Re-Envisioning Catechesis

Pope Francis this morning called for a new way of educating and catechizing people in the faith. An honest and in-depth discussion on catechesis is long overdue, especially in light of the new evangelization.

Central to Pope Francis’ new vision for catechesis is a movement way from “the scholastic sphere.” Showing people how to encounter and follow Christ is more important than teaching people specific scholastic principles. Pope Francis’ vision echoes the patristic fathers such as St. Augustine, who said that the most important thing in catechizing the faithful is helping them experience and encounter Christ.

Joshua McElwee in his article “Francis calls for reorientation of catechesis away from ‘simply scholastic sphere’” reflects on Pope Francis’ new vision for the new evanglization. McElwee sees the new evangelization, as understood by Pope Francis, as an “effort by Catholics to evince their faith by working to help those on society’s peripheries.”

In his meeting with members of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization in its plenary meeting on the theme “Relationship between evangelization and catechesis,” Pope Francis noted the “great changes” occurring in the world today:

Truly, these changes are a happy provocation to gather the signs of the times that the Lord offers the Church so that it may be able…to bring Jesus Christ to the people of our time…The mission is always identical, but the language with which to announce the Gospel asks to be renovated, with pastoral wisdom.

In a further comment, Pope Francis continued to talk about the relationship between the Catholic Tradition and today’s world:

This is essential, both to be understood by our contemporaries and because the Catholic Tradition might speak to the cultures of today’s world and help them to open themselves to the perennial fruitfulness of the Christ’s message.

Pope Francis notes that people want a church that is willing to walk with them and support them. This is especially the case for those on the margins.

Pope Francis then redefined the new evangelization in a broad sweeping and pastoral statement:

The new evangelization therefore is this: to take awareness of the merciful love of the Father to truly become ourselves instruments of salvation for our brothers.

The new evangelization is deeply connected to our understanding of catechesis. The Church’s understanding of catechesis needs to be re-imagined based on Pope Francis’ call in the new evangelization to focus on helping others encounter the presence of Christ in their lives.

Pope Francis’ vision for catechesis is quite profound:

Catechesis, as a component of the process of evangelization, needs to go beyond simply the scholastic sphere to educate believers, from childhood, to meet Christ, living and working in his church.

As Joshua McElwee notes, Pope Francis’ new moves on catechesis could have a huge impact on the global Catholic Church.

Francis’ emphasis on taking catechesis beyond the academic sphere could represent a significant shift for the global Catholic church, where educators and bishops frequently refer to the rather regimented and lengthy Catechism of the Catholic Church in their teachings.

While redefining the new evangelization and catechesis is important, equally important is discussing how this will be practically implemented. One component of this should be a revival of the mystagogical catechesis of the patristic period. Mystagogical catechesis is the gradual revealing of the liturgical rites that have already been celebrated. There should be a new program in which mystagogical catechesis is brought into parishes on a regular basis.

In what ways do you think the liturgy can be a source of renewal and support for the new evangelization and the Church’s program of catechesis? Any advice you would give to Rome as it reassesses these aspects of the Church’s mission?

Please comment below.

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21 comments

  1. As someone who experienced CCD in the 70’s and 80’s I can tell you there was no scholastic influence whatsoever in my catechesis. I could make great felt banners though. All I learned about the faith and Catholicism, I’ve learned mostly on my own.

    I would recommend the book Jesus Shock by Peter Kreeft, as an excellent example of how to know Jesus, that is through the factual knowledge of His presence in the Eucharist. If we understand that, then we know that we are closest to God in the Sacarament.

  2. Substituting readings from the Greek and Latin fathers at Mass for what often passes as a sermon in so many parishes would be a small start down the path Pope Francis has in mind. I’ve found Protestant converts (generally from the mainline churches) often have a greater exposure to and a deeper understanding of scripture scholarship, contemporary research in church history and the Fathers prior to their decision to swim the Tiber than their fellow life-long Catholics.

    The latter rarely seem to deviate from a routine of parroting scholastic theological formulas memorized from the cathechism, or parochial school experience. Laced generously with chapter and verse citationos from canon law, or from favorite quotes cited from “Rorate Caeli”, Fr. Blake, the NLM, Fr. Z, etc.

