HOMILY TO CATHECHETICAL LEADERS
St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Freehold, New Jersey
April 5, 2014

Those of us concerned with Catechesis in the Catholic Church hear a lot in these days about the "new evangelization." The conversation was begun at the highest levels of authority in the Church: first, Pope Paul VI; then Blessed soon to be canonized Pope John Paul II; then Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis.  But it certainly doesn’t end there, merely with hierarchical pronouncements, as insightful as they may be.  Since 1975, the phrase "new evangelization" has become part of our vocabulary as Catholics.  It is, however, up to us, as catechists, to show the world but especially the Catholic community of faith what the “new evangelization” means.

The Gospel reading from St. John today is very instructive.  The response of the “crowd” who had met Jesus, heard Jesus, experienced Jesus proclaimed “This is truly the Prophet…this is the Christ.”  That is what we as Christians, as Catholics, as Catechists also proclaim.  We have met him, have heard him, have experienced him --- not in the same physical way as those in today’s Gospel --- but no less really.  That is the rich grace we have received in baptism and the sacraments --- all encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ; at Mass and in our Catholic teaching and education --- all encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ; and in the witness of other believers, Catholic as well as members of other Christian faiths --- all encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ.  Pope Paul VI said it best when he wrote:  "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, December 8, 1975)."  My sisters and brothers, those of us who have the privilege of being Catechists and teachers can only hope to be effective if we are, at the same time, witnesses.

The “new evangelization” is about the Lord Jesus Christ and our knowing, loving and serving him.  If that is true, then the experience cannot be quietly contained, held in, privately owned.  No, we will shout the Lord Jesus Christ from the mountaintops and in the valleys and everywhere in between.  “The life I live,” wrote St. Paul to the Galatians, “is not my own; but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2: 20).”

The mission of the Catholic Church has not changed since the Lord Jesus Christ stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and read, quoting from chapter 61 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor … today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4: 18-19)”.

No, the mission of the Catholic Church has not changed since that day, some 2,000 years ago because it is the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has changed, however. And things within the Catholic Church have changed. The challenge for us as Catechists today in a changed world confronting changes within our own Church is: how do we keep Christ’s changeless mission, the Catholic Church’s changeless mission, vital and alive? How do we make sure that the Gospel is recognized, preached and known? How do we ensure that the message and the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ continue to be “fulfilled in our hearing?”  Witness in word and action!

The old joke applies here.  “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?   Practice!”  That’s what witness means.  But, how can one practice what one does not understand? And how can one understand what one does not know? And how can one know what one is not taught? St. Paul wrestled with these same questions in his Letter to the Romans: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10: 13-15). In the Catholic Church, for the past 2,000 years, we have called on and believed and heard and preached. Why, therefore, do we need a “’new evangelization?” Again, in my opinion, for any number of reasons, many baptized Catholics have lost their way. Has Jesus Christ changed? No. Has the Gospel changed? No. Has the deposit of faith changed? No. Has the Church changed? Yes but its mission has not.

Adaptation is the key to survival. The Church has continued to call on, believe in, preach and teach Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the deposit of faith – that aspect of the Church has not changed – but what has and continues to change is the way that the Church presents the Catholic faith to an ever changing community of believers. When the substance of that faith endures in a conviction about the truth of what the Church teaches and believes, a certain stability is evident no matter how people or society may develop or change over the centuries.  It is that substance of faith, that truth, that stability that we, as Catechists, must grab hold of --- rooted as it all is in the Lord Jesus Christ.

There are many models of Catechesis out there and all of them have something worthwhile to offer.  As Bishop of this Diocese, I would like to propose to you what I consider as “essential elements” for effective Catechesis and effective Catechists:

Identity: get in touch with the Lord Jesus Christ through his Word, through prayer, through meditation, through the sacraments especially Penance and the Eucharist, through the teachings of the Church properly understood, through the witness you see in others.

Instruction: know what you are teaching about faith, doctrine, morality, justice as the Church instructs.  Don’t make it up as you go along.  Pope Francis wrote “Christ is our life! Likewise the centrality of Christ corresponds to the centrality of the Church: they are two focal points that cannot be separated: I cannot follow Christ except in the Church and with the Church (Pope Francis, “Homily to the Jesuit Community in Rome,” July 31, 2013).

Imagination: use every creative bone in your body to engage your students and keep their interest by appealing to their imagination.  Make real connections between what you teach and the world we live in. 

Inspiration: make your students WANT to believe.  With the Holy Spirit, breathe life into them and their faith … that’s what “inspire” means.

Invitation: the Lord Jesus Christ didn’t just preach and teach and work miracles.  He said “come, follow me.”  What you do as Catechists has to lead somewhere, has to make a difference; there has to be a take away for them.  William Butler Yeats once wrote: “education is not about the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”  Do that.  Give them the matches!

The work you do as Catechists is the Lord Jesus Christ alive.  He makes evangelization “new” all the time, every time.  Call on him whenever you teach … since he is what you are teaching!  Let me close with the words of the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., spoken at a Conference of Catechetical Leaders in Lansighn, Michigan, in 2007:

Catechists are called to be privileged instruments through whom God continues his saving work today. The success of their efforts will depend not on themselves alone but more crucially on the grace of God and the freely given response of the students. When the seed falls on fertile ground, a rich harvest may come forth. The evangelist may sow the seed; the catechist may water the growing plant, but only God can give the increase.

Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton