|We do not usually talk about Mary as a catechist and we do not
commonly think of her as a model for those who catechize. But the
Blessed Virgin Mary is not only a pattern, she is a perfect model of
what every catechist in the Catholic Church should be.
Before we go more deeply into our subject, it may be well to ask
ourselves, "What is a catechist?" A catechist is one who
instructs others in the one, true faith. Notice, we are saying two
things: A catechist instructs others, which means teaches others by
enlightening the mind to inspire the will. A catechist never merely
teaches to instruct the mind, but always to enlighten the mind in order
to inspire the will.
Moreover, a catechist is one who instructs others in the one, true
faith. There are many faiths. There really is no one who is a
non-believer. Everyone believes, but not everyone believes in the one,
true faith. This instructing others in the one true faith is the faith
professed by the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
We say that Mary is the perfect model of what every Catholic
catechist should be. In saying this, we affirm what may not be obvious that Mary was a catechist. She did
instruct others in the one, true Faith. And she did it so admirably that
we may legitimately call her the Mother of Catechists.
This brings us to the fundamental question we should ask: "How
is Mary the perfect Catechist?" And "How can we learn from her
to instruct others in the Catholic religion?"
The answer lies in understanding what were the main qualities of the
Blessed Virgin that we should try to imitate in our own catechetical
lives. By following the example of Mary, we can become more like her who
was the perfect communicator of the revelation of her divine Son.
I would identify these qualities especially, as three:
Mary's clear and understanding faith,
Mary's union in prayer with the Heart of her Son,
Mary's plain and courageous living out of the will of God in her life.
Given these qualities in the Blessed Virgin, we have the bedrock of
Mary's qualifications as the model of catechists. Why? Because the
essence of catechesis is not in what is said. The essence consists in
what is communicated. In order to communicate the truth, a person must
have clear faith, a deep union with God in prayer and courageously live
in conformity with the will of God. No one else, I don't say, is a
perfect catechist; no one else is even a real catechist.
These three, therefore, are not only the basis of all authentic
catechesis. They are, in my estimation, its soul. Without them,
instruction in the Catholic religion is just that the instruction of academic pedagogy,
but lifeless. Not everyone who talks religion is catechizing.
THE FAITH OF MARY
To speak of Mary as a model of catechists, we begin where her
spiritual life began, with her deep and unquestioning faith. That
adjective, "unquestioning," is of the essence of a true faith.
Faith, we know, is the acceptance by the mind of what God reveals. It
means believing without a shadow of a doubt in everything which God
tells us is true. Why? Because He can neither deceive nor be deceived.
Mary had this kind of faith. At the Annunciation, she believed what
the angel told her that the Child she was to conceive
would be the Son of the Most High. Hers was a prudent faith. After she
asked how would this be, since she had consecrated her virginity to God,
the angel assured her that the Holy Spirit would make the humanly
impossible possible. She believed. That's faith. What is humanly
impossible that God makes possible? That a virgin should conceive.
Mary knew what the prophets had foretold about the sufferings of the
Messiah. She had no illusion of what being the Messiah's Mother would
cost her. But she did not hesitate. She told the angel, "Be it done
to me according to your word." That preposition "to" is
one of the most important words in the New Testament.
True faith is ready to believe not only in God, not only in what He
can do for us. True faith includes also what God can do to us and He can
do plenty! It can be painful, and yet we believe that the One causing
the pain loves us. To see God's will amid the trials of life is the
proof of a clear and understanding faith.
Faced with the dilemma that her being with-child placed her in, and
seeing the struggle of Joseph, who knew she was innocent, Mary's faith
did not weaken. She remained silent silent under the humiliation. Then God
worked the miracle of sending the same angel to tell Joseph to accept
Mary as his espoused wife. Humanly speaking, we are dumfounded. Why did
He not tell Joseph first? Not God.
Mary's faith sustained her during her thirty years with Jesus at
Nazareth and the three years of His public ministry. But it was
especially her faith, from Calvary to Easter Sunday, that the Church has
been commemorating since the first century. Every Saturday is
appropriately called the day of faith. Mary alone had absolutely no
doubt that her son, though crucified and buried, would rise from the
dead. Talk about believing in the humanly impossible.
Speaking of catechists, there is nothing more fundamental, nothing
more necessary in their work than a share in the unquestioning and
understanding faith of Mary. Only those who believe, teach the faith, no
one else does. Unbelief does not teach the faith. Unbelief can undermine
the faith. Faith alone inspires; unbelief does not. Faith alone is used
by God to communicate the faith to others. Everyone must admit,
"The reason I believe is because someone who had the faith first
shared it with me." There are no exceptions.
