Catechesis for the Year of Faith

Key texts on catechesis for the Year of Faith

‘This year will be a propitious occasion for the faithful to understand more profoundly that the foundation of Christian faith is “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Founded on the encounter with the Risen Christ, faith can be rediscovered in its wholeness and all its splendor. “In our days too faith is a gift to rediscover, to cultivate and to bear witness to” because the Lord “grants each one of us to live the beauty and joy of being Christians.”’ CDF, Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith.

‘We want this Year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope. It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the celebration of the faith in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, which is “the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; … and also the source from which all its power flows.” At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers’ witness of life may grow in credibility. To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed,and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own, especially in the course of this Year.’ Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, 9.

‘Evidently, knowledge of the content of faith is essential for giving one’s own assent, that is to say for adhering fully with intellect and will to what the Church proposes. Knowledge of faith opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery revealed by God. The giving of assent implies that, when we believe, we freely accept the whole mystery of faith, because the guarantor of its truth is God who reveals himself and allows us to know his mystery of love.’ ibid.

Divine Pedagogy – teaching the faith God’s way

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the essential tool for catechesis because it not only presents the full symphony of faith but it also shows how to teach the faith God’s way, which is called Divine Pedagogy.  The act of faith in response to God’s Word enables us to enter into God’s way of teaching.

This point has been emphasized in the Instrumentum Laboris  of the Synod on the New Evangelisation:

‘…starting from the fundamental elements taken from Sacred Scripture, ecclesial tradition has created a pedagogy for transmitting the faith, which is developed according to the four major divisions of the Roman Catechism: the Creed, the sacraments, the commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. On one side are the mysteries of faith in God, One-in-Three, as they are professed (The Symbol of the Faith) and celebrated (sacraments)’ (100)

Over the past 40 years a number of official Church documents on revelation and catechesis have promoted the idea that the manner in which God teaches humanity [divine pedagogy], provides the best model for how to teach the Faith through both evangelisation and catechesis.

These documents include the Second Vatican Council document on Revelation, Dei Verbum (cf. Dei Verbum 13); the Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf. CCC 53, 1145) and the General Directory for Catechesis (cf.GDC 139-146).

The Church recommends that catechists and teachers are careful not to allow the teaching of faith to be dominated by educational theories or purely human interests. It is important that we keep in mind that when teaching the faith we are participating in the saving action of God for each individual, including ourselves, which is the action of grace, and not primarily employing educational techniques. (Cf. General Directory for Catechesis, GDC 144).

For this reason, the Church recommends that we teach the faith God’s way because – deriving from the same action of grace – it is most in tune with God’s Revelation.

‘The wonderful dialogue that God undertakes with every person becomes its [teaching the faith] inspiration and norm.  ”Catechesis becomes an untiring echo” of this.’ (GDC, 144).

God’s way of teaching Israel

In the Old Testament God is understood as the creative and insightful teacher of Israel who transforms the events in the life of His people into lessons of wisdom:

‘”Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them.”‘  (Hosea  11:3-4).

Four elements are key to divine pedagogy in the Old Testament: The primacy of God’s Revelation; God’s dialogue and relationship with Israel; God’s gradual disclosure of Christ and God’s adoption of human language and culture.

The Primacy of God’s Revelation. The Word of God is at the heart of Israel’s experience and understanding of divine pedagogy. The Old Testament understands the Word of God as two decisive events which reveal the Lord who speaks it – creation and the moral law of God [The Torah].

‘The moral law is the work of divine Wisdom.  Its biblical meaning can be defined as fatherly instruction, God’s pedagogy.  It prescribes for man the ways, the rules of conduct that lead to the promised beatitude; it proscribes the ways of evil which turn him away from God and his love.  It is at once firm in its precepts and, in its promises, worthy of love.’ (CCC 1950).

Israel understood that God had entrusted His Revelation to them.  We can conclude from this that teaching the faith must start from God’s Revelation.

God’s dialogue and relationship with Israel. Israel was been chosen by God to realise His purpose of entering into dialogue with humanity. Dialogue is essential to the Divine-human encounter. Revelation is a dialogue of divine word and human response.

The Covenant between God and Israel is a meeting and exchange, an invitation and communion that aims at mutual acquaintance and knowledge. The LORD expects Israel to adopt His ways and model her behaviour on the divine attitude of justice, kindness and faithfulness towards humanity:

‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)’.

God revealed to Israel that being in a faithful and loyal relationship with Him required that they modelled their lives on His way of being disclosed through His Revelation.  We can conclude from this that we must emphasize ‘the relationship that the person has with God so that he can make it his own and allow himself to be guided by God.  (GDC, 139).

