We need to awaken. We need to be stirred to action to do what Jesus sent the Church to do: “Make disciples,” and it needs to begin in the parishes.
“For although they knew God, they did not accord him glory as God, or give him thanks.”
How Did It Come To This?
If the population in a certain town began to fall gravely ill—increasing numbers of citizens from one end of the town to the other growing weak and incapacitated, lethargic and eventually comatose—you would expect the town fathers to react with due alarm. You would expect commissions and committees, meetings and studies, inquiries and action plans, ASAP. You would expect the whole town to become actively concerned and eager to work in whatever way was needed, toward the elimination of this plague whatever it turned out to be!
Surely, I am not the only person to notice what is happening in this country, and in the whole of Western culture. An insidious plague is indeed sweeping through the land, with persistence and to a deadly effect on many citizens, with truly horrendous results so far, and with even more horrific possibilities threatening us in the days and years to come. The plague, as you have probably guessed by now, has many disturbing symptoms:
- For many practical purposes, atheism;
- In many actual practices, moral relativism or simply amorality;
- In matters of natural moral law and conscience, a growing desensitization – a moral numbness;
- In matters pertaining to fundamental human goodness, social interrelationships and solidarity, an increasing dehumanization and coldness.
We see it in the voluntary flight from real life into the mindless escapist virtual reality called “entertainment”: in video games; in pornography; in the endless murders, brutality, and inhumanity of dramas; in the screams, lusts, and violence of popular music; in the banality and shallowness of what is called comedy; and, in insulting and tragic parodies of family life. The victims of this plague have seemingly lost their humanity, showing a disturbing preference for what can only be called an abnegation of their human dignity.
Paul was not seeing into the future when he wrote the following passage, but describing the world of his own time, 2000 years ago:
As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God, they did not accord him glory as God, or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man, or of birds, or of four-legged animals, or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity, through the lusts of their hearts, for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever (Rom 1:20-25).
Paul was writing of a pre-Christian world, still responsible before God because of the natural moral law he had given them. In our case, however, we are watching the degradation and decay of a world which knows Christ and His Gospel! We are watching a culture reject, not only the natural moral law, but the divine revealed moral law, as well. How dark are these times!
I do not write this merely to lament our times, but to question, out loud, our response as Catholic Christians sent to evangelize the world. Who is evangelizing whom? When we take a sober look around us, does it not appear obvious that this is not going to end well? We are losing; they are gaining. Therefore, we all are heading for an unhappy climax. The Catechism prophetically teaches:
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection (cf., Rev 19:1-9). The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven (cf., Rev 13:8; 20:7-10; 21:2-4). God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (cf., Rev 20:12 2 Pt 3:12-13). 1
The Church does not have to give the world over, or surrender, to “the revolt of evil.” The Church was sent to “make disciples.” But the Church is drowsy—like the disciples dozing off as Jesus prayed in His agony in the garden—unable or unwilling to grasp the signs of the times. As Church, we can hardly evangelize our own, in spite of the aching exhortations of Blessed John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, for a “New Evangelization.” There is little visible zeal for such a great commission. Instead, there is lethargy, a lukewarm-ness, a continuing focus on the affairs of the local parish, at the expense of responding to the desperate needs of the world outside the parish.
There is a world outside of the local parish—a world losing its morality, its culture, its human sensitivity, its human dignity. It is a world of practical atheism, lost in moral relativism, drunk from sexual addictions and materialism, lost in a barren wasteland, alone without truth or love. And inside the parish, what are we doing? What do our cycles of meetings concern themselves with, and what do we accomplish?
What Do We Need to Do?
We need to awaken. We need to be stirred to action to do what Jesus sent the Church to do: “Make disciples.” This call to make disciples needs to begin in the parishes. We cannot give what we do not have; we do not have a solid formation in the faith that Jesus entrusted to us. We lack the ability and zeal necessary to articulate it. We must take seriously the need for adult formation. We must provide adult formation in the faith for the sake of our marriages and families—now threatened by the advancing culture of death—and for the sake of Jesus, who sends us out to evangelize the world. We have the teachings and concerns of the Church “on paper.” We only lack the implementation.
