Instructing Christ’s disciples in the faith is a constitutive activity of the Church. From the outset, a Greek word for instruction, catechesis, was used to name this activity. More recently, St. John Paul II has defined it as “the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life” (Catechesi tradendae 18).
Since the Church Fathers, the fundamental structure and pillars of catechesis have been instruction on the Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.
No Catholic, therefore, can afford to be indifferent to catechesis. Every Catholic needs it, and many are called to impart it.
In this interview, Dr. Petroc Willey recommends and discuss five books on catechetics.
Petroc Willey is married to Katherine and has four children and six grandchildren, one in heaven. Originally from England, he has lived in Steubenville, Ohio, since 2015 where he is a Professor of Theology at Franciscan University. Before his move to the United States, Petroc worked in Catholic education, in Oxford and in Birmingham, for more than twenty-five years, in seminary and lay institutions, and in both traditional and distance education. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI a Consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization and by Pope Francis as a Consultor to the Dicastery for Evangelization.
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What is catechesis? You chose a good extract from John Paul II. It is helpful to remember something else that he said. It is in the first paragraph of his apostolic exhortation Catechesi tradendae: “the name of catechesis was given to the whole of the efforts within the Church to make disciples.”
Instruction is a large part of catechesis, but it is worth realising the breadth that catechesis has gained within the Church’s tradition. Today, we should think of catechesis more broadly as formation. You mentioned four areas of formation (i.e., faith, sacraments, moral life, prayer). The way Church has formed people is somewhat like the formation one would receive in a religious community.
The Church has always seen catechesis as a prime activity for bringing people into that life in Christ, in all the dimensions which you mentioned. It is instruction in the faith. It is instruction for the sake of life in Christ, and in all the other dimensions of the faith.
"If we want a good catechesis of children, we need to have good adult catechesis as well. Only adults can form children."
Many associate catechesis with the religious instruction of children. However, adult catechesis is the primary form. Many adults spend a lot of time, money, and effort on learning professional skills, but do not make a comparable investment in something that is infinitely more important for their long-term happiness: learning the faith. Good point. The catechesis of children and the catechesis of adults are two sides of the same coin. If we want a good catechesis of children, we need to have good adult catechesis as well. Only adults can form children. We need to give a certain priority, therefore, to adult formation because everybody is called to grow into the maturity of Christ. Well-formed adults enable children to do that.
The Church senses that, if we neglect to bring children all the way through in their formation in today’s day and age, they can easily become a prey to secularism. In the West, there is less sense of society as the place of the sacred. This is especially the case in Europe. To a lesser extent, it is also the case in the United States. As a result, adults imbibe a fairly secularist mentality without meaning to.
I know because I am a convert to the faith. I was received into the Church in 1985, when I was in my mid-twenties. I had been raised a Christian, but my experience was like the parable of the seed and the tares. The seed and the tares are sown at the same time, and you have a lot of each in your soil. As you grow up, you do not necessarily distinguish between the two. So, there needs to be a constant emphasis on ongoing adult formation and energy. Such formation is necessary to continue that work of sowing good seed. It took me about ten years to realise how many secularist views I had taken on board, almost without question. As a result, the Gospel seemed “incredible” to me at certain levels. If you recognise that, it can become a great point of conversion.
So, the Church is reemphasizing adult formation. Such formation is important since society currently assumes that there is no God, grace, or Jesus Christ. The work of the catechist is to remind people of the essential truths that can shape their lives.
One of the first things that the modern Church has done is restore the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults. That was in the early seventies. This restoration was a recognition that we are no longer living in cultures where the faith is just handed down and received incidentally or naturally. That rarely happens. In fact, there are militant tendencies to prevent that from happening. Consequently, it has been necessary to restore this manner of bringing adults into the faith through a lengthy period of serious, sustained formation.
The Church has huge resources invested in forming children, which is obviously important. What the Church cannot afford to do is neglect adult formation. That involves hard choices of shifting resources to the adults and making sure that parents are well-formed, both for the sake of their children and their own.
There is so much research around now about the way in which virtual learning fragments the mind. Some universities and schools exclude internet learning as far as possible. They do so to enable their students to assimilate better. Books are key to becoming well-formed.
The twentieth century witnessed a flourishing of studies on catechetics. For example, there is the work of J.A. Jungmann SJ. However, during the post-conciliar period there was a crisis of catechesis. Have we emerged from that crisis or are we still in it? It is worth remembering Pope Benedict's helpful phrase about the hermeneutic of continuity and development.
Vatican II did not produce a break. There was a series of interesting catechetical renewals throughout the twentieth century.
You have mentioned Jungmann. He was instrumental in leading the kerygmatic renewal, which emphasised that we go back to the initial proclamation of the Gospel (kerygma). In other words, besides explaining and teaching the faith, there needs to be a confident initial proclamation of it.
Kerygma comes from the Greek word for a herald. In olden days, a herald would go into a town or a village, unroll his scroll and announce an order of the king. The kerygma is the basic good news of the Gospel: the basic truths of the faith.
Jungmann argued that we need to begin with that confident proclamation of these essentials and allow our explicit exposition and explanation of the faith flow from that. He drew especially on the patristic period and the early Church.
Back in England, there was Canon Drinkwater. He saw that the method of the Penny Catechism needed renewal, without losing anything that was good about it. It needed to be supported with more education and culture to so that it would be received well by people.
So, there were different strands of renewal, especially in Europe.
However, while the universal Church was recommitting itself to mission during the Second Vatican Council, tares were being sown. They came in mainly through the International Study Weeks on Catechetics.
With new impetus, the Council stressed the universal call to holiness and that the sharing of the Gospel should flow from personal and ecclesial holiness. At the same time, some were asking how catechesis could be renewed. A group of international experts began to meet outside of the Council. The first meeting was in 1960. Out of it came the Eichstätt Declaration, which committed the Church to the kerygmatic renewal. Other such meetings took place during the 1960s. As the proceedings show, this group gradually shifted toward a much more anthropocentric focus. It stressed the need to engage with human experience but began to neglect the primacy of revelation.
This meant that the Church emerged from the Council into a catechetical context that was beginning to minimise grace, Revelation, and the work of the council. In Dei Verbum, the council hadrenewed the Church’s teaching on Revelation. In Lumen gentium, there was a renewal of the Church’s sense of mission and evangelization. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, there was the renewal of the liturgy, which provides the grace we need. Gaudium et spes pulled us to dialogue with the modern world for the sake of its evangelization. However, these documents were received into a “mixed economy”, whose priorities were much more anthropocentric. This produced the crisis in catechesis.
In England, for example, a single institution was set up for disseminating the work of the Council: Corpus Christi. It led the priests, sisters, and laypeople who attended it down a route that minimised the supernatural, the Resurrection, miracles, and Christ’s divinity. To some extent, the Council was thus disseminated through such a lens (with whatever mixture of culpability and ignorance we need not discuss). Consequently, the Council’s work was diluted; its impetus towards a stronger catechesis for the sake of mission was confused. I came into the church in 1985, very much in the middle of that.
Immediately, Paul VI attempted to pull things back. In 1968, he issued the Credo of the People of God and in 1975 Evangelii nuntiandi. He refocused on evangelization
John Paul II’s Cateechesi tradendi solidified the magisterium on this matter. By that time, however, many strands had run off down their own tracks. With great effort, the Church’s energies needed to be gathered back together again. As John Paul II said in Redemptoris missio, “the moment has come to commit all of the Church's energies to a new evangelization.”
Those energies had been scattered. We have been fortunate, however. In his providence, God sent Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. During their pontificates, the Second Vatican Council’s spirituality of mission was taken up and consolidated, though not in a narrow or nostalgic manner.
Since the Council, the Church has poured an enormous amount of energy into catechesis, and it has been one of the “hot topics”.
Are we still in the crisis of catechesis? Definitely. However, this has permitted the emergence of a stable set of expectations about the nature of catechesis and the recovery of a common language. Currently, there is much wonderful work on catechesis. We can thank God for that.
