Paul VI's Catechesis: A Bishop's Reflection

Author: Most Rev. Lucas Moreira Neves


Most Rev. Lucas Moreira Neves

"Paul VI’s catechesis": who was the first to denominate in this way the address that the Pope delivers every Wednesday to thousands of faithful at the General Audiences? I do not know. Yet, listening to it for the first time, this expression, simple though it is, was a kind of illumination for me.

It is true—I said to myself—these words which, week after week, for fourteen years, the Pope has been addressing to crowds that have arrived from all over the world, what are they but real catechesis? He himself said so in very moving terms, a few days ago, speaking of the "humble anxiety and ardent prayer" with which he goes to every Audience, since each one would like to put some soul "in a state of real interior reflection and ... start it along a path of religious authenticity, and of Christian faithfulness", thanks to its "formidable meeting with... Jesus Christ. Perhaps more than a meeting..., a confrontation" (General Audience of 12 October 1977).

Well, I thought, what can be more beautiful on the evangelical plane than this. What despite difficulty is being done nearly everywhere in the Church by the old parish priest in the country, the mother of a family with her children, the school mistress among goodness knows how many difficulties, the catechist in the most distant missionary posts, is also being done by him who has received from the Lord the vocation, the charism and the ministry of Peter. With faithfulness and love (it is known that for fourteen years he has written every sentence of those addresses), the Pope engages in catechesis. Catechesis in the etymological sense of the New Testament kathechein: to cause a voice to resound or re-echo,that of Christ, to impart an oral teaching. Catechesis in the sense enriched in the course of the centuries: to deepen the faith, once accepted. Catechesis in the sense proposed by "Evangelii Nuntiandi":to communicate "through systematic religious instruction the fundamental teachings, the living content of the truth which God has wished to convey to us and which the Church has sought to express", a teaching that "must be given to form patterns of Christian living" and "impregnate all of life" and "not remain only notional" (E.N., 44).

The chief catechist

Paul VI's catechesis: this is certainly the fruit of a personal pastoral outlook which is, moreover, reflected in it in an unmistakable way. But it is above all the fruit and expression of deep awareness of his office as the successor of Peter. In the Church which, as a whole, bears the vocation and the duty of catechizing, the Pope is the first catechist. Since the recent Synod of Bishops has been examining important questions regarding catechesis—concept, content, language, methods, places, instruments, those engaged in catechesis, etc.—it is certainly not superfluous to propose once more this important aspect.

The chief catechist. Widening the original meaning of the sentence, the "confirma fratres" [Lk 22:32] can be interpreted in this way: you, Peter, must strengthen and invigorate the faith of Christians, as small as a seed, often threatened, sometimes almost suffocated.

The theology of the Second Vatican Council interpreted it in this way. It indicates as an important dimension of the Pope's ministry that of leading the faithful of Jesus Christ to an increasing depth in knowledge of the truths revealed by the Lord and then, springing from that knowledge, to a more mature choice and adherence of faith. This is an essential aspect of catechesis.

The Council says forcefully of every priest that he is "an educator in the faith" (Presb. Ord., 6).It reminds the Bishops that "Christ's command to preach the Gospel to the whole creation" (Mk 16, 15) concerns, in the first place and immediately, them, together with Peter and under the guidance of Peter and confirms zeal in making "men's faith become living, conscious, and active, through the light of instruction" (Chr. Dom., 14). These concepts apply all the more to the one whom God's plan makes the Head of the Bishops and therefore of the priests of the while Church.

The very charism of infallibility is conferred on him "in virtue of his office... as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful"(L.G. 25),in order that with the solidity and certainty of the Rock, he may strengthen their faith and their Christian life. Just for this reason the "religious submission of will and of mind" due to the teaching of all Pastors, "must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff" (ibid.).

Just as "Evangelii Nuntiandi" proclaims that Peter's Successor is the first among evangelizers (E.N., 67), so I think that the conviction cannot fail to emerge from the recent Synod that, with the Episcopal College, the Pope occupies the first and most eminent place among those engaged in catechesis. All those in the Church who are engaged in catechesis, will find in this catechesis of his an obligatory point of reference.