The Crucial Importance of Adult Formation
The Church has collected many documents, studies, exhortations and recommendations concerning the importance of specifically adult formation in the faith. 2 One such document is from the Vatican sessions on “Catechesis of Adults in the Christian Community” (1988). 3
Among problems, this document notes:
One must admit that in various communities, the formation of adults has been taken for granted or, perhaps, carried out in connection with certain events, not infrequently in an infantile way. Because certain external or traditional supports are sometimes lacking, a grave imbalance is created insofar as catechesis has devoted considerable attention to children, while the same has not happened in the catechesis of young people and adults (§21).
This imbalance is strikingly widespread and common. It is not unusual to find parishes with no adult formation program at all, beyond what can be received in Sunday homilies. Commonly, all catechetical concern is toward that of children, except for the group of adults in RCIA. The impact of RCIA on the parish, as a whole, is small, however, and at best brief. The Sunday homily as a solitary vehicle for substantive and systematic catechesis is not adequate. The document continues:
In summary, in order for the Good News of the Kingdom to penetrate all the various layers of the human family, it is crucial that every Christian play an active part in the coming of the Kingdom. The work of each will be coordinated with, and complementary to, the contribution of everyone else, according to the different degrees of responsibility each one has. All of this naturally requires adults to play a primary role. Hence, it is not only legitimate, but necessary, to acknowledge that a fully Christian community can exist only when a systematic catechesis of all its members takes place and when an effective and well-developed catechesis of adults is regarded as the central task in the catechetical enterprise (§25).
It is worth stressing, that it is necessary for a systematic catechesis to exist in the parishes, and this requires “an effective and well-developed catechesis of adults” as the “central task” in the catechetical ministry.
The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis, quoting an older directory, asserts:
Catechesis for adults, since it deals with persons who are capable of an adherence that is fully responsible, must be considered the chief form of catechesis. All the other forms, which are, indeed, always necessary, are in some way oriented to it.
Blessed John Paul II’s teaching, Catechesi Tradendae, 4 discusses the catechetical needs of all Catholics, collecting us all into the universal right and duty of catechesis:
It must be restated that nobody in the Church of Jesus Christ should feel excused from receiving catechesis. This is true even of young seminarians and young religious, and of all those called to the task of being pastors and catechists. They will fulfill this task all the better if they are humble pupils of the Church, the great giver, as well as the great receiver, of catechesis (§45).
To actually implement such a parish catechetical program, having adult catechesis as its “chief form” with other forms oriented to it, having adult catechesis as its “central task,” is a truly revolutionary challenge.
Sacred Scripture, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (or the recent Compendium), must be the two foundational necessities for an adult program. Both of these are essential. Both should be offered and accessible to as many adults of the parish as possible.
After the two essential components of the program noted above, many other offerings could be collected in a category such as: “Current Topics in Faith Formation.” Such a category could include a single session, or a series of short sessions, on specific issues of particular relevancy:
- Catholic Family Life;
- Growing in Prayer;
- Catholic Sexual Ethics;
- Catholic Medical Ethics;
- The Challenge of Islam;
- Catholic Social Teachings;
- Catholic Education for Catholic Children;
- Keeping Home Safe for Catholics;
- Intermarriage and Catholic Ecumenism;
- Natural Family Planning in a Catholic Marriage;
- And, other contemporary matters.
For both the essential components, and the other offerings, obviously the catechists who teach adults must be selected with great care. Catechists of adults must have, not only technical competence in the field, they must be faithful Catholics, having the integrity of a Catholic life. They must have the teaching skills particularly appropriate to teaching adults, with all the challenges and purposes implicit in adult catechesis.
