The Catechism: A Call to Faith

Author: Most Rev. Myers


Bishop John J. Myers

Most Reverend John J. Myers is Bishop of Peoria. This address was given on October 23, 1993 at the CUF 25th Anniversary Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

We live in times which future historians will surely judge to have been pivotal. Forces and powers, some of which we are clearly aware of, others of which we are only dimly aware of, if at all, struggle for possession of the human soul. The human family, even while welcoming increased awareness of its unity and of its mutual responsibility, appears to be lost and floundering.

It is to persons in this real world that Jesus Christ sends His Church which carries on His mission today, which mediates His presence and the Father's love and mercy.

The Father continues to care for us, despite our temptations to think otherwise. We need only consider the gift of Pope John Paul II to the Church. As he begins his sixteenth year on the Chair of Peter, we have ample reason for gratitude. In the last year we have received both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor. They provide a strong and solid foundation for pastoral activity for many years to come. In my remarks I would like to offer some thoughts for your reflection on three separate matters: an appropriate pastoral stance today, especially in catechesis; the normative nature of the Catechism of the Catholic Church; and some themes from my own pastoral on catechetics, "To Reach Full Knowledge of the Truth." (I Timothy 2:4).

For some years now I have been speaking of what I consider to be the appropriate "pastoral stance" for those in public ministry in the Church. What do I mean by this?

The concept is not unrelated to what our Holy Father, when he was Archbishop of Krakow, termed "attitude."

In Sources of Renewal, a study he prepared for his archdiocese on the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, he states that attitude is "taking up a position, and being ready to act in accordance with it." The Holy Father's notion is quite technical and rooted in his own philosophical thought. Yet it makes clear that one must approach life from a certain stance, a certain vantage point. In his work, he is interested in addressing the attitude of faith to be found in a believer and the complex of attitudes that "go into making the individual into a believing member of the Church." (P. 18)

Of more than passing interest to our situation today is the Holy Father's reflection on faith:
The essence of faith consists of more than a purely intellectual assent to the truth revealed by God, or a kind of reflection of that truth in man's consciousness. "Self-abandonment to God" as a response to revelation bears witness also to the fact that faith expresses itself through man's attitude... (p. 204)

In Veritatis Splendor, the Holy Father amplifies this notion of attitude by making use of the account of the rich young man. In this Gospel parable, we see that the young man's understanding of the truth of Christ's words was not enough. It was also necessary for him to commit his entire being to this truth. This is, of course, only possible through the grace of God.

Even as we continue to express clearly and without diminution the Gospel as entrusted to the Church and reflected in the teaching of the Church, we must keep in mind that our role is strictly instrumental. The profound self-surrender that is the act of faith (which contains man's free commitment, cf. Dei Verbum, 5) is directed to the Lord Himself, who calls forth this very same response.

"Pastoral stance" may be a complex reality, but it is not difficult to understand, at least in its broad outlines. Consider an example of a sports event. There are various ways of participating in the experience. One way is as a spectator: such persons interact with the progress of the game, they show more or less excitement. While some of these spectators may have a heavy involvement in the proceedings-"fans" we would call them-others are there merely for a diversion and for the cost of their ticket.

Another participant is the sports announcer or commentator: he has more or less interest in the game. One might expect him to have greater insight and broader knowledge of sports and of statistics. He has the professional responsibility of holding our attention and of making a living.

The coach is yet another participant. He must add the element of leadership and maintain a vital relationship with his players. He will likely be noted for his love for the game and his commitment to winning. He is responsible to higher authorities.

Finally, the players are involved in the game; they have various skills for their positions. They have an interest and love of the sport. Some may be involved in it for money and career. They have various levels of commitment and enthusiasm.

Various levels of commitment, then, can characterize each of the parties I have mentioned. Those who go about their role with heartfelt enthusiasm are bound to make a difference. They know the game. They know the facts about themselves and about teammates and about the other team, even unpleasant truths and limits. They have developed their own skills. They play to win. No one would want players who do not have a significant commitment to winning.

What we need in the Church is a whole spectrum of people playing their own appropriate roles. Their enthusiasm for the Church should focus on leading people to Christ, through a witness of truth and of love.

I turn to the Holy Father again and take some thoughts from his ad limina addresses to the bishops of the United States, especially his address of September 5, 1983. Pope John Paul II calls for a series of attitudes appropriate for the pastor today and, in my judgment, appropriate for all those who are engaged in pastoral activity in the Church.

