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Catechism in Blue Jeans

April 18, 2016


There was one thing on the minds of all Bishops gathered in Rome on November 25, 1985: blue jeans.

George Cardinal Law addressed the Bishops with these words: “Iuvenes Bostoniensis, Leningradiensis et Sacti Jacobi in Chile induti sunt ‘Blue Jeans’ et audiunt et saltant eandem musicam.”

And for the first time in the history of Catholic Synods, Bishops were talking about blue jeans. In Latin.

This is the opening of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, twenty years after the close of Vatican II. Cardinal Law spoke to all the bishops tasked with reviewing Vatican II’s twenty year impact on the Church. His argument was simple but clear.

Cardinal Schonborn, a major editor of the Catechism who was present at this Synod, summarizes Cardinal Law’s speech in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“In a world where young people all over the world wear the same blue jeans, shouldn’t it be possible to express the faith in a common language? It is not only possible, it is necessary – and mainly for two reasons: first, because the world has definitively become one, sharing the same problems, the same anxieties and hopes; and second, because the faith in itself is unity.

Unity is an essential feature of Christian faith. This vision of one faith in one world fired not only Cardinal Law’s inspiration; it became the driving force of the synod’s discussion about the idea of a catechism. At the end of the synod, the Holy Father made the idea his own.” (p.39)

At the close of this Synod Pope St. John Paul II put together a commission of Bishops and Cardinals, assisted by then Cardinal Ratzinger, to take up Cardinal Law’s idea and write a universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. It would be the first of its kind since Catechism of Trent written in 1566, over 400 years prior.

The call for a Catechism might sound antiquated. It might sound this way most especially for people passionate about the New Evangelization. The New Evangelization is a call for evangelistic efforts new in “ardor, methods, and expressions” that engage modern culture and modern man.

How could a Catechism possibly engage our culture and the people we find ourselves tasked with evangelizing? How could this be an authentic fruit of Vatican II? Is this a return to the painful Catechisms of the past forcibly shoved into the minds of so many Americans?

No. In fact, for the New Evangelization to be the most successful, this universal Catechism must become a main source of inspiration. This is the way the Church always evangelized and must continue to evangelize. In fact, Pope John XXIII said, “The catechism is the constant preoccupation of the Church.” Why?

Remember at Pentecost St. Peter gave the first post-Christ sermon the world ever heard. In a beautiful line Scripture says the thousands gathered in Jerusalem were “cut to the heart” and asked Peter what they should do. St. Peter says “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) Around three thousand are baptized and immediately following “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and the communal life, to the breaking of the bread, and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)

This was the way Jesus taught the Apostles to evangelize. St. Peter is following Christ’s pattern of evangelization.

First is a proclamation of what is to be believed. This is the kerygma of the Creed. St. Peter’s speech proclaims Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified, died, buried, and on the third day rose from the dead. Next comes a call to repentance, metanoia, or an invitation to respond to Divine Revelation. St. Peter echoes Jesus’ words: “The time has come, and the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News” (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus taught the Apostles the new Christian way of living – Gospel morality, Sacramental life, and prayer – as a response to His Divine Revelation and a deepening of repentance and conversion. This is exactly what the Apostles told the thousands in Jerusalem to become devoted to. The teaching of the Apostles is the Creed, the communal life is Gospel morality, the breaking of the bread is the Sacramental life, and prayer is…prayer. These are the four areas of catechetical and evangelistic content. This is the rhythm of new life in Christ.

In the early Church this structure became part of the Catechumenate and was simply the way the Church made pagans into Catholics. The Early Church Fathers evangelized and catechized the way the Apostles taught them, which was the way Christ taught them. What is remarkable is how unified they all were in this effort. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Ambrose in Northern Italy, and St. Augustine in Africa all organized the evangelization and catechesis of the catechumenate in this way. The method is always the same.

First unpack the Apostle’s Creed article by article so they are “cut to the heart”, invite them to respond by repentance, and then show them how to deepen the threefold personal response to God’s invitation – Sacramental living, Gospel morality or Christian community, and prayer. This is the new way of life for the Christian.

So it comes as no surprise that after the Synod and “blue jeans” the Church decided to create the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church and structure it in this traditional way.

The Catechism is divided into four parts: The Profession of Faith (“teaching of the Apostles”), The Celebration of the Christian Mystery (“breaking of bread”), Life in Christ (“the communal life”), and Christian Prayer (“prayer”). The four focal points of the catechism are the Apostle’s Creed, the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, and the Our Father.

Was this the aim of Vatican II? Pope St. John Paul II, on the publication of the Catechism, made it very clear that “The principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will (Fidei Depositum, 1).

Why is this vital to evangelization? Because our efforts to evangelize depend on our ability to persuasively propose the Deposit of Faith as an invitation to modern man. We must know the Faith so intimately and fundamentally and be able to present it so compellingly that people are “cut to the heart” and demand we tell them what they must do.

Reflections of twentieth century theologians, inspiring anecdotes, radio chatter, movies, television, podcasts, blogs, and books are all good and necessary methods of evangelization. But they are only as good as they present the Deposit of Faith in all its splendor and vigor. We should always ask ourselves if we could be presenting the Deposit of Faith better. Are people “cut to the heart” when we speak of God, the Father almighty creator of heaven and earth? Are people “cut to the heart” when we proclaim Jesus conceived by the Holy Spirit? Are they “cut to the heart” when we proclaim Jesus crucified, died, and risen?

Evangelization becomes frenetic when we stray away from the doctrine and dogma of the Deposit of Faith. And this Deposit of Faith is beautifully and authoritatively summarized and presented in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. This Catechism is our textbook for the New Evangelization. As Pope St. John Paul II says in the introduction, it is a“sure norm for teaching the faith”. (FD, 3) As evangelists, our message should be preached as if with one mouth. From every corner of the earth the Creed, what is to be believed, should be proclaimed in order to cut people to the heart.

Pope Benedict made the point strongly in Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism:

“It follows that the chief points of faith – God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, grace and sin, sacraments and Church, death and eternal life – are never outmoded. They must be the permanent center of preaching and therefore of theological reflection. The bishops present at the 1985 Synod called for a universal catechism of the whole Church because they sensed precisely what Balthasar had put into words in his note to me. Their experience as shepherds had shown them that the various new pastoral activities have no solid basis unless they are irradiations and applications of the message of faith. Faith cannot be presupposed; it must be proposed. This is the purpose of the Catechism. It aims to propose the faith in its fullness and wealth, but also in its unity and simplicity.” (Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism, 24)

In a world where young people all over the world wear the same blue jeans, shouldn’t it be possible to evangelize in a common language? Couldn’t we know our Creed – as authoritatively and beautifully presented in the Catechism – so well that we proclaim it as if the Church had but one mouth? If all evangelists were steeped in at least the first pillar of the Catechism, not only would we be continuing the program for evangelization laid out by Jesus, the Apostles, the Early Church Fathers, and many other saints before us, but we would be more focused on presenting the Deposit of Faith powerfully to modern man who desperately thirsts for the invitation.