Christ the Child, the Teacher

In his apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us that

“in catechesis it is Christ, the Incarnate Word and Son of God, who is taught – everything else is taught with reference to Him – and it is Christ alone who teaches – anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ’s spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with his lips.” (no. 6)

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, this quote may prompt us to consider what lessons the Christ child teaches us.

That God condescended to become man — indeed, a child — demonstrates that he desires a relationship of affection and love with us. The Second Person of the Trinity cleaves to humanity in the closest way possible by taking on our flesh and blood. He is “God with us” and continues to reach out to each one of us by extending the love and mercy of the Father.

Jesus also came in poverty, foreshadowing his deep concern for the poor and marginalized. St. John Chrysostom says “His desire was not to destroy, but to save; and to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man.” Today it is in the face of the poor and downtrodden that we see the face of Christ himself, and by serving them we truly serve Christ. (cf. Matthew 25:31-46)

Finally, in the infant Jesus we see the innocent victim who will one day be led to sacrifice at Calvary. Born in Bethlehem, the “House of Bread,” his sacrifice continues to refresh our body and soul whenever we receive the bread of life in the Eucharist, for he offers to us his very body and blood, soul and divinity which hung on the Cross for our salvation.

As we await the coming of the Christ child at Christmas, let us continue to reflect on the great gift of the Incarnation and the lessons taught by a little child.

The “Circles” of the New Evangelization

The phrase “New Evangelization” is frequently thrown around today to describe a variety of programs, teachings, initiatives, and projects – so much so that sometimes we forget that the New Evangelization is at its core, in the words of Donald Cardinal Wuerl, “a mode of thinking, seeing and acting… a lens through which we see the opportunities to proclaim the Gospel anew.”

To help combat the “programmatization” of the New Evangelization it may be helpful to think in terms of a series of concentric circles, each with its own needs and requiring its own approach:


At the center of the circle is Jesus Christ, the ultimate end of the New Evangelization. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” That person is Jesus. The goal of evangelization and catechesis is to help individuals to know him – not just in an intellectual way, but through our lived experience in relationship to him.

The next circle from the middle consists of intentional disciples – those who have oriented their lives towards Jesus Christ and follow him in a way radically at odds with the ways of the world. It is important to note that intentional discipleship is more than just showing up for Sunday Mass. True discipleship flows into all aspects of our lives. Those who have reached this circle seek to emulate Jesus in all things.

The next circle out is seekers. These individuals are looking for more – and may be involved and present in our parishes – but they have yet to fully turn over their lives to Jesus. They are pursuing, to various degrees, a spiritual life and may well be on their way to true discipleship.

The “marginals” are those family members and friends that we may see at Christmas, Easter, or funerals, but who do not participate in the faith regularly. Many of them still have a personal prayer life and would bristle at being called “inactive” or “non-practicing.” However their religious activities do not include the wider Christian community, even if they continue to identify as Catholic.

Moving outwards we next encounter the “nones,” a rapidly growing group that identifies with no religious tradition. (They get their name because they mark “none” when asked about their preferred faith tradition on surveys.) Members of this group may or may not be hostile to religious faith, but they have no interest in organized religion, finding it to be irrelevant to their needs.

Finally, in the circle furthest from the center, is the culture. The Church’s teaching on the New Evangelization is clear that, in addition to reaching out to individuals in their communities, Christians are also called to evangelize the cultures in which they find themselves. This is accomplished through various outreach and service programs including Catholic schools and hospitals, and initiatives of the bishops such as Catholic Relief Services and advocacy for more just laws in the secular sphere.

The goal of the New Evangelization is to help people to come to know Jesus Christ – in effect, to help people to move from the outer circles to the center where we find, ultimately, union with Christ. What this looks like will depend on which “circle” we are dealing with. In other words, a one-size-fits-all approach will not meet the varied attitudes, experiences, and needs we will encounter in the people we meet. It is the work of our dioceses, parishes, and families to ensure that all people hear the Gospel and are invited to take that first step – no matter how small – towards Christ.

This post was originally written for the USCCB’s Diocesan Educational and Catechetical Leadership Institute.

Videos: Building a Better Disciple Series

This past Monday evening I completed my five-part webinar series “Building a Better Disciple.”

All five videos are available to view. In addition, slides and catechist formation participation forms for catechists and teachers in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois are available at

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the live webinars. This was a fun and enlightening experiment in webinar-based catechist formation and I already have some ideas for a video-based formation series in the spring. Stay tuned!

Supernatural Love: “Teaching is not the principal thing…”

The teacher of religion should love his students with a love which sees in them the image of Christ. He should love them even as our Lord loved children and took them to His heart when He was on earth. ‘The charity of Jesus Christ,’ wrote Bishop Dupanloup, ‘and your love for children will inspire in you a disinterested and enlightened devotion toward them. In a well-conducted class, teaching is not the principal thing, the chief thing is piety and personal, affectionate influence on the children.’

