Catechizing for Conversion

While the situation is improving, I still frequently hear about problems with catechesis along with complaints that many Catholics are ignorant of the faith. We rightly examine the various factors that contribute to this phenomenon, from defective catechetical materials to lackluster teaching and a lack of parental support. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around.

While all of the above is true, I nonetheless think it’s fair to say that the problem is not so much a failure of catechesis so much as it’s a lack of evangelization (and thus a lack of faith).

Catechesis is about helping a person mature in the faith. In other words, it’s about “educating the true disciple of Christ by means of a deeper and more systematic knowledge of the Person and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Pope John Paul II, On Catechesis in Our Time, no. 19). 

Notice that the Holy Father assumes here a living faith, that the person being catechized is already a disciple. In practice, that’s an assumption we cannot afford to make, especially in today’s culture. The Holy Father admitted as much, and also said that catechesis must not only concern itself with nourishing and teaching the faith, but also unceasingly arousing it. While all of this is part of  ”evangelization” in a broad sense, arousing one to a personal commitment to Christ is evangelization in the stricter sense, and that’s the sort of evangelization that I think is often lacking, and when it is, catechesis just doesn’t stick.

Let’s look at it this way. Most Catholics are baptized as children. They receive the gift of faith, and so in a real sense their Baptism is a moment of conversion. Yet, infant Baptism presupposes an integral Christian formation ordered to a personal appropriation of one’s baptismal faith. After all, Our Lord told the apostles to “go and make disciples,” not “go and make baptized babies.”

When baptized children are not raised in an environment that fosters a personal relationship or commitment to Christ and His Church, is it really surprising that they are not actively engaged in their religion class? Isn’t this the next generation of “Sunday Catholics” (at best) who look upon the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with blank, glassy stares? Trying to teach the faith to those who have not in some meaningful measure committed themselves as Christian disciples is like reading the owner’s manual to a new pc to someone who hasn’t yet decided that he wants a computer. The information will come in handy at some point, but the timing is not right.

Many of these “unevangelized” (or perhaps we might say “under-evangelized”)Catholics create their own a la carte version of the faith at the proverbial cafeteria. Most, however, simply walk away. Of these, some become hard core secularists. Others are evangelized by other Christians. When that happens, we often hear “I went to Catholic school for 12 years and never had the Gospel preached to me.” Surely that’s something of an overstatement, but at the same time it may very well be true that while there may have been some attempt at catechesis, this person was never really evangelized in the strictest sense.

Evangelization is more of an art than a science, and even then the Holy Spirit does most of the heavy lifting. Even so, there are two things we can and should do to further the work of evangelization, especially among our children.

First, the child must be personally invited, or I daresay challenged, to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of His life, with all that implies. Maybe we sometimes take it for granted that “we’re all Catholics in this family” and neglect the fact that our faith is not only communal, but also intensely personal. Junior must come to know that Christian discipleship means a radical commitment of his life to Christ.

Second, as a family and as a parish and local Church we have to foster an environment that’s conducive to one’s personal acceptance of Jesus’ lordship. If there’s a disconnect between religious education and the rest of his life, the faith will simply be another class like math or spelling. We must do what we can to help our children be rich, fertile soil, such that the Word of God can most easily take root and flourish in them (cf. Lk. 8:4-15).

Parents have ”the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children . . . [and fostering] interior dispositions that are a genuine preparation for a living faith” (Catechism, no. 2225). The Catechism calls parents the “first heralds” of the Gospel to their children. Sometimes we place the emphasis on “first,” as we stress the parents’ primary rights vis a vis a wacky dre or seemingly arbitrary Catholic school principal. But the key word is “heralds.” Parents must proclaim the faith to their children in word and deed. If they don’t, chances are that Junior will not grow up to be a practicing Catholic.

Parents, as well as teachers, catechists, and homilists really must seek to engage their listeners, with good doses of inspiration and personal challenges to live for Christ as faithful Catholics. To make time for the communication of this vitally important information, we can cut back on the jokes (though not entirely), heterodox opinions, debunking of Scripture, and other irrelevant commentary.

But even beyond that, what do the children see in their parents, teachers, catechists, and priests when they’re not teaching? Paradoxically, that’s when most of the real teaching takes place. Kids can read the catechism or Bible stories for themselves. What they want to see is how the faith affects the lives of those whom they respect. In this regard, we do well to take to heart these words of St. Paul: “With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” (1 Thess. 2:8).

5 responses

  1. Thank you for this post! It summarizes my
    first year experience as Director for Religious Education in a small parish. I’m now looking into a program to catechize the parents.

  2. Leon, I think this is fine reflection as far as it goes, but doesn’t all this beg the question: Can the vast and ever-increasing majority of today’s “underevangelized” Catholics even be considered Christian? What does today’s “average” Catholic believe? (I’m asking because I don’t know – I sometimes wonder whether they believe anything.) I think if you were to ask most Catholics what they believe, you would likely receive a rambling response that doesn’t really say anything. Further, most would regard any attempt at evangelization as an attack on their “personal” beliefs, hence a personal attack on them.

