The following is the transcript of an interview with my friend and fellow lay Dominican TJ Burdick, who runs the Dominican Institute and Tiny Thomists, the latter of which was recently covered by Perry West at the Catholic News Agency.
We tend to think of Saint Thomas Aquinas as something to study after Aristotle, i.e., not child-friendly at all. What inspired you to teach young children about Saint Thomas?
A few years ago, I became a lay Dominican and fell in love with all things Aquinas. This was around the time my own children were entering school age, and I thought about how I could be intentional about raising them Catholic. So, I did what all good teachers do: I started drawing out lesson plans. Since I was already studying Aquinas, it made sense to blend his teachings into the lessons I was creating for my own kiddos, and make it understandable for anyone, even my daughters who were 4 and 5 years old at the time I started creating Tiny Thomists.
Why do you think Aquinas, in particular, is appealing to children?
Aquinas is appealing to children because his teachings appeal to the most basic of human principles — truth and logic. With this pair, anything can be understood in its simplest form: nature, creations, emotions, even the complexity of the Trinity can be hinted at (which I explain in Issue No. 1). So, when I create each issue of Tiny Thomists, I observe my own children's struggles to understand these things, and then help them navigate the truths behind them using Tiny Thomists as my tool. It just so turns out that many parents have similar desires to teach their own children the complex truths of the Catholic faith in an easy-to-manage, succinct way. That's what makes Tiny Thomists a life-saver for families who are constantly on the go and can't afford to invest the time or money in expensive teaching materials. We've got all that covered!
You emphasize teaching memory verses from the works of Aquinas. When do you expect children to draw on his works later in life?
I expect children to draw on the words of Saint Thomas right now. I think we tend to water down our faith when we try to teach it to children because of its complexity and its degree of excellence. The Catholic Church is the protector of the deposit of faith, and it takes us a lifetime to come to understand most of its teachings. That being said, life is short, and if we want our own children to have a solid foundation in their formation, we owe it to them to teach them well right now, when they are young and excited about learning their faith. As they grow older, the memorized phrases will help them come to a more mature knowledge of their faith, but more importantly, the memories they'll have from when their parents played with them, had fun, and worked together with them when they were kids is what will stay with them into eternity. Those are the activities that we deliberately place into each issue at Tiny Thomists, the ones that will make memories and address the complex truths of Catholicism in easy-to-understand language.
You've added weekly Mass prep to your offerings. How does the simplified Gospel reading fit with your overall mission?
The Gospel is our soul mission. Everything we create is wrapped in the context of Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels. So, it was an easy choice to provide each Sunday's Mass readings in "Kid Speak." Basically, we take the Sunday's Gospel reading and put it in kid-friendly language, with a brief explanation of the primary message being shared. We encourage families to read it prior to going to Mass with their children so that when the priest or deacon reads it, they'll be able to understand bits and pieces. It keeps them focused on the Liturgy of the Word, and allows them to make connections early with the life of Christ, instead of having to wait until they are older.
How do you decide which parts of Aquinas to highlight each week? Can a family just jump in at any point, or do they need to backtrack to the beginning?
The Summa is a mountainous piece of work to sift through. At more than three and a half million words, it is always a difficult task to discover the right quote, the right teaching in Aquinas's truest context. So, what we do is we start with a specific virtue or theological truth that we want children to understand. Then, we study Aquinas's treatment of those virtues and truths, combine them with a Saint who practiced them heroically, and then we design our activities based on those particulars. Each issue is truly a work of art, because we interconnect high-level Thomism to real life issues, all while appealing to various learning styles of children across age-levels and cultures. It is quite an undertaking, but one we humbly accept as our vocation.
The issues progress in difficulty over time. We recommend following the issues in sequential order when your kiddos are anywhere from 4 to 6 years old. That being said, the issues don't necessarily build on one another when it comes to content, but when it comes to spirituality, we made sure to include the non-negotiables in the first issues (i.e., Marian devotion, the Rosary, the Holy Trinity, obedience, etc.). However, once given access to the program, parents and catechists are free to use the issue that highlights the virtues/truths that their students need.
How does your work fit into your vocation as a lay Dominican? How is your approach to catechesis a uniquely Dominican approach?
As a lay Dominican, I am charged with the vocation to preach. We are the Order of Preachers, and as such, my primary means of living out my life as a lay Dominican is to produce content that will bring people to veritas - the truth. At the Dominican Institute, we pride ourselves on how we have created programs for Catholics at every age to do just that.
- Tiny Thomists works to teach children ages 4 to 13.
- Our free young adult formation program, Lit: Catholicism for Young Adults, helps teens and college-aged students navigate the big questions of life.
- And we are currently creating our adult formation program, which should launch in 2019.
Tiny Thomists is, in my opinion, the biggest piece of the puzzle when it comes the New Evangelization. Our faith starts in the home and in our schools. Too often in our past, the intellectual side of our instruction to children has been left to the wayside. Not anymore. Thomism is for everyone.
What is your favorite part of Aquinas's writings? Is there anything that you think speaks especially to Catholic families in today's society?
The best part of Aquinas's writings is his clarity. Granted, it takes a few acts of God to understand his vocabulary, e.g., essence, accident, powers, etc.), but once that obstacle is overcome, the genius of his explanations is mind-boggling.
Our job at Tiny Thomists is to remove the obstacles that bar children from understanding the truths that Aquinas has placed in his written work so that they can learn to love their Catholic faith alongside their loved ones. And I think we are doing a pretty good job doing that.