Breaking open the Word of God

A few weeks back, on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, the global Church for the first time commemorated Word of God Sunday, instituted by Pope Francis in the motu proprio apostolic letter Aperuit Illis in September 2019.

The Bible, Pope Frances writes, belongs “to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words.” But it is fair to say that many Catholics are not as steeped in Scripture as we should be.

I think it’s fair to say that Bible Studies may be one of the most common ministries in Catholic parishes in the United States. There are many wonderful resources out there for Catholic Bible studies.

Ignatius Press publishes the Ignatius Study Bible, with commentaries and notes written by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. The Bible translation used is the Revised Standard Version, 2nd Catholic Edition, which is a beautiful and authentic and faithful translation of Sacred Scripture into English. The commentaries and notes are insightful, informative, and really open up the text of Scripture for the average reader. While Hahn and Mitch could certainly be described as scholars, the Ignatius Study Bible is accessible and illuminating for readers of any (or no) familiarity with Scripture. There are many individual volumes featuring one or a few books of the Bible; there is also available the entire New Testament in one volume; and the complete Old Testament is on its way in the near future.

For those who prefer video series, the Augustine Institute has produced many Bible studies in its Lectio series, led by distinguished professors and scripture scholars. These presenters include Dr. Tim Gray, Dr. Brant Pitre, Dr. Michael Barber, Dr. Mary Healy. Each episode is around 30-40 minutes long, which is perfectly suited to most parish Bible study schedules.

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The Lectio series is available from Ignatius Press or the Augustine Institute, and on FORMED.org. (If your parish does not have a subscription to FORMED, contact us for more information!

A Catholic Introduction to the Bible

Ignatius Press recently published A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, by Drs. John Bergsma and Brant Pitre. This is a phenomenal reference for understanding the Old Testament, written by two scholars and wonderful writers. For something that is ostensibly a desk reference, it really is a page-turner, very engaging.

There are many reasons to engage more deeply with the Word of God, and there are many resources out there that can help in doing just that.

Preparing for the Sacrament of Baptism

This blog is a space for discussing topics related to religious education. I think, for many people, the term “religious education” conjures up images of gradeschoolers learning about the Ten Commandments or the Trinity, or particularly second-graders preparing to receive their First Reconciliation and their First Holy Communion. Certainly, such images do reflect the vast majority of formal religious instruction. But it is important that we not neglect all of the other facets of religious education, all of the other people undergoing instruction in the faith, and how we can better serve them.

Today I’d like to talk, in particular, about the Sacrament of Baptism, and how we can prepare people for that sacrament.

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My wife recently gave birth to our fourth child (Deo gratias!), and we were blessed to have the opportunity to have her baptized less than a week later. Even with our fourth child, we had to prepare ourselves for the sacrament, as we were about to undertake the great responsibility of leading another soul to God.

Baptism is one of the most profoundly important things that can happen in one’s life. Think about it: it is so much more than just a ritual, a rite of passage, a photo-op at the church. This is a sacrament, instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ during his time on the earth, a visible sign of an invisible reality, which effects an ontological change, fundamentally and permanently affecting the soul, cleansing from original sin (and any personal sin), infusing with grace and the Holy Spirit, joining the individual to the Body of Christ. What an incredible gift!

Whether it is an infant being baptized, a young child, a young adult, or an adult, it is imperative that all those involved are catechized as much as possible. I would say there is no question that many parents and godparents do not fully grasp the gravity of what they are undertaking, when it is an infant being baptized, and many who receive baptism later in life do not understand that what they are doing is so much more than a rite of passage.

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Ignatius Press publishes a number of books for children with Magnificat. Many of them are board books, perfect for toddlers and younger. These books have beautiful artwork, simple catechesis on the topic at hand, and prayers for children. One of these is called Baptism Day. A beautiful gift for children being baptized, or their young siblings who would like to learn more about the sacrament.

 

 

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Many young children are baptized well after infancy, at older and older ages. When they have reached an age where they can take religious instruction, it is important to prepare them as much as possible for reception of the Sacrament of Baptism. Another great catechetical resource for young children is the animated series Brother Francis. This series presents the faith for children without sacrificing the truth; nothing is diminished or downplayed. The Truth is presented unabashedly, in a very kid-friendly and engaging manner. There is an episode called “Born into the Kingdom” that teaches about the Sacrament of Baptism.