First, the authenticity of our own discipleship. Surely, this requirement should cause each one of us to pause. It calls us to reflect on our own union with Jesus Christ. We must be authentically engaged in the struggle for holiness ourselves, not simply "spectators" urging others on. There is no such thing as both an effective and lukewarm minister. This reminds us of the need for our own personal conversion, a conversion to Christ which is deep, sustained. and renewed as often as necessary.

Secondly, a pastoral minister must embody the love which characterizes true disciples of the Lord. This love must be all-embracing, directed to saints and sinners alike. A minister must be open to friendship and human caring. A minister must communicate esteem and respect, even if sometimes this will involve disagreement. People can understand disagreement so long as it is done in the context of mutual respect.

Because of the love of Christ, we should avoid harsh judgments or on an unremittingly defensive posture. No team can win which is merely defensive, although defense is surely a necessary skill. In this connection we should keep in mind the need for what I call "ecclesial civility." This involves not only an unwavering commitment to the truth, but a corresponding realization that we are servants of the Lord's invitation to intimate personal self-giving.

Thirdly, we must be ambassadors of compassion. This flows from awareness of our own personal sinfulness and our personal struggle to be faithful to Christ. This self-awareness will help us guard against self-righteousness. But it must never be a pretext for confusing mercy and understanding for fellow sinners with a denial of the full liberating truth of Christ. The Holy Father has often mentioned such topics as the indissolubility of marriage, the truth about human sexuality and married love, and the dignity and vocation of women; topics which a pastoral minister must address with both frankness and compassion.

This civility, I am reminded, is apparent in the letters of your founder, H. Lyman Stebbins, quotations of which appear in your excellent monthly newsletter, Lay Witness.

Also, pastoral ministers must be ambassadors of fidelity to the doctrine of the Church. This doctrine is not based on human consensus, but rather on divine revelation as it has been reflected upon in the Church and proclaimed by the magisterium of the Church. It is not based on the permission of theologians. It is based on faith in the power of God's truth to carry us beyond our own weak insights and current understanding.

Pastoral ministers must espouse, promote, and embrace Church teaching. They do so not as distant commentators in a media booth, but rather as fully committed Church-loving believers. They seek to find ways to convince people of the Church's teaching by sharing their own conviction. Magisterial teaching is not "one opinion among many," but the teaching which must be presented with a view to its acceptance. Of course, the good teacher must find creative ways to undertake this. Theologians who seek to promote their alternate views as practical norms of faith and of action do a profound disservice to the Church. We are reaping the harvest of over two decades born of this confusion.

Theologians working appropriately within their own disciplines have a responsibility to accept Church teaching as their starting point, not to be the first in front of the camera and the microphone to reject it, call it into question, or to try to point the attention of Church members to voices other than those of their Church pastors.

Nor is it consonant with an appropriate pastoral stance to keep pointing to the darkness in which people must live their lives and conduct their affairs. Surely we do not have every answer-but we do claim to be servants of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Some seem to relish the darkness. We must share the truth- in some clear fashion. All these qualities will be summed up in an attitude of prayer: personal, public, liturgical, especially participation in the Holy Eucharist. Membership in the Church orients us to the Eucharist. Participation in the Eucharist joins us more completely to the communion of the Church. Our personal daily communion with God through prayer will be the font and the forge of our pastoral ministry. I am convinced that one's personal interior spiritual life, always rooted in the Scriptures and the sacramental life of the Church, must underlie all apostolic efforts.

To summarize: a fruitful pastoral stance will always be rooted in the discipleship of the Lord Jesus, in the self-surrender of faith; it will emphasize the truth in season and out of season; it will be noted for an all-embracing love; it will be compassionate, but not at the expense of the truth.

If a correct pastoral stance demands that one stand with the Church, then any doctrine or discipline which is truly normative is significant for that stance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clearly normative, in my judgement, from several points of view.

First of all, the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum by which the Holy Father promulgated the Catechism, has binding force. Also, the various elements of the Catechism retain the force which they hold from other magisterial sources. Then, too, the effects of the Apostolic Constitution of October 11, 1992, are lasting, The Pope acted "by virtue of his apostolic authority." He termed the Catechism "...a statement of the Church's faith and of Catholic Teaching." In his talk of December 7, 1992, celebrating the gift of the Catechism, he termed it "an authentic text" containing "revealed truth, genuine and entire.

