As the summer winds to a close, and we begin a new school year, in schools and parishes around the country catechesis is kicking into high gear once more. This is a fitting time to finish exploring Pope St. John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time. We will finish the document between this week and next week’s blog entries. And please, feel free to go back and look at the other entries in this series.
The ninth and penultimate section of the document is titled “The Task Concerns Us All.” The Holy Father expresses his desire that his words will “set your hearts aflame, like the letters of St. Paul to his companions in the Gospel, Titus and Timothy, or like St. Augustine writing for the deacon Deogratias, when the latter lost heart before his task as a catechist, a real little treatise on the joy of catechizing.” (62) Recognizing that catechesis is the task of all Christians, as we are all called to spread the Gospel, the pope wanted to sow “courage, hope and enthusiasm” in the hearts of those who give religious instruction.
He takes several groups one by one: bishops, priests, men and women religious, and lay catechists. He reminds bishops of their solemn and special place in the task of catechesis: “You are beyond all others the ones primarily responsible for catechesis, the catechists par excellence. Together with the Pope, in the spirit of episcopal collegiality, you too have charge of catechesis throughout the Church.” (63) Acknowledging the increasing complexity of episcopal ministry in today’s world, that “a thousand duties call you,” the pope emphatically reminds bishops of the importance of their catechetical responsibility: “But let the concern to foster active and effective catechesis yield to no other care whatever in any way.” The principal role, he says, should be to bring about and maintain in the diocese a “real passion for catechesis.” The bishop also has the responsibility, not only of transmitting the truth, but denouncing error. “Although your zeal must sometimes impose upon you the thankless task of denouncing deviations and correcting errors, it will much more often win for you the joy and consolation of seeing your Churches flourishing because catechesis is given in them as the Lord wishes.”
John Paul refers to priests as the “immediate assistants” of their bishops in catechesis. (64) They are called to devote their “best efforts to the growth of your communities in the faith.” As with bishops, priests (particularly those who are pastors of parishes) are pulled in a thousand directions, and it is tempting to be overcome by administrative tasks, financial concerns, and the like. These are certainly important, and affect the ability of the parish to operate in the first place. But we must not lose sight of the primary task of the salvation of souls, and the role that effective catechesis plays in this. “All believers have a right to catechesis; all pastors have the duty to provide it.” He continues, hammering the point home: “[W]ith all my strength I beg you, ministers of Jesus Christ: Do not, for lack of zeal or because of some unfortunate preconceived idea, leave the faithful without catechesis. Let it not be said that ‘the children beg for food, but no one gives to them.'” (64)
Men and women religious communities are often founded for the express purpose of the education and catechesis of young people. “Throughout history, men and women religious have been deeply committed to the Church’s catechetical activity, doing particularly apposite and effective work.” (65) Such communities are critical to the Church’s catechetical mission. “Let the communities dedicate as much as possible of what ability and means they have to the specific work of catechesis.” (65)
Lay catechists earn great praise from the pope. “Your work is often lowly and hidden,” he says, “but it is carried out with ardent and generous zeal, and it is an eminent form of the lay apostolate, a form that is particularly important where for various reasons children and young people do not receive suitable religious training in the home.” (66) Particularly in the context of preparation for the sacraments of Penance, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation, lay catechists play a major and invaluable role.
Next, the Holy Father examines catechesis in different contexts: in the parish; in schools; in the family; and in organizations. We will look at these next week, and conclude our look at this exhortation.