Part One – present state of affairs
Catechesis is an important part of the life of the Church where the disarray of some operators meets with the dissatisfaction of others, all against the background of a general loss of interest. Priests and catechesis have a difficult time finding formulas, methods and journeys that not only bear fruits of Christian life (how many child enrolled in catechism classes actually attend Sunday mass? How many actually continue practicing once completed the various rites of passage?), but simply limit the continuous decrease of enrollment in catechism classes. As to the parents, when they are attentive to catechism actually teaching the truths of the faith, they sometimes wonder whether they shouldn’t teach it themselves to their children; unless they find an other group, outside parochial or diocesan structures, with this biter taste of finding themselves at the margins… or pushed there.
Imagine a town where catechism is offered in both parishes and Catholic schools, a situation where we could think the text material approved by the bishop is the one in use. In fact, the catechists enjoy such autonomy or laissez-faire, which is quite prevalent, they often receive no direction and no one monitors their work. For better, for worst… Some of the children of this town will be able to attend catechism within the frame of a religious community or a priest from a local traditional group, even though the family does not attend mass there. The fact that catechism is administered by a priest, a religious men or woman, might have played an important role in their decision. Other children also, might join groups that are essentially prayer groups but that also ensure a true formation during their gatherings and through their magazine, sometimes with the seriousness of an academic journal. Finally, some will learn their catechism at home, with their parents, using classical textbooks, now re-edited or available online, or through a correspondence course, eventually with the corrections of a priest or a religious. These families can also, in an effort to come together, set up parallel structures that can be called “family catechism.”
As we can see, there’s a diversity of options. In the rural world, the opportunities for propositions are less, unless one is not afraid to drive distances, the choice some families make. Some boy scout troops also include catechism in their week-end activities, attracting children and families for miles around. Let’s not forget the internet: remoteness has, for a long time, encouraged the use of the computer, in addition or to replace the subscriptions to paper versions. The recent confinement, due to Covid 19, has considerably amplified the phenomena and created an offer quasi overabundant, many parish-priests or communities using either they cell phones or more sophisticated equipment, to record their catechism class now that they can’t be given in person. How long will these experiments last? It is not certain, for they require so much time to prepare; though the archives now exist and are available to anyone.
Before they eventually become opportunities, they are first of all as many signs of a disorder, leading sometimes to grotesque situations as this one in a class of 5th graders, in a Catholic school, where the two only children not raising their hand when being asked who was going to participate in the ceremony of solemn communion were the only two to attend Sunday mass… all this because beside the catechism they attended in school, they also followed a class in a different community, and this is were they were going to participate in the ceremony. Or, an other example, as in this declaration from a young vicar, at a parish, as he was approached by parents troubled by the lack of interest their children showed in regards to the parochial catechism which they estimated to be quite limited, repetitive, “silly”. To them he said” “he parish can’t do anything for your children…”
A content reconfigured
The new catechesis has, without a doubt, contributed to the dechristianization of Western society, of which it falls a victim itself: for example, what approach can we take with children who, at home, do not live in a Christian way with daily prayers, cultural references, and Sunday mass? For a number of parents, parochial catechism goes for an initiation to vague moral values, and the Catholic school is chosen in relation to the quality of the teaching or discipline, as well as the possible social interactions. One would be tempted, then, to take a position in response to such a demand, fearing these children, too, would be enrolled elsewhere, but also pressured by the parents in number or in the financial support they represent. Any other way, the task seems insurmountable. And there, one finds itself engaged in a vicious circle.
Catechism was an important piece in the wojtyla-ratzinger plan, between 1980 and 2013, to taking control back. In a famous and significant conference given in Lyon and then in Paris in January 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger had talked about the motives of the crisis of the catechism in regards to modern society. He had also denounced “a primary and grave fault to suppress the catechism and to declare “outdated” the style itself of the textbook”, and finally he had encouraged in having the audacity to present the catechism as it is, a catechism.” What was then the target? On one hand, the importance given to the question of pedagogy – the form taking over the content – and a set of human commentaries where the Word of God was lost and which limited the impact to human, psychological and sociological perspectives, often circumstantial. On the other hand, an immediate and narrative approach to Holy Scripture, where the experience, that is one of the biblical figures, one of the reader – is prime: if, in the past, the Bible entered in the teaching of the faith only under the angle of a doctrine of the Church, now the opportunity is given to access the Christian faith through a direct dialogue between the actual experience and the biblical word.” Combined to a pedagogue temptation, this leads to forget or at least neglect the ecclesial mediation, Tradition, Dogma, rational objectivity of the revelation of the faith.
