A Response to Past Problems in Catechesis

In Friday’s post, we reflected on some of the historical problems related to catechesis and how they have negatively impacted us in the aftermath of the cultural revolution that swept through beginning in the late 1960s. Even prior to that time, some of the strategies and pedagogical philosophies common were problematic in that they tended to remove catechesis entirely from the home, and also focused almost exclusively on the education of children. This left adults (including parents) little opportunity to deepen their own understanding and move to a more mature experience of the faith.

In this second part I present a model for parishes that includes the parents—indeed the whole family—in the catechetical process. I do not propose here an entire curriculum or program. Rather, I suggest a general model that can be adapted as necessary. My proposal is not original and has been presented by others in various forms, generally termed “whole-family catechesis.” I have applied this model in two parishes where I have pastored. In terms of content, the curriculum emphasizes a “back-to-basics” approach that focuses on the fundamental kerygma and its message of sin, redemption, and grace.

Perhaps it is best to begin with a story to serve as background.

About eight years ago, when I was speaking to sixth-grade Sunday school students, I mentioned Adam and Eve. Within a few minutes, it became evident that they didn’t really know who Adam and Eve were. One of the students was able to say that he thought they were “in the Bible or something,” but couldn’t provide any details.

It became clear to me in that moment that we could no longer do “business as usual” when it came to catechesis. Luckily, my Director of Religious Education (DRE) had similar concerns and did not resist my insistence we had to try something new, something radically different.

That “something new” was really “something old” and amounted to a back-to-basics approach that taught of sin, redemption, and grace—in that order.

Clearly, if God’s people have lost touch with the awful disaster of Original Sin and of all our personal sins, then the gift of redemption and the glory of grace are underappreciated—even dismissed—as being of no value. Further, how can people experience Jesus as their Savior if they don’t even think that they need to be saved?

So we have to go back to basics and tell the “old, old stories” again: the stories of mankind, lost in sin, living in the dark shadows of death, and ensnared in the mystery iniquity. Yes, it was time to re-read the Genesis account of Original Sin and all the old stories.

In order to avoid the pitfalls discussed in the first part of this article, we chose in my parishes to structure the Sunday school curriculum around the whole family. Sunday school would include the parents as well as the children and any other adults who wished to come. Frankly, the main goal was to teach the parents, who should be the chief educators of their children in the ways of faith. To that end, I drew from a number of home-school curricula such as the “Seton Program,” since they already have a curriculum and resources in place to assist parents.

At the heart of our “whole-family catechesis” approach is a structure in which every grade level is studying the same subject, reading the same Bible stories, and following the same curriculum. While the kids are in Sunday school class, I am out in the cafeteria teaching the same material to the parents.

I teach the parents both method and material. For source material I use the old classic, My Catholic Faith, which provides a great summary and curriculum of the faith in a kind of flyer format that is both handy and properly detailed. I give the teachers of the children the Religion 5 for Young Catholics book (Seton Press), in order to help them review the material for each class and make it relevant to younger children. I also teach and review the curriculum with the Sunday school teachers before the beginning of each segment of study, so that they will know what and how I will be teaching the parents.

Each Sunday all the families gather in the school cafeteria for prayer. The children then go to their classrooms while I remain with the parents and other adults in the cafeteria. Once again, at every level (including the adult level), the same subject matter is taught. The only brief exception to this is that the second-grade students spend time after January focusing on preparation for First Confession and First Holy Communion.

In each session we not only cover the subject for that day (e.g., the Sacraments or the Ten Commandments) but we also read a Bible story. One of the great losses in modern times is the loss of storytelling—and the Bible has great stories!

Frankly, standing instruction # 1 for parents is READ THE BIBLE TO YOUR CHILDREN—every day if possible! And I model that with the parents. In each class we spend the first 20 minutes or so reading a Bible story, usually from the Catholic Children’s Bible, which does a good job presenting the whole Bible in story form. Then, having read a story (e.g., the Tower of Babel, or David’s Battle with Goliath), we discuss its teaching and I link it to the catechetical material we are covering in the curriculum.

In modeling this, I hope to show the parents how they can do the same with their children at home. Bible stories are memorable and they teach fundamental truths in ways that reach deeper than merely the intellect. They touch the heart and draw the children into the world and mind of God.

Bible stories don’t just teach, they imbue. To imbue means “to inspire or permeate with a feeling or quality; to saturate, suffuse, or steep one in what is taught or presented.”

Thus Bible stories are essential if we want to communicate the culture and world of the Bible to our children and help them to make sense of our glorious faith.

In terms of an overall curriculum, our back-to-basics approach is broken into three main sections. The sections are based on the words of an old hymn that says,

“I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in, and then a little light from heaven filled my soul!”