    No discussion of the liturgy is complete today without comboxes being peppered with a string of mantras ad nauseum in the seemingly endless debates over the suitablility and validity of the Novus Ordo versus the enduring appeal of “the liturgy of the saints” to be found in the 1962 form of the Tridentine Mass.

  3. The vision of Christ at the heart of catechesis is set out in … ahem … paras 426-9 of the Catechism!

    Could it be that the dislike of the Catechism is due less to its alleged “regimented” nature than to the Pope(s) who drafted and authorised it?

    Perish the thought.

  4. As the parent of school-aged daughters, I have experienced catechesis as an exercise in teaching religion, not in forming faith. Religion class is taught in the same way as geography or math–there is a textbook, they study what’s in the book, take tests, and receive a grade. Preparation for the sacraments ramps up the studying for a short while and there may (or may not) be a one-day retreat.

    When those students walk down the aisle to be confirmed, they can sure as heck name the gifts of the Holy Spirit or tell you what Paraclete means. They may or may not believe in God, attend church, or see that faith has anything to do with everyday life, but they passed the tests and earned their sacrament. Then they can finally quit going to class, to the great relief of students and parents alike.

    It’s a 19th century model of formation. I am very glad to hear Pope Francis is trying to do something about it, but good luck changing the status quo in dioceses and parishes. It’s easier to keep a grade book and sacramental checklist than it is to walk with dozens of individuals on an actual journey of faith.

    But is it completely the role of the parish to provide faith formation, or is it enough for the parish to provide the “content” and challenge the parents to provide the lived example and daily exercise of the faith? That’s another conversation.

    1. @Scott Pluff:

      Scott — I agree with you on the brokenness of the current “19th century model” of formation (as well as the sharp climb necessary to be able to change it).

      However, I think your question ties in with that same brokenness — to presume that faith formation is solely the role of the parish is part of that same broken 19th c. model. I think engaging parents and families (in some way more meaningful than only “content”) is the only way to bring about better formation, whether or not diocesan policies are changed.

    2. @Scott Pluff:
      I agree that it falls on both the parish and the family to provide faith formation. I worry that the culture of many Catholic parishes is to assume that the parish religious ed office has all the answers, and that the families aren’t doing it right if their children aren’t experiencing and learing their faith in a fruitful way.

      Our religous ed team consists or two middle aged single women who don’t seem to be in touch with the lives of families and teenagers. Combine that with an enthusiastic and kind priest who doesn’t always appreciate the challeges of raising children. To be clear, they are all good and well-intentioned in their hopes and goals for catechesis. As a pediatrician, I hear the stories and struggles that families don’t always reveal to the religious ed staff at our parish. Those teenagers know that if they don’t give the right response at their confirmation interview, there might be a price to pay for their honesty.

      I think that if the religious ed folks did a bit more listening, they might hear what families want for a deeper catechesis experience. A series of roundtables and listening sessions may go a long way at the local level.

    3. @Scott Pluff:
      Until I read the last paragraph of Scott’s comment, I was struck by how much of this discussion (including the Pope’s comments) seems to presume the institutional facets of the church (school, parish, liturgy/homily) as being the primary locus of catechetical formation. This runs contrary to what the rite of infant baptism says. So thank you, Scott, for acknowledging the role of parents/home in catechesis & formation.
      I find myself wondering if this 19th-century model came into existence because the non-scholastic, formative, disciplined aspects were understood to take place in the home, and by regular attendance by all members of the household together at the Mass. If this model arose as a complement to other modes of formation going on elsewhere, it’s hardly fair to criticize it when the other mode(s) have nearly vanished.
      I was in the last class in my parish school who had to memorize the Baltimore catechism (short form, of course) in order to receive first communion. My parents helped me memorize – and that discipline was complemented by our attendance at Mass, and prayer in the morning, at meals, and at night. I’m not necessarily advocating for a return to the catechism hoop for sacramental reception, but being a disciple requires being disciplined-in a variety of ways.