Aware of this responsibility, it is not surprising that Paul VI should engage personally in the humble but essential work of catechist. He catechizes in every word he writes or speaks, but especially in this form of his Magisterium which is, precisely, named "Paul VI's catechesis".

Main theses of Paul VI's catechesis

What does this extraordinary catechist teach in his weekly catechetical activity?

It would certainly not be an easy task—yet I hope that some one more capable will carry it out because it is certainly a fruitful one—to gather from the catechesis of these fourteen years of Pontificate the great lessons that it contains. But a reading of the allocutions of five or six years already indicates quite clearly the most frequent subjects and therefore the content of Paul VI's catechesis.

God in our life

The first and privileged subject is certainly that of God. Very often, induced by a liturgical festivity, moved by a human drama, reflecting on the situation of the world or merely letting the fullness of his heart overflow, Paul VI speaks of God.

On the one hand there is the absence of God in the conscience of contemporary man. It "afflicts us deeply", the Pope said, "and gives us the desolate impression of an anachronistic solitude" and it is "one of the most constant and bitter thoughts in our heart" (17-1-73). Absence of God because of a radical refusal to admit him to social life; because of the deep conviction that he is now useless or superfluous; because of idolatry of science, technique, money or pleasure, which leaves no space for God in man's heart; perhaps because of a denial not of God himself but of false concepts of God (ibid.).However it may be, this absence wounds us and distresses us as a painful aspect of the crisis of the century and as the root of so many evils since "it spreads a starless night over human destinies" and "the attempt to deny God is turned into a real denial of man" (22-10-75).

But there is the other side of the matter: a sense of God mysteriously present and working in man's heart. "The absence of God, which with certain macroscopic aspects characterizes modern life, is followed, whether one wants it or not, by the quest for God" (31-1-73). The Pope calls every man of goodwill to this quest: "We must be seekers" (9-2-77). This quest may lead, in forms that are even unforeseeable and along ways that may be unexpected, to the "meeting with God ... outside of all our calculations" and "in spite of the refractory attitude ... of the modern world" (21-2-73: cf. also 16-1-74): there are in any case signs of a religious revival (ibid.),of an interior awakening (25-4-75).

This God that man seeks has a name and a face. Paul VI's addresses frequently speak of the Absoluteness of God before which everything is relativized, but they also speak of God who is our father (2-1-74), of God-Providence (7-2-73), of God-Love (3-9-75 and 17-12-75) and lovable because he is life, goodness, beauty, happiness (23-4-75; cf. also 5-11-75), of a God who speaks (6-4-77), who calls—a God who seeks man even more than man seeks him.

The God that the Pope evokes is certainly not an abstract God, he is a God in our midst. Hence the touching and significant stress he lays on the Kingdom of God and its coming—more precisely of its patient, laborious and loving construction—on our tormented human soil (14-1-76). Hence also the numerous references to the Word of God (1-8-73; 5-12-73).

Christ, the face of God

The subject of God is naturally linked up with the very frequent one of Christ, always treated in tones of special fervour.

Christ, the face of God: this expression, taken from a catechesis (3-9-75) offers the key to a whole doctrine. The face of God because Christ is his Son; the face of God in order to make God shine forth better in the eyes of men.

From the attributes of Christ, all inspired by Holy Scripture and often proposed in Paul VI's teaching, we draw the fullness of the mystery of Christ such as the Pope wishes to put it in the minds and in the lives of listeners: Christ the Saviour (7-4-76), Christ the Teacher (20 and 27-8-75), the Risen Christ, the source of strength and hope (13 and 20-5-76; 28-4 and 11-5-77), Christ, the newness of life (27-6-73).