 

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The Augustine Institute has produced many wonderful video series on the sacraments: Presence on the Holy Eucharist; Forgiven on Reconciliation; Beloved on Matrimony; and Reborn on Baptism. Reborn does a terrific job of preparing for reception of the Sacrament of Baptism. Whether preparing the parents for their child’s reception of the sacrament, or preparing an individual for their own baptism, the series is approachable and engaging, and beautifully put together. The Augustine Institute has a knack for such video series, and they present the fullness of the faith without sacrificing a jot or tittle of the Truth. My own parish utilizes this series for baptism preparation, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

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As catechists, as those who are instructing people in the faith, we need to do our best to leave no stone unturned. We are talking about the salvation of souls, the most important work we could ever do. Baptism so often marks the beginning of the journey of faith; it is the entrance into the Christian life; it is important to build a firm foundation upon which a life of grace can be built.

Classic Literature: Coming to Know Ourselves

“There is a very good reason for every Catholic to know the great works of literature — and that is because the great works of literature help us to know ourselves.” This wonderful insight serves as the opening line of a recent book by Joseph Pearce, Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (published by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute). In recent years, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in the great works of literature, and Pearce has been one of the great promoters of this cause.

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“The great works of literature show us the folly of homo superbus as well as the wisdom of homo viator by contrasting the viciousness of the prideful villain with the virtuous humility and humanity of the noble hero,” Pearce writes. “They show us that the good man is inspired in all that he does by the desire to serve his God and his neighbour, while the bad man is inspired by his desire to please himself. They show us that man is always oscillating between the two poles of his very nature. He is either falling into the folly of the idolatrous love of himself above all others, or he is edified by his selfless love for the other.”

Many of the great works of literature can be hard nuts to crack, so to speak. Just about anyone with a high school education or higher can read William Shakespeare, for example — but how many of us can understand or grasp Shakespeare without a good deal of assistance? The bard is said to have invented hundreds of words, either by changing their part of speech (using “elbow” as a verb, for example), adding prefixes or suffixes (as in “dauntless” or “admirable”), or combining words (as in “bloodstained” or “cruelhearted”).

Understanding Shakespeare goes far beyond knowing what his words mean. The themes of his plays, the context in which they were written and which shades every stroke of his pen, the necessary knowledge of history or mythology for a given play — there are few who can fully grasp the import of these great works on a first reading with no assistance!

It is the same for any great work of literature. The works of Shakespeare are a terrific example, but the same can be said for the works of Jane Austen and Mark Twain; for Frankenstein and Dracula; for Wuthering Heights and Augustine’s Confessions; for Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities. Certainly these works can be enjoyed when taken at face value. They are incomparable works of literary genius, crafted by artists with insights into how we can “know ourselves”. But when studied in depth, they can tell us much about the human condition, about our place in God’s creation, and more. But in many cases, the assistance of the experts can be of incomparable value in digging deeply into these wonderful works.

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In this vein, there is a series published here at Ignatius Press called the Ignatius Critical Editions (www.ignatiuscriticaleditions.com). At this time, the series has produced 27 volumes, with two more on the way next year. Each volume features the full, unabridged text of the given classic, as well as several critical essays written by experts. The essays are academic, but without the stain of modernism or secularism that is rampant in academe today. As a matter of fact, the textual abuse that is par for the course in academic circles today is what prompted Ignatius Press and Joseph Pearce to launch this series in the first place. Mr. Pearce details this story in a recent article for the National Catholic Register.

The classics are deemed so because they have stood the test of time. Something about a particular work is recognized as worthy of study, and has something to say to every generation. It doesn’t need to be relatable, we don’t all need to be “represented.” Dracula is seen as one of the great works of 19th century fiction, but I doubt many of us can relate to Jonathan Harker or Count Dracula. Pearce writes, “The great works of literature are works of enchantment which have the power to re-enchant the most weary of souls. They are the inheritance of all of us, all of us who want them. …[G]reat literature is manna for the mind and food for the soul.”

Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time (Part 8)

Today we reach the end of our look at Pope St. John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time. We have been looking at this document for some time now, taking it piece by piece, paragraph by paragraph, to see what insights into the catechetical calling the Holy Father can offer us.

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As I said in the last post, I think it is particularly appropriate to look at this document now, as we are beginning a new school year, and have begun (or are about to begin) another year of catechetical instruction at schools and parishes all around the country. Please feel free to go back and read the previous posts in this series if you missed any.

We pick up as John Paul looks at the context of catechesis in the parish, where most formal catechesis takes place. While acknowledging that catechesis can be given anywhere, he stresses that “the parish community must continue to be the prime mover and pre-eminent place for catechesis” (67). In many places the parish is considered old-fashioned, and has been “shaken by the phenomenon of urbanization.” But it remains an ecclesial reality, and should be restored and rejuvenated. The parish must “rediscover its vocation, which is to be a fraternal and welcoming family home, where those who have been baptized and confirmed become aware of forming the People of God.” (67) And “from that home they are sent out day by day to their apostolic mission in all the centers of activity of the life of the world.”

Next, the pope considers the family’s role in catechesis. Put simply, the “family’s catechetical activity has a special character, which is in a sense irreplaceable.” (68) Education in the faith can and should be given even in the witness of a Christian life, a life lived in accordance with the Gospel. “This catechesis is more incisive when, in the course of family events (such as the reception of the sacraments, the celebration of great liturgical feasts, the birth of a child, a bereavement) care is taken to explain in the home the Christian or religious content of these events.” (68) But parents must also give more methodical teaching. In fact, “family catechesis therefore precedes, accompanies and enriches all other forms of catechesis.” The family is the domestic church, the “church of the home,” and the catechetical service they provide is “beyond price.” (68)

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School is treated next, and this is a somewhat complicated scenario. The pope points out that the number of countries in which it is possible to give education in the faith in the context of school is decreasing. There is, of course, the exception of private Catholic schools, but many children are unable to attend such schools, for various reasons. However, where it is possible to educate children in the faith at school, the “Church has the duty to do so as well as possible.” (69) As a matter of fact, “The special character of the Catholic school, the underlying reason for it, the reason why Catholic parents should prefer it, is precisely the quality of the religious instruction integrated into the education of the pupils.” (69) The Holy Father considers public and non-confessional schools, as well. Even in these places, he expresses the importance of children being instructed in the faith, either by the school or in the school setting, as possible. “Those who study are bound to bear the stamp of their studies,” he writes, “to be introduced to cultural or moral values within the atmosphere of the establishment in which they are taught, and to be faced with many ideas met with in school.” (69)

After briefly considering lay associations and training institutes, and the importance of the laity in catechesis (in concert with bishops and pastors), the pope concludes with a reflection on the Holy Spirit and Our Blessed Mother.

He calls the Holy Spirit “the teacher within.” Jesus promised the Holy Spirit “to the Church and to each Christian as a teacher within, who, in the secret of the conscience and the heart, makes one understand what one has heard but was not capable of grasping.” (72)  The Holy Spirit also “transforms the disciples into witnesses to Christ.” He “enables us to say to God, ‘Abba, Father.'” Catechesis is a work of the Holy Spirit, a “growth in faith and the maturing of Christian life.”

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Mary obtains for us a renewal of catechetical dynamism through her intercession. Mary played a unique and incredible role in the life of Our Lord. “As He sat on her lap and later as He listened to her throughout the hidden life at Nazareth, this Son, who was ‘the only Son from the Father,’ ‘full of grace and truth,’ was formed by her in human knowledge of the Scriptures and of the history of God’s plan for His people, and in adoration of the Father.” (73) How remarkable! She is the mother and model of catechists, as well as of disciples. Through her intercession the Church’s catechetical mission continues to bear great fruit.

This brings an end to our reflections on Catechesi Tradendae. This great document of St. John Paul II gives wonderful insight into the catechetical mission of the Church. St. John Paul II, pray for us!

Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time (Part 7)

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.

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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)

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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.

Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time (Part 6)

For the last several months, we have been looking closely at Pope St. John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time. We are nearing the end of this document, and today we look at section VIII: “The Joy of Faith in a Troubled World.”

The word “joy” being in this section’s title speaks to the importance of joy that the Holy Father sees in catechesis. “We live in a difficult world in which the anguish of seeing the best creations of man slip away from him and turn against him creates a climate of uncertainty,” the pope writes. “In this world catechesis should help Christians to be, for their own joy and the service of all, ‘light’ and ‘salt.'” (56)

We are called to this joy in spite of many difficulties and challenges that face us. Several of these are addressed by the Holy Father, in the hopes of providing suggestions to assist catechesis in overcoming the difficulties.

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The first is the indifference of the world. There is an increase in secularization, but while “Fashion changes, [a] profound reality remains.” (57) We must acknowledge that the world largely ignores God or, when it does acknowledge him, is indifferent about the variety of religions and where actual Truth is to be found. “To hold on in this world, to offer to all a dialogue of salvation in which each person feels respected in his or her most basic dignity, the dignity of one who is seeking God, we need a catechesis which trains the  young people and adults of our communities to remain clear and consistent in their faith, to affirm serenely their Christian and Catholic identity, to see him who is invisible and to adhere so firmly to the absoluteness of God that they can be witnesses to Him in a materialistic civilization that denies Him.” (57)

There is also a difficulty in the pedagogy of the faith, the Holy Father writes. “The irreducible originality of Christian identity has for corollary and condition no less original a pedagogy of the faith.” (58) There have been improvements in the science of education and the art of teaching, he says, but there is a particular pedagogy of faith, “and the good that it can do for catechesis cannot be overstated.” (58) Because transmitting the faith means teaching about God’s revelation rather than simply human knowledge, we must always take this originality into account. “Throughout sacred history, especially in the Gospel, God Himself used a pedagogy that must continue to be a model for the pedagogy of faith.” (58)

There is also a problem of language, that is related closely to the question of pedagogy. The pope’s comments here are of particular importance in today’s world, as well: “It is paradoxical to see that, while modern studies, for instance in the field of communication, semantics and symbology, attribute extraordinary importance to language, nevertheless language is being misused today for ideological mystification, for mass conformity in thought and for reducing man to the level of an object.” (59) When it comes to catechesis, this tendency must be rooted out and only the Truth must be spoken. “For catechesis has a pressing obligation to speak a language suited to today’s children and young people in general and to many other categories of people — the language of students, intellectuals and scientists; the language of the illiterate or of people of simple culture; the language of the handicapped, and so on.” (59) But catechesis certainly must not equivocate when it comes to precision of language and clarity of expression. “[C]atechesis cannot admit any language that would result in altering the substance of the content of the Creed, under any pretext whatever, even a pretended scientific one.” (59) Language is at the service of catechesis and communication of the faith.

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The way in which we conceive of faith can be another challenge. “Faith concerns things not yet in our possession,” he writes, “since they are hoped for; that as yet we see only ‘in a mirror dimly’; and that God dwells always in inaccessible light.” (60) Faith is a journey, not the result of some arrival or completion. “For all the more reason one must avoid presenting as certain things which are not.” (60) John Paul does caution against going to the opposite extreme, however: “Although we are not in full possession, we do have an assurance and a conviction.” (60) He continues later, “Let us show [children, adolescents, and young people] that the humble yet courageous seeking of the believer, far from having its starting point in nothingness, in plain self-deception, in fallible opinions or in uncertainty, is based on the Word of God who cannot deceive or be deceived, and is unceasingly built on the immovable rock of this Word.” (60)

The final difficulty the Holy Father examines is the connection between catechesis and theology. “Obviously this connection is profound and vital for those who understand the irreplaceable mission of theology in the service of Faith.” (61) He goes on to elaborate: “Aware of the influence that their research and their statements have on catechetical instruction, theologians and exegetes have a duty to take great care that people do not take for a certainty what on the contrary belongs to the area of questions of opinion or of discussion among experts.” (61) Again, the Holy Father cautions that speculation not be mistaken for matters of divine and Catholic faith. Catechists and theologians “must refuse to trouble the minds of the children and young people” with “outlandish theories, useless questions and unproductive discussions.” (61)

In our next post, we will look at the ninth section, “The Task Concerns Us All.”

Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time (Part 5)

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We have been looking at the beautiful post-synodal apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (On Catechesis in Our Time) by Pope St. John Paul II in our last several posts. Today we continue our look at this document, examining the seventh section: “How to Impart Catechesis”.

We have established, in many ways and contexts, why catechesis is important. It is something that was lost for a long time, something that was downplayed or disregarded in some senses. And in places where the faith was imparted, in some cases there was no personal element; one must have a relationship with the Risen Lord, and catechesis is how this is done. You come to love someone best by truly getting to know them.

The Holy Father considers the diversity of methods that are necessary in imparting catechesis. “The age and the intellectual development of Christians, their degree of ecclesial and spiritual maturity and many other personal circumstances demand that catechesis should adopt widely differing methods for the attainment of its specific aim: education in the faith.” (51) We know that it is of fundamental importance that people are catechized. We know that the faith must be imparted, that people must be evangelized so that they come to know and love God and desire to serve him. Because this is so important, we must be sure to use appropriate methods to do so.

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Most of the readers of this blog are catechists, DREs, Faith Formation directors, or teachers. Whether in a school, a parish, or at home, you know that pedagogical principles help you to instruct people at different ages and grade levels. This is one of the factors to be considered under diversity of methods.

Catechetical series are always developed with pedagogical considerations in mind. Some achieve pedagogical appropriateness more effectively than others, but it is always a factor. There can be different approaches to the same grade level, of course, and this can even be seen in Ignatius Press’ two catechetical series: Faith and Life (www.faithandlifeseries.com) and Image of God (www.imageofgodseries.com). This is also a prime consideration in the NEW catechetical series that is being developed by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute: Word of Life (www.wordoflifeseries.org). We will look more at this new series in an upcoming post on this blog.

Beyond these considerations, the Holy Father cautions against mixing catechetical teaching with “overt or masked ideological views, especially political and social ones, or with personal political opinions.” (52) Catechesis can become “distorted,” he says, when such trends or personal views are infused into the imparting of catechesis. “It is on the basis of revelation that catechesis will try to set its course, revelation as transmitted by the universal magisterium of the Church, in its solemn or ordinary form.” (52) The truth of revelation certainly includes moral elements, which have application in the social and political realm; but “[C]atechesis goes beyond every form of formalistic moralism, although it will include true Christian moral teaching. Chiefly, it goes beyond any kind of temporal, social or political ‘messianism.’ It seeks to arrive at man’s innermost being.” (52)

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Another consideration in the imparting of catechesis is the role that difference of cultures plays. Because catechesis, and evangelization in general, can be said to be called to bring the Gospel into the very heart of cultures, “catechesis will seek to know these cultures and their essential components; it will learn their most significant expressions; it will respect their particular values and riches.” (53) The faith must not be altered or diminished for the sake of inculturation; rather, the culture must be enriched by the faith. Catechesis should “help them to bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought.” (53) That being said, we must insist that the Gospel be transmitted in the context of the culture in which it originated, that of Jesus and the biblical world.

The pope also considers the role that memorization can play in effective catechesis. This is a somewhat controversial question, as the pedagogical role of memorization has been fiercely debated for some time. Coming from a mainly oral tradition, as Christian catechesis does, memorization has historically played a crucial role in catechesis. John Paul recognizes that sometimes memorization can lend itself to insufficient assimilation, “reducing all knowledge to formulas that are repeated without being properly understood.” (55) But he calls for a restoration of “a judicious balance between reflection and spontaneity, between dialogue and silence, between written work and memory work.” Just because something is memorized does not mean it should only be memorized. In fact, it certainly shouldn’t! A formula can be memorized to facilitate assimilation and deeper reflection. Being able to recall that “God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven” allows one to reflect on that important fact at any time. This is certainly laudable!

Now that we have looked at the imparting of catechesis, next time we will discuss part eight: “The Joy of Faith in a Troubled World,” and will conclude with how “The Task Concerns Us All.”