When it comes to catechesis, Jesus Christ is both the teacher and the subject that is “taught.” We simply cannot understand the Church’s catechetical ministry–that is, her response to the Lord’s call to make disciples of all nations–unless we grasp this fundamental point.
But wait a minute! In the definition of catechesis that we gave in last Wednesday’s installment of this column, we noted that those who do the catechizing are called catechists. Aren’t they the ones who are doing the teaching?
Yes and no. Surely the catechist is the one standing in front of the class in a teaching role. Yet one is worthy of the name ”catechist” only to the extent he or she is able to decrease so that the Lord may increase (Jn. 3:30). In imitation of Christ the Teacher, every catechist should be able to say, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (Jn. 7:16).
There are countless times and places for expressing one’s personal opinions, references, and insights, but a catechetical setting is not one of them. Our Lord wants us to know Him, and not merely know someone else’s views about Him. Therefore, the catechist has the most serious responsibility to communicate the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, with the goal of fostering intimate communion with the Holy Trinity in the communion of saints.
As Christ says plainly at the Last Supper, “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (Jn. 13:13-14). Elsewhere, He affirms that we have but one teacher, God Himself (Mt. 23:8; see also Jn. 3:2). St. Ignatius of Antioch continued this theme when he wrote shortly after 100 A.D.: “We have received the faith; this is why we hold fast, in order to be recognized as disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Teacher” (Epistle to the Magnesians, 9:2).
As baptized Catholics, we are privileged to participate in Christ’s teaching ministry, but only to the extent we truly let Him be the teacher.
As the “subject” of catechesis, Christ must be the point of reference for everything that is taught. This naturally includes a systematic presentation of Christ’s teachings, found in Scripture and Tradition, and authentically proclaimed by His Church.
But if catechesis were merely learning the teachings of Christ, then it would become just an abstract, academic exercise. But at the heart of our faith, and surely at the heart of catechesis, is a person–and not just any person, but the eternal Son of God who became man and was born in the fullness of time to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Catechesis is informational, but even more, it is relational, as we are introduced into the real-life drama of salvation history. This relationship is familial, which ties into the sacramental life of the Church through which we become children of God. This relationship respects and calls forth the exercise of authentic human freedom and responsibility, which ties into Christian morality. And this relationship is eminently personal, thus tying into the need for prayer and sound spiritual formation.
Throughout this series I will be recommending resources for those who wish to go deeper. This week I especially recommend Pope John Paul II’s 1979 apostolic exhortation “On Catechesis in Our Time” (Catechesi Tradendae). Click here for the official text from the Vatican website. Today’s reflections are a summary of nos. 5-9 of that papal document on the Church’s catechetical ministry.
In addition, especially for readers who aren’t accustomed to “family of God” terminology in reference to the Church, I recommend the Catholic for a Reason series. The initial volume, subtitled Scripture and the Mystery of the Church, provides a very helpful introduction. For more information on that title, click here.
In conclusion, Pope John Paul II notes that the primary and essential object of catechesis is to lead a person to study the mystery of Christ in all its dimensions: “to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery . . . comprehend with the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth . . . know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge . . . (and be filled) with all the fullness of God” (quoting Ephesians 3:9, 18-19).