Last week, I had the privilege of attending the St. John Bosco Catechetical Conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville. It was a fantastic week of networking and collaborating with catechists and catechetical leaders from literally around the world who are working tirelessly in the vinyard of the Lord in handing on the faith to those the Lord has entrusted to them. The ministry of catechesis is one of the most crucial ministries in the Church and is part of the Lord”s commisioning to the Chuch to “baptize all the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teach them all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) I thought that this would be a great opportunity to reflect upon what exactly is catechesis, and that in reality, we are all catechists and are called to hand on the very Person of Christ.
What is catechesis? Catechesis comes from the Greek meaning “to echo.” It is the mission entrusted to the Church by Christ to “echo” or to faithfully hand on what Jesus has revealed to us through his Incarnation, his life and mission, and the Paschal mystery of his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. In fact, through catechesis, it is not so much what we hand on but Whom. As John Paul II simply but profoundly states in his letter on catechesis Catechesi Tradendae: “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, ‘the only Son from the Father…full of grace and truth.’” (CT, 5) Here we see the essence of what catechesis is: the handing on of the person of Christ, and truth he reveals and the life of grace he offers to us. First and foremost, catechesis must hand on the truth of Christ and who he is; the full revelation of the Father and the full revelation of our own humanity destined for eternal glory. For it is only in the truth of Christ that we can come to know true freedom and the fullness of human life: “For I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10) This truth about Christ in turn leads us to his life, a life of abundant grace found especially in the celebration of the sacraments and most profoundly in his real presence in the Eucharist. As catechists, we are the instruments the Lord uses to echo this truth so that others may come first to know him and then have communion and life through Him. “[Catechesis] is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs worked by him…Accordingly, the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.” (CT, 5)
Thus as catechists, we hand on not our own teaching, but Christ’s teaching. What a profound gift it is to be the instrument Christ chooses to use to bring his grace and truth to those entrusted to us! In order to be true and effective catechists we must have the humility to know and understand our role of instrumentality. With this precisely in mind, Pope John Paul beautifully and powerfully lays forth the role of the catechist:
Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me”. Saint Paul did this when he was dealing with a question of prime importance: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”. What assiduous study of the word of God transmitted by the Church”s Magisterium, what profound familiarity with Christ and with the Father, what a spirit of prayer, what detachment from self must a catechist have in order that he can say: “My teaching is not mine”! (CT, 6)
This indeed is a tall order and we don’t do it perfectly! But, if we as catechists are to more faithfully echo the person and teaching of Christ, then we ourselves must see that we are immersed into his mystery in our own lives by contemplating and pondering the mystery of Christ through prayer, the sacraments, and our own personal study and ongoing “faith seeking understanding” and conversion of heart. The more we are rooted in Christ, the more perfect and clear will be our echoing of Christ and his truth. We see in Mary, who was the first catechist, the first to echo Christ and his truth, a profound living example for us who catechize. For often in the gospel do we see Mary “pondering these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:19) She allowed the mystery and truth of Christ to so penetrate her being that she was able to perfectly reflect the light of her Son. As John Paul explains:
Christ is the supreme Teacher, the revealer and the one revealed. It is not just a question of learning what he taught but of “learning him”. In this regard could we have any better teacher than Mary? From the divine standpoint, the Spirit is the interior teacher who leads us to the full truth of Christ (cf. Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). But among creatures no one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound knowledge of his mystery better than his Mother. (RVM, 14)
Thus, it especially when we ponder with Mary the mystery of her Son through the rosary that we sit at the “school of Mary” and come to a deeper knowledge and communion with her Son. Through the rosary we join with her in pondering in our own hearts the saving truth of Jesus Christ and come into a more intimate communion with him. This is why the rosary is above all a Christ-centered prayer in which we learn Christ with and through the intercession of his Mother. Therefore, devotion to the rosary can be a powerful spiritual tool in helping us come to a deeper knowledge of Christ so that we may be ever more faithful in “echoing” Christ through our ministry of catechesis.
May we all entrust ourselves to the maternal intercession of Mary who was for us the model catechist, and the first to hand on the Person of Christ. As Pope John Paul II powerfully prays:
May the Virgin of Pentecost obtain this for us through her intercession. By a unique vocation, she saw her Son Jesus “increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor.” As He sat on her lap and later as He listened to her throughout the hidden life at Nazareth, this Son, who was “the only Son from the Father,” “full of grace and truth,” was formed by her in human knowledge of the Scriptures and of the history of God”s plan for His people, and in adoration of the Father. She in turn was the first of His 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. She was the first disciple above all else because no one has been “taught by God” to such depth. She was “both mother and disciple,” as St. Augustine said of her, venturing to add that her discipleship was more important for her than her motherhood. There are good grounds for the statement made in the synod hall that Mary is “a living catechism” and “the mother and model of catechists.”
May the presence of the Holy Spirit, through the prayers of Mary, grant the Church unprecedented enthusiasm in the catechetical work that is essential for her. Thus will she effectively carry out, at this moment of grace, her inalienable and universal mission, the mission given her by her Teacher: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (CT, 73)