Consider Canon 754 of the Code of Canon Law:

All of Christ's faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which lawful ecclesiastical authority issues for the purpose of proposing doctrine or of prescribing erroneous opinions; this holds particularly for those published by the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops.

Second, the Catechism is an act of the Magisterium. It is a practical catechetical norm for everyone engaged in catechetical activity in the Church.

Certain doctrines may require the assent of "divine and Catholic faith" if they have been proclaimed as divinely revealed by the solemn magisterium or the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church (see Canon 750). All are bound to shun any contrary doctrines. Other teachings, not proposed as divinely revealed, require "a religious assent of intellect and will." (Lumen Gentium 25; Canon 752) Moreover, "Christ's faithful are therefore to insure that they avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine."

By way of reflection on these theological/canonical provisions of the council and the code, we might note Pope John Paul II's statements in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, #19.

The revealed truth is "the property of God Himself." Even Jesus "feels the need to stress that He is acting in full fidelity to its divine source." "The same fidelity must be a constitutive quality of the Church's faith, both when she is teaching it and when she is professing it."

When we translate these obligations into the context of those bearing responsibility for catechetics, we find further discipline of the Church. For example, Canon 773:

It is pastors of souls especially who have their serious duty of attending to the catechesis of the Christian people, so that, through doctrinal formation and the experience of the Christian life, the faith of the people may be living, manifest, and active.

Parents are "bound before all others" to form their children (Canon 774). Diocesan bishops are to issue norms regarding catechetical matters (ibid.). The parish priest is bound by office to foster catechetical formation of adults, young people, and children (Canon 776). The priests are to seek the help of religious, seminarians, and catechists to promote and foster the role of parents. More specific directives to pastors are given in Canons 777 to 780.

From this, it would seem that, while pastors have the responsibility to teach the faith and foster the role of parents, parents have a right to expect and even demand the authentic presentation of the faith and genuine support of their catechetical efforts by their pastors.

The Catechism is also a teaching instrument. The Holy Father called it the type and exemplar of other catechisms. Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, Secretary of the Congregation for Clergy which is responsible for catechesis, said that the Catechism is a "reference point." It gives a model for creating other catechisms, even in its arrangement and organization. According to Archbishop Sepe, its four-part structure is "highly recommended." Clearly, no local catechism may contradict it. Diocesan bishops should keep these provisions in mind as they approve or disapprove catechisms in the exercise of their responsibility (Canon 775). Even theologians, it would seem, must attend to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for it is an authentic statement of our faith.

Following are some reflections from my own pastoral letter, issued January 25, 1993, "To Reach Full Knowledge of the Truth." This pastoral was written after extensive convened with our Diocesan Pastoral Council which is constituted annually to advise on particular topics. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and religious education personnel as well as priests of the diocese participated. Their advice to me was that we should seek a Christ-centered renewal of catechesis in our diocese. We must also stress union with the Church, building "communio." They urged the need for parents and families to be involved together in the process of catechetics. They wanted their priests to be more directly involved in catechetics once again, rather than simply leaving the tasks to professionals in the field.

In the pastoral, while discussing challenges and difficulties, I made the following observations:

In the past twenty years there has been a confusion of ongoing revelation with the definitive revelation in Christ. This was on the part of those who wished to stress the importance of each individual's lived experience. It seems to me that this confuses religious experience with divine revelation. We know from the Council that we are to expect "no new public revelation before the second coming of Christ" (Dei Verbum #2). It is rather easy for persons who make this error to believe that their own opinion is just as valid as the formal magisterial teaching of the Church.

We are still faced with the problem of dissent, which is particularly inappropriate in a catechetical context. Catechesis by its nature seeks to help people grow in the full faith of the Church. Obviously this will involve dealing with their questions and difficulties. If the teacher or the text proceeds from the vantage point of dissent, then we are not helping people grow into the full faith of the Church. In the pastoral I stressed, for example, that the only appropriate way to discuss the possible ordination of women is to help people understand why the Church is correct in this teaching. A teacher should lead by the example of his own acceptance of the teaching.

