is the catch. Experience should leave the person desiring to see more truth. In essence, what we have in experience is a subplot of inquiry to lead the person to the deeper mysteries of Christ and His Church.  What are some practical steps to utilize our experiences in a healthy way?

The Art of Experience

Sound experience should be clear concise and lead others to a desire for truth. (Rom 3:4)

  • Sound experience should not be driven by a personal agenda.
  • Sound experience should highlight the continual plan God has for us in our lives (2 Pet 1:3-4) [6].
  • Sound experience is witnessing your relationship with Christ as a child of   God.
  • Sound experience is rooted in the truth, beauty and goodness of the Catholic faith at work.
  • Sound experience reflects the living witness of the Gospel.
  • Sound experience is a carefully crafted catechetical preparation where the teacher leads the student into a journey of faith centered on Jesus Christ.
  • The parables offer an example of using experience in a sound manner.

From these practical steps, our aim is to lead the person to the mysteries of Christ. This journey will inevitably lead us to the source and summit of the Christian life [7]. When we speak of the Holy Eucharist as the source and summit, a proper understanding of why the Word became flesh (Incarnation) is in order. Our experiences ultimately reside understanding this doctrine in light of our witness. Experience is fruitless without this understanding.

Motives of Credibility

The Catechism provides a beautiful four-pillar explanation on why the Word became flesh (457-460):

  • to save us by reconciling us with God (1 Jn 4:10) [7]
  • so that thus we might know God’s Love (1 Jn 4:9) [8]
  • to be our model of holiness (Jn 14:6) [8]
  • to make us partakers of the Divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). [9]

Our experience should not direct others away from Christ. On the contrary, it should lead them to desire more of Him through our personal witness of faith rooted in Him.  If we look at the four reasons, i.e. pillars for the Incarnation stated above, we see a common theme; Christ loved us so much that he endured the ultimate sacrifice for our salvation.

When teaching others, a fundamental we all must adhere to is that our teaching is not our own. It is Christ. We have received a gift to hand on to others. This gift includes our experiences in the faith and is of which something my Confirmation teacher should have taken note.  Our teaching directs us to the essentials. The essentials are the revealed truths of the faith that offer “motives of credibility” in our assent to the faith (CCC 156).

Should you share your personal experiences as part of teaching? Wholeheartedly, yes! But only if doing so will encourage your students along the path to holiness and  a deep relationship with Christ nourished by the Eucharist.


About Author

Department Director of Catechesis for the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth and author of Screwtape Teaches the Faith (2011) Saint Benedict Press.

  • Kathleen Woodman

    You’re so right, experience can be helpful, but only if done to truly spread the kingdom of God.