Catechizing the New Pagans

Author: Sr. M. Anastasia


Sr. Mary Anastasia

Sr. Mary Anastasia, O.S.F., after entering the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George in Alton, Ill., in 1974, studied at St. Louis University. She has worked at Saint Anthony's Health Center, run by her Congregation. Now she is teaching religion at Saint Mary Regional High School in South Amboy, N.J. She is currently enrolled in the M.A. in Religious Education program (summer sessions) at Notre Dame Institute in Alexandria, Va.

Children arriving at high school age today are often found to be on a level of religious ignorance comparable with that of the ancient pagans. Due to many societal influences, not least the religious illiteracy or indifference of their own parents, they stand in crying need of the catechesis handed down through the centuries by the followers of Christ and explicated so admirably in our own century by Pope Saint Pius X in his encyclical Acerbo Nimis and in his Catechism of Christian Doctrine.[1] These children, while yearning in the depths of their souls for a Truth they grasp not, have unknowingly exchanged the glory of their birthright for the flickering images of "virtual reality." This essay will explore the major societal trends which have captured the minds and souls of the present generation of adolescents, and will then compare the catechetical plan outlined by St. Pius X to the way catechists today try to meet the special needs of these little ones "shrouded in the darkness of crass ignorance."[2]

The constant concern of the popes of the twentieth century for the catechesis of children and adolescents has been reiterated in a long succession of great papal documents and statements. All have pointed to the same source of this concern: religious ignorance, named so eloquently by Pope Pius XII as "an open wound in the side of the Church."[3] Although addressing the specific times in which they lived, the popes have proved uncannily prescient in their observations: most, if not all of their criticisms are as valid for our present-day society as they were for the societies specifically addressed. For the sake of brevity, I have divided into four broad categories the major societal trends which lead adolescents today to question their religion.

The first and most important of these categories is the confusion of their elders in matters of religion, both faith and morals. Parents, and even teachers, are themselves not correctly instructed in their faith. Drowned beneath the waves of "Post-Vatican II Experimentation," these adults who are now parents are part of the "Lost Generation" who suffered the ravages of the "Years of the Crazies" in the Church. Religious women, who had built up the faith of the entire United States through the Catholic parochial school system, were no longer content to answer the call of Pope Pius XI:

The religious themselves on being called [to assist in the work of catechetics] should joyfully respond, and they should even desire to give assistance in order to gain the reward exceedingly great through the salvation of souls that is achieved also in this part of the Lord's field, where the harvest is great but the laborers are few.[4]

Instead, they sought "self-fulfillment" in other "apostolates" entirely separated from the historical corporate commitment for which their religious congregations had been called into being. Although the laity struggled valiantly to fill in the gap left by this exodus of religious, too often they also fell victim to misinterpretations of directives coming "from the Council" and warned of by Pope Paul VI:

. . . in the very bosom of the Church works of not a few teachers and writers have been published, which, while proposing to express Catholic teaching in new ways and modes, nevertheless frequently desire more to accommodate the dogmas of the Faith to profane patterns of thought and speech more than to obey the norms of the Church's Magisterium. It results from this, and it is an opinion widely disseminated, that the principles of the true doctrine may be neglected, and that each person by private judgment and according to natural propensity may select what each one wishes from the truths of the Faith, and reject the rest.[5]

And so, the "Lost Generation," inadequately taught and surrounded by the hedonism of the 1960s, came to fit the pattern described by St. Pius X:

. . . those especially who do not lack culture or talents and, indeed, are possessed of abundant knowledge regarding things of the world, but they live rashly and imprudently with regard to religion . . . how profound is the darkness in which they are engulfed and, what is most deplorable of all, how tranquilly they repose there . . . They have no conception of the malice and baseness of sin; and hence they show no anxiety to avoid sin or to renounce it.[6]

It is no cause for wonder, then, that the children of such parents are also ignorant of the faith which they nominally profess.

A second factor contributing to the religious apathy of adolescents today is their general lack of literacy and the fears that this engenders. Locked in time and space and bounded by the things they can see and touch, they cannot grasp the idea of eternity "without beginning or end." Placing most of their faith in the concepts presented by the television, they fear "forever": "What is 'forever'? What if I don't want to 'live forever'?" Caught in the "here and now," today's youth do not have access to what C. S. Lewis termed the "clean sea-breeze of the centuries": that knowledge of earlier generations and cultures which would help to clear away the smoke screen put forth by religious charlatans.