Catechesis takes place in all sorts of settings: within the family, school, parish, ecclesial movements, chaplaincies, books, or websites. People of every age and situation are catechised. However, we live in an increasingly secularised society. What are going to be the main forums of catechesis in the foreseeable future? We want to say everything all the time, don't we? All those you have listed are important. However, some have a certain priority.
Books are one. I say that partly because we are discussing what my favourite books on catechesis are! However, we live in a culture that has been built on a civilization of the word, which is found in the book. There is so much research around now about the way in which virtual learning fragments the mind. Some universities and schools exclude internet learning as far as possible. They do so to enable their students to assimilate better. Books are key to becoming well-formed.
Alongside books are people themselves. The Church has always said that you cannot really do without the personal witness of teachers and mentors. It speaks of apprenticeship all the time to reinforce the importance of the personal transmission of the faith.
In this regard, the Church is always going to say that we need to give primacy to the family. Family-based catechesis is always going to be important. Consequently, strengthening marriage and wider family bonds is always going to be a prerequisite for good catechesis. All the research shows that it is the teaching and example of both father and mother that really helps children receive the faith well. It is the natural context and culture within which formation takes place.
The school system still works in some countries.
Increasingly, the Church has stressed that the parish community is the place for ongoing catechesis. Both John Paul II and Benedict VI pointed out that ever more there will be small intentional Christian communities of different sorts where people are band together, not necessarily in an ad hoc or improvised way, but in creative new patterns, and decide how to pursue their formation together. So, it helps to have a parish that breaks down into small units. It helps to have young adult groups. Such settings will become increasingly important, partly because, with the drift towards secularism, some larger institutions have become less useful for providing this formation. If you want formation as well as instruction, you need a catechesis that takes place within a common way of life, with liturgy and sacramental grace. The larger institutions do not always provide this.
Being a catechist is a wonderful way of life. It constantly pushes you towards ongoing conversion and growth in the Christian life.
How would you sum up your own experience as a catechist and the lessons you have learnt? I have gradually realised that it is a huge grace to be a catechist. It is only through trying to hand something on that you really learn it yourself. One of the things I have learned is to think that everything I am learning is for the sake of somebody else, to whom I need to give it. Life thereby becomes a kind of adventure. You might receive something that is difficult to understand. Maybe it is a Church teaching you struggle with, either intellectually or in your own life. However, you know that you need to receive it because somebody else needs to receive it from you in turn.
Being a catechist is a wonderful way of life. It constantly pushes you towards ongoing conversion and growth in the Christian life. You see God's grace and the Holy Spirit working so powerfully in other people's lives, as they receive the message and are changed by it.
John Paul II said that, if catechesis is done well, everything else in life is much easier. I certainly can attest to that. Your Christian life becomes so much easier if you receive catechesis well. You understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Furthermore, receiving any piece of saving doctrine involves conversion. So, receiving doctrine helps you all the time. Catechesis is a great good. It has been a great good in my life. All the effort you put into it will be rewarded, not least in seeing how other people receive something good from you.
You have mentioned the importance of books as a vehicle for imparting catechesis and the primacy of the family. If you were to recommend one book to a parent who is not a specialist in catechetics, which one would you recommend? I would recommend either the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Churchor the first volume of the YOUCAT series. Each is very readable and in question-and-answer format.
You might think, “Gosh, that goes back to the old method. I thought we got rid of that”. However, today’s parents have never been exposed to a question-and-answer catechism. They do not have any baggage regarding it.
In the introduction to the Compendium, Pope Benedict XVI says that the point of the question-and-answer format is to show you that you learn your catechesis with somebody. We should think of catechesis as a dialogue between two people, where the one is trying to help the other learn the faith.
The Compendium is a very abbreviated form of the magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church. It contains the essence of saving doctrine.
It also has fourteen works of glorious sacred art. Pope Benedict said that nowadays people will receive the faith through beauty and the saints. Those works of art express beauty. People might find other ones that they prefer. However, the idea is that art shows how the faith is beautiful and attractive. That draws you in.
As well as the saints, there is the witness of the parents themselves, called to be saints of God.
This combination of entry points makes the faith attractive. Parents especially, with their love for the child, make it attractive and are the most formative of all the influences in that child's life.