An intimate and already decisive meeting with Christ takes place in Baptism (6-2-74; 16-1 and 13-4-77). But this must be deepened in a process of "getting to know Jesus Christ" (13-2-74), a knowledge in which it is necessary always to advance (3-11-76) since "if we really know him we realize that we do not know him enough ..., we would never have explored him enough, never understood him completely" (13-2-74) and there rises within us every day, from the depths of our heart, this, question "eager for experimental reality": "What was Jesus like? If we had, nay more, if we have one day the fortune to see him, how will he appear to us? ... How to reconstruct in our mind his faithful figure? ... How to see, how to conceive Jesus?" (27-4-77).

This meeting and getting to know Jesus which cannot but be also a "science of the Cross" and of the Crucified Christ (30-3-77; cf. 25-11-75) in order to be a real communion with the Lord of glory, is, in fact, the indispensable foundation of a true Christian life.

The Church

And here we arrive at another subject dear to the Pope: that of the Church. Present in the background of his every allocution, and frequently brought into the foreground, I would venture to say that, with that of Christ, it is the subject treated with the most sorrowful sentiments and the most ardent words. Anyone who wished to explore, in the context and particularly in the spirit in which this catechesis on the Church was written and spoken, would obtain a fascinating, though not systematic, ecclesiology for our times.

The Pope looks at, and tries to transmit to the faithful, one at a time, all the essential dimensions of the Church—which in its innermost depths is an unfathomable mystery which "attracts and dazzles our eyes" (22-6-77) and can be contemplated only in the light of the faith and under the inspiration of grace.

I recall above all three series of catechesis, all memorable. The one from 11 September to 16 October and of 6 November 1974 on the needs of the Church: the Church needs faith, strong men, fidelity, the living testimony of the laity, action, grace—the Church needs to be loved (on this last point, cf. 12-9-73). Then the one from 7 July to 8 September 1976 on the subject "To build the Church": here we find a very rich teaching which often becomes meditation and prayer, on the most varied aspects of this construction which is carried out with love, with faith, with a living communion among brothers, with loving obedience to the authority, with the apostolate and with action, with prayer, with the Cross. Finally the one from 27 July to 17 August 1977 on the unity, the catholicity, the apostolicity and the holiness of the Church.

But no less important are the teachings on the local Churches (24-1-73); on the Church as the People of God (5-9-73); not to speak of the other repeated allocutions on unity "the constitutional foundation of the Church" (28-1-76), "mystical unity, which draws its model from divine unity itself" (8-1-77) and which must be "a light placed at the zenith of doctrinal speculation" on the Church but also "the programme of our faithfulness" (31-3-76); on reconciliation within the Church in order to remake its unity constantly (16-7-75 and 28-11-76); on the beauty of the Church (5-6-74), her eternal youth (12-6-74) and immortality (26-6-74), communicated to her by the Spirit; on the Magisterium of the Church (25-5-77) and its authority which a true Christian will accept and respect always with obedience and the spirit of faith; on the Church and the world, etc. The pleasant duty of loving the Church (12-9-73) because she is a mother for each of us, should characterize our being Christians and transform our thought, our life and our behavior.

Being a Christian

And here we have arrived at a subject with which the Pope's catechesis deals willingly and almost naturally: being a Christian, its requirements, its deepest interior attitudes but at the same time its most concrete expressions. In other words: what Paul VI called in one of these catechetical expositions, "the internal and external regeneration of the Christian" (12-5-76) and the virtues that form the tissue of daily Christian existence.

I am tempted to say that among the most inspiring catechesis is that on the conscience of man in general, and of the Christian in particular. These recesses of man where the unimaginable meeting with his God takes place, fascinate the great catechist and urge him to illuminate their mystery more and more. "It is a great chapter of anthropology", he said (12-2-75) before considering how much psychological consciousness can be misleading, deceptive and capable of leading either to despair or to compromise, unless it is interiorized in moral consciousness.

