the year of faith

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. It is also the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In order to celebrate these two milestones, Pope Benedict XVI has declared this to be a Year of Faith; beginning today and ending on Christ the King Sunday in 2013. The purpose of the Year of Faith is to re-energize and revitalize the faith of all Catholics. But, how is this to be done?

Christopher Lamb, writing for the Tablet, suggests that the specific focus of diocesan efforts can reflect theological leanings. Some dioceses in England are focusing on the documents of Vatican II, while others are focusing on studying the Catechism. The former is considered more of a liberal approach, while the latter is more traditional or conservative.

It is true, that quoting from the Catechism as a black and white tool for apologetics removes the need for careful discernment of the many grey areas in our lives. Therefore, it becomes a favored means for debating right and wrong for fundamentalists. Apologetics, by nature, is a process of defending the faith. When doing so, official teachings and documents become weapons to debate with rather than resources to dialogue with.

Now, I can already hear my more conservative friends rising up to accuse me of being a cafeteria catholic, picking and choosing what I believe in. No. There are absolute truths of our faith that we are all called to give assent to. Top of the list in the hierarchy of truths is the existence of God, and our Trinitarian belief in three Persons in one God. Some of our other teachings have developed over time. Some are still in the stages of development. Who knows what new questions our world will produce in the next decade that the Church will be called upon to discern?

But, I digress. Many folks have an aversion to the Catechism because of the way it has been used – as a weapon of defense and judgment. But, if you actually read the Catechism you will see that it is filled with quotes and footnotes from scripture, saints, Church Fathers and ecclesial documents…including the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Vatican II documents have a pride of place in many sections of the Catechism.

So, it does not need to be an either-or issue. Both the Catechism and the Documents of Vatican II are valuable resources in faith formation. But, doctrinal formation is not enough.

Faith formation that focuses just on the head seldom leads to a true conversion of the heart. I have written previously about the need to find a balance between the two extreme catechetical paradigms of rote memorization with little or no understanding, and arts and crafts classes. We need to nourish and nurture both the head and the heart. We need to feel our faith, a faith of the heart, for then it impels us to action. But, we must also know what it is we believe in.

My hope is that this Year of Faith will be an opportunity to truly read the signs of the times, to discern the spiritual needs and yearnings of women and men of today. And, may we not be afraid to revisit the teachings and traditions of our two thousand year history, while seeking new methods for making it relevant and meaningful for modern times.

The news of the gospel is and always will be good. May we find ways worthy of proclaiming it so others may find the joy and passion that comes with the gift of faith.

which is worse; a bad catechist or no catechist?

Which is worse; a bad catechist, or no catechist? It`s a question I frequently ask myself. And, yes, I`ve pondered this question with regard to parish priests. And, on both counts, I`ve come to the conclusion that it`s much worse to have a bad catechist (or priest) than no catechist (or priest)!

In our part of the world,(especially in rural parishes) there is a shortage of catechists. As with any job placement, a shortage of candidates doesn`t bode well for the quality pool. The standards are low, or non-existent. Any willing soul is welcomed to fill the position.

Thankfully, we are blessed with some gifted, compassionate women and men who generously give of their time and talents to help with the faith formation of the young people in our parish. But, we also have some who are dragged into the job just to fill the void.

What makes a good or a bad catechist? Being well-formed in the faith should be a basic criterion. But, the reality in some parts of the world finds few adult women and men who have had a formal faith formation themselves. We need to step back and form the adults first, before we can expect them to form the children. On the other hand, many catechetical programs come with well-written catechist manuals. A good catechist will avail herself of the resources so she is well prepared for the class she is to teach. And most dioceses will offer training programs and work-shops for ongoing catechist formation.

So, good formation is important but still does not guarantee a good catechist. Some have the gift and some don`t. It`s sometimes difficult to put your finger on that certain quality that makes some teachers shine, and others fall to the bottom of the barrel. Here are some qualities that I think are important,

  • KINDNESS – You cannot teach young children about the love of God by shouting and barking to them.
  • PERSONAL PRAYER – We come to know God through a personal relationship in prayer. A catechist who is grounded in prayer, will know how to speak naturally about God and the role of God in her life.
  • PERSONAL WITNESS – A catechist needs to be a person of integrity and generous service. This doesn`t mean that `only saints need apply`. Far from it! We need women and men who understand struggling to live the gospel faithfully, and who remain faithful to the struggle.
  • JOYFUL SPIRIT – We cannot be happy all the time, but we must show to children the true joy that God offers to each and every one of them. This is not a shallow joy, but a promise grounded in the deep hope that no matter what, eventually all will be well in God`s loving, providential plan for each of us.
  • CREATIVITY – As with any profession, creativity is a valued gift. It gives a person an openness of mind and heart to discern the needs of those in their care. A creative soul will take the time to ponder the best methods and means to present the message for each place and time.

A friend once shared with me that her young son dreaded going to the weekly catechism class because he was scared of the teacher! She was a zealous soul, constantly correcting the smallest detail of a genuflection or sign of the cross. Catechism classes are not a boot camp. Children come to learn of the love of God not through the mind alone, but by experiencing that same love in action.

the trad-lib pendulum in catechetics

My generation of baby-boomers was raised in the heady days after the Second Vatican Council. I am just old enough to remember Latin masses. And, I have a very clear recollection of the Baltimore-style Catechism in my early school years. Our religion classes consisted of memorizing, verbatim, responses to questions. I still remember the first two questions,

Who is God?

God is a Supreme Being. 

Why did God make you?

God made me to love Him and serve Him, in this world and the next. 

This is heady stuff for a six year old! Yup, back in St. Werburgh`s in Chester, England, we began the long journey through the Catechism as soon as we started school. The words SUPREME BEING, for some reason, terrified me. Is this what the fear of God is all about? And `the next world` sounded so eery!

We came to Canada when I was eight years old. The more liberal approach to catechetics was making its way into the parishes. Ours was named after good Pope John XXIII. For a couple of years we used more traditional text-books. Being a voracious reader, I loved these books; especially the ones on the lives of saints and Church history.

Slowly, the books were put aside and the art supplies came out. We were now taught that God was butterflies, and encouraged to express our faith through collages and drawings. We listened to Simon and Garfunkel and discussed the deeper message in their words.

As with most pendulum swings, going to extremes might have its strengths. But it almost always results in weakness for what is left behind and thrown away. We need a good grounding in the teachings of the Church. But, we need to ground it in a faith of the heart otherwise it becomes merely an intellectual activity. We need to tap into our emotions, for our emotions help our souls to soar! But love that is based solely on emotional feelings is bound to fail. We need deeply formed roots; a mind and will to remind us of the roots of our faith and why we believe.

And what about Simon and Garfunkel? I still love the lads. They taught me to seek the wisdom and truth in art and culture; whether it is a top 40`s hit, a symphony, a T.V. show, a witty ad, or a brilliantly done graphic design. God can, and does speaks through all. And, isn`t it good to seek God in the world around us?