Q: Archbishop J, what is the catechetical mandate?
Transmitting faith to the next generation is the most urgent and challenging task of the Church today. This generation does not receive the faith in the same way that my generation did. Yet we have not been able to find an adequate response to this challenge.
In this catechetical month, it is vital that we reflect again on the catechetical mandate. We need to find new and profound ways to pass on the faith to this generation and the next.
There are two challenges. First, Catholics are not having as many children and many Catholics no longer go to church on Sundays. The reason for this is manifold. But I believe, in part, these Catholics do not have a living faith.
Here is the heart of the challenge: we cannot give what we ourselves do not have. If we do not have a vital relationship with Christ, we cannot pass it on. Above all, we absolutely need to pass on faith. Knowledge is important but it is not a substitute for faith.
Primacy of Faith
The Catechism defines faith in this way: “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person” (150).
Faith is both adherence to God AND assent to truths. It is paradoxical. Faith is not propositions only, nor a relationship only. It is both: relationship and propositions or beliefs.
For many years we have put the propositions as primary. This meant we spent most of our formation time with transmitting beliefs. This is only half of the objective. We have produced many generations who know what the Church taught, but do not have a living faith, which requires, first, a personal adherence to God—a relationship of love and trust. This is knowledge in the biblical sense of the word—Adam knew Eve and she had a son (Gen 4:1).
Knowledge here is the most intense form of intimacy the human could engage in with their whole being. Adam gave all of himself to Eve. It is our whole being that must be given to God.
“Q. Why did God make you? A God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next” (Penny Catechism).
At the heart of faith is radical extreme intimacy. When we come to faith, we come to a love that is beyond all human imagination. It consumes all of us and we desire to give all of us to this God who fills us to the utter fullness of Christ.
St Paul prays “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith … that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17–19).
Response of Love
On Saturday, I celebrated Mass with the catechists of the Northern Vicariate. The Reading came from 1 Thessalonians:
As for loving our brothers, there is no need for anyone to write to you about that, since you have learnt from God yourselves to love one another, and in fact this is what you are doing with all the brothers throughout the whole of Macedonia. However, we do urge you, brothers, to go on making even greater progress and to make a point of living quietly, attending to your own business and earning your living, just as we told you to (1 Thess 4:9–11).
The primary point of the powerful text is that love is the response to faith. If we have faith in God then we love God, and we love our brothers and sisters. Paul is reaffirming Jesus’ command: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn 13:34).
At a recent synod meeting in Bogota, Colombia, a small group spoke about the first theme of the synod: Communion. The group realised that communion is indispensable as Church. It is the first thing that we are always working on.
No communion or love: no ministry or mission.
The Thessalonians were praised for their love and charity among themselves and to other churches.
Whatever we do in the Church, we do in love. The whole experience of catechesis needs to be one of love and of teaching the skills of being loving and hospitable. This is also the mandate for the transformation of the whole parish and every ministry.
Taught by God
Most surprising in the text is Paul’s teaching that they were all taught by God. He saw the transformation of the community and recognised it as the fulfilment of prophecy. Isaiah prophesies: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord” (54:13). Jeremiah foresees a new covenant when God will write the law on people’s hearts (31: 31–34).
If St Paul is right—that we learn from God—what is the role of the catechist? This is vital to our enquiry. The catechist’s task is to accompany others to the encounter with God, so they begin to have a living faith. We cannot give faith. It is God who does this. We can put people in touch with Christ.
St Teresa of Avila speaks of the four stages of the spiritual life. The first stage is the most difficult. She likens this stage to drawing water from a well to water a large garden. It requires much work. There are many distractions, disruptions, memories of past deeds, that are difficult.
The catechist’s task is to accompany the person through this stage till they have a consistent habit of prayer. This requires giving them a knowledge of God that makes the journey reasonable.
The second stage she likens to a water wheel where the person collects the water to water the garden. In this stage there is much grace but still work. The attraction to God is growing and conversion is beginning to take root.
The third stage is like a garden hose; there is some work, but the water is being delivered. God is becoming the gardener and assisting in the task of watering. There is now an attraction to God that is compelling.
In the final stage God sends rain to water the garden. The soul becomes passive, and God is now active in drawing the soul to God.
The catechetical mandate requires accompanying people through the first stage where the watering is difficult, disposing them to encounter God, and helping them develop a routine of prayer and setting a time of study that is sustainable.
The mandate results in a movement to generosity and ultimately a willingness to hand on the faith.
Matthew Kelly explored this movement in his Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic. We need to give the person the right balance of witness, encounter, and knowledge so they evolve to the place where they are being taught by God.
The catechist’s mandate is to accompany others to God and initiate them into the sacred mysteries where they encounter Christ. It is Christ who teaches and transforms each soul.
Ask Christ to move you to the next stage of your journey with Him. Find your copy of Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic. Read it again.
1 Thessalonians 4:9–11
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