Who is God? God is a pure spirit, infinitely perfect. Where is God? God is everywhere. Why did God make you? God made me to know him, to love him and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next. I can still recite those questions and answers from the Baltimore Catechism of my youth. Most people my age learned their faith the same way, I would guess. We learned through a catechism-based catechesis.
What about catechesis today? A catechism-based catechesis seems to be the ordinary catechesis our schools, parishes and dioceses still follow, often in a classroom setting. But is it the only approach to take ?
Where do catechisms come from, anyway? Martin Luther was the first to compose a catechism in question and answers for ordinary people in the 15th century. In response, the Dutch Jesuit Peter Canisius composed the first Catholic catechism in 1555 followed by three others afterwards. The Council of Trent called for a catechism to be written as a resource for the clergy, and that catechism appeared in 1556. Robert Bellarmine later composed an influential catechism requested by Pope Clement VIII; after that, bishops from all over the world composed catechisms for their people.
As we might suspect, Catholic catechisms that followed the Protestant Reformation were composed to give a clear picture of the Catholic faith and were strongly influenced by apologetic aims.
The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s had a different purpose. It was called to renew the church for its mission in the modern world. To bring its message to the worldwide church the council participants recognized the need for catechesis. It would not be a small task, because so many aspects of church life were being renewed. Pope St. Paul VI, who presided over much of the council, considered the council itself the great catechism of modern times. It would be hard to encompass the council’s work in one book. Still, some catechisms appeared after the council was over.
In 1997 Pope St. John Paul II, responding to the wishes of many of the world’s Catholic bishops, promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Faith to foster the aims of the council. In 2006 the bishops of the USA published the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which interspersed stories of saints and others as examples of the faith expounded in the book. A number of other catechisms appeared after the council. “Periods of renewal are intense moments of catechesis,” the Catechism of the Catholic Faith acknowledged in an introductory paragraph. (CCC, 8)
Catechesis beyond Catechisms
In making its decisions and recommendations the Second Vatican Council looked into other times besides the Council of Trent. The history and traditions of the church’s earlier periods, especially patristic times, influenced much of the council’s work. In his catechetical sermons St. Cyril, the 4th century bishop of Jerusalem, instructs his catechumens to memorize the creed as a summary of the scriptures they learned. There were no catechisms then. Books were rare; many people were illiterate.. A memorized creed was their primary book. Catechesis in patristic times used a range of ways to form Christians in their faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes this broader approach to catechesis in its introductory paragraphs. “Quite early on, the name catechesis was given to the totality of the Church’s efforts to make disciples, to help people believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ.” (CCC 4)
The Catechism identifies various ways the church’s catechesis occurs: “while not being formally identified with them, they are: the initial proclamation of the Gospel or missionary preaching to arouse faith; examination of the reasons for belief; experience of Christian living; celebration of the sacraments; integration into the ecclesial community; and apostolic and missionary witness. (CCC 6)
Preaching in all its forms has a catechetical dimension. Searching for reasons we believe is important to catechesis. Living with people who believe is important. Participating in the liturgy and the sacraments is important. Doing good works and taking part in the missionary activity of the Church are important. Catechesis, then, goes beyond knowing a book and its definitions.
Catechesis isn’t just for children either, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states. Young people and adults need to grow into the fulness of the Christian life. “Catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the church’s life.”(CCC 7) It takes place through the whole of life.
Pope Francis’ recent letter “Desiderio Desideravi, on the Liturgical Formation of the People of God,” (June 29, 2022) is an important contribution to catechesis today. “ I do not intend to treat the question in an exhaustive way,” the pope writes; he offers only “some cues for reflections,” but his letter is clearly a call for a liturgy-based catechesis to form the People of God, since liturgy is fundamental to the life of the church.
“I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” Jesus said before the Last Supper. His words, spoken in the context of a liturgy, reveal the depth of the love and desire of the Holy Trinity for us. (DD 2)
Peter and John and other disciples were not the only ones there at the table that night, Francis writes, but “ in actual fact, all of creation, all of history” were there when Jesus reveals “ his infinite desire to re-establish that communion with us that was and remains his original design, and it will not be satisfied until every man and woman, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Re 5:9), shall have eaten his Body and drunk his Blood. And for this reason that same Supper will be made present in the celebration of the Eucharist until he returns again.” (DD 4)
The Eucharist is the great sign of God’s universal love, revealed in the Word incarnate. His body offered, his blood poured out gives meaning to his death and resurrection that followed the supper. The “breaking of the bread” became the sign Jesus offered his first disciples to heal them “from the blindness inflicted by the horror of the cross, and render them capable of “seeing” the Risen One, of believing in the Resurrection.” That same sign is given to the blind and unbelieving today. (DD7)
God’s love, revealed in the Word incarnate, is signified further in the sacraments and the rest of the liturgy as well. The liturgy is a privileged encounter with Jesus Christ. God first loved us, Pope Francis writes, and we in turn are called to love God.
