Recently, we at Loyola Press were blessed with a visit from Hedda Sharapan, who worked alongside Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for over 50 years and continues to serve as a consultant for Fred Rogers Productions. (BTW, our Loyola Press President, Joellyn Cicciarelli, also worked alongside Fred Rogers for a stint early in her career.) Hedda shared some wonderful stories and profound insights about child development, which were at the heart of Mister Rogers’ success. Of course, right now, Mister Rogers is enjoying rock-star status because of the popular documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
As we listened to Hedda share her stories and insights, it occurred to me that we catechists can learn a lot from Mister Rogers! Here are 10 things that Fred Rogers did on his show that model effective catechesis and incorporate Ignatian principles.
- He invited transition. Mister Rogers always began his show by changing out of his dress shoes into sneakers and shedding his sports coat and replacing it with his trademark cardigan sweater. He invited viewers to transition into his world—his neighborhood—and he did so by being welcoming. We need to assist our learners in transitioning from their busy, hectic, and noisy lives to a setting that is permeated by a climate of prayer, and we need to do so with a welcoming attitude.
- He slowed/quieted things down. Mister Rogers was not a fast talker. He helped put children at ease by speaking slowly and allowing periods of quiet so that his viewers could think and get in touch with their feelings. We catechists can offer a great gift to those we teach by incorporating quiet and silence into our faith formation sessions so that our learners can get in touch with themselves and enter into the mystery of God’s presence.
- He got down to their level. Mister Rogers knew that, in order to speak to children, he needed to get inside their heads and understand what they were thinking and feeling. St. Ignatius instructed catechists to “enter through their door but be sure to leave through your door”—his way of saying that we need to connect with our learners where they are while remaining aware of the fact that we are the grown-up in the room who is capable and responsible for leading them to where they need to be.
- He encouraged imagination. Mister Rogers incorporated puppetry and numerous other strategies in his programs to encourage viewers to expand their imaginations. As catechists, we do well to encourage those we teach to use their imaginations, since we are inviting them to “see” a Kingdom in our midst that is present in mysterious ways.
- He made deep things simple. Mister Rogers was the master of taking concepts that children might find difficult and making them simple to comprehend. He didn’t make things simplistic; he made deep concepts accessible. As catechists, this is our job no matter what age group we are teaching: we need to take deep concepts related to our faith and theology and make them accessible for our learners.
- He did not shy away from affect. Kids liked Mister Rogers because he invited them to be comfortable with their feelings, and he taught in such a way (often using storytelling) as to touch hearts as well as minds. As catechists, we need to help those we teach to develop an affective relationship with the Lord—one that involves not just the intellect but also the emotions.
- He listened. Mister Rogers was known for listening to his audience. When he was with children, he made it a habit to listen closely to them so that he could develop an empathy with them. As catechists, we sometimes feel like we should be doing all of the talking when, in reality, we need to listen to hear how God is already present in the lives of children.
- He emphasized relationship over “flash.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a pretty low-tech affair! His show was not known for flashy optics. Rather, he sought to engage his viewers in a relationship. As catechists, we can be tempted to “wow” our learners with lots of sights and sounds. While it is important to utilize the technology available to us in our teaching, we must remember that nothing can replace the person of the catechist, and we must strive to establish a relationship with our learners.
- He dealt with real issues. Mister Rogers did not shy away from difficult topics. On the contrary, he engaged his viewers over topics that included nuclear war, race relations, and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, to name a few. As catechists, we must connect faith with real life, and that often means delving into issues that are a source of pain.
- He emphasized being a neighbor. When all is said and done, Mister Rogers will be remembered for being our neighbor, for inviting us into his neighborhood, and for asking us to be neighbor to him and to one another. At the heart of the Gospel is the mandate to love God and to love our neighbor. As catechists, it is our responsibility to help those we teach learn how to be neighbors to one another.
Fred Rogers may have been a Presbyterian minister, but he most definitely embodied and utilized a number of principles of Ignatian spirituality that are at the heart of effective faith formation. Thanks, Mister Rogers, for setting an example for us of how to teach!