Paul VI had spoken of moral consciousness on 28-3-73 and will speak of it again at greater length, stressing its necessity and grandeur before relativism, lack of knowledge of good and evil and permissiveness (6, 13 and 20-7-77). In the same order of ideas the Pope draws from the Gospel and from the constant doctrine of the Church clear and comforting teachings on the moral sense (19-2-73 and 29-10-75); on personal conscience, which can be identified with the "heart" in the evangelical sense of the word, and which must be the interior light, not to exempt man from the law, from norms or from authority, but to give the latter a new meaning (7-11-73); on the formation of Christian conscience (15-9-76), and on awareness of sin (28-3-73).

What precedes is closely linked with the idea of the identity of the Christian with its new meaning, "the almost polemical one of a confrontation with a surrounding world that is not Christian" (18-7-73). This identity, the fruit of a vocation (10-1-73), exists only if, imbued with a Christian mentality (8-1-75) which causes one to live according to Christianity (15-1-76), one gives oneself a personal answer, an answer which is never easy and comfortable, but demanding and austere (25-7-73; 1-2-76). This identity is possible only if it is made up of consistency (10-1-73; 24-3-76; 21-4-76), faithfulness (25-6-75; 5-5-76), fortitude (28-5-75; 14-2-76; 3-3-76), the sense of duty (13-8-75), courage in difficult times (26-1-77), ascesis and the spirit of sacrifice (4-4-73 and 18-6-75), hope (10-12-76 and 25-2-76) since Christian life is the source of perennial joy (2-4-75; 21-5-75) but joy and hope compatible with suffering and with the mystery of the cross in our life (26-11-75; 17-11-76).

At this point we should reconstruct—but it is impossible to do so—the complex and coloured mosaic of Christian virtues that the Pope, without missing a single opportunity, draws before the eyes of thousands of listeners. There is no virtue that he does not portray sometimes to call his sons to the holiness that he has defined (23-4-75; 7-5-75; 1-10-75; 3-12-75; 28-4-76); charity (5-1-75; 18-2-76), faith (23-4-75; 7-5-75; 1-10-75; 3-12-75, 28-4-76; 29-9-76; 6-10-76), humility (5-2-75), detachment (22-1-75). The numerous instructions on the faith are a sign of the importance that the Pope attributes to it, as a fundamental attitude which gives meaning to all the others and is therefore in a certain way the main line of being a Christian.

In this catechesis an eminent place is given to prayer, on which Paul VI speaks not so much as a scholar teaching but as one who really prays, giving a glimpse of the secrets of his own experience of prayer: prayer that is dialogue with God who is present (14-2-73); prayer that is a deep necessity and at the same time a duty (30-7-75) of man's heart (10-10-73; 23-10-74); prayer that is loving pursuit of the Face of the Lord (12-12-73); prayer, the ferment of a true civilization (17-3-76) and so many other aspects (cf. 22-8-73; 23 and 30-1-74: every Wednesday of June 76, etc.).

Liturgy is given an eminent place (6-8-75). And in sacramental liturgy the Pope likes to dwell on two sacraments: first, Baptism, with regard to the doctrine of which Paul VI stresses that it "should be more familiar to us and constitute the substratum of our spiritual and moral life" (17-4-74). In April-May 1974 a series of addresses outline the essential dimensions of this sacrament: for baptism creates deep integration in the mystery of Christ and especially in his Paschal Mystery (17-4-74), bringing forth at the same time a commitment of faith (24-4-74), a moral commitment, that is, of the whole orientation of one's life (8-5-74), an ecclesial commitment towards the community of believers (15-5-74). Paul VI will speak repeatedly of Baptism, illuminating its abundant hidden riches (21-4-76; 5-5-76; 12-1-77; 13-4-77, etc.).

And then the sacrament of Penance. The Christian does not close his eyes to his condition as a sinner (3-3-74), on the contrary he is deeply aware of it (28-3-73)—but he believes in the mercy (20-4-74) that is manifested in the sacrament of Penance (26-2-75; 5 and 12-3-75; 16 and 23-3-77) and finds interior peace in it (9-4-75). The Holy Year gave him the opportunity for a repeated catechesis on renewal and conversion, closely linked with the subject of penance. The beautiful and significant doctrine on the Eucharist, especially as a principle of Unity and love, should also be noted.

