Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Catechesis

"The context of our proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ is caught up in what is increasingly described as 'the American mindset.' That way of looking at life is arguably more individual than communal, more competitive than cooperative and, generally, more self-focused than other-directed. It finds expression in the difficulty of many of our faithful to feel comfortable with the Church that identifies itself as a community that preexists the decision of individual members to bring it into being, a Church that claims to bind conscience, and a Church that expects more from Sunday worship than a warm sense of being comfortable." These are the words of Archbishop Donald Wuerl, the newly installed archbishop of Washington, D.C., to a convocation of all involved in catechesis in his diocese. This coming together of those who teach the faith was called for by the new archbishop shortly after his installation in July.

His Excellency's entire address is well worth reading. I believe he accurately and forthrightly addresses most of the challenges facing catechists in the Church in the United States and being hopeful about our prospects. Further, by calling the convocation, he acknowledges the importance of the ministry of catechesis for the Church. Sadly, like many bishops, he ignores the diminishment of the Church's credibility as a result of the scandals of recent years, to include the complicity of many bishops, though not himself, in these despicable shenanigans. Not addressing this elephant-in-the-room means passing on an opportunity to highlight the necessity of living the faith, the need to for accountability in the Church, and a failure to understand the reluctance of many to give their allegiance to the Church. In other words, people tend to distrust leaders who have proven untrustworthy and actively resist any form of accountability. Nonetheless, the rest of his diagnosis and prescription as regards handing on the faith seems to me accurate. "The Church brings today what it has brought to the world for 2,000 years." Just what is that? That, according to Wuerl, is "the encounter with Jesus". Having preached myself on Catchetical Sunday, the importance and essence of what catechesis is has been on my mind this Fall. As someone once said, to Christ is to teach a way of life.

Towards the end of his address he gives the characteristics of a catechist: "The catechist," Archbishop Wuerl says, "is identified by specific characteristics. The catechist is a believer, knows the faith, lives the faith and communicates the faith." None of these are optional for the catechist. As one who is deeply involved in catechetical ministry, I would have to say that living and knowing the faith are areas that need a lot of focus and attention. As St. Paul writes in Romans chapter ten: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim unless they are sent?" Then Paul quotes beautiful words directed at those who are sent to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news"- the Evagelizo, the Gospel (Rom 10, 13-15).

In short, there is nothing more urgent or important than passing on the faith we have received from our forebearers to the next generation. All parents who request baptism for their children commit to being the primary catechists for their children and have a "natural obligation" to instruct their children in the faith, by word and example. This is not a responsibility that parents can delegate to a parish religious education program or even a Catholic school. At best, such programs can give structure and age appropriate content to what parents are to teach their children at home. One important thing that seems to be lacking among Catholics is the understanding that the Church is not incidental to our salvation. On the contrary, the Church is absolutely necessary. If we are to teach this essential truth, we must believe and live it, even when it is tough, as it is now in many dioceses throughout our country where trust has been broken. Therefore, we must accept the teaching authority of Christ, which He exercises through His Church. Allegiance to the Church is not optional for the believer, even when it is difficult. It does not mean we should not question, or call into question anything leadership does, or not demand accountability. At root, as Archbishop Wuerl writes, "It is difficult to call people to an understanding of the unchanging nature of revelation and the ability of the Church to bind people in conscience when they do not have an understanding of the antecedent nature of revealed truth and, therefore, moral norms." All is not doom and gloom because this situation provides us "an enormous opportunity for the new evangelization."

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