    My intent is not to be mean-spirited or without hope, but in reality that is the mindset we are dealing with, and from where I sit the situation is not improving. And I don’t think that observation is in any way provincial.

    What is getting better is communication by way of new technology (like your blog). We are using media to catechize and evangelize, but for the most part it does so for the already-convinced. I guess what I’m asking is how do we evangelize people who will take your attempt at evangelization as a personal attack on their “faith”?

  3. You are so right about how kids want and need to see faith in action. Kid’s mimic what they see and hear. However what do they see? They may not be seeing faith lived out in their families or in church. Or they see that the faith lived out in their families is boring compared to what they see and hear on TV, movies and music. To piggy back off the last issue of Laywitness about the media. We have to take over the media. Look how powerful and popular was the Passion of Christ. Bella is another example how good positve stories set in real life can be evangelical. Contempory Christian music is very popular, inspirational and moving Let’s get some good Catholic singers in the mix. We have a host of tremendous stories in the real lives of the saints. I hear some talk about a movie of the life of St. Miguel Pro might be in the works. How about a movie based on the book Pillars of the Earth. A movie that could show the fruits that came out of the martyrdom of the Archbishop of Cantebury St. Thomas Becket. I would imagine the stories of real life heroic faith in action in the lives of the saints could be endless. Let’s make a movie about the reality of what the Church did to save lives during the holocost. Movies as these, if well made, could be very influential and entertaining. Let’s counter the other side from all the falsehoods and inuendo it constantly gushes out about the Church on the big screen. We need talented, creative, and (let’s face it)wealthy Catholics in the business of entertainment and music to stand up for their faith and use their gifts to envangelize kids, parents and the culture at large.

  4. I’ve been away on vacation for a few days but now that I’m back I would like to respond to these interesting comments.

    NYer: Thanks so much for this feedback. Stay tuned for more information on how to catechize parents. In the meantime, I’m sure you would benefit from a membership in Catholics United for the Faith if you’re not already a member. You may sign up online at

    Tom: Thanks so much for these excellent points. I would like to add three ideas to what you wrote:

    (1) In my original post I probably should have been more clear that the Church sees catechesis as an integral part of the overall work of evangelization, and that the Church today, especially in view of Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, sees catechesis in the context of her missionary vocation to bring the Gospel to all.

    So, when I talk about the problem being more in the area of “evangelization” and not merely catechesis, I was referring to evangelization in a narrow, popular sense–what the Church in her documents calls “proclamation.” In other words, I’m talking about the aspect of evangelization that leads to one’s committing themselves to Christ, a commitment that then deepens and matures through the work of catechesis.

    (2) Surely there are baptized Catholics with no explicit faith, who know very little about their faith, and/or who have created their own faith at the cafeteria/salad bar of contemporary religious ideas. This is more of a problem for cradle Catholics than adult converts, in my opinion, because the latter at least have had some sort of RCIA instruction and–prior to this catechetical “moment”–probably read the “right” books and heard the “right” tapes.

    Cradle Catholics who receive little or no formation during the “formative” years are set up for failure, like the seed that falls along the path or in the rocks (Lk. 8:5-6). We need to address this issue in real time (i.e., build up families, really evangelize our youth in the fullest sense, etc.) while also picking up the pieces with respect to the failures of recent decades. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting in all this, though of course we all have a role to play in this “new evangelization.”

    In the meantime, we do know in faith that these “underevangelized” Catholics are indeed Christians through the sacrament of Baptism. Like the prodigal son, when they return to the Church, they need conversion (i.e., Confession), but not re-baptism.

    (3) Your final point brings into play the problem of an exclusively subjective, privatized faith. This points to the crucial distinction between “my” faith, the subjective “fides qua,” and “the” faith, the objective “fides quae.” As in most things Catholic, this is a both-and proposition.

    Vatican II stresses that God saves us as a people, even more, as a family, which would tend to rule out a “me-and-Jesus” spirituality that ignores the ecclesial, familial context of Christian faith. This is an issue that we can and will address in more detail in future posts. Clearly we can see the absolute necessity of upholding objective truth and the natural moral law as a necessary building block for reaching those who are content with their do-it-yourself Christianity.

    Sam: You are absolutely right. I would add that in addition to explicitly Catholic role models we should continually introduce our youth to all that is good, true, and beautiful, wherever it may be found. As the Pope said twenty-plus years ago in the “Ratzinger Report,” the two best arguments for Christianity are the saints produced by the Church and the art which was formed in her womb. Along these lines, I highly recommend the work of my dear friend, musician Eric Genuis. Here is a link to recent interview he gave to Deal Hudson:

    And by the way, Eric will be providing the music for CUF’s 40th anniversary conference this fall.

  5. In all evangelization, in all catechesis, we must humbly be immersed in the mystery of grace. The key, I think, is found in the crucial role of the catechist (and the evangelist): to place people in communion with Christ – to enable a personal encounter with the living Lord Jesus. If we fail to work at this depth, we will fail our role and mission. We must be transparent to Him; we must communicate Him. In this way, conversion becomes a possibility.

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