This catechesis on being Christian is not exhausted, however, in the preaching of intimate and personal attitudes. The Christian of whom—and to whom—he speaks, exists and operates within a community and at the heart of a world. That is why the catechesis on being a Christian does not disregard a look at this society and at this world.

It is a realistic look which is at the same time illuminated by the faith that makes it possible to see the world in all its dimensions. In the first weeks of 1977 it is about the world that the Pope wishes to talk to his listeners and with them to the whole Church (9, 16 and 23-2-77). He does so in the perspective of the Gospel and of St. John: the world, come from the hands of God, loved by God and redeemed with the blood of his Son but nevertheless polluted, eroded by sin, full of ambiguity and uncertainties. It is necessary to learn to love this world, to look at it with optimism, not to conceal its miseries but to overcome them, making it all the more beautiful the more it is Christian. The Christian's action has this purpose.

Faithful to his own sensitivity and experience, Paul VI will teach, forcefully and at every opportunity, the vocation tothe apostolate (2-7-75; 25-8-76) and the rightful commitment to social justice (3-10-73), peace (11-4 and 24-10-73; 4-6-75) and the human advancement of brothers by means of a social programme, inspired by Christian principles (12 and 19-11-75; 22-9-76; 13, 20 and 27-10-76) to arrive at that which he has splendidly entitled "the civilization of love" (31-12-75) with all its requirements (21 and 28-1-76; 17-3-76; etc.),

An invisible beyond

The whole catechesis of the Pope intends to take listeners towards something beyond the world, something beyond time, as he himself put it in "Evangelii Nuntiandi".

In each of his teachings there can be seen, as its inspiring force, that tending towards transcendent realities such as salvation (31-7-74; 10-12-75), grace in us (29-5-74), eternal life, without the prospect of which everything and every act become empty, meaningless, ridiculous and finally inhuman. Paul VI is entirely present in this firm, though discreet, rejection of all "horizontalism". In this line, it would be necessary to quote all his addresses because in all of them there is the evocation of man's spiritual sense as the definitive explanation of all researches, anxieties, hopes, sufferings and human joys.

Yet Paul VI offers us a luminous example of "catechesis based on life". It is never a disembodied spiritualism, outside of time and history. It is always of modern man and his world that he speaks: of his concrete existence, his torment and his achievements, his problems and his questions. A keen human and equally pastoral sensitivity gives the Pope a continual intuition of the thousand aspects of man's adventure, and it is to throw light on them—not ignoring them or disregarding them but grasping them attentively and lovingly—that the Successor of Peter deals with them. He would like every Christian in this way, through the complicated intricacies of human vicissitudes, to be able to mature and strengthen his own faith, growing at the same time in humanity.

Here we have the catechesis which starts from the life of men so that men may have Life and have it in abundance,

A language for today

I would not like to omit a last consideration, brief though it is. I think that the forcefulness and efficacy of "Paul VI's catechesis" lies to a large extent in their language. I would say of the latter that it is above all capable of speaking to the men of our time. A language not of vain erudition or complicated reasonings, not the language of the tribune or of the professor, but that of the pastor and preacher: limpid, direct, sincere, convincing! It is full of the sap of the speeches of the Acts of the Apostles but reflects at the same time the unmistakable personal style of the speaker.

Paul VI does not refuse to use the language of modern man in order to be understood by him and to give the Christian answer to his great questions.

We are well aware that the question of language is one of the most difficult problems of catechesis (as it is of theology, liturgy and the whole of evangelization). Paul VI's catechesis is, also in this field, a guideline and illumination for catechists of today.

The writer is conscious that he has barely touched upon an extremely important form of Paul VI's Magisterium and he regrets the many gaps in his reflection. He is consoled by the thought that others, perhaps, will take up the subject again more thoroughly and will reveal in its true light the figure of Paul VI, a master of catechesis for these days of ours.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 January 1978, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069