Pope John Paul II wrote an amazing encyclical on catechesis that is crucial for our ongoing development of the new evangelization in our lives and in our culture. The importance of strong and well-formed catechesis cannot be ignored by anyone who seeks to evangelize, for catechesis is, after all, "a moment" within the process of evangelization.
Below is my reflection on the words of Catechesi Tradendae, "On Catechesis in Our Time".
Maintaining Its Integrity: Catechetical Tensions
The entire gospel message must be shared in a way that is responsive to the audience's limitations, experiences and potential. Catechesis is caught up in the tension between two poles: one must teach the entire Deposit, while also adapting the message to the concerns, needs and understanding of the audience. If you do not make it relevant, then the message will be lost; however, if you water it down or otherwise alter the content, then you render the message deficient. We cannot be stuck in closed inflexibility in our catechesis, nor facile accommodations.
Hosea 4:6 declares: "My people perish for want of knowledge." If Jesus is not taught fully and faithfully, then how can anyone come to say "yes" to Him, which is the whole purpose of evangelization? In CT 30, Pope John Paul II dives into the crucial problem of a lack of integrity in the content of catechesis following the Second Vatican Council. The whole point is to insert the person into the Mystery of Christ, to have a real relationship with the Blessed Trinity, thus the Deposit of Faith must be guarded and systematically proclaimed.
Catechesis: Ordered to Holiness
One's holiness is dependent upon their discipleship, which may depend on our catechesis! Thus the Pope starts out his section on the integrity of the content with these words in CT 30:
"In order that the sacrificial offering of his or her faith should be perfect, the person who becomes a disciple of Christ has the right to receive 'the word of faith' not in mutilated, falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigor and vigor."
We cannot be mistaken here. As a catechist you bear awesome responsibility that echoes loudly into eternity. Catechesis that mutilates parts of the deposit- for whatever reason- interferes with the disciple's ability to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. This affects worship, the "sacrificial offering" of ourselves!
I think special importance needs to be placed on the phrase "rigor and vigor." The gospel is not an easy path. It is not easy to carry one's cross, to deny oneself, to die daily to self so that Christ might live all the more in one's heart. It is a rigorous life, demanding simply everything you are, do and have! There are today grave temptations in the catechist to waterdown the moral teachings of the Church in order to present a gospel more palpable to contemporary tastes.
This dilution of the rigors of the Christian life empties the cross of its power and its true "vigor". The gospel is life-giving. It is truly vigorous, but in stripping pieces of it away, we lose its vital power for the sake of social conformity.
The pope continues:
"Unfaithfulness on some point to the integrity of the message means a dangerous weakening of catechesis and putting at risk the results that Christ and the ecclesial community have a right to expect from it."
Catechetical experiments in the 70's and 80's have deprived generations of the full gospel, offering instead endless educational models that are devoid of content, but full of activity. This situation is what prompted the desire within Cardinal Ratzinger to help steer the project to write a new universal catechism for the whole Church.
He received a letter from a French catechist who wondered why there was not only no conversion or interest among her students, but that there was no retention of information by the end of each class! The kids were bored and disconnected. So this teacher took it upon herself to critically analyze what the materials she was given were exactly teaching and the why they communicated it. In the end she realized, as did Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), that there was hardly any content at all, just endless ways to engage the kids in this or that learning experience without the actual transmission of information.
How many religious education classes are filled with hours of projects, crafts, songs, games and positive feelings without actually communicating to them truth accommodated to their abilities? Our students have a right to the truth and the Church has a right to expect results from our students. Let this be our wake up call!
Variations on a Common Theme: Selective Negligence
The pope is not done. Next he takes aim at those catechists who may not be fully convinced by the whole message of the gospel, so they deliberately remove elements of the deposit they do not like. Continuing from above, the pope speaks not of the rights of the student or of the Church, but rather he zeroes in on the problem of the unfaithful or agenda-based catechist.
"Thus, no true catechist can lawfully, on his own initiative, make a selection of what he considers important in the deposit of faith as opposed to what he considers unimportant, so as to teach the one and reject the other."
Remember that Jesus said, "I will build my church" and not, "You should build your church." It is His Church, not ours, yours, nor mine. He builds His own church. We are simply the co-laborers with Him.
CT 5 and 6 is all about the Christocentricity of catechesis. It is Christocentric because Christ is both the goal of all catechesis in the Church and because Christ is the content. It is not our teaching, but His and Him. CT 6 says it best: "Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: 'My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me'."
In our catechesis to the children, teens or adults, do we make distinctions between the gospel and our political or social beliefs, or are we so lax that we let them intertwine so that they are no longer two things, but one? Are we so wed to our agendas that we force the gospel to conform to them instead of the other way around? It is a slippery slope that is navigated only those who are prayerful, disciplined, and humble. Our teaching is not ours, but his.