September 12, 2013
According to recent statistics published by the Pew Research Center, the numbers of individuals not affiliated with any church are growing rapidly. One-fifth of all those surveyed and one-third of adults under thirty claim not to be connected with any particular church. Various polling organizations have also discovered that Catholic students know less about religion than any other group. In fact, four out of five young Catholics abandon the practice of the faith, join other denominations, or succumb to unbelief. (cf. David Impastato, “Faith by Heart,”
America, September 10, 2012). Clearly, we need to examine how we are passing on the faith to our young people.
Among the many works that the Church undertakes in this country, the catechetical formation of our young involves substantial resources. Thousands of volunteers devote themselves to teaching the faith. Diocesan directors of catechesis as well as parish directors and coordinators of religious education work hard to offer good programs. Many competent and committed publishers provide excellent textbooks for instruction.
Bishops and their collaborators carefully oversee the work of handing on the faith in its entirety and without error. Why, then, do we face the sad loss of so many of our young people from the practice of the faith?
It is simply too easy to place all the blame on the growing secularization of our culture, the moral relativism of our time and the widespread indifference to religion infecting our society. These are certainly challenges to handing on the faith to the young. But, the reason for our not having greater success in this essential work of the Church is more profound.
During the Middle Ages, the faith flourished. And, yet there was no systematic instruction of adults as there had been for the first five centuries of the Church. Even more surprising, during the Middle Ages, there was no regular catechetical training of children. So how, then, were the young brought up to be believers who adhere to Church teaching? It was not simply through the preaching of the priests in the pulpit. It was not the indoctrination given in the schools that formed the young in the faith. Rather, the young soaked in the faith from their environment. Society was Catholic. Art was Catholic. Most importantly, the home was Catholic. Catechesis was the way to relate to the community and to find one’s own identity.
We can rightly define catechesis as “the process of transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways” (
General Directory for Catechesis, no. 105). Those catechized should be given the basic beliefs of the Church, her sound moral principles and the common language of faith developed over the centuries. We should rightly include the discipline of memorization in the process. We should assure that the majority of our young Catholics can credibly articulate the faith or its place in their lives.
But, there is more.
Catechesis is essentially about putting young people in touch with Jesus. Not as some historic figure. Not as an idea intellectually mastered. Rather, catechesis is about exciting the questioning mind of youth to seek the truth of who Jesus is and igniting the heart to desire him. It is about leading them to an intimate communion with Jesus
within his Church. That is why catechesis is much more than a classroom experience.
Many parents make sure their children attend religious instruction and receive First Holy Communion and Confirmation. In this way, they believe that they have discharged their duty to raise their children in the faith. But this is not enough.
Formation in the faith is a lifetime process. Its privileged place is the Liturgy. Knowledge about Jesus from a textbook can never replace knowing him present to us in the Liturgy. Catechesis is discipleship; and, discipleship means being part of the family of faith at worship each Sunday.
In any catechetical program, Sunday Mass by its very nature is never optional. On the one hand, parents who absent their children from Sunday Mass are simply cheating them of that personal encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist that is the heart of our communion with him. On the other hand, families who strive to live moral and holy lives and participate in the Church’s liturgical life become the key to effective catechesis.
The challenges today are great in forming young people to be true disciples of Jesus. But, these challenges are not insurmountable. By not limiting our catechesis to those preparing for the sacraments and by extending our formation in the faith to include parents as well as children, adults as well as the young, we can reverse the tragic trends of the last two generations. Catechesis is a family affair!