Our baptism into the Catholic Christian community was our commission to live our faith in witness to the Gospel of Christ.
At various moments in our lives and throughout the whole of our lives that commission surfaces as one emerges from water to breathe deeply the fresh air of renewed energy. The sacraments are such moments as is the preparation that precedes them and the life that follows them. Catholic educational/catechetical programs are such moments as is everything they contain and attempt to accomplish in the lives of those they instruct and inspire. The experience of Church through the gatherings of the Christian community in prayer and service are such moments as is the very identification of oneself as Catholic.
All these moments are in the hands of those entrusted with the teaching and catechetical preparation of the young, as they create, foster and encourage in their young lives a hunger and thirst for the Gospel of Christ and his Church. That is evangelization! What a sacred trust has been given them by and within the Church! What an awesome responsibility! What a profound opportunity!
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops reminds us that “evangelization is the Church’s deepest identity and brings the good news of the Gospel to all who seek the life giving message of faith in Jesus Christ.” Evangelization means “bringing the Good news of Jesus into every human situation. … at essence are the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ and the response of a person in faith, which are both works of the spirit of God.”
There is no true evangelization if the name of Jesus, his teaching, his life, his promises, his kingdom, his mysteries, (his Church!) — all of which constitute the Good News — remain unknown and unannounced (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 22) and unlived! Catechetical leaders in the Diocese of Trenton must first be evangelizers. And they can only be evangelizers if and to the degree to which they have been evangelized themselves. “No one can give what he/she does not have,” the old maxim of St. Thomas Aquinas states so well.
Again, the USCCB observes that “catechesis is the act of handing on the Word of God intended to inform the faith community and candidates for initiation into the Church about the teachings of Christ, transmitted by the Apostles to the Church. Catechesis also involves the lifelong effort of forming people into witnesses to Christ.”
Earlier, I mentioned “various moments in our lives and throughout the whole of our lives.” These are when the catechist is especially important and vitally present. The “moment” when I, as Bishop, encounter the work of catechetical preparation most directly is when I confer the sacrament of Confirmation. I take these occasions to meet briefly with the confirmandi prior to the ceremonies to greet them, to ask them a few questions and to give them a bit of encouragement. This is such an important “Catholic moment” in their lives, one that we cannot and must not take for granted whether we are bishops or pastors or catechists or parents.
There are, however, some things that work against the success and efficacy of our catechetical efforts.
The cultural environment today is simply anti-Catholic and anti-Christian; just watch evening TV programs or go to the movies let alone read a newspaper or magazine; not only are our Catholic values and morals absent — they are actively opposed; in these days in our country, even the very freedom to believe is at risk!
Contemporary family life does not always support a life of active faith; just look at surveys conducted in recent years about Mass attendance and participation as well as understanding and acceptance of Church beliefs and practices; what are we handing on to the young? What is the old saying, “Children live what they learn?” I would paraphrase, rather, “Children learn what they live!” Recently, a young boy confided to me, “If I want to become a priest, my father said he would leave my mother.” What kind of thing is that for a Catholic parent to say to a Catholic child?
The most important thing that the Catholic Church can do is hand on our Catholic faith to the next generation. When our Catholic faith is not connected to real life as “essential,” faith is perceived simply as an “add-on,” one among many “add-ons,” all of equal value, relevance and truth when compared with any and all other beliefs or no belief at all. And God forbid if anyone “offend” anyone else because of what we, as Catholics, believe as truth!
The news is not all bad, however. Those entrusted with catechetical ministry in our Diocese are the “good news.” Their dedication, commitment and readiness to teach the true faith of Christ in its fullness as proposed by the Church create an energy, the energy of and for evangelization that will confront these challenges mentioned above with strength and steadiness. But we cannot back down. We cannot give in to discouragements but must identify them and call them out for what they are. The catechist teaches out of conviction not out of convenience. And conviction is often not convenient.
As Bishop, I want to encourage all catechists: lead by example with truth at your side. Jesus Christ is our salvation. His Word is truth. His message is freedom. His way is not only our path to eternal life but also to the fullness of human life here and now. Be a witness to Christ and inspire others to do the same. That is the goal of evangelization. That is the purpose of catechesis.
It was Pope Paul VI who once wrote: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses (“Address to the Members of the Consilium de Laicis,” October 2, 1974).”
Pope Benedict XVI closed his remarks to Catholic educators gathered in Washington in 2008 this way:
To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy. With Saint Augustine, let us say: “we who speak and you who listen acknowledge ourselves as fellow disciples of a single teacher (Sermons, 23:2).”[[In-content Ad]]