A catechesis that impoverishes the faith…

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

One of the assessment that keeps coming up from sociological inquiries on contemporary catholicism in Western countries, and singularly in France, is one of fragmentation. The pastoral meetings of priests of a same area, deanery or diocese, offer the same diagnostic, established in an empirical way: the great majority of their parishioners live their faith in a rather narrow and homogeneous circle, have no opportunity to meet other Catholics very different from themselves, and gather by affinities. Only rural areas keep concretely the primacy of the territorial network of parishes, though this is where exactly it is the most stretched thin, the most difficult to keep… less, by the way, in virtue or ecclesial sense than because often, it can’t done in any other way. In large cities, elective logics preside to the constitution of communities, within parishes or transversally to them. Be that as it may of the multiplicity of the motives that provoke or reinforce this division, overall it is a sign of the weakening of the ecclesial structure, all the way to the proclamation of the faith.

The catechesis is one good example of it. It is even the occasion of a double questioning: indeed, is it possible that the tracks, with their particularities, reproduce the significant fragmentation of catholicism and therefore the faith? What is, in the end, the common basis of all?

The consideration we put forward does not pretend to have the knowledge of all catechetical tracks; the three we are presenting have been chosen on the basis of one sole criteria: we have received them to use them, two of them directly, the third one by procuration (prolonged counsel given to a catechist). Maybe we can say that they have in common to position us among rather traditional or classic catholicism.

This consideration does not pretend either to offer a complete critical analysis of the said tracks. Closer to reality, it finds its base, as catechist.

If there is a determination put into practice or at least clearly enunciated by all, today, in the catechesis, it is without a doubt one of a complete and integral presentation. But… of what? Shall we ask immediately after our hesitation: of the faith, we think we can simply say. So it is, we know, the very notion of faith can relate to approaches sensibly different, particularly significant today; these approaches which structure these tracks[1] and divide the Catholic landscape. Let us explain.

First track: the presentation of the doctrine, in the old way

In traditional communities where the manual takes the form of questions-responses, the accent is put on the doctrine and its normative exposé, more and more detailed and precise, declining the successive articles of the Creed, Commandments, the words of the Our Father, the sacraments. Beyond the pedagogical form (questions-responses, learning by heart), we find ourselves straight to the point in what must be “especially” the catechesis, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “an education of the faith, youth and adults, who understand especially a teaching of Christian doctrine, generally given in an organic and systematic manner, in order to initiate to the plenitude of the Christian life” (n.5). The catechism is in some way a tracing of the Catechism itself and moreover of the Compendium: “The accent of this Catechism is about the doctrinal exposé” (n.23).

Most of the time, what eventually surround this doctrinal exposé, so that it reaches its goal  -“initiate to the plenitude of Christian life”, is left to the families; or, more exactly, the catechism is considered as a delegation given to the priest, to the school establishment sometimes, for the teaching of the doctrine; the life of prayer, moral and liturgy remaining within the frame of the family, the first and effective responsibility of the parents. In the end, catechism is an auxiliary work of Catholic families.

Second track: first, charity

The presupposition of a flourishing Catholic milieu (family and related to it) is not always laid down, this presupposition which allows the circumscription of catechetic activity to the presentation of the doctrine. it is even rare, outside of certain limited circles. The catechist finds himself then (or think it does) invested with a mission more vast, an initiation “to the plenitude of Christian life”, to take on the terms already met in the Catechism, “the maturation of this faith, its rooting in the life and its influence in the testimony” (n.23).

Preferring it to a theoretical exposé, we wish to simply present a situation we experienced recently. it seems to us a representation of the difference of accent in the proclamation of the gospel we wish to bring out.

In a parochial catechism group, that the author of this article agreed to lead, with the manual he was given (“God brings us together” from the track “I want to know you”, from the diocese of Tarbes and Lourdes), the lesson of Maundy Thursday, centered on the washing of the feet, should have, in relation to the teaching of the doctrine (“to be remembered”), found a conclusion in two short questions: “What is Jesus doing? According to what Jesus says, who is the greatest among us?”, the responses had to be filled out by the children. We preferred to direct those to the preceding page where, in a parallel with the hymn to the Philippians (Chap.2), are reminded of terms like Trinity, Incarnation, Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection; what the washing of the feet represents exactly.

In both tracks – this one and one more traditional -, the doctrinal content is thus identical, even in the terms. Yet, it seems to us possible to note that, for those who wrote this track, faith, in this chapter, as in a general way, is considered mostly on the side of Charity (and other virtues) in which it must flourish. We understand it if we place ourselves in the overall educative perspective mentioned above. Nothing but straightforward catholicism, actually, in this openness of the faith to charity. And to guide the reflection and invite to practicing their faith, the chapter contains a page of concrete examples of services that the child can render daily, while the next chapter presents on a page saints that have offered themselves totally to the service of God and neighbor, so to, without a doubt, not reduce charity to being “nice” with mother or a “sharer” with the friend who doesn’t have his afternoon snack.

What ever this legitimization, if we place ourselves on the side of the listener, of the one who, having heard and remembered, will proclaim the faith in front of the Church (profession of faith) and will proclaim it to the world, one does not miss to notice that the children will express themselves differently, more poorly.

Third track: first, the personal relation with Christ

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, enunciate at the end of the initial paragraphs on catechesis: “All the finality of the doctrine and of the teaching must be placed within the love ever ending. For we can very well present what is to be believed, hoped or done; but most of all we must always make appear the Love of Our Lord so that each understands that all act of perfectly Christian virtue has no other origin than Love and no other term than Love” (n.25).

This quote opens the Petit guide du catéchiste from the track “Come, follow me”, from the Institute Our Lady of Life; a track which, in the path of the founder of this institute, the Blessed Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, translated it as a primacy of the awakening to the desire of God, of the interior experience of Christ, of his presence and his mercy. The central place given, in each of the session, to what resemble a guided prayer, strongly suggest it. On the same line, for the doctrinal content, the return on the preceding session “leaves the children to express themselves about what they have kept in their heart.”

Here is a third version of faith, that the track calls “faith-engagement”, in the path of Fr. Marie-Eugène, term that evidently we will not hear with the emphasis found in Catholic Action, but in the light of the Carmelite school.

Certainly, among young generations, when children have become secondary school students and young adults, some gathering places exist; and a common conscience to be Catholic comers first: they are less sectarian than their elder, so it is said. Yet, these differences in the teaching of the faith have not disappeared.

In the traditional world, the pilgrimage to Chartres for Pentecost is one of these particular places where people can meet. During these three days of peregrination, it only takes to talk with any of the participants to note the diversity, and how much some are far from a traditional catechism, from a doctrinal framework of the faith. “It is not the most important”, some would say, Ecclesia supplet

The organizers seem to think somewhat differently. They are the ones who prepare very carefully a coherent and heavy ensemble of teachings and meditations, prepare the heads of chapters for their task, mobilize the greatest number of priests, seminarians and religious to guarantee their understanding and resolve any questions. The ambition is regular from year to year. Maybe because, in the back, is the conviction that the doctrine, the inner life, charity and virtues respond to each other, and that no one should be neglected, without harming others. It would be good if the example was followed on a larger scale.

Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot

[1] It seems to us that this difference of approach to the virtue of faith (this supernatural virtue, to speak as the ancient catechism, which is a gift of God, by which we firmly believe, with a perfect submission to God and what He has revealed to his Church and She asks us to believe) is more discriminating than the difference of place given to the Bible, even if biblical and doctrinal lines can be not directly parallel. But this is a recurrent question and inevitable question, whatever it may be.