      1. @Alan Hommerding:
        This age then presents a challenge-to catechize the next generation whose parents have only a loose connection to the faith. Their great-grandparents lived the faith because they were true believers (or, cynically, were seriously afraid of going to Hell.) Their grandparents practiced the faith on and off because their parents or society made them do it (and were not so worried about going to Hell). Their parents were skeptical of religious institutions, participating in the sacraments only as rites of passage and may not even believe in Heaven or Hell. This present generation is beginning to lose its interest even in rites of passage, as shown by a steep decline in church weddings. I predict that we will begin a steady decline in baptisms in the next ten years.

        If we allow our parishes to only focus on teaching the catechism and expect parents to pass on a lived witness that they themselves never experienced, we are going to loose millions from the church. This requires a very different approach to catechesis-putting as much effort into faith sharing and witness as into teaching the content of the faith. Most parish catechetical programs are not remotely equipped for this task.

      2. @Scott Pluff:
        Nail on head. Here in the UK we are largely post-christian. The average Joe knows very little about Christian beliefs, and the only things they know about the Church are connected to the high-level covering up of child abuse.
        We had confirmations a couple of weeks ago, 18 youngsters (14 year olds) from this and the neighbouring town centre parishes. With one or two exceptions their parents were strangers to church and not at all comfortable there. The youngsters got involved mainly through the town’s Catholic High schools’ SVP. They were shown a way of being Christian and found it very attractive and wanted “in.”
        Presumably the other 200 or so pupils in their Year who had followed the identical catechesis in school as part of the curriculum had not been touched by it.
        Maybe the best and most effective catechesis is by example. Just maybe.

  5. Having gone back and read the English and Italian news releases at news.va, I think McElwee has interpreted the statement with an anti-intellectual bent.

    We are being driven to a not only … but also … approach.

    Pope Francis is calling for us to move from from a simply scholastic sphere to an encounter with Christ — certainly, encountering Christ cannot be merely an intellectual exercise, no matter how good, accurate, and orthodox it is — to do so would be to come to ‘know’ Christ but not see Him. However, since one of the bishops’ primary responsibilities is to teach, there is no reason to think the Catechism quotes would go away… or even that they should go away.

    Part of encountering Christ means encountering Him on the margins — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta had been telling us that for decades. However, even meeting Christ “at the margins” in the poorest of the poor is not sufficient on its own. To only encounter Christ here, to the exclusion of the scholarly sphere, is to sink from Christianity to mere activism, because He is seen but not known.

    I think mystagogy becomes a transition to assist us to move between — an “incarnational education”, an understanding of the experience. It is an opportunity to understand Who we have encountered and why, how we have encountered Him through the Mysteries, and to prepare us to go out and serve as Christians. Without that bridge, we risk falling into either intellectualism or activism.

  6. Francis’s comments do not strike me as any sort of attempt to re-envision or redefine catechesis. Certainly anyone who would suggest that John Paul II understood catechesis as a scholastic indoctrination never paid much attention to JP2.

    Indeed, the vision of catechesis described by Francis is almost identical to the way JP2 talked about it: “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth … and Christian living consists in following Christ, the sequela Christi…. Accordingly, the 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.” (That’s from the opening paragraphs of JP’s apostolic exhortation on catechesis.)

    I would not say the same about “the new evangelization.” Francis’s doesn’t seem to have the same interest in the concept that his predecessors had (which is NOT AT ALL to say he lacks interest in evangelization). Still, Francis’s words quoted in this article — “The mission is always identical, but the language with which to announce the Gospel asks to be renovated, with pastoral wisdom” — sounds a lot like JP2.

    Sure, there have been more than a few young guns with a militant approach to catechesis. But I think by and large, a personal, Christ-centered approach is the norm. I think our ineffectiveness lies more in the fact that local catechesis is being carried out largely by well-intentioned but untrained volunteers, who are “outgunned” by a culture that is largely uninterested in religious matters.

    1. @Barry Hudock:
      Agreed!
      In addition, all we have to do is read, deeply interpret, and implement the 2005 National Directory for Catechesis to see that it calls for everything Pope Francis is saying.
      The NDC is clear, and throughout this document we see that liturgy is to be the center of all catechesis. (Regarding NDC, a student once remarked to me that everything we need to know is in this document).
      The RCIA reintroduced us to mystagogy; however, the task is to show that everyone is engaged in liturgical reflection – and this is a life-long way of being.
      Sadly, in my experience, far to many “catechetical leaders” do not have an enthusiasm for any sort of renewal.
      How do we help others to be more open to seeing with new eyes or hearing with new ears? I have stated this before – pastoral and theological education is indispensable for those those responsible for catechetical leadership.
      Pope Francis is clear regarding pastoral activity – we “cannot leave things as they presently are” (EG 25).

