Sometime in the first century BC the Roman poet Lucretius sat down to pen a few lines aiming to explain the essence of epicurean philosophy. 7400 dactylic hexameters later he had completed his magnificent De rerum natura – On The Nature of Things. For Lucretius, as for many ancient philosophers, it was essential to know the very essence of a thing, to know its constituent parts, its distinctive attributes. To not know a thing in this way was to fail to grasp its purpose and its potential and to be rendered ineffective in its appropriate use. Twenty-two centuries later we find ourselves in a landscape where relatively few, even within the Church herself, could claim to intimately understand the nature and meaning of the term catechesis and its distinctive attributes. What is an authentic Catholic understanding of catechesis? What does it mean to suggest that a truly Catholic catechesis would be only, always and ever, christocentric?
Catechesis itself is the handing on of the deposit of faith. It is the ongoing communication of the words, actions, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ to new believers so that they become disciples of Christ himself and walk in his footsteps, otherwise known as the sequela christi (GDC 53). It is the very essence of the Church’s mission given to her directly by Christ Himself in the Great Commission. (Matthew 28 16 -20) It is a clear and consistent instruction in the way of the Lord. (Acts 18 v.25) It is a katechemenos – an ‘echoing’. It is a teaching, often by word of mouth, so that new believers may come to deeply know and encounter the Lord who has saved them and so that existing believers may be further formed, strengthened and encouraged in the apostolic faith.
THE HEART OF ALL CATECHESIS
At the heart of all catechesis is a person, the person of Jesus of Nazareth. (Catechesi Tradendae n.5) He is, “the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) He is the one who has suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever. (CT5) More than simply the revelation of a mere person or historical figure, a christocentric catechesis aims to have its hearers encounter what St. Paul would call the mystery of Christ. It is a form of catechesis that has as its ‘primary aim and essential object’ the desire to sweep the person up into the great revelation of God’s salvific and redemptive action in history. It is the revealing of the very love of God for every person and His sovereign decision to intervene in human history so that all may know the love of God which passes all understanding. (Eph 3:18)
It is also important to understand that catechesis of this type makes clear the radical claims which the apostolic faith proposes. In Acts 4 v.12 Paul makes a claim that would have been scandalous to his Jewish hearers, “
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” As such, a christocentric catechesis proposes the person of Jesus Christ as the only way by which we can be restored to relationship with God. It is a radical proposition and a radical reorientation of reality for the new believer. It is a reorienting of all temporal things to point them toward Christ as their object and fulfillment. The General Directory of Catechesis expresses this succinctly with the words, “In reality, the fundamental task of catechesis is to present Christ and everything in relation to Him.” (GDC 98)
A christocentric catechesis also has a further aim hidden within its presentation of the real and living person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Catechesi Tradendae Pope St. John Paul II highlights an important and useful distinction.
A christocentric catechesis aims to go much further than simply presenting Christ to those who do not know Him. It is more than simply putting people ‘in touch’ with Christ but rather into a relationship of both communion and of intimacy with Christ. It is only from this level of relationship that Christ Himself can lead the new believer into the experience of the love of the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. (CT5) It makes radical demands upon the very trajectory of the life of every believer. It calls them to place their faith in the only One who can do for them what would be otherwise humanly impossible.
TEACHING WITH THE WORDS OF CHRIST.
To speak of the christocentricity of catechesis is also to make clear that the words and actions of the catechist are to be a clear and consistent presentation of the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. The presentation of the catechist’s message is not the presentation of their own wisdom or the wisdom of some ‘other master’ (CT 6) but of Christ. The presentation of their message does not seek to hold the allegiance of the heart and mind of the hearer to the catechist but rather to draw that hearing, and that allegiance, toward Christ Himself. In essence the essential nature of all authentic catechesis is a direct presentation and teaching of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word and Son of God and all is taught in reference to Him as if Christ Himself was teaching with the catechist’s lips. (CT6)
There remains a perennial temptation peculiar to the human person to substitute one’s own teaching and/or opinions for those of Christ. In a complex world of often competing theological, and pastoral agendas a heightened sense of authentic christological catechesis is needed by all who would seek to present the life and mystery of Christ in its fullness. The risk of presenting one’s own opinions as if they were those of Christ is an ever-present danger calling the catechist to frequent self-reflection and docility to the magisterium, scripture and the deposit of faith. (CT6)
The risk of presenting one’s own opinion as that of Christ’s is not limited to the individual catechist but can also impact entire streams of thinking within the Church herself at various moments in history. This explains the importance of christocentric catechetical texts as stated here:
|“….the Catechism of the Catholic Church collects all that is fundamental and common to the Christian life without “presenting as doctrines of the faith special interpretations which are only private opinions or the views of some theological school”. GDC (124)|
The risk of ‘special interpretations’ and ‘private opinions’ remain a constant threat to christocentric catechesis at all times. As such, a permanent vigilance is required to present only Christ and not simply the truth that He teaches but the Truth that He is. (CT6)
THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE CATECHIST
The communication of a christocentric catechesis is not simply a case of memorising formulas or providing exegesis on key texts relevant to the life of Christ. A christocentric catechesis is, ultimately, one that transforms the catechist themselves. In essence, they become the message. The interdependence between what the catechist teaches and who they are in Christ cannot be overstated.
In Catechesi Tradendae, Pope St. John Paul II suggests several key attributes a catechist requires to be able to say, along with Christ, ‘My teaching is not mine.’ The christocentric catechist should undertake assiduous study of the word of God transmitted by the Church’s Magisterium, they must have profound familiarity with Christ and with the Father, a deep spirit of prayer and a genuine detachment from self.(CT6) Such attributes are never instantaneous.
They are the fruits of a deep and sincere spiritual life walked out in the steps of Christ, often over many years. This is the fruit of the clear choice to pursue an authentic christocentric catechesis. The catechist becomes like their master, they become like the one they teach. They are truly transformed in Christ and Christ Himself ‘teaches with their lips.’ (CT5) This important sentiment is also echoed powerfully in the General Directory of Catechesis:
“For this reason there cannot be teachers of the faith other than those who are convinced and faithful disciples of Christ and His Church.”
This speaks to an essential and profound compenetration of the believers free will, the revelation and mystery of Christ and its communication by the Church. According to Pope St. John Paul II there cannot be an authentic and desirable renewal of catechesis separate from the deep communion of individual catechists with Christ. (CT9) Similar to the ultimate goal of catechesis being not simply to put the hearer in touch with Christ but rather into intimacy and communion with hm, the catechist themselves cannot give what they do not possess. It is only the deep union and intimacy with Christ into which the christocentric catechist is drawn that provides the strength and light to bring about the fruits of the Great Commission.
What took Lucretius thousands of lines of expository text to communicate we can summarise succinctly by saying that it is valuable, efficacious and powerful to know the very nature of a thing. At the heart of all catechesis therefore, in its essence and nature, is a person – Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
As such, an authentic christocentric catechesis is the handing on of His words and teachings and not the opinions of the catechist. This task, when effective and authentic is simultaneously transformative. It is transformative of the hearer but also of the catechist themselves as they grow in communion with the one they follow.