The New Directory for Catechesis

By Nick Wagner

When I learned that the Vatican intended to issue a new directory for catechesis, I was nervous. My copy of the General Directory for Catechesis has been within easy reach since it was issued in 1997. When I first read it, I felt the same nerd-thrill that I felt the first time I read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. My GDC is underlined, dog-eared, sticky-tabbed, and highlighted in a rainbow of color.

Why do we need a new directory? Why mess with one of my favorite—and most relied upon–post-conciliar writings? Sequels are seldom an improvement in either films or church documents. However, like The Godfather: Part II, the exception proves the rule. The new Directory for Catechesis is even better than its predecessor.

The history of catechetical directories

The Directory for Catechesis is the third in a line of documents intended not to offer catechetical content so much as the direction and principles of catechesis in contemporary times.

The original was the General Catechetical Directory, issued in 1971. It was a direct, pastoral response to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which Pope Paul VI considered to be the “great catechism of modern times” (Directory for Catechesis, preface).

The General Directory for Catechesis came next. This second directory was a response to the teaching of Pope John Paul II (especially in On Catechesis in Our Time), the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and new studies which would “foster a better understanding of the pedagogical and formative requirements of catechesis, above all in the light of a renewed interpretation of the catechumenate” (Directory for Catechesis, preface; emphasis added).

The 2020 Directory for Catechesis is also a response to a major addition to church teaching. It is clearly intended to communicate the goals and tasks of catechesis as articulated by the Synod on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith (held under Pope Benedict XVI) together with the resulting apostolic exhortation, Joy of the Gospel (written by Pope Francis; see Directory for Catechesis, preface).

Three contemporary shifts in context

All three directories, spaced roughly two decades apart, are “characterized by changes to the historical context” (Directory for Catechesis, preface). The Directory of Catechesis identifies two such changes explicitly and one more implicitly for this moment in history.

The first shift is the explosion of the digital culture. In both of the previous directories, references to modern technology seem quaint today, giving examples of aging or obsolete media tools for assisting in the work of catechesis. The new directory recognizes the digital world as a new culture, largely inhabited by the young, and in need of the church’s guaranteed “presence on the internet that bears witness to evangelical values” (Directory for Catechesis 214; emphasis in original).

The second shift, which is facilitated by the advance of the digital world, is the globalization of culture. For Pope Francis (and thus, for the new directory), globalization requires more attention to those on the peripheries, more commitment to merciful social action, and a more creative and active response to the destruction of the climate.

The third shift is implied by the council that issued the document. The first two directories were issued from the Congregation for the Clergy. The new directory comes from the Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. This is not just bureaucratic shuffling. Pope Francis wants to…

…mark out the path that admits no excuses in the daily commitment of believers to evangelization… There are no alibies that can take the focus away from a responsibility that belongs to every single believer and the whole church. The close connection between evangelization and catechesis therefore becomes the distinctive feature of the Directory. (Directory for Catechesis, preface)

The implication here is that the clergy are not the chief providers of catechesis. Rather, catechesis is a “privileged stage” in the primary mission of the entire priesthood of Christ, the mission to announce the good news (see Directory for Catechesis 56).

The relationship between catechesis and liturgy

The first paragraph of the Directory for Catechesis gives us a clue about the role of liturgy in relation to catechesis. “Catechesis is an essential part of the broader process of renewal that the Church is called to bring about in order to…proclaim always and everywhere [the] Gospel” (Directory for Catechesis 1).

The “always and everywhere” especially includes the digital, globalized world we live in today. Catechesis, as a stage in evangelization, is necessary but not sufficient. “Because of this, catechesis is related to the liturgy and to charity in making evident the essential unity of the new life which springs from Baptism” (Directory for Catechesis 1).

Related how, exactly? In a subsection titled “The Liturgy,” the directory outlines three ways that catechesis and liturgy are related. First:

The liturgy is one of the essential and indispensable sources of the Church’s catechesis, not only because catechesis is able to draw its contents, vocabulary, actions, and words of faith from the liturgy, but above all because the two belong to one another in the very act of believing. (Directory for Catechesis 95)

The second relationship cites one of my favorite lines from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The liturgy is “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God” (CCC 1074). This is not to be understood in the sense that the liturgy should lose its celebratory character and be turned into catechesis or that catechesis is superfluous…. Catechesis reaches its true fulfillment when the one being catechized takes part in the liturgical life of the community. Catechesis therefore cannot be thought of merely as preparation of the sacraments, but must be understood in relationship to the liturgical experience…. For it is in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist that Christ Jesus works in fullness for the transformation of human beings. (Directory for Catechesis 96)

And the third relationship echoes back to a distinctive characteristic of catechesis: mystagogic initiation. The directory recalls for us the formative journey of faith attested to in the mystagogical catecheses of the Church Fathers. The encounter with the Risen Christ in the liturgy requires “a mystagogical journey [that] springs from this fundamental structure of Christian experience” (Directory for Catechesis 98; see also 97).

While these relationships between catechesis and liturgy are not new, they are given new emphasis here to better illuminate how they “belong to one another.” It is urgent that both catechists and liturgists understand their coresponsibility for evangelizing in a digital, globalized world.

The connection between catechesis and evangelization

The entire catechetical effort is part of a broader process of the renewal of the church and is a participation in the mission of evangelization. The new directory cites Pope Francis’s description of the distinctive characteristics of catechesis that connect it more directly to the proclamation of the Gospel.

First, catechesis is always kerygmatic, focusing on the heart of the faith and the essence of the Christian message. “Catechesis manifests the action of the Holy Spirit, who communicates God’s saving love in Jesus Christ…” (Directory for Catechesis 2).

And second, catechesis is mystagogic initiation (as mentioned above), introducing the believer into the lived experience of the Christian community. “This formative experience is progressive and dynamic; rich in signs and expressions…. All this refers directly to an intuitive understanding…which is becoming more urgent, that catechesis should be inspired by the catechumenal model” (Directory for Catechesis 2; emphasis added).

If these are the characteristics of catechesis (which are missionary in nature), says the directory, then “the goal of the catechetical process is also reinterpreted” (Directory for Catechesis 3). The goal is “intimate communion with Christ” (echoing Pope John Paul II), which then requires that each individual “develop his own unique response of faith (Directory for Catechesis 3; emphasis in original).

Breaking the chokehold of one-size-fits-all models

The need for a “unique response of faith,” in turn, requires “the need for formation that pays attention to the individual [which] often seems to become blurred as once-size-fits-all models take hold” (Directory for Catechesis, preface).

I have never seen a parish that is not deeply embedded in once-size-fits-all models of catechesis. I like to think we have in the past decades made some progress in breaking this chokehold in catechumenate formation. But even there, RCIA teams too often turn to off-the-shelf video series or a chapter-by-chapter reading of a catechism. Children and youth formation is even more securely locked into easily-replicable scope-and-sequence curricula that are required for sacramental celebrations.

So can we even imagine a parish-wide catechetical formation that responds to the unique faith journey of each individual? The new directory can. It says that a kerygmatic, mystagogic catechesis would look like this:

  • It reiterates firm trust in the Holy Spirit….
  • The act of faith is born from the love that desires an ever-increasing knowledge of the Lord Jesus….
  • The Church, mystery of communion, is enlivened by the Spirit and made fruitful in bringing forth new life. This outlook of faith reaffirms the role of the Christian community as the natural setting for the generation and maturation of Christian life.
  • The process of evangelization, and of catechesis as part of it, is above all a spiritual action….
  • The fundamental role of the baptized is recognized…. All believers are active participants in the catechetical initiative, not passive consumers or recipients of a service…. (Directory for Catechesis 4; emphasis in original)

Time to dive deeper

Many film reviewers tell us The Godfather: Part II is a great sequel because it builds upon a great film and takes the audience even deeper. Having heard a powerful story in the original, we are now ready for a next installment that “enlarges the scope and deepens the meaning of the first film” (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, December 23, 1974).

I think that is also the story of the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis and the 2020 Directory for Catechesis. The earlier document was epic and groundbreaking. And having absorbed its teaching and inspiration for half a generation, we are ready for a dramatic, deep-dive into the next phase of our mission.


Nick Wagner is the cofounder of and Liturgy.Life.



  1. Thanks, Nick. What particularly struck me was the decisive influence that Francis has on these documents, particularly the apostolic exhortations as a result of synodal processes. Although going back to Evangelii Nuntiandi and Catechesi Tradendae run through the footnotes, Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia have a huge role to play. Also, systematically, it isn’t “here’s catechesis and, by the way, evangelization plays a role,” but rather “here’s evangelization, a life-long process, and here’s how catechesis plays a role.” This is particularly clear in how the opening part, quite substantial, articulate evangelization in a way that will influence the rest of the Directory. I’ll be happy to hear your take on #62 and what that says about flexibility in membership in the RCIA process.

  2. Hi Frank. Thanks for your comments. I agree that the new directory is definitely a pastoral implementation of the teaching of Pope Francis. Regarding #62, I try to get parish teams to move away from thinking that or speaking as though seekers are members of the RCIA. They are companions on a journey of faith. For some of them, the formal catechumenate in the strict sense will be the most appropriate way to accompany them. For all other seekers, though (even faithful Catholics), a faith formation process that is inspired by or is analogous to the strict catechumenate will be the best pastoral response. I think what we have done in the past is dropped every seeker, including Catholics seeking spiritual renewal, into “the RCIA” in the strict sense. We need to, as the directory says, let go of one-size-fits-all models and get creative about responding to the individual formation needs of each person.

  3. I’m very pleased to see something here — attention to liturgical experience — as in this quote:
    “Catechesis therefore cannot be thought of merely as preparation of the sacraments, but must be understood in relationship to the liturgical experience….” The sacraments are not parcels of grace handed over with indifference to experience, but instead are incarnated liturgically and can only be deeply apprehended experientially. I am reminded of Aidan Kavanagh’s explanation of the necessity of mystagogy which pointed out that some things cannot be adequately spoken about or understood unless and until you’ve experienced them. The term “experiential catechesis” is relevant here. Thanks for an intriguing reflection on this new edition of a beloved classic document!

  4. I’m delighted by the affirmation that our formation is never finished and ever growing; that it’s led by a Spirit which is creative and loves to bring about new things; and, as Rita says, that this comes about because of what we have experienced in liturgy and also in our everyday prayer lives. I would think that such experience is a touchstone of faith.

    Aren’t we often surprised by how we’re led in directions that would never have occurred to us to foresee, or that we would have rejected beforehand?

    Given all this, yes, the “one size fits all” model is far too constraining and doesn’t meet our reality on the ground.

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