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.