This conference came after the apostolic exhortation Catechesi tradendœ, written by John Paul II in 1979, followed in 1997 by the General directory for catechesis published by the Congregation for the Clergy.
Did these documents had any effect? The last one published was eventually redrafted, in the beginning of the year 2020, under the supervision of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, which has received all competence on such matters. Certainly, in the continuity of the preceding documents it says: “The catechesis of Christian initiation is a basic formation, essential, organic, systematic and integral in the faith”. But, these good intentions are inserted in a frame which renders them largely sterile, a frame we would like to emphasize bears the followings traits:
1. Reluctance when considering the dogmatic part of the catechism: In agreement with the 1997 Directory, the one from 2020 insisted on the catechumenate as a model of the catechesis, with a high priority given to the experience and its maturation. But, in comparing the two, in one the mention given to the learning process has been shortened. Some of what was mentioned in the first one does not appear in the second one: “Catechetic is a part of that “memory” of the Church which vividly maintains the presence of the Lord among us. The exercise of the memory is, thus, a constitutive aspect of the teaching of the faith since the early times of Christianity (…)
(…) the learning of the formulas of the faith and their profession must be understood in the traditional seed-bed or context of the tradition and the redditio, for which the handing on of the faith in catechesis (traditio) corresponds to the response of the subject during the catechetical journey and, subsequently, in life (redditio).” (n.154 and 155) There is a reluctance to distinguish and honor for itself the rationale and dogmatic part of the catechesis, which is not however negated but systematically assimilated to the experience: “These characteristics of the catechesis of initiation is expressed in an exemplary manner in the synthesis of the faith already elaborated from the Scriptures (such as the triad of faith, hope, and charity) then in Tradition (the faith believed, celebrated, lived and prayed). These synthesis are a way to understand, in an harmonious manner, life and history, for they pronounce theological positions still abridged while proclaiming the very faith of the Church.” (n.71)
2. Truth is not to be imposed: In the same way, one should note the importance given to the Kerygma, as a central element to proclaim the Gospel and in particular the catechesis, and not only as an initial (chronologically) announcement. Hence this text that one wonder, though, how it will be concretely implemented: “From this centrality of the kerygma for the proclamation, derive some aspects of the catechesis: “it has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are, at times, more philosophical than evangelical” (Evangelii gaudium, n.165). The elements that, in response to the kerygma, the catechesis is invited to value are: the character of the proposition; the narrative, affective and existential quality; the dimension of testimony of the faith; the relational attitude; the salvific tone.” (n.59)
3. A laboratory for dialogue: Finally, in the Bergoglian logic, because the catechesis is in the service of the new evangelization, it is to be “missionary”, set itself out “under the banner of mercy,” to be lived “as “a laboratory” of dialogue” (n.49 to 54), because “it meets the vivacity and the complexity, the desire and the longing, to search the limits and sometimes, in the same way, the mistakes of society and cultures of the world today.” Yet, so we read, catechesis will be without relativism, or negotiation over the Christian identity (n.54).
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These emphases put on a variety of elements are the expression of a negative appreciation on the old catechisms, considered too intellectual, dry and disconnected from the present. Their structure, for certain, were not as they were often described, lessened to a question-response format. Indeed, the bishops who had them published, gave thorough directions and addressed their ecclesial, family and existential significance.
Rightly, as a model and an exhortation for today’s world, Cardinal Ratzinger ended his 1983 conference with a quote from the Trent catechism (for the use of parish priests, first catechists of their flock): “All the finality of the doctrine and the teaching must be embedded in the love which is everlasting. For, though we put forward what is to be believed, hoped or done; more importantly, we must always make apparent the love of Christ, so that everyone understands that all christian act of virtue, to be perfect, has no other origin but love, and no other end but love again.” This is definitely where we should start, from this intent of a catechism which is at ease with what it is really: a catechism.
Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot