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Catechesis: Hearing and Teaching the Good News

by V. Rev. Jovita Okonkwo

 

HEAR THE TREES

Only people who live in the Western hemisphere clearly understand springtime. However, many do not understand that spring is another word for Lent. Those who live south of the equator do not have springtime, neither do they have autumn and winter. Weather-wise, they have all summer. Yet, they understand springtime through the other expression for it, which is Lent. Hence, the Church uses the Latin word Quadragesima meaning (Fortieth) to denote the forty days of preparation for the Easter festival. The forty days are spring days (Lenten days) and culminate in an event that typically coincides with the coming to life of the trees and grasses that have all winter appeared to be dead. That event is the rising to life of the Eternal Son of God. The message is clear: like the trees and grasses, Jesus only “appeared” to have died. The flowers tell a different story of winter – the trees never died. They suffered from the harshness of winter but winter could not annihilate them. With winter gone, they have come alive in the most beautiful fashion. Easter tells a different story of winter, sin and death; which is, life was not lost completely, sin did not annihilate life. Sin is our spiritual winter. Through the spring days we have been incubating. Life blossomed at Easter through the new life brought us by Jesus.

SPRING CATECHESIS

Springtime is an appropriate time to do catechesis. The natural environment provides us with much to learn about dying, rising, new life, and on-going life. As Easter life bursts over the natural environment, so also resurrected life is experienced by us and by the catechumens (neophytes) who have gone through the springtime of the Lord’s passion and death, in order to experience the new life of the resurrection. Resurrected life is not a first form of life; it presupposes death that has been overcome by new life. Hence, I chose to dedicate the April edition of my message to catechesis, which means “instruction by word of mouth.” The Greek and Latin rendering katechesis and katechein means “to teach.” St. John Paul II however, defined it in his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (no. 18) with which he promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “an education in the faith of children, young people and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.” I take the clause “with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life” very seriously because that is the goal of intentional Catholicism. We must come above our former absent-minded perception of the Christian life as a life made for us by others, say, our parents or the conception that we are a Christian nation – although I fail to understand what that means. Or maybe, the Christianity in question is the dead type that fails to resonate in the life of the citizenry. Hence, we must experience a resurrection in order to be able to stand on our feet and claim we have Christ as our life and model.

MY CATECHESIS STORY

Are you familiar with this line?

“Our son grew up in our home to be a good child. We taught him values that make life worth living. We made sure he came to Mass with us every Sunday. We saw him through First Reconciliation and First Communion. He was an altar server for many years and was confirmed in our Church. We sacrificed to see him through Catholic Education from grade school to high school. Now, he no longer attends Mass. He is living with his girlfriend without the benefit of marriage. He no longer listens to us nor cares about religion. All he brings us is sorrow, confusion and distress. What did we not do right?”

I made up this story. Yet, many Catholics can relate to it.

I have a second story and it is a true one. Right after the 10.00am Mass a parishioner introduced to me two young ladies he said wanted to ask some questions about purgatory. I stood in front of the cathedral with them and some of you who were coming in for the noon Mass probably saw us. One of them told me that she is writing a book on theology and wanted to ask questions about purgatory. Her mention of theology aroused my interest. I was deeply impressed by this young woman who wants to write a book on theology. I asked where she had learned theology since, according to her, she recently graduated from High school and attends a Christian Church here in town. She insisted she learned it at her Church. She went on to tell me that she was raised Catholic and went through First Reconciliation and First Communion, but then converted and is now a Christian. I asked my young theologian to teach me the difference between being Catholic and being Christian. She admitted that she was confused about that, though she thought that Catholics have a different bible than Christians and worship differently from the way Christians do. You can see that my job explaining purgatory was cut out for me.

LACK OF ADEQUATE CATECHESIS

Between the first and second stories, something was glaring, and that is a lack of catechesis. If asked what the Church and the Catholic parents of these subjects in my two stories did not do right, my straight answer will be “a failure of catechesis.” Both the parents, RE teachers and leaders of the Church who raised them failed in catechizing. We did not make faith intentional for them. Perhaps, we are not intentional Catholics ourselves. We are nominal Catholics who, at best, perfunctorily attended Mass when we could. Faith was not a serious topic at our dinner tables. Even if we thought faith was important, we did not practice it to the extent that we saw ourselves as disciples of Christ with the obligation to hand on the faith to our children and to others.
I do not suggest that there aren’t people who would do all the right things, yet end up having kids who reject the faith and turn to unbelief or become evangelists in a protestant denomination. I say that our catechesis is inadequate, and for the past six decades or more, we have had inadequate catechesis at home and at Church, and a Public Square that we permitted to ridicule faith.

THE MISSING LINK

What is the missing link? Is faith not about bringing our children to Church, helping them go through baptism, reconciliation and the Eucharist? Let us look back at the definition of catechesis offered by John Paul. He says it’s an “education in the faith.” Education has roots in the Latin “duco” which means leading forth, breeding, rearing, guiding, erecting, conducting. Do we think that we erect a Christian mind and heart by occasionally taking our child to Church? John Paul II adds that this education is imparted in an organic and systematic way. Is our faith organic (living) or rather processed (artificially manufactured)? There is a reason we prefer organic foods to processed foods. Processed foods are packaged in boxes, cans or bags and often contain additives, artificial flavorings and other chemical ingredients. Processed faith is similar – it is packaged in textbooks, contains additives and flavorings, like coloring pencils. If we impart processed faith, we get the fruits of a processed faith, and that is what we have had for the past 60 years and counting. Organic refers to organism, a living entity. An organic faith is natural to life and grows with the person. St. John Paul II further says that catechesis is imparted in a systematic way. That means that it is done in a step-by-step or methodical manner. That is hardly how we impart Christian education on our children. Several of us as adults stopped learning about the faith after First Communion. Confirmation is often sandwiched, in some cases, when the child is in high school struggling with algebra, trigonometry, and especially when the glands have started to roar. Bits and bits of Christian doctrine is not systematized catechesis. And that cannot bring about “initiation of the hearer to the fullness of Christian life.”

HOW IS ORGANIC FAITH IMPARTED?

An organic faith is imparted by leading the child to personally encounter Jesus, first in our family and then, in our Church. Such is what you find in a family of intentional Catholics, and in a parish of intentional disciples, with priest-servants who are intentional disciples of Jesus, not CEOs without portfolio. A family or parish that does not reflect the image of Jesus cannot be a seedbed for a catechetical formation that initiates the hearer to the fullness of Christian life. Catechesis should first tell the story of Jesus; a Great Story that has dominated Western history and the history of the world for the past 2000 years. The Great Story creates awareness of a personal God who loves us in a personal way and whom we can relate with in a personal way. The Great Story arouses curiosity and brings about personal engagement with Jesus. And when the hearer becomes engaged, he or she too becomes a sharer of the story in a personal exchange that is called discipleship (Romans 10:17). That is the foundation we lack in the family, what our RE program lacks, and what at times we lack as a Church. Here is the difference: My boy who became an altar server was probably led to do what other “good” Catholic boys did. Serving at Mass was, at best “cool,” like packaged or processed food, full of artificial stuff. On the contrary, my boy who was led to the altar through intentional discipleship serves Mass because he believes it is a way of serving Jesus in the community. He will not “convert” from Catholicism to Christianity.

Recently, Pope Francis is taking us to task. He calls us to know and love Jesus in a personal way so we may become an army of intentional disciples who go out to the world to love and serve as Jesus did. May Mother Mary, Queen of Disciples and discipleship betray us to her Risen Son as uncaught captives of divine love!

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