Unbelief, no matter how learned or erudite, cannot give others what
it does not have. Academic knowledge is useful; faith is indispensable.
Pedagogy is an asset provided it is built on faith. But without faith,
pedagogy is not only a liability, it becomes seduction. Like Mary, a
catechist teaches almost without catechizing. Our Lady did not conduct
classes and the number of her spoken words recorded in the Gospels is
very small. Yet St. Augustine does not hesitate calling Mary a living
catechism, Catechisms vivens. Why? Because that is what she was.
Catechisms are not cold print. Real catechisms are living, believing
human beings. All catechists, since Mary's day, teach only in so far as like her they really, really believe.
THE PRAYER OF MARY
The Blessed Virgin prayed. Tradition tells us she was at prayer when
the Angel appeared to her to tell her she was chosen to become the
Mother of God. At the Visitation, she prayed. We can say she sang the
Magnificat. At Bethlehem, there is not a single word of Mary's
conversation with other people, not a single recorded syllable from her
lips. We are merely told that when the shepherds had seen, "they
understood what had been told them concerning this Child. And all who
heard marveled at the things told them by the shepherds. But on the Mother's part, there were no
speeches "Mary kept in mind all these
things, pondering them in her heart."
How this needs saying! Mary's principal prayer was prayer of the
heart, prayer in the heart, prayer with the heart. In a word, Mary
prayed in the depths of her being, uniting herself with Jesus, who she
knew was at once her Creator and her Child.
Again, at the Presentation, not a single word quoting Mary in
conversation with the priest in the temple or with Simeon or with Anna.
Simeon spoke to Mary. We are not told whether or what she spoke with
him. She was, we know, rapt in prayer. At the Finding in the Temple,
after Joseph and Mary found Jesus, His Mother asked Him why He had done
what He did. His answer was that He had to be about His real heavenly
Father's business. So the second time, St. Luke tells us that His Mother
kept all these things carefully in her heart. This is the only recorded
statement of what Mary did during the long years that she lived with her
Son at Nazareth. He was always on her mind. He was always in her heart.
Now the prayer of catechists. As with faith, so with prayer. It is
impossible to really catechize unless the catechist really prays. Call
it vocal prayer or meditation; call it mental prayer or the liturgy;
call them aspirations or quiet moments with God. By whatever name,
prayer is the soul of religious instruction. A person will be only as
supernaturally successful as a catechist, as the person is a man or
woman of prayer. Forty years in the priesthood have taught me many
things that I will never publish. This is one thing. Those who pray,
communicate what they have learned from communication with God.
We touch on the heart of catechetics when we say that a catechist
must pray. There are many reasons for this, but especially two: Prayer
is the ordinary source of grace to enlighten our minds, and prayer is
the ordinary source of grace for moving our wills.
On reflection, we see there are two minds and two wills involved, and
both need the grace that in God's ordinary providence comes only through
1. There is first of all the mind of the catechist. Rote knowledge of
the Church's teaching or even the most extensive study of theology of
itself cannot give that personal awareness of revealed truths which only
divine grace can provide. "Lord, that I may see," should be
the prayer of every catechist who is serious about sharing with others
his own deeply interior insights into God's revelation. We need grace,
and the first, most fundamental grace is light for the mind.
Not only is prayer necessary to really know the meaning of what, as a
catechist, I am teaching. Prayer is also needed to know how I am to
teach. Adaptation to different ages and abilities is assumed, but this
is much more. Only God who reads the heart of people knows how best I
can teach and reach the hearts of others, and He will tell me on one
condition: That I have the wisdom and humility to ask Him to enlighten
2. As a catechist, I also need to have my will inspired by God's
grace so He may use me as His channel to inspire those whom I teach.
There is such a thing as wanting to teach others the faith. This is not
only a willingness to instruct others. It is the deep desire to bring
others closer to God by what I teach them. But I will have this desire
only in the measure that I am a person who prays.
There is also such thing as being a teacher without being an apostle.
Whereas every true catechist should be an apostolic teacher. A catechist
has a sense of mission, as one who is sent by Christ, not unlike the
first Apostles were sent by the Master to share with others the revealed
Truth which they had first received from Him.
Catechesis is not an employment; it is not a job. It is not even, in
the popular sense of the word, a profession. Catechesis is an
apostolate. What we have said so far is only half the reason why
catechists must pray: to obtain divine grace for themselves. Those whom
they catechize must also receive grace. Here too the prayer of the
catechist is a reservoir of grace for those who are being catechized.
They need grace to grasp what they are being taught. It must
They must be clear in seeing what their faith is telling them, and
certain that what they are told to believe is true.