Integration into Parish Life
It is important that catechesis for adults be available and accessible to as many adult parishioners as possible. The Adult Program, in other words, should be integrated, both into the parish calendar and weekly schedule, in such a way as to make it available and accessible to as many people as possible. Being the “central task” of the catechetical ministry, it must have a place in the parish schedule that enables its due importance; it is not an “add-on” or an after-thought. The parish calendar and schedule may need to be revised to reflect the due importance of this ministry, and past priorities may need to be reevaluated in the light of this “central task.” Such revision may require reeducation of some parish leaders. Of course, this must be done with due care and diligence. However, for the parish to meet its responsibilities, such correction and revision may be required if the current schedule and calendar effectively limit or discourage access.
Parish Support and Involvement
The active support, leadership and involvement of the pastor, or at least one resident priest, is very important. If the pastor does not give genuine, sincere, and continuing support to adult catechesis, it has a small likelihood of widespread success. Pastoral support can include personal endorsements of the need for adult formation; personal announcements at Mass of program offerings; personal attendance at sessions, from time to time, as his schedule allows; and personally teaching some of the sessions. Bulletin articles are important on the need for continuing adult formation, along with integration of the need for catechesis, and the actual catechetical ministry, included in homilies, and so on.
The pastor’s support in scheduling is clearly important. Of course, different local conditions have different local concerns, but the Sunday schedule ought to be open to rearrangement, if needed, for the sake of adult formation. An example that could work in parishes I have attended, is to fit a full hour of adult formation between the two most attended Sunday Masses, if the pastor is willing and able to schedule this. In such an arrangement, adults participating in either Mass could conveniently choose to also participate in adult formation, making only one trip to the parish. Children’s sessions could be offered concurrently, even coordinated with the same general catechetical theme. But, most importantly, adults need the opportunity and possibility for faith formation. With the support of their pastors, it can happen.
The pastor can strongly encourage, or even require, participation in some adult formation sessions: for couples being prepared for marriage; or couples seeking Baptism or Confirmation for their children; or parish council members, and other laity, involved in other parish works and ministries. The pastor can help all parish leaders and workers understand the importance of their own continuing formation and participation in adult formation, thus helping to extend such formation to all parish groups and ministries.
Parish Ministries and Lay Leadership
Not only the priests, but deacons and all lay leaders of the parish, can set the tone in the parish: “We are a parish of growing disciples; we take continuing adult formation seriously, personally.” By their personal example, and encouragement of all members in their groups, they can help establish this tone and atmosphere. In this way, the acceptance of, and participation in, adult formation can pervade and permeate the entire parish.
Adult formation is crucial to the mission of the Church, and to the local parish. The Church “exists in order to evangelize,” 5 Pope Paul IV taught. To ignite this mission in our times, Blessed John Paul II called for a “New Evangelization”:
Over the years, I have often repeated the summons to the new evangelization. I do so again now, especially in order to insist that we must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings, and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardor of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). This passion will not fail to stir in the Church a new sense of mission, which cannot be left to a group of “specialists,” but must involve the responsibility of all the members of the People of God. Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him. 6
In the light of this call for a New Evangelization, that must begin in the Church, among Catholics, we see that the mission of the Church demands of us attention to the crucial ministry of adult catechesis. Adults deserve an adult catechesis, an opportunity to encounter Christ in His Word, and in the teachings he has entrusted to his Church. Adults are called in their lay vocation to be “full, conscious and active participants” 7 in the liturgy of the Church. Hence, they are also called to full and personal living out of this liturgy in the secular world. We cannot give to the world what we do not have in our hearts; we cannot bear witness to what we do not understand, or even know. We cannot raise our children in a faith we do not understand, and love. We cannot bring light to this darkening culture if we ourselves can hardly see it, or articulate it. We need to know the faith, growing in that wisdom, and in that life, for the rest of our lives.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church §677. Online version at old.usccb.org. ↩
- A good example: Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States, available online here. ↩
- Available online here. ↩
- Catechesi Tradendae, available online here. ↩
- Evangelii Nuntiandi §14, available online here. ↩
- Novo Millennio Ineunte §40, available online here. ↩
- See the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium §14, available online here. ↩