This ignorance of general culture and illiteracy of things beyond the scope of their senses, gives tremendous power to the third factor influencing adolescents today: the controlling sway of the mass media. Continually bombarded by television, movies, MTV, and video-propaganda, children and adolescents unconsciously develop attitudes directly contrary to the precepts of the eternal natural law. Again, this attitudinal divergence was foretold by St. Pius X:

. . . the will of man retains but little of that divinely implanted love of virtue and righteousness by which it was, as it were, attracted strongly toward the real and not merely apparent good . . . it improperly turns every affection to a love of vanity and deceit.[7]

So steeped are they in the "apparently real" world of the mass media, adolescents will express, with perfect confidence and belief, such tenets as:

•"Whatever feels good is ok— go ahead and do it."
•"If I don't like someone, it's ok to blow them away." "I have a right to whatever I want to
   have-- it's ok to steal it if I don't have it."
•"My body is my own and no one can tell me what to do or not to do with it. What I do
   with my own body doesn't hurt anyone else."
•"I decide what's right and wrong--no one else can tell me what to do."
•"If it's not 'high-tech,' it's not true."
•Natural analogies fall short

These tenets are held to be true because the media--directly or indirectly--says so. Proof is no longer the province of philosophy or theology, but is under the jurisdiction of the network programmers. For example, high school students will assert that it is a "proven fact" that there are aliens from other planets visiting our own because science, as reported in the media, says so. On the contrary, they continue, the teaching of Jesus as transmitted in Sacred Scripture is open to question because "the apostles may have written it down wrong--they weren't high-tech."

The last major category of factors influencing adolescents and their religious faith today may be termed "Environmental Influences." Factors in the family, in the nation, and in the world in general have a tremendous, if often subtle, impact on the world view of today's teenagers.

The disintegration of the nuclear family plays a major role in shaping the attitudes and beliefs of a teenager today. Belief in a loving Father in heaven comes hard to a child who has an abusive or absent father or a collection of assorted stepfathers here on earth. Understanding of the dignity of every human person or belief in the sanctity of marriage is a leap in the dark for a child whose tender years have been spent on the sidelines of spousal abuse and other domestic violence.

Anxieties engendered by the conditions of the civil society also use up the psychic energy a child in the teen years might otherwise spend on religious development. There are few true heroes to look up to in public service: the Machiavellian machinations of government breed distrust of those once looked to for firm leadership; policemen caught in the acts of rape or robbery instill fear of those once thought of as guardians of safety; priests, and even Cardinals, publicly pilloried for allegations of sexual improprieties shatter the very basis of an often fragile trust in God's Church. This destruction of the heroic ideal in a "civilized" nation adds to the uncertainties of life for a teenager teetering of the edge of paganism.

The last environmental factor to be mentioned is perhaps the one which has taken the deepest hold on the youth of today. That factor is a deep-seated fatalism bred into the minds of adolescents in our society by the tremendous power man now has for personal as well as global self-destruction. For reasons ranging from the Bomb to the schoolmate with a handgun in his locker, students today experience their mortality in a way unknown in previous generations. Unsure of his continued bodily existence, the teenager today is often unaware of his continuing spiritual existence. The darkness in which he then dwells is, indeed, exceedingly dark.

All of the factors delineated above, and many others as well, contribute to the "dechristianization" of today's generation of adolescents. The Church's answer today is the same as it has been since the days of the Apostles--catechesis as a remedy and a renewal: a remedy for the injuries inflicted by the world and its sins, and a renewal of that life in Christ which is the call of each human person. The urgent importance of catechesis has been emphasized by the popes of the twentieth century. A[11] have maintained that the end of catechesis is not mere rote knowledge of a set of facts. Rather, catechesis is to be the foundation on which each Christian builds a life with Christ Jesus.

The catechetical "lesson plan" outlined by St. Pius X in his encyclical Acerbo Nimis and further defined in his Catechism of Christian Doctrine is as valid for the students of 1994 as it was for the students of 1905. This essay will now examine some specifics of the plan and compare them to catechetical instruction today.

After noting that "In matters of religion, the majority of men in our times must be considered uninstructed,"[8] the Holy Father first takes up the question of who is to teach the catechism. He places this responsibility and this privilege squarely on the shoulders of the pastors of souls, the parish priests:

There can be no doubt, venerable brothers, that this most important duty rests upon all who are pastors of souls. On them, by command of Christ, rest the obligations of knowing and of feeding the flocks committed to their care; and to feed implies, first of all, to teach . . . for a priest there is no duty more grave or obligation more binding than this.[9]

St. Pius X carried out this mandate personally, even after ascending to the chair of St. Peter. The importance of priestly involvement in catechetics was also reiterated by Pope Pius XII, who said, "[For a priest], no time is more precious than that which he dedicates to teaching the catechism."[10] How is this mandate carried out by the parish priests of our day? If it is fulfilled at all, it is done so with great difficulty. Mired down many times with too many duties and too few priests, pastors often become "administrators" instead of "shepherds." Concerned with buildings that are falling into ruin and budgets that are bleeding red ink, the "grave duty" to teach the Faith to God's little ones is delegated to lay assistants.