They must be able to defend the truth they receive, even though
around them either do not believe, or believe as firmly, or
oppose the believer for holding on to what some educated people say is
or pre-conciliar, or fundamentalist, or out-of-touch with the
To believe in this way, they will need all the light they can receive
from God. Catechists will obtain this light for those whom they are
teaching by praying for them.
The persons who are being instructed in the faith will also need
superhuman strength for their wills. The mysteries of the faith we say
are naturally inconceivable to human reason; but they are also naturally
impossible to put into practice by the solitary human will.
Without an abundance of supernatural grace, to be obtained through
prayer, the beautiful truths of faith will remain just that: beautiful
ideals to admire. To be lived out, not only once or occasionally but for
a lifetime; a lifetime of divine help is required. The principal font of
divine assistance is the grace of God. And the principal way to obtain
this grace is by prayer here the prayer of the catechists for
those under their care.
To be apostolic and effective catechists, therefore, we must, like
the Queen of Apostles, be persons who pray. I do not hesitate to say
that, like Mary, we must always be pondering prayerfully in our hearts,
even while we are speaking to others.
THE LIFE OF MARY
If I were to describe the life of the Blessed Virgin in one sentence,
I would say she lived in constant conformity with the will of God.
We return to the Annunciation. There it was the will of God that Mary
submit to His will. She did. The angel did not tell her to visit her
kinswoman, Elizabeth. At most, he intimated she might do so. But what
did she do? She recognized immediately what we may call the implied will
of God. She acted on the implication spontaneously. St. Luke even tells
us, "She did so with haste." The least divine suggestion, and
Mary was off doing what God did not even have to tell her, but just
implied was His will.
Mary's Magnificat is a library of information on what it means to do
the will of God. To do the will of God is to magnify the Lord. That
means to praise Him and not to look for praise or recognition for
oneself. To do the will of God is to rejoice in God's will no matter how
naturally (what a mild word) reluctant we may be. There is such a thing
as rejoicing in doing God's will while I am in pain! To do God's will is
to see oneself as lowly no matter how great the things God may do
through me. I must never make the mistake, never, of taking credit for
anything that God has done through me. To do God's will is not to aspire
to earthly power or riches, but to be satisfied with little and to be
willing to be poor. In a word, to do God's will is to see oneself as a
mere servant who claims no rights from God but is always conscious of
the duties that a servant must fulfill.
As she stood beneath the Cross, Mary knew it was God's will that she
be there, suffering in spirit in union with her Son. And after the
Ascension, Mary also knew it was the divine will that she be with the
Apostles and disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Always she saw the will of God as the Providence of God in her life.
The circumstances in which she found herself, she saw as part of his
all-wise plan in her regard. She responded accordingly. Always she saw
the mysterious hand of God in the actions of human beings, including
Augustus Caesar who ordered the census that forced her to go to
Bethlehem to give birth to her Child, including Herod who forced her to
fly to Egypt with the same Child in her arms, and including Pilate who
condemned her Son to death as a criminal and the executioners who nailed
Him to the Cross.
Like Mary, the spiritual life of catechists is the principal textbook
from which they instruct the children, adolescents or adults under their
care. This is where Mary is more than just a role model for us to
imitate. She is, in the deepest sense, the divinely chosen guide.
Remember, that Mary, unlike her divine Son, had to believe and hope in
God. Her spiritual life, therefore, was based on the same two
fundamental virtues that all other catechists must possess. In the
measure in which their lives are built like Mary's, on faith and trust
in God, God will use them not only to catechize but to convert; and not
only to convert souls, but how I like to say this to see miracles of conversion. In
today's world, a catechist should expect God to work miracles of grace
in favor of those who are being taught the true faith.
Remember, too, the directive that Mary gave to the servants at Cana
is the directive she gives to all catechists. Christ's time, He told His
mother, had not yet come, but it was His mother who asked Him. So He
performed the miracle of changing water into wine. God will work
supernatural wonders through us, provided we follow Mary's directives
and do everything that her Son tells us to.
Pope John Paul II assures us that Mary was the first of Christ's
disciples. She was the first in time, because even when she found her
adolescent Son in the temple, she received from Him lessons that she
kept in her heart. No only was she the first of Christ's disciples, she
was the greatest. No one else had been taught by him to such depth as
the Mother who lived with Him for most of His earthly years. She was
both Mother and disciple and if we may dare say, "her discipleship
was more important than her motherhood." That is why the Vicar of
Christ also did not hesitate to call Mary "the Mother and model of
catechists." How is she our Mother and our model? In the measure
that, like her, we are catechists who believe, catechists who pray and
catechists who live what we pray for and believe.