Even private withholding of assent is a problem. First of all, one may be failing in a serious responsibility to give religious assent of intellect and will. Having done this, one may easily avoid, downplay, or ignore certain teachings of the Church and thereby deprive students of hearing the faith in its fullness. This clearly does not give an example of the internal self-donation which is an essential aspect of believing.

There is a continuing confusion about the role of theologians and of catechists. A theologian working within the proper context does engage in speculation. Such a person is trying to seek deeper understanding of the faith, but the results of speculation are still speculative until they have been affirmed by the magisterium of the Church. They are not to be presented as equal to magisterial teaching. It is usually very unhelpful to present speculative teaching in a catechetical context. Dissent can never be the norm of either faith or action.

Because of a false sense of compassion we fail to challenge people. Sometimes we underestimate people, especially young people, thinking that they could never deal with a hard truth; that they were too weak or too confused or, at length, too sinful. We must have confidence in the people and even more confidence in the grace of God to touch their hearts.

Only a genuine contact with saving truths can bring conversion, faith, and eternal life. The difficulty is how we are to bring people, especially children, to this encounter. Although we must explore all that is fruitful in modern psychology and sociology, we must not seek to substitute these sciences for the Gospel message of Jesus. While the methodology employed to transmit the Church's teaching will vary with the social condition or the maturity level of the student, the message itself does not change. For example, an art activity about the nature of God does not serve the message if students are allowed to believe that He is whatever they think He is or want Him to be. Similarly, a class discussion does not serve if it allows the students to believe that morality is a matter of consensus or personal choice. This question of method does not lend itself to a single answer; nonetheless, some definite criteria for proper method can be established.

First, our methodology is just that-method, or procedure. We must never let the method obscure or confuse the message. We must never let our methods become the message. Second, our children must begin on their own level of understanding, but their capacity to know and love God should not be underestimated. After all, Jesus made a childlike faith and trust the criterion for entrance into His heavenly kingdom. Children do not need to understand advanced mathematics to study arithmetic; nor do they need to learn advanced linguistic theory to study reading and grammar. They can be introduced to concepts and ideas that they can grow into and make their own over time. Third, though our children should not be made into automatons or parrots, memorization of basic doctrine, prayers, and practices is needed. Memorization should go hand in hand with understanding, but catechists should also leave room for genuine growth in the child's power of synthesis. For example, the simple response in the old catechism that "God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next" is excellent material for fruitful meditation throughout one's life.

Memorization of this sort allows a child to have a permanent space in mind and heart set aside for and dedicated to the things of God and of the Church. These essential elements are permanent acquisitions for the child. to refer to wherever he goes. He or she can retrieve them and ponder them from different aspects and in different life settings. Such doctrines are there to give comfort and solace in times of trouble, to call for conversion, and to raise questions. This can happen because at least to some degree, however small, these truths have taken root within the child, gently but persistently opening their minds and hearts to the world that lies beyond everyday perceptions. In this way, young people are kept in touch with the transcendent, which is all but eliminated from the secular understanding of the world. Recently this was brought to my attention when I was discussing the faith with a young man who had returned to the Church after many years away. When I asked him what in particular had drawn him back, he replied, "Because I heard something I could not unhear." He went on to explain that when he came to his senses at last, he was drawn back to Christ and His Church through the power and grace of the Gospel message he had learned in his youth. Indeed, once truly heard, the Gospel cannot be unheard.

In no one is the "pastoral stance" I have sketched more evident than in Pope John Paul II and in the approach he has taken in his fifteen years as universal shepherd. Once again in Denver this summer one could see literally hundreds of thousands of people welcome and respond to his apostolic leadership.

No one doubted where he stood or his enthusiasm for the Gospel and for the Church. His love invited a loving response. Compassion punctuated and underscored his words. He spoke with strength, with vision, and with courage. And he always and invariably spoke the truth. By respecting other's freedom and dignity, he made the truth which makes us free seem even more appealing.

And he spoke with hope, if not with optimism. Hear his words to the young people as he departed from Denver's Stapleton International Airport:

Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel (cf. Romans 1:16). It is time to preach it from the rooftops (cf Matthew 10:27). Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine models of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern "metropolis." It is you who must "go out into the byroads" (Matthew 22:9) and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for His people. The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference. It has to be put on a stand so that people may see its light and give praise to our Heavenly Father (cf. Matthew 5:15-16).

Let us lift high the light so that the Light of the World may banish our darkness.

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