This delegating of the task of catechesis brings up the matter of qualifications for teaching the truths of the faith. In his follow-up document, Provido Sane Consilio, Pope Pius XI stipulated that "Christian doctrine be taught by qualified teachers employing the traditional form of the Church."[11] With the advent of such schools as the Notre Dame Institute, this provision will, hopefully, be met more adequately in the coming years.[12] Although there are many parishes which are able to obtain "qualified" and "adequately prepared" teachers for their catechetical programs, too often ads read: "CCD teachers needed, no experience required--training supplied in two evening sessions."

The next point in the plan outlined by St. Pius X in Acerbo Nimis concerns how the catechism is to be taught. Again drawing on his own personal experience, the pope supplies the answer:

The task of the catechist is to take up one or other of the truths of faith or of Christian morality and then explain it in all of its parts; and since amendment of life is the chief aim of his instruction, the catechist must needs make a comparison between what God commands us to do and what is our actual conduct. After this, he will use examples appropriately taken from the Holy Scriptures, Church history, and the lives of the saints--thus moving his hearers and clearly pointing out to them how they are to regulate their own conduct. He should, in conclusion, earnestly exhort all present to dread and avoid vice and to practice virtue.[13]

This method is endorsed by the Second Vatican Council in its document Christus Dominus:

It [the catechism] should be carefully irnparted, not only to children and adolescents but also to young people and even adults.... This instruction should be based on holy scripture, tradition, liturgy, and on the teaching authority and life of the Church.[14]

The method of religious instruction today has endured many changes from this simple format. Caught up in "feel good," "easy does it" educational philosophies, textbooks for CCD classes have become tangled masses of bright and chirpy idiocies in which it becomes difficult to locate "holy scripture, tradition, liturgy and . . . the teaching authority and life of the Church." The publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will hopefully stimulate a renewal of efforts on the part of catechists to produce meaningful catechetical texts for children and adolescents.

The remainder of the document Acerbo Nimis calls for specific actions to be taken in the area of catechetics: hour-long catechism lessons every Sunday and holy day, proper preparation for Penance, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion, the establishment of the CCD in every parish, and religion classes for public school students and for adults. These programs were to be set up in every parish "with no exception."

In conclusion, the catechetical plan proposed by St. Pius X in Acerbo Nimis, as confirmed by his successors and developed further by the Second Vatican Council, is eminently suited to the needs of the "new pagans" of 1994. Its emphasis on the basic doctrines of the faith and its unwavering stand regarding the integrity of those same doctrines are a firm rock on which to anchor young lives tossed about in a sea of ideological turmoil. The clearness of its goal --a life of love with Christ Jesus--is a lantern held up as a beacon amidst the swirling clouds of confusion that make up today's society. The ringing of its Truth will break through the clanging clatter of the "Information Superhighway" and find a resonance in the depths of their souls. They will come to know that Truth, and it will make them truly free.


1 Acerbo Nimis, issued by Pope St. Pius X in 1905, appears as the lead-off document (pp. 1-13) in Msgr. Eugene Kevane's Teaching the Catholic Faith Today: Twentieth Century Catechetical Documents of the Holy See (Boston: St. Paul Editions, Boston; 1982). The texts (paginated in Arabic numerals) are preceded by an admirable commentary (paginated in Roman numerals).

Msgr. Kevane has likewise translated and annotated St. Pius X's Catechism of Christian Doctrine (Center for Family Catechetics: Arlington, Virginia; 1975, 1986). St. Pius first issued his catechism when he was Bishop of Mantua in the 1880s, and later re-issued it some years after Acerbo Nimis.

2 Kevane, Teaching the Catholic Faith Today . . . , p 5.

3 Ibid., p. xlii. Pius XII addressed these words to his parish priests in Rome in 1948.

4 Ibid., p. 20. Provido Sane Consilio was issued by the Sacred congregation of the Council, under Pius XI, in 1935.

5 Ibid., p. lxiii. Paul VI made this statement in 1967, at the first meeting of the First Synod of Bishops.

6 Ibid., p. 2.

7 Ibid., p. 3.

8 Ibid., p. 12.

9 Ibid., pp. 5-6.

10 Ibid., p. xlvii. This statement of Pius XII appears in a letter to his Secretary of State in 1949.

11 Ibid., p. 23. (Emphasis is added.)

12 Founded in 1971 by Cardinal John Wright and Monsignor Eugene Kevane, and originally located in Middleburg, Virginia, but later moved to Alexandria, Virginia, the Notre Dame Institute is the first institution in the United States to implement the directive of the General Catechetical Directory, #109. As such, it is the prototype of what the Holy See desires as the ideal: "High institutes for training in pastoral catechetics . . ., so that catechists capable of directing catechesis at the diocesan level, or within the area of activities to which religious congregations are dedicated, may be prepared" (ibid., p. 124). Notre Dame Institute grants both the Pontifical Diploma in Catechetics and the Master of Arts in Religious Education.

13 Ibid., p. 8.

14 #14. (This translation is from Fr. Austin Flannery's edition of the Vatican Council documents, p. 571.)

Taken from:
The August/September 1995 issue of
The Homiletic & Pastoral Review
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