How 600 Catholic Schools Transformed their Religion Classes
When Marybeth Hay returned to Catholic education, she was surprised by how much had changed. Hay is a product of Catholic schools. As the fourth of five children growing up in a Catholic family, she attended diocesan elementary, middle, and high schools in Central Massachusetts in the 1980s. She remembers being awed by the presentation of the Faith in her classes: it was beautiful and awe inspiring, cultivating in her a deep love for God and sense of purpose in her life. “It never left me,” she says. She credits her Catholic formation with inspiring her to pursue a vocation of service as a teacher.
Hay earned a B.Ed. in Early Childhood Education and an M.Ed. in Education, along with a Master Catechist Certification from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. She taught in public schools for 25 years, leaving to fulfill a longing in her heart to “give back” to students and families what she was gifted as a child in Catholic schools. She discovered Our Lady of the Valley Regional School, a PK-8 regional school in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. She immediately fell in love with the school and enthusiastically joined the teaching faculty as a preschool teacher.
But her heart sank when she saw the materials she was expected to use in the classroom. “It was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus and rainbows curriculum,” she said. “It lacked depth, richness, and mystery.”
Hay knew she needed more than cartoonish drawings and sappy sentiments to set the hearts of her students on fire for Christ. She needed truth, goodness, and beauty. She supplemented with her own materials, but this was a short-term solution. She wanted a better curriculum for her students and the whole school community. She shared her concerns with her principal, who agreed to let her pilot another program, and then her pastor, who promoted her to Director of Catechesis and Education, overseeing the religious instruction of all PK-8 students.
For nearly a year, Hay reviewed books, lessons, and workbooks from “anyone who made a curriculum.” Then she discovered Spirit of Truth by Sophia Institute Press.
Sophia Institute Press is one of the most trusted Catholic publishers in the world, distributing more than one million books every year. In 2014, the company created Sophia Institute for Teachers to address four problems that had plagued religion classes in Catholic schools and parishes for decades:
Poor theological formation among teachers
Bored and disengaged students
Lack of innovative problem solving in Catholic education
Spirit of Truth is the religion curriculum that grew out of this effort. Developed by teachers, Spirit of Truth is a collection of K-12 textbooks, workbooks, and teachers’ manuals that are “faithful and complete, as well as useful and adaptable.” The content is noticeably different than the flat, simplistic materials many teachers have been accustomed to using for decades. It is complex and sophisticated—incorporating scripture, papal documents, saints’ stories and writings, and sacred art in the teaching of the Faith—all while being accessible.
Consider this lesson in the 5th grade workbook, The Sacraments, on the Sacrament of Matrimony. It begins with this image of the 19th century painting, “The Wedding Feast at Cana,” by Julius Von Carolsfeld:
The lesson instructs students to “take some time to quietly view and reflect on the art” before thinking about and discussing a series of questions with their classmates.
Who are the figures in this painting?
Why do you think the artist included so many plants?
Why is Peter kneeling?
What is the significance of the people who are not paying attention to Jesus?
Read the Gospel story of the Wedding at Cana in John 2:1-12. What moment in the Gospel story has the artist captured in this mosaic? How does the painting help you better understand the story of the Wedding at Cana?
What is the role of Mary at the Marriage at Cana?
What does the account of Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding tell us about His presence in the Sacrament of Matrimony?
Teachers began sampling Spirit of Truth in 2017. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Textbook orders doubled in one year; they increased five-fold in four years. By 2021, more than 60,000 teachers were using Spirit of Truth every week to actively engage students in classrooms in 600 schools and 1,100 parishes.
Hay is one of those teachers. Since 2021, she and dozens of educators have been using Spirit of Truth at Our Lady of the Valley Regional School and St. Mary Catholic Church in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.
“It is transforming our community of families,” Hay says.