Part 1 (Sept. to Jan.) – Sin I once was lost in sin” – We start with the story of Original Sin and read the early chapters that show how God made all things to be very good. But through Original Sin and all the other sins committed and described in the early chapters of Genesis, both creation and man were devastated. Sin and our conniving with the devil are responsible for most of the suffering in the world. Through Bible stories and about forty pages of the My Catholic Faith catechism, we learn of sin’s devastating effects. We distinguish between Original Sin, actual sin, mortal sin, venial sin, the seven deadly sins, and so forth. In so doing, we paint of picture of how we are lost in sin. But we always begin with a review of the story of Original Sin.

In some years we then go on to review the Ten Commandments. In other years we use notes from the My Catholic Faith material that explain specific sins (e.g., Original, personal, actual, mortal, and venial).

Part 2 (pre-Lent through early Easter) – Redemption “but Jesus took me in” – Having welcomed Jesus as savior of the world at Christmas, we now look to the paschal mystery, wherein Jesus undertakes to save us from our wretched condition. Here, too, we read Bible stories and connect to the elements of Jesus’ ministry to heal, drive out demons, and ultimately ascend the hill of Calvary to engage Satan in battle, suffer, die, rise, and ascend for us. The goal here is to instill a sense of gratitude rather than just to provide information. We strive to “remember,” that is, to have so present in our mind and heart what Jesus has done for us that we are grateful and different because of it. In this module, depending on the year, we study the Sacraments, the public ministry of Jesus, and/or the four pillars of the Christian life (Scripture, active Church life, Sacraments, and prayer) from Acts 2:42 (They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer). And thus we meditate on how the Lord Jesus takes us in and ministers to us.

Part 3 (early Easter through Pentecost) – Grace And then a little light from heaven filled my soul!” – In saving us, Jesus gives us a new mind and heart, a whole new life. The graces of the Christian life are explored: faith, hope, charity, patience, joy, chastity, forgiveness, mercy, and so many other virtues and gifts. We reflect on the whole new life that Jesus has given us and encourage testimony about the transformation brought about by God’s grace working through Scripture, Sacraments, fellowship, and prayer. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.

It’s a back-to-basics approach, rooted in the basic kerygma. It is meant to draw people into the great drama of life: sin, redemption, and grace.

Its strength is that the entire family is asked to participate. As noted, the real goal is to equip parents to teach their children further at home. In this way the parish acts as a partner rather than seeking to replace the parents in teaching the faith to the children. As pastor I have an obligation to present the truth faith to all. This includes equipping parishioners to hand on the faith and to reach a full, adult (mature) faith. Having every age group present for Sunday school is the fundamental way I seek to accomplish this.

The drawback to this approach is clear: the program is very pastor-driven and pastor-centric. While my director of religious education is very much on board and supportive, who is to say that the next pastor will be willing or able to do the work each year of assembling a curriculum and teaching in the program each Sunday? Further, I have a parish whose size and Mass schedule permit this sort of Sunday morning approach. Not every parish has a sufficient gap between Masses to enable the pastor to be present and teach at that time or to that extent.

Thus this basic model needs to be adapted in different settings based on time and skill sets.

Also, I am unaware of a “spiral curriculum” that currently exists to meet our needs. Thus I have needed to assemble it and find resources working with my DRE.

A “spiral curriculum” refers to one that has all grades studying the same material and centers on the three themes of sin, redemption, and grace in a repeating three-year cycle.

    1. Three-year cycle for sin:
      1. the story of Original Sin and its aftermath,
      2. the Ten Commandments,
      3. and the species of sin.
    2. Three-year cycle for redemption:
      1. the paschal mystery,
      2. liturgy and sacraments,
      3. the ministry and miracles of Jesus.
    3. Three-year cycle for grace:
      1. the gifts of the Holy Spirit,
      2. the fruits of the Holy Spirit,
      3. the species of grace (sanctifying, actual, personal, the charisms, and so forth).

Perhaps another pastor would structure the program differently. But this is my approach and I have tried to teach it to other pastors and DREs. Many have been receptive and have adapted elements of it for their own use.

The key is that the whole family is educated and that parents and other adults must be assisted in their teaching of children.

So, back to basics! No more handing over catechesis to a “professional class.” Religious education must also take place in the home. Parents, are you reading Bible stories to your children? How are you growing in your own faith? And don’t be anxious. The basic curriculum is not that hard. It’s easily memorized in the words of an old song:

I once was lost in Sin

But Jesus took me in.

And then a little light from heaven filled my soul!

Sin, redemption, and grace. Keep it simple; don’t complicate it. The details may vary each year after the mastery of the basic elements.

Don’t wait for your parish to get on board. If you’re not already a homeschooler, get a children’s Bible and start reading the Genesis stories to your children (and to yourself)!

Here’s a kind of jazzed-up version of the hymn I referred to above. It looks as if it was filmed in the 1970s, so take that into consideration.

