Pope St. John Paul II was one of the greatest evangelizers and catechizers ever to sit on the Chair of Peter. In November 1977, during the pontificate of Bl. Paul VI, the Fourth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops was held, with the theme “Catechesis in Our Time,” giving special focus to the catechesis of children and young people.
Following the Synod, the Holy Father began work on the post-synodal apostolic exhortation. Based on the documents and conversations to emerge from the Synod, the work was begun by Paul VI, continued during the exceedingly brief pontificate of John Paul I, and then taken up and completed by John Paul II. The document — entitled Catechesi Tradendae — was ultimately published on October 16, 1979, the one-year anniversary of John Paul II’s election to the papacy.
The text of this document is full of beautiful insights into the task of catechesis, one of the most important responsibilities of the Church. “The Church has always considered catechesis one of her primary roles, for, before Christ ascended to His Father after His resurrection, He gave the apostles a final command — to make disciples of all nations and to teach them to observe all that He commanded.” (CT 1)
The Church herself is particularly responsible for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, and has been given special gifts by Jesus to impart the Truth: “He also entrusted them [the apostles] with the mission and power to explain with authority what He had taught them, His words and actions, His signs and commandments. And He gave them the Spirit to fulfill this mission.” (CT 1) The Synod that preceded this apostolic exhortation expressed the task of catechesis in ways that would be helpful for all catechists to hear and prayerfully consider.
Authentic catechesis, according to the Synod fathers and stressed in the document, is fundamentally Christocentric. This term “Christocentric” “is intended to stress that at the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, ‘the only Son from the Father…full of grace and truth,’ who suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever.” (CT 5) It is also Christocentric in that what is being transmitted is not the teaching of the individual catechist; rather, it is the teaching of Jesus Christ, “the Truth that He communicates or, to put it more precisely, the Truth that He is.” (CT 6) “Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.'” (CT 6, cf. John 7:16)
What is, according to this great evangelizer, this role model for catechists everywhere, the primary goal of catechesis? “[T]he definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.” (CT 5)
Catechesis can not be conducted in a vacuum, in a purely intellectual pursuit of some sort of religious formulae. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is necessary for catechesis. “Only in deep communion with Him will catechists find light and strength for an authentic, desirable renewal of catechesis.” (CT 9)
This is important because catechesis is more than just one more thing the Church does, or one more thing a parish needs space for. “[I]t is clear that the Church has always looked on catechesis as a sacred duty and an inalienable right. On the one hand, it is certainly a duty springing from a command given by the Lord and resting above all on those who in the new covenant receive the call to the ministry of being pastors. On the other hand, one can likewise speak of a right: from the theological point of view every baptized person, precisely the reason of being baptized, has the right to receive from the Church instruction and education enabling him or her to enter on a truly Christian life.” (CT 14)
Furthermore, “The more the Church, whether on the local or the universal level, gives catechesis priority over other works and undertakings the results of which would be more spectacular, the more she finds in catechesis a strengthening of her internal life as a community of believers and of her external activity as a missionary Church.” (CT 15) At the same time, there is a constant need for renewal in catechesis. It “needs to be continually renewed by a certain broadening of its concept, by the revision of its methods, by the search for suitable language, and by the utilization of new means of transmitting the message.” (CT 17)
Catechesi Tradendae does also address deficiencies in catechesis, which were discussed by the Synod fathers. There are “limitations or even ‘deficiencies’ in what has been achieved to date. These limitations are particularly serious when they endanger integrity of content.” (CT 17) Routine and improvisation are equally dangerous, the pope stresses. “Routine leads to stagnation, lethargy and eventual paralysis. Improvisation begets confusion on the part of those being given catechesis and, when these are children, on the part of their parents; it also begets all kinds of deviations, and the fracturing and eventually the complete destruction of unity.” (CT 17)
The document has much more of value to offer, and presents many more challenges to catechists. This is a document of inestimable value, and every catechist should read it prayerfully. During the summer, when most parish catechetical programs are on hiatus — or at least significantly lower levels of activity — please read the document, and share it with everyone you think it may speak to.
I will continue looking at the document in greater detail as the summer continues.