Reconstructing the catechesis
Part II – Concrete propositions

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano
Reconstructing catechesis – Part One

In these propositions to be implemented for a short term future of the Church, we assume that a number of senior church members, specially bishops, would have come forward, moved by not only a strong faith, but also a strong will to reconstruct.

The bishop, first catechist, and his priests

The insertion of the catechesis in the hierarchical structure of the Church is very clearly stated in the new Directory for catechesis that we spoke about and that we are going to use for our demonstration in what it holds best: it is a particular dimension of the mission whose “primordial responsibilities » belongs to the “Roman Pontiff and the bishops in communion with him” and which consist in “teaching the people of God on the content of the faith and Christian morality, as well as to promote the proclamation to the whole world” (n.93). Therefore, the diocesan bishop can and must be “the first catechist, (…) first responsible person of the catechesis in the diocese” (n.114). This task includes, certainly, the possibility to delegate to skilled collaborators and specially dedicated to this task; however, the Directory clearly states that it implies first that he be himself attentive, that he take charge “directly”: it belongs to him to set the principal line of approach of the catechesis in his diocese, to set up durable structures – persons, means and tools -, to ensure the quality of the catechists (formation, doctrinal rectitude, exemplary character[i]) as well as the quality of the journeys and pedagogical tools. The characteristics of the episcopal function are discussed a few times: attention and even mindfulness, efficacy, adaptation.

In the primordial and primary position of the diocesan bishop appears a tension between liberty of action and inalienable responsibility, vis-a-vis the commissions and the experts as much as the episcopal conference he belongs to. Regarding the latter, he will ensure, so says the Directory, that his diocesan project be “in harmony” with those of the Conference (n.117). The formulation is vague; it actually sends back to precedents, for example to the declaration of non-normative character of the text of orientation published in 2005 by the Conference of French bishops (cf. decree of approbation of the congregation for the Clergy positioned at the beginning of the document). More fundamentally, we have here, in fact, a confirmation of the independence of the diocesan bishop in regards to the Conference, for what concerns the teaching of faith and morality[ii].

In this regard, as it appears, it is only tied by “principles and norms coming from the apostolic See” (n.114)), that is the current Directory.

What was just said is also true for priests who have received a mission from the bishop and particularly the parish priests; mutatis mutandi, because on one side, they don’t have the same autonomy as the Bishop does, being his collaborators in the making of the diocesan catechetic project (they are invited to avoid any forms of subjectivism in the exercise of the sacred ministry”, n..121); but, on the other side, in reality, they have more hold over the catechists: they are the “catechist[s] of the catechists”, they know them and they accompany them as persons and as a group (n.122). Ahead, they would have discerned those they can call to the task. Likewise, they have the possibility and the responsibility to follow the various steps of the process of the preparation and the implementation of the catechesis in their parish (cf. n.120).

It is important to insist though, on this strong reaffirmation of the ecclesial and hierarchical structure of the catechesis because, in a number of dioceses and parishes, for decades, it has been the object of a general delegation to specialists or well established good-will persons, via letters of mission which sometimes come into conflict with the powers of teaching and the governing of sacred ministers, parish priests and school chaplains first of all. The first step of a reconstruction of the catechesis does appear to be an act of the will, by the authorities, to be what they should be.

The responsibility of parents and grand-parents

Among the other actors of the catechesis (deacons, religious, lay people), two things are worth being noted, so much it seems to be able to accompany the movement started by the hierarchy or, if unfortunately this should happen, make up for its absence.

The first point concerns the parents: Quoting Familiaris consortio, the Directory reminds that Christian education is a task to which the sacrament of marriage consecrate the parents. If they can be helped by the parochial community, school or other, it is necessary that they “overcome the mentality of delegation so common, according to which faith is reserved to specialists”, a trap “sometimes” the community falls into (n.124). The paragraph’s conclusion says that Parents are the “first catechists of their children”, whose natural auxiliary (or the deputy, if the parents were not up to the task by lack of knowledge or indifference, but gave carte blanche…) are the godparents and the grand-parents[iii] (cf. 125 and 126).