Recognizing Its Beauty Today
We need to recognize the beauty of the liturgy and its fundamental role in our faith today, but the pope in his letter speaks of some obstacles to a liturgy-based catechesis, warning of two tendencies, one he calls neo-Gnosticism, the other neo-Pelagianism:
“The first, neo-Gnosticism, shrinks Christian faith into a subjectivism that ‘ultimately keeps us imprisoned in our own thoughts and feelings.’” (EG 94) Neo-Gnosticism might be described as shrinking the world into what I happen to be interested in now, what I’m doing, what’s going on in my life, what I think is good for me. Nothing else matters. The early gnostics dismissed much of the world as evil, and so made the world too small.
Neo-Pelagianism cancels out the role of grace, the pope says. It leads us to believe we can do anything we set my minds to. I don’t need anything beyond what I can do with my own hands and my own mind. So why do I need God? These two tendencies today endanger an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist and the liturgy.
The liturgy provides a remedy for the two tendencies, Francis says. It “frees us from the prison of self-referencing nourished by our own reasoning and our own feeling.” It frees us from small-mindedness. On the other hand,“It does not leave us alone to search out the mystery of God. Rather, it takes us by the hand, together, as an assembly, to lead us deep within the mystery that the Word and the sacramental signs reveal to us. And it does this, consistent with God’s action, following the way of the Incarnation…” (DD 18)
The Way of the Incarnation
The liturgy follows the way of Incarnation, the pope continues, which means it invites us to wonder at creation as a work of God. This a challenge today, the pope notes, a challenge “extremely demanding because modern people — not in all cultures to the same degree — have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act.”
In “Desiderio Desideravi” Pope Francis quotes extensively from Romano Guardini, a German liturgist and theologian who warned of symbolic illiteracy present in today’s modern world. “We must become once again capable of symbols,” Guardini wrote. Symbolic illiteracy not only endangers liturgical life but, as Francis wrote previously in his letter “Laudato si’, also endangers the way humanity relates to creation and the environment.
“Liturgy is done with things that are the exact opposite of spiritual abstractions: bread, wine, oil, water, fragrances, fire, ashes, rock, fabrics, colours, body, words, sounds, silences, gestures, space, movement, action, order, time, light. The whole of creation is a manifestation of the love of God, and from when that same love was manifested in its fullness in the cross of Jesus, all of creation was drawn toward it. It is the whole of creation that is assumed in order to be placed at the service of encounter with the Word: incarnate, crucified, dead, risen, ascended to the Father. It is as the prayer over the water at the baptismal font sings, but also the prayer over the oil for sacred chrism and the words for the presentation of the bread and wine — all fruit of the earth and work of human hands.” (DD 27)
In his letter, Pope Francis makes his own the words of Pope St. Paul VI at the close of the second session of the Second Vatican Council: “God must hold first place; prayer to him is our first duty. The liturgy is the first source of divine communion in which God shares his own life with us. It is also the first school of the spiritual life. The liturgy is the first gift we must make to the Christian people united to us by faith and the fervour of their prayers. It is also a primary invitation to the human race, so that all may now lift their mute voices in blessed and genuine prayer and thus may experience that indescribable, regenerative power to be found when they join us in proclaiming the praises of God and the hopes of the human heart through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit”.  (DD 30)
Though Pope Francis describes his letter as “some cues for reflections,” Desiderio Desideravi certainly sees the liturgy as the “catechism” of the church today. It’s a school for the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and a path for the People of God on their journey in the modern world. The pope calls for the church’s ministers to bring this treasure to those for whom it may be “hidden in the field.” He asks everyone to discover the beauty of the liturgy each day.
As the pope says in his letter’s opening paragraphs, the liturgy is not something separating us from others. With Peter and John who prepared the Supper “in actual fact, all of creation, all of history” were there. “The world still does not know it, but everyone is invited to the supper of the wedding of the Lamb (Re 19:9).
Following the lead of Vatican II, Pope Francis looks for a liturgy that invites the world to its table. “We must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living. This is what I spoke of when I said, “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (Evangelii gaudium, n. 27).
Today’s blog is longer than others on this website because I see “Desiderio Desideravi” offering some context for what we’re doing here. Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a reflection on the scriptures from the liturgy’s daily lectionary or the saint of the day or season of the year or one of the mysteries of faith on this blog. I find doing them, to use the word’s of St. Augustine, a way to discover “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” I marvel I don’t get tired of doing this. (Well, I admit sometime I do, but it passes) I think the other contributors to this blog feel the same.
The pope’s letter inspires me. Don’t stop, it says.
Victor Hoagland, CP