God’s gradual disclosure of Christ.  The Church understands God’s revelation in the Old Testament as His gradual communication of the completion and fulfilment of His dialogue and relationship with Israel through the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.

‘The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously “by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other” and shed light on each another.  It involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually.  He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.’  (CCC 53).

The words and deeds of God in the Old Testament gradually reveal the purpose and details of His saving plan.  We can conclude from this that we should gradually and progressively reveal the fullness of truths of the Catholic faith.  (GDC, 112).

God’s adoption of human language and culture.  The Church understands that God has shown His desire to adapt Himself to mankind’s language, culture and nature so as to teach us His truth. The ultimate adaptation being to take human nature through the Incarnation.

‘In sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvellous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adopting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 3:8).  For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like people.  (DV 13).’

God adopted the language and culture of Israel to communicate His truth.  We can conclude from this that in order to teach the faith we may have to adopt the language and cultural experience of our students.

Jesus’ way of teaching

‘When the fullness of time had come God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to humanity.  He brought to the world the supreme gift of salvation by accomplishing his redemptive mission in a manner which continued “the pedagogy of God”, with the perfection found in the newness of his Person.  In his words, signs and works during his brief but intense life, the disciples had direct experience of the fundamental traits of the “pedagogy of Jesus”, and recorded them in the Gospels. (General Directory for Catechesis, 140).’

Jesus presented Himself to the disciples as the only teacher, ‘You have one master [moreh], the Christ’ (Matthew 23:11). The title ‘teacher’ is given Jesus more frequently than another title, in the Jewish sense of rabbi – a teacher of the Torah and Scripture.

‘But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.’ (Matthew 23:11).

Three elements are key to Jesus’ pedagogy in the New Testament: the primacy of the Word of God, Jesus teaches through dialogue and questioning, and Jesus teaches through His whole person.

The primacy of the Word of God. 

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus begins His ministry of proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God through publically reading from the Prophet Isaiah in the Synagogue at Nazareth and teaching from it. (Luke 4:16-30).

All of Jesus’ doctrinal and ethical teaching takes the Old Testament as its base, developing them further through His own unique teaching and role in God’s saving plan. Jesus understands Himself as the only authentic interpreter of the Torah (Matthew 5:20-48). He is the incarnate Word of God teaching and gradually developing the word of God. He is Revelation in action.

For example, Jesus reaffirms the 10 Commandments (Mark 10:19; Matthew 19:17-19), but also makes them more radical and demanding. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount releases the hidden potential of the 10 Commandments and has new demands rise from them. (Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, p. 17).

We can conclude from this that the Word of God in Tradition and Scripture, as taught by the Magisterium, must be the beginning, middle, and end of our catechesis.

Jesus teaches through dialogue and questioning.  Jesus stimulated His disciples with penetrating questions (Mk 8:14-21; 8:27), particularly through His use of parables.

Argument and questioning are at the heart of Jesus’ use of parable, exemplified by the common introduction, ‘What do you think?’

Jesus leaves the listener with questions to which He gives the answer in such a way that the listener must form the answer himself. Jesus uses parables to entice the listener to come to a twofold judgement: 1) A decision about Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God; 2) Through engagement with the parables we see ourselves through God’s eyes!

We can conclude from this that we must foster a spirit of dialogue and questioning between our students and Christ through active and creative engagement with Tradition and Scripture.

Jesus teaches through His whole person.  As we saw in the extract from the General Directory for Catechesis, 140 Jesus brought the supreme gift of salvation by accomplishing His redemptive mission in a way which continued ‘the pedagogy of God’ through the ‘perfection found in the newness of His person’.

He transmitted to His disciples His pedagogy of faith – as a full sharing in His actions and in His destiny –through His relationship with them, through words, silence, metaphor, image, example, and many diverse signs as was the case with the biblical prophets. (GDC 140).

The parables are at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God , and can only be ‘unlocked’ through entering into a relationship with Jesus.

One must enter the kingdom– one must share Christ’s existence – to understand the parables:

‘Jesus and the presence of the kingdom in this world are secretly at the heart of the parables. One must enter the kingdom, that is, become a disciple of Christ, in order to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”. For those who stay “outside”, everything remains enigmatic.’ (CCC 546).

Jesus’ teaching remains inaccessible to mere intellectual, historical or speculative engagement.  Jesus and His teaching are only truly accessible through a personal act of faith in Him

As Pope John  Paul II put it, first and foremost, Catechesis must put us in communion with Jesus Christ: ‘only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity’. (CCC 426).

