The Vatican has released a new directory for catechesis, and while most people can be forgiven in thinking that this might be an updated phone book for catechists, it is actually a guidebook for all involved in religious instruction on how to teach the faith effectively in the new world of the digital age. The English translation of the directory came out on July 20, and we can glean some insight into its basic approach from the press conference remarks made by Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Here are five things that stood out to me from his address:
Knowing one’s audience is crucial for effective catechesis. St. Paul discovered the best way of discussing the faith with the Athenians after walking around the city and finding an altar inscribed, “To an Unknown God.” Like St. Paul we need to roam the new landscape most people are inhabiting, observing the culture and looking for ways of discussing the faith in an intelligible way with people whose current values discount religion.
In the press conference, Archbishop Fisichella remarked that “the radical transformation of behaviors that influence above all the formation of personal identity and interpersonal relationships” must be taken into account so that catechesis “becomes a proposal capable of being understood and adequate to the requirements of its context.” Missionaries study and familiarize themselves with the customs of those they mean to evangelize. Catechists must do the same.
A Latin proverb says that “whatever is received into something is received according to the condition of the receiver.” People interested in faith and raised in a digital culture will be looking for high-quality Catholic content in a digital medium. And the Church would be missing a great evangelical and teaching opportunity if the most accessible and engaging means of instruction remained predominately in print. Most people get their information from digital platforms, and while they can present grave misinformation and spiritual dangers, the Church has an obligation to create content that will speak to the people of today where they would be most likely to receive it. This is not a call to abandon books, obviously, but a recognition of the realities before us. Our first encounters with unbelievers or fallen-away Catholics are very likely to occur through new media.
Christian proclamation is “an announcement of the Father’s mercy directed at the sinner.” This is the good news of God’s love for us, and catechesis is a deepening of our understanding of that mystery. Catholics need to hear this afresh throughout every phase of their lives, for the source and summit of their life is a participation in God’s love for us communicated to us in the Eucharist. In his catechetical work De Catechizandis Rudibus, St. Augustine writes that the great motive of catechesis is “that man might learn how much God loves him.” Catechesis is a progressive maturation into that mystery. Christian proclamation does not start with threats but with the joy of the Gospel!
Importance of Mystagogy and the Way of Beauty
The archbishop indicated that the directory will follow the patristic style of catechesis as mystagogy. This is great news! Christian life is a never-ending journey into the mystery of Christ, the really Real. A good way of inducting catechumens into the mystery is through the way of beauty. The gaze of Christ in which we feel the immensity of his love draws us out of ourselves and to the Father, if only we take a step into his mystery. The work of Word on Fire taps very deeply into this vein. In his essay “Mystagogues, World Transformers, and Interpreters of Tongues”, Bishop Barron writes, “He [a mystagogue] uses those things employed in the mystagogic task: word and sacrament, art, architecture, literature, doctrine, poetry, and holy lives.” The mystagogue needs to make use of the seeds of the Word so as to draw one deeper into the Word. The seeds of the Word are not hard to find. They’re everywhere, and the liturgy gathers them together in Christ by the Spirit.
Archbishop Fisichella indicates that catechesis must be liturgical. This is in keeping with the Church’s tradition. Read the many writings by the Church Fathers on the mystagogy of the divine liturgy to get a better understanding of this, such as the ecclesial mystagogy of St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Germanus of Constantinople. We need to present the faith with the freshness found in the writings of the Church Fathers. Their catechetical works are especially useful today in an age that needs to rehear the Gospel message.
Encountering the Word in Silence
Fisichella further says “the mystery when embraced in its profound reality requires silence. A true catechesis will never be tempted to try to say everything about the mystery of God. On the contrary, its task is to guide us to the contemplation of the mystery by the making of silence its conquest.” There are many ways to foster silence and contemplation. Music, ironically, is a good place to start.
When I was in high school my religion teacher often used to make the class sit in silence and listen to classical music. Prior to playing the piece, the teacher would explain it to help us better understand and focus. The music transported me into a mood of stillness that was fertile ground for the reception of the Gospel. I tried this with my own students, to similar effect. At first, the students hated me for not allowing them to use their computers and forcing them to put away their phones. But, in the end, most of them appreciated this moment because, as one of my students said, “it was a breath of fresh air.” It was an escape from the prison of digital culture. By stilling the hearts of my students through the medium of classical music, I was better able to induct them into the mystery of Christ. From what I can make of the archbishop’s remarks, the directory will take a similar approach when it is seeking to engage people immersed in the digital culture.
Obstacle to Effective Catechesis
The archbishop rightly identifies the obstacles that prevent catechesis from informing the whole of one’s life. First, he identifies the “school model” in which the “school classroom becomes the catechetical room, the school calendar is identical to the catechetical one, etc.” Second, he identifies a “mentality by which catechesis becomes the condition for receiving a particular sacrament of initiation.” Sadly, most such catechesis is incorrectly seen as preparation for the perceived “graduation ceremony” of Confirmation.
Lastly, he critiques postponing the sacraments so as to keep those preparing for them in the Church a little longer, yet another mindset that fails to see catechesis as a necessarily life-long journey. Most catechists are already very familiar with these obstacles, and have tried many strategies to overcome them with varying degrees of success.
Every parish and school needs to give parents the resources to both inflame their own faith and make them eager to become their children’s primary catechists. Catechesis, to be truly effective, needs to become part of the home, integrated into the daily lives and habits of the Catholic family. In this way, many of the obstacles to handing on the faith will be overcome.
There is much work to be done given that most in the West are uncatechized. We need to rethink the way we have been doing things to see what works and what doesn’t. Thankfully, the new directory is here to help us in that effort.
Photo by @riccardorossi