Hay was enthusiastic about the curriculum from the moment she set eyes on it. “I had never seen such comprehensive, beautiful, rich explanations of the Faith made especially for children,” she says. She was especially impressed with the sacred art component of the lessons. She explains:
Human beings are hard wired to rely on visual stimuli to decode the world around us. This curriculum is powerful because it works with a child’s nature. It triggers neural connections in key memory centers so learning happens naturally. It becomes a part of the child.
Within weeks of swapping out the old curriculum with Spirit of Truth, Hay started hearing from parents and teachers who were amazed by students’ reactions. Parents reported that their children, who had never talked about their faith before, started coming home from school excited to share what they had learned in class. Teachers reported that students started using more sophisticated language to express themselves and showing a newfound joy in the classroom. She explains:
All of a sudden this year, our students are talking differently about their faith. First graders are reminding their teachers that Jesus has two natures: divine and human. They are using beautiful, faith-filled language that they understand because it was presented to them in a developmentally appropriate way. They know how to use this language when discussing their Savior. They understand Jesus through artwork, vocabulary, and Lectio Divina. They know God desires a relationship with them because He’s calling them forward in their life toward sainthood.
Teachers at other schools report similar transformations of their classrooms—a result Charlie McKinney, president of Sophia Institute Press, has observed in real time. “We are in constant communication with teachers using our curriculum,” he says. He explains:
The data on young people leaving the Faith is alarming. When we developed Sophia Institute for Teachers, we did so knowing that nearly 80% of 23-year-olds who once considered themselves Catholic now claim no religious affiliation of any kind, and the majority of adult Catholics are not even certain that a personal relationship with God is possible. That sounds bleak until you realize that it is not Catholicism that young people are rejecting, but a dull and incomplete presentation of the Faith that they think has no bearing on their lives.
At Sophia, when we realized we were being called to help solve the problem of poor catechesis in the Church, we knew we would be embarking on an ongoing project of service—serving families, by serving Catholic schools and parishes, by serving teachers. We knew teachers would have to be intimately involved in the development, refinement, and use of our materials. That’s why, for five years, we’ve matched up a member of our team with a heart for service, with every Catholic school and parish that uses Spirit of Truth. We have relationships with hundreds of teachers from different backgrounds, with different levels of education and experience, in different communities all across the country. We know what’s working for them and we’ve made adjustments along the way based on their feedback.
It is because of teachers' feedback that Sophia is pilot-testing new materials in the fall. Veronica Burchard, chief operating officer of Sophia Institute for Teachers, explains:
Our teachers tell us that students are fascinated by what they learn through Spirit of Truth, but they are struggling to reconcile Church teaching with a culture that tells them that smart people who believe in science don’t believe in God. The data supports this. Studies show that young adults who leave the Faith say they stopped believing in God when they were 13 years old, and the reason they give is a lack of scientific proof of the existence of God.
“This is a considerable problem,” Burchard says, “but at Sophia, we recognize it as an opportunity because religion and science reinforce each other: they are both the discovery of God’s created world.”
This fall, Sophia is pilot testing a faith and science program that includes: (1) lessons for elementary and middle school teachers who teach both religion and science, showing the continuity between faith and reason and (2) materials for schools that have different teachers responsible for teaching religion and science, to help facilitate greater collaboration among the faculty.
Burchard says it’s an honor to work side-by-side teachers who dedicate their lives to forming young souls in the Truth of the Faith. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” she says, “What we’re teaching children—that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, for the purpose of knowing, loving, and serving him—is powerful because it’s true.”
“It’s what motivates our team at Sophia, it’s what motivates our teachers, and it’s what is transforming our religion classes, one school and one parish at a time,” she says. “Because once we know our destiny is to spend eternity with God in Heaven, and we really believe it, we understand every opportunity, every day, as another step on our journey towards sainthood.”
“May God continue to bless our teachers,” she says, “and open up more opportunities to set our children’s hearts on fire for Christ in our Catholic schools.”