-Very Rev. Joseph B. Collins, SS,  Confraternity Teacher’s Guide (1960)

Photo by Rodrigo_Soldon / flickrCC

‘He descended into hell’

The ‘descent into hell’ is as important as the other articles of the Creed (because it joins Old Testament with New, and shows Our Lord as the Centre of all history), but it is outside all our experience and imagination. Tell the children we have to make a picture of it as best we can.
The moment when Our Lord expired on the Cross was the moment when the atonement was made, the world was saved, the Old Law was ended, the New begun, Our Lord’s work of redemption complete. That is why He said: ‘It is finished,’ and why the Veil of the Temple (before the Holy of holies) was miraculously rent in two.
While Our Lord’s body still hung lifeless on the Cross, His Soul had gone straight to the world of departed spirits (‘Hell,’ Limbo, etc).
Picture a vast ‘place’ in the spirit world, and the souls of the just who waited there (we must picture the spirits in bodily form) ” Adam and Eve whose sin had closed the gates of heaven, Abraham and the patriarchs who had believed so long ago, the prophets and kings who had longed for the Messias; David, Isaias, and myriads of others who had done God’s will as they knew it, down to holy Simeon and Anna, the Holy Innocents, John the Baptist, St Joseph himself all waiting patiently, and knowing the time near. Suddenly, the Soul of Jesus, bright with glory, appears in the sight of all, and they welcome Him with joy and adoration. He passes through them, with greetings for this one and that one, making His way to our first parents, and the second Adam meets the first Adam, with God’s message of full forgiveness.
Then to all the vast throng of spirits Jesus announces the Good News of Redemption. He fills their souls with the light of glory, spreading from the glory of His own Soul –as many lamps lighted from one and then (either now or at the Ascension) He heads them in grand procession into heaven.

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part I: the Creed (1939)

Monty Python: Christological Scholars?

I recently completed watching Monty Python: Almost the Truth, a fascinating six-hour documentary on the British comedy troupe. The fifth episode of the series focuses on The Life of Brian, a film about a reluctant false messiah at the time of Christ.

When they first set out to write the film the Pythons started with, in their own words, a lot of blasphemous jokes about Christ. But the funny thing is that, as they reviewed what they had written, they realized it wasn’t really that funny. The funny stuff tended to happen around Christ rather than to or  because  of Christ — the humor is in how people misinterpret Christ’s words. And, in the final product, Christ only appears twice (at his birth and at the Sermon on the Mount) and is portrayed just as he appears in Sacred Scripture.

The Pythons spend several minutes in the documentary reflecting on why humor about Jesus doesn’t work, but I think John Cleese makes the most astute — and Christologically  relevant  — point. Working from the Henri Bergon theory of comedy, Cleese explains that character humor arises from the conflict between an inflexible character and the situation around him. Think of the upper-crust aristocrat who refuses to acknowledge the chaos in which he finds himself.  Christ, on the other hand, would not have been inflexible. In Cleese’s words he would have been “infinitely flexible” because he had no ego.

I think this is a profound insight into the nature of Christ and our own attempts to imitate him. Christ didn’t fall into the legalism of the Pharisees; neither did he attempt to water down God’s expectations of Man. He showed us the path of justice and mercy; judgement and love. If we are called to imitate Christ, then we must be equally flexible — not in our beliefs and doctrines, but in how we apply them in the real world. We must be ready with a word of condemnation for sin, but love for our brothers and sisters. We must seek to decrease so that Christ may increase in us. We must rid ourselves of selfishness and self-centeredness so that the Holy Spirit can work in our lives. As Heather King recently wrote:

Here’s how, in my experience, you know you’re becoming a follower of Christ. You begin to want to be seen less, not more. You begin to want to be quieter, not louder.  Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from scoring points among your “friends.” Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from winning  useless arguments. You find yourself making tiny sacrifices. You find yourself experiencing tiny moments of joy. You find yourself mysteriously drawn to the Gospels, to Confession, to Mass.

Unfortunately  Cleese’s remarks are only in the extended version of the documentary available on Netflix; this YouTube video features some reflections from the other members of Monty Python about why Christ is “not pervious to comedy.”  (Warning: video is NSFW due to language and non-sexual nudity.)

September 2014 Addition: The video has since been taken down from YouTube and the documentary is not currently available on Netflix. If you happen to come across it, it really is worth your time!

Cruelty is always in men’s hearts

In spite of Christianity the cruel and bloody spectacle of the amphitheatres, especially the gladiatorial shows, still continued in the early fifth century.

An old hermit named Telemachus lived in the mountains, and heard at prayer a voice telling him: ‘Go to Rome ”I have work for you there !’ He was old and reluctant and tried to treat it as illusion, but the voice persisted and at last he took the toilsome road to Rome.

Arriving there one morning, he was drawn along to the Coliseum with the crowds which were converging there. He took his seat, an incongruous figure, unmindful of the mocking smiles of the city folk around him.

Two parties of gladiators marched round the arena and lined up to fight. Then the old hermit suddenly knew what he had to do, and strength came to him to do it. He ran down the gangways, got into the arena, and stood between the combatants and shouted: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ who died for men! Do not kill each other!’

A moment of silence, then laughter from the gladiators and an angry roar from the crowd. Someone threw a stone, many others followed. In a minute or two St. Telemachus lay dead on the sand.

But the incident was talked of everywhere, and many said he was right. The Christian conscience awakened, and soon the Emperor issued a decree which ended these cruel and murderous public entertainments.

Cruelty, blood-lust, even murder lives under the surface in the hearts of ordinary men. Only Jesus Christ is strong enough to hold it in check.

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part III: The Commandments (1939)