Four Disciplines of Worthy Disciples – A Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel this Sunday, the Lord gives four important principles for a disciple. He also teaches on the concept of being worthy of Him. We tend think of being worthy as acting in a way that meets a certain standard, but the Greek word for “worthy” involves more than merely external behavior, important though that is. To be worthy of the Lord is to ascribe worth and give proper weight to who He is and what He teaches. Let’s take a look.

I.  The priority of a disciple – The text says that Jesus said to His apostles, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”

The Lord could not be clearer: we are to love Him more than we love anyone or anything else. There is to be no person or thing in our life that has greater importance than the Lord. So fundamental is the priority of our love and obedience to Him that it eclipses even the most fundamental relationships in our family. Our love and honor for our parents is very important; it is mandated by the Fourth Commandment: Honor your Father and your Mother. And yet, even it cannot overrule the most fundamental of all the commandments, the First Commandment: I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other gods before me.

Therefore, even the love and respect owed to parents and the love that parents should have for their children cannot be preferred to the love and obedience we owe to God. If a son or daughter, even while still a minor, were to hear a parent instructing him or her to disregard a clear teaching or commandment of God, the child would have to respond, “Sorry, Mom, Dad, but I love God more. I cannot obey you in this matter.”

The same is true for any other relationship. If a spouse, a sibling, a boss, or a government official were to try to compel us to act contrary to God’s truth and commands, the answer must always be the same: “I’m sorry but I cannot comply; I love God more. Even if I suffer at your hands as a result, I cannot and will not comply.”

The love of Jesus, who is Lord, supersedes every other love, respect, or honor due to others, be they persons, philosophies, nations, or political parties.

Truth be told, many Christians manifest greater allegiance to political parties, careers, and the opinions of men in general than to the Lord and His Church. Many prefer worldly thinking to what the Lord teaches. Many cave in and compromise to what others demand of them in order to ingratiate themselves to others, to gain access, or simply to preserve a false peace. Silencing the Gospel is never a recipe for true or lasting peace.

II.  The Profundity of a Disciple Jesus speaks strongly and says that such people as this are not “worthy” of me. As noted above, we tend to measure worthiness externally, by whether we live up to expectations of us. While this is proper, it overshadows the more internal dimensions that are the deeper part of being worthy.

The Greek word translated here as “worthy” is axios, and which is related to weights and scales. Most literally the word means “drawing down the scale,” and thus implies weighing as much or more than something else.

Internally, the concept of being worthy of the Lord here is that we assign a greater weightiness in our life to Him than to the passing treasures and trinkets of the world. We are to ascribe greater “worth” or “worthiness” to Him than to anything or anyone else. We take the Lord seriously. His teaching is to weigh on us and to carry a weight in our life. This internal disposition of being worthy of God produces the external behaviors that are worthy of Him.

The Lord paints a kind of picture for us to show that if we love anyone or anything more than we love him, the scales are tipped wrongly; we are not ascribing enough weight or worth to Jesus and are thus living in an unworthy way.

As we “size things up” in life and weigh the true importance of things, remember this: No person, no political party, no boss, no person at all who seeks our money, time, loyalty, or acquiescence ever died for us. None of them can ever save us, for none of them is God. If we esteem anyone or anything more than we do Him, then we are weighting His Blood and His saving love too lightly.

III. The passion of a disciple – The text says, … and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Every disciple must be willing to take up his cross; if he does so, there is ample reward. The Lord originally offered us paradise, but Adam and Eve wanted a better deal. Welcome to that better deal: Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, suffering is a reality. But suffering, by God’s gracious mercy, is also redemptive. The Lord teaches us that we must join our cross to His. Taking up the cross is a way of “losing” our life in the sense that it often diminishes our enjoyment of this earthly existence. But in dying to self and to this world, we find our true life: God and the things He offers!

It is interesting to note that we are often willing to take up crosses for worldly gain. We work hard for a paycheck or to earn a college degree. Why not then for the Lord? An old song says, “No cross, no crown.” The Lord asks of us no less than what the world demands for its trinkets. The Lord teaches that rewards far greater than worldly trinkets come with the cross He instructs us to take up. The Lord’s insistence on the need for the cross is not unreasonable, yet many of us bristle. Although we will gladly spend several years and a lot of money in order to obtain a college diploma, going to Church on Sundays or giving up some of our favorite sins is viewed as unreasonable, or just too much trouble.

In effect, the Lord demands that we take him seriously, that we give weight to His words and to His promise. If we dismiss His words lightly then we are not worthy of Him, if we do not give proper weight to His words then we do not take Him seriously. This is a bad idea because He who mercifully summons us now to His truth will one day be our judge.

Be worthy of the Lord. Give sufficient weight to what He says. Respect and obedience are the proper virtues for a disciple who accords worth (weight) to the Lord’s teaching and acts in such a manner.