The General Directory for Catechesis (143) identifies 7 ways in which genuine catechesis draws on God’s way of teaching to encourage a true experience of faith, and a living encounter with God:

1) Catechesis serves, and participates in, the dialogue of salvation between God and each individual person. It has a twofold emphasis – God’s saving plan, love, grace and respect for man’s liberty, and the individual’s dignity as recipient of grace and the imperative to grow in holiness.

2) It presents the gradual disclosure of Christ, the mystery of God’s saving plan revealed through the Word of God and its adaptation to different persons and cultures.

3) It recognises the centrality of Jesus Christ, through teaching the meaning and significance of the incarnation and through the life-giving proclamation of His Gospel.

4) It values the liturgy and the community experience of Church.

5) It teaches an appreciation of the sacraments, showing how God’s words and deeds, continued by the Church, are living realities.

6) Inspired by God’s pedagogical use of dialogue and relationships, catechesis must likewise be rooted in dialogue and relationships.

7) Catechesis must draw its power to teach the truth from the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The GDC concludes that through incorporating these elements from divine pedagogy, catechesis takes the ‘form of a process or a journey of following the Christ of the Gospel in the Spirit towards the Father’.

How to teach the faith God’s way

Having looked at how God has taught the truth to people as part of His saving plan, and identified key elements of divine pedagogy, we will now examine a catechetical methodology that teaches the faith God’s way – Annunciation catechesis.

Annunciation catechesis

In a series of articles between 2004-2005 in The Sower Petroc Willey of the Maryvale Institute – one of the leading catechetical institutes in the world – set out to explain a method of teaching the faith in light of God’s own way of teaching the faith, which he calls Annunciation catechesis after the account in Luke’s Gospel of the angel Gabriel’s announcement of God’s plan to the Virgin Mary and her response.

‘The story of the annunciation gives us in some detail God’s way of making Himself and His plan of salvation known, by sending His Son and Word to become flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit.  If we can look at what is revealed in that moment we can appreciate God’s way of teaching us.  We can then see in the light of this the methods appropriate for catechists to follow.’ (Petroc Willey, The Sower, October-December 2004).

Let’s read the account of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel:

‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel as sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.’ (Luke 1:26-38).

Petroc Willey examines elements we find in the Annunciation that help us apply God’s pedagogy to our practice of catechesis:

The Angel Gabriel: The catechist is called to act as God’s messenger, sent to bring His Word to those He plans to save. Just as the Angel Gabriel brings God’s word, not his own, we must give primacy to the doctrines of the Church, not our own opinions and judgments.

The Virgin Mary: The catechist is called to help others receive the Son of God into their minds and hearts so He can be embodied in their lives. Just as Mary’s faith was essential to receive the Son of God in her womb, our living, convinced faith is essential to help others receive the truth of God’s Word.

There are six elements in the Annunciation that we can include in our catechetical sessions, not necessarily in this order:

1. Greeting. The catechist must respect the people to whom God addresses His sacred doctrines, and also respect as God’s teachings the doctrines that are to be taught.

2. Pondering and prayer. Just as Mary pondered in her mind the Angel’s message, there needs to be a time for silence, reflection and the awareness of God’s presence to allow us to ponder the mysteries of God.

3. Annunciation.  The fullness of the doctrine or topic is proclaimed, announced.  To be fully announced it needs to be set in the context of God’s saving plan.

4. Questioning.  Unlike John the Baptist’ father, Zechariah, Mary’s questions to the Angel are not expressions of doubt, but questions seeking faithful understanding.  Just so, the catechist should encourage questions that seek understanding.

Mary first sought to understand what the angel meant by God’s message. The catechist should first encourage questions that seek to understand the meaning and truth of the doctrine, rather than questions that focus on the feelings, opinions, and thoughts of the students.

Only when the meaning of God’s message had been pondered did Mary ask how it would affect her life. In the same way, only after the students have understood the truth and meaning of a doctrine should they be encouraged to look at their reactions and feelings.

5. Explanation.  The angel gives explanations and reasons to answer Mary’s questions. In the same way, it is important for the catechist to teach the rational basis of the Catholic faith.  The Catholic Church understands that faith and reason go together.

6. Freedom.  God’s saving plan depended on the totally free response of Mary, who could have said, ‘No’.  We must leave people free to make up their own minds and hearts.

Petroc Willey, An Annunciation Pedagogy. The Sower. October 2004. p. 14-15; January 2005. p. 22-23; April 2005. P.14-15.

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