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Why know the Ten Commandments?

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Instructions for a life of love

This column first appeared in our July, 2018 print edition

It started out quite innocently. I was giving a talk to seventh-grade confirmation students and their parents at a parish. I was speaking about knowing your Catholic faith and sharing it with your child.  As is my usual custom, I invited a few young people and their parents to come forward and share their faith. I asked them to name the Ten Commandments. They were stymied. No one knew any of the big ten. Then, I turned to the rest of the group and it was unanimous. No one had a clue. Painfully, we finally got the Ten Commandments on the board after many, many hints like  “…going to Mass on Sunday and taking a day of rest is … ?”  

     The bad news is that I should have left well enough alone. It got very awkward when the parents had to admit that they were sorely lacking. The next day I received an email from a mom who told me: “Knowing the Ten Commandments word for word in order is not a measure of anything of importance. Living the commandments and supporting others in doing so is what matters. This can be done in a loving and supportive way that God intends just like you advised us to be with our children. Being Catholic shouldn’t be work and judgment of others, it’s simply living in love and acceptance of all. …” 

     As I read her note, I thought, “But, how can we know how to live and love and accept others without the instructions?”

     As I mulled over her remarks, I realized that many parents may agree with her. Why are the tenets of faith important? Why should we work at forming our children in the faith? Is it too much work, or does it imply that we are judging others?

     For us Catholics, as well as all Jews and Christians, the Ten Commandments are the foundational doctrine of what it takes to love God and our neighbor. The sacred Scripture lays it out in a succinct, no-nonsense formula. The first three commandments deal with loving God, and the remaining ones teach us how to love one another. Without this knowledge we will simply wander around God’s kingdom without a plan or direction. It would be like signing our children up to play on a soccer team without first instructing them on how to play the game. Your child needs that knowledge to be a good player. Once the team understands how to play and what they can do to accomplish a goal, they are a winning, competitive team. The Ten Commandments teach us how to play the game of discipleship.

     What about having an attitude of being better than others, as  my parent complained about?  The Commandments are not meant to be negative statements. We are not judging others because of what they have failed to do. We are seeing the good in those who make the effort to put God first in their lives, speak lovingly about God, keep Sunday as sacred time, respect their parents, uphold life in all its forms, honor their body and live chaste lives, give and not take, tell the truth, and keep from wanting what others have. What a force for love it is to live the Commandments as beacons of light!

     So, knowing those commandments is a rudimentary foundation for living as a good Catholic. We start teaching second graders this basic doctrine and reinforce it every year through grade eight. So why didn’t my gathering know about them? I believe that we have missed the mark as teachers and parents. It is high time to go back to basics as we form our children in the faith. When a parent tells me that the Ten Commandments are not important, I realize that we have not taught those Commandments in word and in action, and a whole generation of adult Catholics has lost sight of the power and meaning of Catholic teaching.

     It is never too late in God’s world. For those of us in the classroom and those who parent, I offer a challenge to begin all over again living and teaching what we hold most sacred.  We are fighting a battle against a secular age in which the things of God are considered of little value. There is no better place to begin than with the Commandments. Let us spend time with our children and talk about and show them the meaning of those 10 instructions for a life of love.

     Hunt is a nationally recognized author and catechetical leader.

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