In the past twenty years, the Church has witnessed a dramatic rise of “spiritual but non-religious” young people (known as NONES) and an ongoing exodus of Catholics. Many who are leaving the Catholic Church are finding their new religious footing in evangelical churches. Disaffiliation is a subject that has dominated many catechetical conferences, and it has been the topic of several recent books.
While there is no single reason for this unfortunate phenomenon—and no single solution for it—a piece of the puzzle is found in acknowledging the important connection between catechesis and the gospel message—catechesis and evangelization—and knowing how to make this connection happen in schools, parishes, and homes. It is no wonder that Catholics leaving the Church find refuge in more evangelical or “gospel-orientated communities.”
The Good News is the reason for faith in Christ... When the connection between the Good News and catechesis is not present or obvious, catechesis often becomes less personally meaningful and, therefore, less transformative.
Since the new Directory for Catechesis is the reason for this series of articles, it might be good to take a moment, level set, and talk about what the “old” GDC is. The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis offered theological and practical instruction on a number of themes pertaining to catechesis (e.g., formation, pedagogy, methodology, etc.). Global in scope, the GDC prompted the publishing of hundreds of national directories. For example, in 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published the National Directory for Catechesis (NDC). Over the last two decades, these two Directories, in combination with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, have had a tremendously positive impact on catechesis in the United States.
While many catechetical leaders were anxiously awaiting the new Directory for Catechesis, Covid-19 hit, upsetting everyone’s lives. The Church was not immune to this. There are a lot of questions about how to move forward, and few answers. As a deacon and in my role with Sadlier, I have been party to a number of tele/video conferences on the subjects of how Catholic parishes and schools might “take catechesis online”; how sacramental prep might be conducted, and how the Sacraments of Initiation might be celebrated. This is a great time for prayer, and a great time to return to the gospel message.
Why is evangelizing or “kerygmatic” catechesis an important theme in the new Directory for Catechesis? The short answer is: Pope Francis. From before his pontificate began, going back to his time as Archbishop in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio (Francis) has worked to make the Gospel relevant and applicable to modern times. He was a key member of the Episcopal Council of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) and a contributor to a critical document on evangelization, known as the Aparecida Document. This document continues to impact his thinking on the subjects of evangelization and catechesis today.
The most obvious influence of Aparecida can be found in Francis’ apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (2013). There, he outlines the importance of the gospel message as the dynamic center of Catholic evangelization and discipleship. He understands that evangelization and catechesis are connected. You can’t have one without the other. But how does this connection work?
Traditionally speaking, catechesis comes after (and builds on) the work of evangelization. Evangelization included an introduction to the gospel message through word and deed, with a focus on receiving the gift of faith. For its part, catechesis builds on the faith received through systematic instruction. It is a deepening of the mysteries of the faith. But if you don’t have faith, how can you benefit from learning about the mysteries of the faith? We need only recall the steady loss of Catholics over the years to know that we can no longer presume that children receiving catechetical instruction have already received the gift of faith.
To account for this, Francis speaks of catechesis needing to evangelize. By this, he means that the gospel message should be easily perceived. One could say that faith is the great gift of evangelization; and the appreciation of faith is the great gift of catechesis. But to appreciate our faith, we need to know why it is meaningful to us, how it applies to our lives. Here, enter the themes of Encounter, Accompaniment, and Missionary Discipleship!
Francis’ Joy of the Gospel presents us with these three important themes which help us to understand how catechesis can also evangelize. For the rest of this article, I will speak about the theme of encounter. The gift of faith is something we receive and hand on to others. The language of “receive and hand on” goes back to St. Paul (1 Cor 11: 23-26) and has been emphasized by the Church throughout the millennia. The ancient baptismal catechumenate (more recently, the “RCIA”) was built on this dynamic. Catechesis finds its home in the process of conversion to faith which, hopefully, leads to membership in the Church. It serves as an introduction and, later, deepening of an encounter not only with Christ in the Scriptures, but Christ in the ministers, the believing community and, most profoundly, in the Sacraments.
Evangelizing catechesis not only has to do with putting the Gospels at the center of things, it has to do with becoming a person through whom others encounter Christ.
Evangelizing catechesis not only has to do with putting the Gospels at the center of things, it has to do with becoming a person through whom others encounter Christ. Francis speaks at length about the Church being a source of encounter for others. We help others encounter Christ when we choose to engage them, thoughtfully, using the Gospels as our example and guide. Francis often highlights the importance of taking that first step toward encounter, which he calls “going out.” By this, he means going out of one’s comfort zone.
Going out is a fundamental action of encounter.
The Church reminds us that we are the people of God, not the individuals of God. If more Catholics knew (and felt like) they belonged at church—that Mass was a place full of familiar faces, a place where they were known and loved—why would they look elsewhere? While there is nothing wrong with being an individual, we have to acknowledge that individualism is a perspective rooted in keeping others at a distance, and not becoming one with (or belonging to) them. In light of this, a catechesis that focuses on helping people feel like they belong to Christ and to the Church is more “evangelical” in the sense that it better evangelizes.
Download the 5 Activities to Support Encounter in Christ eBook with activity suggestions that will help students to take steps towards an encounter with Christ in the scriptures, in the ministers, the believing community and, most profoundly, in the Sacraments.
To further mobilize Catholics to be a “people of encounter,” Francis offers a few other actions that are critical to appropriating the dynamism of Christ in the Gospels within the work of catechesis: Invitation, Welcome, Listening, and Service. These actions are not particular to Jesus, but he exemplified them well as behaviors expected of the citizens of the Kingdom of God. They are not groundbreaking, nor are they complicated. But they are often left out of catechesis.
It’s time to encounter Christ anew: in our faith and in each other! Download the Evangelizing Catechesis: Tips for Implementing Actions of Encounter in Faith Formation Tip Sheet to learn practical ways to work Invitation, Welcome, Listening, and Service into your catechetical program.
In light of all of the glaring questions and logistical challenges facing catechesis today—the “how” of catechesis—we are tempted to forget about the “what” of catechesis: the gospel message. Having this as a focus, the new Directory for Catechesis is a welcomed resource as catechetical leaders consider how to move forward. Regardless of how catechesis is delivered, if sharing the gospel message is not our foremost concern, we will not have a prayer of “flattening the curve” of the numbers of people disaffiliating.
With the release of the new Directory for Catechesis, we should all ponder the themes of Encounter, Accompaniment, and Missionary Discipleship. Start with Encounter! Use this printable tip sheet and eBook to strategize ways you could create opportunities to implement the actions of encounter into your catechetical program.
Check back soon for the second article of this new Directory for Catechesis series! We will be exploring the theme of accompaniment!