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).