  7. Thank you for highlighting this latest encouragement by Pope Francis. In reading the papal letter it seems a long-needed middle road between the collage-making CCD of recent generations and the ‘faith=only doctrinal knowledge approach’. This sounds like making disciples, formation, that is both theology and praxis (catechumenate with a balance?) Societas Liturgica is going to wrestle with these same issues about formation this August – timely pronouncement for our purposes too!

  8. A catechism student once recounted that when she was little, her grandmother told her that if she fell asleep while saying her prayers at night, she didn’t need to feel guilty about it because her guardian angel would finish her prayers for her. And so, she said, every night she tried to keep saying her prayers until she fell asleep, in the hope that her guardian angel would then take over.

    It struck me as a lovely story, and a wonderful kind of catechesis, encouraging prayer and communion with other believers. It creates a setting that favors an encounter with Christ, and that’s what pious exercises are good for, I think.

  9. How much do current education programs involve children in prayer and devotions? Things like the Rosary, or Litany of Saints, or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament? How about teaching children what prayer is and how to pray?

    My own 1990s CCD experience was rather dismal – I honestly don’t remember learning or doing much. I think I had a workbook with homework I had to do, and we would also do themed word searches and coloring sheets.

    1. @Jack Wayne:
      Hi Jack. As someone who has written religious education textbooks and guidelines for catechesis, I can speak to this question. Yes, they do.

      The fact that these things occur in the textbooks, however, does not mean that they are necessarily what the students either remember or actually do. I daresay that your 1990s CCD textbooks all had these items in them. There are national guidelines to which all the publishers are held strictly. Memories of classroom experiences, however, will skew to what actually made an impression. If one remembers coloring sheets and word searches, that means these things are what engaged you at that age.

      A lot depends on the teacher, and many are thrown into the classroom with zero training. Religious education is presumed to be so low level an occupation that anyone can do it, cold. Yet if the teacher is not comfortable leading prayer, it may be rushed or omitted. Further, if the teacher’s spirituality is not actually validated at home, the classroom experience may also be too little, too late.

      1. @Rita Ferrone:
        I agree that those things may have been there, but perhaps get ignored, or are used so infrequently that there isn’t enough time to make an impression. Kid’s need – and often crave – repetition and ritual.

        I did want to say that I remember the word searches and coloring sheets because they were boring – not because they engaged me. As a kid, I liked prayer and devotions quite a bit (I was the sort of kid who would pick flowers for the Mary statue we had in the back yard and liked praying for saints’ intercession). The main CCD event that did make a lasting impression was a mock Passover dinner we had when I was in 7th or 8th grade. Parents made food and we ate on the parish school stage (the “upper room”), and we did some of the rituals that occur on Passover. I can’t speak to how accurate it was, or how appropriate it is to have a pretend Jewish ritual, but it did leave a positive impression.

    1. @Alan Johnson:
      Our Parish did Alpha with quite a turnout. (400 ish). My wife attended, and was disappointed in the lack of Catholic catechesis. There was nothing about Real presence in the Eucahrist, or confession. There was however lots of singing, and praying over people.

  10. With the advent of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a conscious decision was made by Rome and the bishops of the U.S. to focus on the content of catechesis. Catechetical publishers were presented with a tool to insure that their textbooks had conformity and consistency with the catechism. The texts go through a rigorous process of review. Dioceses have used trees of paper writing catechetical curriculum for K-12. For a lack of better words we still have a school model for catechesis in the U.S. Look at some of the resources for the RCIA, my goodness they are practically college level courses in Catholicism. The model of RCIA that was solely focused on the Sunday Liturgy and session following, has now expanded to another evening “class” for participants. We can’t get over this false idea that we simply pour information into people. Some of our First Eucharist preparation is like preparing second graders for their MA in Theology. Just some thoughts.

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