So, the Compendium gives parents sure knowledge of the faith. It gives them a twofold methodology: beauty and the saints. It prompts them to think, “How I live and hand on the faith matters. Let me be the person who knows the faith and hands it on in an appropriate way to my children.”
It is a very readable, slim volume. There are just over 500 questions.
YOUCAT is for 18–35-year-olds. It is modelled on the Compendium but is written in a more youthful language. It too is attractive and accessible.
Start with one of these two books.
Some of the books you recommend, such as the Catechism and Theology and Sanity, give an overview of the faith. They present the content of catechesis. Others are on the principles of catechesis. Some, however, might have been expecting books of a more practical orientation: ones that give tips, stories, group activities to follow with a particular group of people. Are not books of this more practical orientation what the aspiring catechist really needs? We are all looking for that combination of the practical and doctrine.
Let us start with a defence of the principles of catechesis. One of those principles is that the person of the catechist is the most important vehicle for the transmission of the faith.
If you ask, “What books do I need as a catechist?” you will conclude, “I need books that form me.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux gives us a helpful image of pastoral work. He contrasts channels and reservoirs. We might think of ourselves as channels or hosepipes that transmit to others the grace and knowledge we have inside us. However, it is not just a matter of getting something and handing it on. God does not just want to hand on the faith through you. He wants to hand it on in and through the benefits you receive from the faith. In giving his grace, God does not leave the catechist out. So, Bernard encourages us to trust that the Word of God, to use John Paul II’s image, will impregnate us fully. This resembles the way Mary receives Christ at the Annunciation. First, she needed to receive him fully to then bear him and give him. Bernard tells us, therefore, that we should not think of ourselves as channels or hosepipes but as a reservoir. In other words, God wants to fill you with his love and his grace, and for these you overflow into the lives of others. He wants your catechesis to flow from your life. He wants to give you his wisdom so that it comes through you.
You mentioned one of the books which I have recommended: Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity. Sheed used to always say the following and it shows you how practical his method was. He said that when you give a doctrine, always give it attached to yourself. You might translate that as, “When you teach somebody something, give them a story with it. Give it to them as a piece of wisdom which you or one of the saints have learned.” Maybe you learned it in situations which make you look foolish. You can tell a wonderful story of how you have neglected a certain truth but suddenly came to realise its validity. Give this doctrine in such a way that people can see that you yourself have learned it.
As Paul VI said, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” You need to speak about the truths you are conveying as real things which you yourself have come to understand, love, accept, and live by. When you hand on the faith to children, you can explain and share it better, if you truly know what it means for your own life.
In the end, people receive catechesis only to the extent that they can see the point of it for their lives. They see the point of if the one sharing it sees the point of it. Otherwise, it becomes a series of ideas. The child or the adult receiving it will not not know why they are being asked to build such an inspiring edifice or whether it is one they could live in. You are trying to help children or adults learn that the doctrines of the faith are a wonderful home.
The books that are most valuable are the ones that convey this message: personal assimilation of the teaching is necessary and unavoidable. Think of Christ’s teaching that he is the vine, we the branches (John 15). We are going to bear fruit and catechise if we remain in the vine. As John Paul II says, if we catechize truly, we do so to the extent to which Christ catechises in and through us. Funnily enough, therefore, our main role is to draw closer to Christ, learn his doctrine, be converted, and then live the faith out. That will be the main point of reference for anybody receiving the faith. We will become people to whom the teaching is attached.
It is not that there are not any good techniques. It is just that they are secondary.
Why have you not included the General Directory for Catechesis, currently is in its third edition (1971, 1997, 2020)? I am glad that you have mentioned the Directory. In 2020, the Church brought out the third of its General Directories for catechesis. It provides us with the principles for catechesis. It is an impressive, well-organised, and beautiful summation of the faith.
I did not include it partly because I could only select five books. Since the Council, the Church's magisterium on catechesis has been very impressive and inspiring. The Directory stands within that tradition and definitely deserves an honourable mention.
" Christ needs to be your pedagogue before he can become your teacher."
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