IV.  The prize of a disciple – The text says, Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.

The Lord promises reward if we get our priorities and passions right, if we welcome His word and give weight to what He says and who He is!

Even now, we can enjoy the fruits of God’s Word as we listen to His prophets and see our life change. In welcoming the Word in my life, I have seen many positive changes. I am less anxious, more patient, and more loving than before. I have greater wisdom. I have seen sins and sinful attitudes reduced and graces come alive. Word and sacrament have had their effect; accepting the prophecy of the Church has given me a prophet’s reward. How about you?

Further, the Lord says that He will reward every work of mercy by us, which is in effect a small share in the cross. We pray that God will forget our sins, but it is said that God will never forget the good things we have done and will never be outdone in generosity.

The Lord does not demand the cross without pointing to its reward. The cross ushers in the crown. Do you believe this? Do you take the Lord seriously? Do you give weight to and count as worthy the Word that He speaks to you?

Catechetical Models of the Past and Some Directions for the Future

One of the great struggles in the Church today is effectively catechizing God’s people. In a world so full of error, distortion, and half-truths, this has never been more necessary.

I was asked recently to present my thoughts on this topic at a conference with Master Catechists. I did so from the perspective not only of a pastor but also of one who grew up at the end of the era of the “old Church” and through the cultural revolution of late 1960s. Today’s post is the first part of my presentation at the conference; I’ll be posting the remainder over the next several days.

Many approaches and experiments in catechesis have been tried over the past several decades and, frankly, all have ultimately failed. Though we need to try something new, that something new is really something old. We must go back to basics and tell the old stories again, within the family environment rather than just at the parish level.

In this first part of this article I’d like to reflect on four failed models of the past. I do not refer to specific programs, but more to some of the educational philosophies that underlie our practices then and now.

I. The professional class – At some point, especially in the immigrant years of Catholicism in this country, the task of catechesis shifted from the family and the culture experience of the home to a kind of “professional” class of teachers, largely priests and religious sisters.

In this system, religious education was almost always conducted away from the home. It took place in Catholic schools, which were being built in huge numbers in those years and staffed by ample numbers of religious nuns and brothers. In a largely Protestant culture, which also dominated in the public schools, the building of Catholic schools was considered a high priority for Catholics. Parents were strongly encouraged to enroll their children in Catholic schools.

Catholic schools and C.C.D. (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) programs were remarkably effective, well-staffed, and well-attended in the immigrant years of the first half of the 20th century and well into the 1970s.

Religious education and upbringing became a task largely conducted away from the home. Children either attended Catholic school, or if that was not possible, went to C.C.D. classes (established to educate children who attended secular schools). The point was that the education of children in the faith was entrusted to professional religious educators, priests, sisters, and some lay teachers.

Surely there were many reasons that this scenario came to be. Industrialization, urbanization, and poverty often put great strains on immigrant families. Educational levels in general among largely poor Catholics were low and to some extent it made sense to entrust the critical task of religious education to the Church. But the effect was the marginalization of parents as the primary religious educators of their children.

And this would have lasting effects when the system of priests and religious collapsed in the 1970s. Religious sisters and priests, once a numerous and effective army of teachers, diminished and largely disappeared almost overnight. Despite this, parents were still kept on the periphery. But, frankly, how could catechesis have been redirected back to the home at that time? For at least three generations, Catholics had been led to relegate religious formation to the parish rather than the home. Attitudes change slowly and there was also little catechetical experience to rely on within the family.

In reaction to this, many well-meaning but at-first-untrained laity stepped into the gap to prop up the parish-based system. Despite the revolution of the late 1960s and the exodus of religious, parish-based religious instruction continued as usual.

Add to this problem the fact that “professional class” of religious leaders and teachers in the 1960s and later came to be infested by dissenters. Poorly trained adults were at first little equipped to resist those dissenters and were easily led astray.

So the first problem is that it is never good when parents and other adults are told to consign the religious education of their children to others. It tends to remove faith from the home and allows a class of dissenters too much access and influence. As we shall see, this left many chronological adults with a faith that was little more than elementary.

II. The priority was on children – In all the immigrant years and into the 1960s, the whole focus and priority was to teach children the faith. So critical was the Catholic education of children considered to be, that bishops often instructed pastors of new parishes to build the school first (holding Mass in the hall) and build the church later.

With the education of children in the faith such a priority, the education of adults suffered and in many places was non-existent. Certainly there was little attempt to teach parents to hand on the faith. Why should there be when the parish was handling the teaching of the children?

But something sets up when the faith is taught only to children and not “translated” to an adult audience. Children are great at learning the basics, but they are not always able to “connect the dots” or to discern the deeper meaning and relevance of what is taught. That sort of process requires ongoing formation as people progress through the various stages of life. