Can Catechists Be Too Reliant on the Catechism? (Bosco RoundUp Part 3)


My experience attending the St. John Bosco Conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville did leave me with one lingering question prompted both by the content and methodology employed in some of the presentations. Namely, I went home wondering if there isn’t a danger in becoming overly reliant on the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a source of the Church’s teachings.

To give an example: I attended a session on liturgy and catechesis given by a well-respected catechist. He outlined the Church’s understanding of liturgy, beginning with the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi. But in his presentation and handouts, every reference was to what the Catechism had to say about liturgy. He did not reference the Roman MissalSacrosanctum concilium, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, or any of the Church’s many documents on the nature and practice of the liturgy. The implication — intentional or not — was that everything we need to know about liturgy can be found in the Catechism. There was little “liturgy” to be found in the presentation.

Contrast this approach with that taken by Bishop Richard Malone at the start of his Saturday keynote. His topic, God the Father, was not explicitly tied to the liturgy. Indeed, one might have expected him to use as his starting point the Catechism‘s teaching on the first person of the Trinity. Instead Bishop Malone turned to the Roman Missal and the prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayers to show what they teach us, through our common prayer, about the Father. He didn’t talk about lex orandi, lex credendi — he practiced it by showing how our prayer leads to and informs our doctrine.

Reflecting on these contrasting approaches led me to wonder if focusing too intently on the Catechism leads to didacticism — a tendency towards excessive teaching (narrowly defined) that fails to reflect the fullness of catechesis (c.f. Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults no. 75). In its most extreme form this didacticism elevates the Catechism to a status it neither claims nor was designed for. As Bl. Pope John Paul II states in his apostolic constitution promulgating the Catechism,

The Catechism of the Catholic Church… is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illuminated by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradtition, and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and this a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.

In other words the Catechism is not the last word on the content and expression of the Catholic faith. It is a statement and a norm, not the sole source. That is one reason John Paul II stresses the continued importance and prominence of local catechisms such as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults and the YouCat. These local catechisms enculturate the content of the Catechism by giving it new expression in local language and form.

This isn’t to say (it should go without saying) that the Catechism isn’t helpful or shouldn’t be used in catechesis. Indeed, a universal catechism should have a place of prominence in the handing on of the faith. But there does seem to be an overly didactic tendency in some catechists that a fixation on the Catechism feeds into. This tendency manifests in claims that the Catechism is the only authentic source of Catholic teaching, rather than a summary of it, and an insistence that the language used in the Catechism is the only authentic expression of the Catholic faith (an insistence that neglects both Church history and the rich tradition of the Eastern churches).

That this question was prompted by the conference is ironic since on at least two occasions I heard different speakers warn against didacticism in catechesis. Indeed, I don’t want to give the impression that the conference or any presenter specifically endorsed sole reliance on the Catechism. But the fact that the only document quoted by a good number of presenters was the Catechism does give me pause and makes me think that we are not giving our catechists the full range of tools they need to pass on the faith.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts in the comments. Do you sense this same creeping didacticism? How can we help catechists embrace a wide range of sources of Catholic teaching?

The Baptismal Catechumenate and Adult Faith Formation (Bosco RoundUp Part 2)


On the second day of the St. John Bosco Conference I attended a workshop by Martha Drennan on the centrality of adult faith formation in the Church’s understanding of catechesis. Martha did a great job unpacking the Church’s teaching on the importance of adult faith formation in the life of a parish — an importance that is not always appreciated by catechetical leaders or pastors!

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Martha’s presentation was a lengthy aside on the baptismal catechumenate and its implications for meeting adults at different stages of their journey of discipleship. Martha used the periods of the RCIA to explore how baptized adult Catholics may nevertheless have different needs and questions depending on how well they have been evangelized and catechized. She also pointed out those places where the Church has an opportunity to reach out to these people.

For instance, we all know Catholics who, for what ever reason, received little catechetical instruction and no longer practice the faith. However, they still appear at weddings and funerals. Here the church has an opportunity to witness to them, proclaim the Gospel, and invite them back into the regular practice of the faith through listening to them and offering healing and reconciliation.

In her presentation Martha also gave a passionate plea that parishes should “give their best” to adult faith formation. This doesn’t necessarily mean the bulk of the catechetical budget; youth programs, by their very nature, will normally require more in the way of a financial investment. But it does mean that adult faith formation should not be given short shrift. For instance, Martha challenged those present to call catechists specifically to the vocation of adult faith formation. Very few parishes consider the particular need for catechists who can speak well before an adult audience. This is too bad since there are many people who, while uncomfortable with working in youth catechesis, would be much more at home in an adult learning environment.

Does your parish give its best to adult faith formation? How can we promote good adult faith formation in the life of the Church?

Building a Better Parish Catechetical Leader (Bosco RoundUp Part 1)

Last week I had the privilege of attending the St. John Bosco Conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. This was my first time attending the conference and I was very pleased at both the scope and the quality of the presentations by various catechetical experts. Over the next two weeks I will share some of the insights and inspirations I received from the conference.

The very first workshop I attended was by Gloria “Gigi” Zapiain of the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Catechetical Center. In it she outlined the characteristics and gifts possessed by successful parish catechetical leaders (PCLs). She centered her talk on four characteristics:

  • person of faith and prayer
  • master catechist with a vocation to leadership
  • an ability to work with people
  • filled with ardor and joy (and, I would add, hope!)

Gigi did an excellent job opening up each of these characteristics and their implications for PCLs. I especially liked her focus on the second characteristic: it’s not enough for a PCL to be a good catchist, but they must also be a good leader at the service of the parish, the pastor, and the catechists. Likewise, in her discussion on enthusiasm and joy she emphasized that a good PCL does not settle for “maintenance ministry” but actively seeks ways to grow catechesis within the community.

The workshop inspired me to tackle an issue that crops up regularly in our diocese – pastors requesting help in hiring good catechetical leaders. Unfortunately some parishes are either unwilling or feel they are unable to discern and call persons for these vital roles. As a result some parishes fall into a “warm body” mentality and wind up choosing catechetical leaders who may be good organizers but do not possess the characteristics identified by Gigi.

As a response to these issues I’m currently in the process of creating a “Guide to Hiring Parish Catechetical Leaders” for our diocese. The guide will contain an overview of the Church’s teachings on the qualities necessary in an effective catechetical leader; a look at the types of parish catechetical leaders in our diocese and their roles in catechesis; a discernment process for calling volunteer leaders; a simple outline of a thorough hiring process for professional leaders; and resources including sample job descriptions and contracts.

What gifts and characteristics do you see in successful catechetical leaders?

On the Road Again


A quick programming note: I’ll be on the road this week attending the St. John Bosco Conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville. It’s my first time attending and while I won’t be blogging from the conference be sure to follow me on Twitter where I’ll be live-tweeting as much as my laptop battery will allow!

Please pray for my safe travel and for all of the conference attendees. I’m particularly looking forward to meeting other catechists and catechetical leaders; if you’re attending leave me a comment to let me know you’ll be there!