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“Catechesis is intrinsically linked with the whole of liturgical and sacramental activity, for it is in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, that Christ Jesus works in fullness for the transformation of human beings.”
— Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, no. 23.
Catechesis is a demanding enterprise, and for good reason. Since souls are at stake, the Church must demand a great deal from those who set out to catechize Her members. Such catechists must be well-trained and knowledgeable in the faith (cf. CIC, Can. 780). They must be spiritually mature members of the Church community, with leadership skills and professional competence (cf. ACCC 71-73), whose lives are a witness to what they teach (GDC 156; EN 41). Their teaching must be organic and systematic (CT 18), as well as Trinitarian and Christocentric (GDC 99-100). It must deal with the essentials completely (CT 21) and accommodate the age, physical/spiritual development, and learning styles of their audience (GDC 167-170). Catechesis must be all of this and much more, as Catechesi Tradendae and the General Directory for Catechesis outline thoroughly.
One important element that is often overlooked in all of this is the intimate relationship between catechesis and the liturgy. Catechesis must be liturgical, both in the sense that it contains liturgical elements, and in that it leads people to a full and active participation in the liturgical life of the Church. Pope John Paul II touches on this in the opening quotation. He goes on to say:
- [C]atechesis always has reference to the sacraments. On the one hand, the catechesis that prepares for the sacraments is an eminent kind, and every form of catechesis necessarily leads to the sacraments of faith. On the other hand, authentic practice of the sacraments is bound to have a catechetical aspect. In other words, sacramental life is impoverished and very soon turns into hollow ritualism if it is not based on serious knowledge of the meaning of the sacraments, and catechesis becomes intellectualized if it fails to come alive in the sacramental practice (CT 23).
How the Liturgy Is Catechetical
As the Pope wisely informed us, catechesis becomes intellectualized if it fails to come alive in sacramental practice. In other words, it is in the sacramental and/or liturgical life of the Church that what She believes and professes is put into practice, acted out on a grand stage at the meeting point between heaven and earth. Far from being merely a list of abstract concepts, the Catholic faith is something that both informs and is lived out in every way in which man and God approach each other in an orderly fashion.
What this means is that we can and should expect to learn something about God and the Truth He brings through the liturgy. There are in fact three ways in which the liturgy is catechetical:
- It has preserved the Apostolic kerygma.
- It imparts a liturgical spirituality.
- It actually gives what it teaches.
First, the liturgy is catechetical in that it has preserved the Apostolic kerygma. The “Apostolic kerygma” is the preaching of the Apostles. It is the message they were sent out into the world to proclaim, that Jesus Christ is God made man, who died and rose for our sins so that we may be saved. This drama is particularly evident in the Mass, in which the very sacrifice He made for us is re-presented. But, this truth is actually found in every liturgical action of the Church. It is because of the realities expressed in the kerygma that we even have liturgy, and so naturally, it is at the heart of the public worship of the Church. Since evangelization is concerned with making this Apostolic proclamation, and catechesis with unpacking its deeper meaning and implication, the liturgy, in preserving this proclamation, is naturally catechetical.
Catechesis is also interested in enriching the spiritual lives of persons and facilitating a true encounter with and conversion to the person of Jesus Christ. The liturgy then is also catechetical in that it imparts a liturgical spirituality. In other words, through the liturgy, a certain spirituality is formed and nourished that is in fact one goal of catechesis. Through the public worship of the Church, we learn how to pray. We learn how to approach God and how to relate to Him. We learn how to be holy. Our relationship with God is deepened as we walk with Him in the liturgy.
Finally, the liturgy is catechetical in that it actually gives what it teaches. In catechesis we offer, not dictums or pie-in-the-sky ideals, but a Person, and a real relationship with Him that will change your life forever. The liturgy offers this too. Again, this offering is found preeminently in the Mass, in which Jesus Christ Himself comes to substantially abide in us. But, the sacramental rites, the catechumenal process, the liturgy of the hours, etc. all offer this Person and this relationship as well. Jesus acts as Priest in the liturgy, and so we cannot help but find Him there.
How Catechesis Is Liturgical
The converse is also true: catechesis must be liturgical. In fact, the GDC says that liturgical catechesis "must be regarded as 'an eminent kind' of catechesis" (71). It goes on to give the characteristics of a liturgical catechesis:
- promotes a deeper understanding and experience of the liturgy
- explains the contents of the prayers
- [explains] the meaning of the signs and gestures
- educates to active participation, contemplation, and silence
Points 2 and 3 are two ways in which we can actually go about this type of catechesis. First, we can explain the content of the liturgical prayers. This means defining the meaning of the words that the priest and the people use in the liturgy and explaining the purpose and reason behind them. So, for example, here’s a short exchange from the “Rite of Acceptance” (the first rite of the RCIA process):
- Celebrant: What do you ask of God’s Church?
- Candidate: Faith
- Celebrant: What does faith offer you?
- Candidate: Eternal life
Catechesis is also liturgical when it explains and unpacks the meaning of liturgical signs and gestures. The liturgy is filled with signs that make the supernatural present and sensible to us. These signs are powerful in that, for those who can see through the sign to the invisible, theological reality made present by it, the sign is revelatory. But, for those who cannot see, the sign screens or hides. In order for a person to render true worship and to be sanctified, he must make these liturgical signs his own.
It is up to us as catechists to make that happen for him. In Sacred Signs, Romano Guardini excels at this very thing. For example, he shows us that something as simple as the doors to the Church can be a subject of catechesis:
- Between the outer and the inner world are the doors. They are the barriers between the market place and the sanctuary, between what belongs to the world at large and what has become consecrated to God. And the door warns the man who opens it to go inside that he must now leave behind the thoughts, wishes and cares which here are out of place, his curiosity, his vanity, his worldly interests, his secular self. “Make yourself clean. The ground you tread is holy ground.”
Whatever we do, we must never forget that “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (SC 14). That is Her wish, and as faithful servants of the Church, we must fulfill it. We do this through a catechesis that is deeply liturgical, both in its incorporation of liturgical elements and in its preparation for the liturgy and the sacraments. When this is done, catechesis and liturgy work together to effect the conversion of hearts to the Person of Jesus Christ.