Catechesis, an ever more essential service

The second aspect which brought our attention is the application of the catechesis of the sensus fidei, so dear to Pope Francis and, in fact, so traditional. We just indicated how the sacraments of order and marriage – differently – ordain in a fundamental and irreducible way to the teaching of the faith. To this ecclesial dimension which comes from the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. These two sacraments ordain the whole Church and each baptized and confirmed persons to the evangelizing mission of the Church. Within this frame, the sensus fidei of some will discern wether they are called to take a more active part in the specific ministry of the catechesis. And, continues the Directory, it is definitely about a divine call whose consequence is strongly stated: “The catechist is a Christian who receives the particular call of God. This call, received in faith, makes it able to serve in the transmission of the faith and the initiation to Christian life.” (n.112). We are obviously within the frame of charisms which, next to the sacraments and ministries as well as to a lesser degree, participate in the sanctification of the Church (Cf. for example Lumen gentium n.12).

This aptitude is very much so a service and shall not take away the rights of the hierarchy[iv]; but this one is invited to acknowledge it, where it manifests or offers itself. This is for example what the parish priest will do in discerning the persons to call as catechesis, then including them within the institutional frame. But is it too much to think that parents can, too, discern who are the persons, outside the family circle, the most capable to help them accomplish their educative mission towards their children? Numerous initiatives are already existing following this model: prayer groups or apostolate eventually becoming also a catechism class, magazines and reviews read at home or made known by catechists in parishes or schools more or less openly, etc.

If these initiatives can flourish on the margin of ordinary structures, they could also be a solution, encouraged or implemented by a bishop or a parish priest, even temporarily once the reform of the ordinary catechetical authorities reveals itself to be a lengthy monumental work. In this way, this parish priest ensuring the teaching of the faith in the group of altar servers of his parish; a group on which he had a strong influence, whereas the letters of mission of the catechetics pretended to prevent him from supervising what took place in the catechism class. The same parish priest increased his impromptu visits, along the liturgical year, in the classes of the parochial school, bypassing though with the approbation of the headmistress the catechetical team unfavorable to him being there.

In the end, it is rightly that the Directory invites to a coming together of hierarchical, family-based and charismatic responsibilities and actions. This must prevail and frame the dimension of expertise, so significant in the modern catechetic movement. This must prevail also over the simple good-will, touching but, unfortunately, given the small number in the communities today.

* * *

But, if we have abundantly quoted from the new Directory in a spirit of “reform of the reform”, we do not forget that it validates a number of characteristic traits of the catechetical movement of the last decades (importance given to pedagogical approach over content, biblical accounts over doctrine, organization in modules partly optional or interchangeable in their order, etc.).  And, if the Directory strives to hide its main weakness that is the lack of structure ensuring the integrity and integrality of the transmission of the faith, it does it by promoting a dynamic of initiation, catechumenal, mystagogical and, now, “dialogal”? To quote one last time, we will say that “a true passion for catechesis” must come alive again, supported by “an adapted and efficacious organization” (n.118).

Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot

[i] This exemplarity, if it is not explicitly mentioned, comes inevitably from the kerygmatic structure to announce the faith, given by the catechesis. The catechist must not simply teach the truth of the faith, but also give testimony of his life, of his unceasing conversion, even if only by its presence in the midst of the parochial community. Incidentally, as we feared, there is no trace in the Directory, to the best of our knowledge, of an open door, an encouragement to the participation to the life of the Church of persons in irregular situation in regards to their catechist activities.

[ii] It is a particular case of the lack of magisterial competence of the episcopal conferences, as recognized by the Law of the Church. The first apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis had suggested we think of a “statute of the episcopal conferences that conceive them as subject of practical attributions, as well as a certain authentic doctrinal authority” (n.32). No concrete step was taken in this sense, thankfully; except, maybe, in the approbation given to the document of the Argentine episcopal conference deciding of some adaptations of the doctrine to the pastoral care to the persons in irregular marriages, with the idea to favor their access to the sacraments.

[iii] The mention of the grand-parents is a new thing in relations to the previous documents. This comes without a doubt from the assessment that, one or two generations passed, it is at the level of the grand-parents that remain still some solid bases (though…), the parents having been the victims of the catechism, they now would like to avoid the same for their children…

[iv] The Directory does not discuss this point, though very real, however delicate it may be in its practical implementation. For the following principle must remain: “Among these gifts, the grace given to the Apostles holds the first place: the Spirit itself submit to their authority the beneficiaries of charisms (cf. I Co 14). The same Spirit which is by itself principle of unity in the body…” (Lumen gentium n.7).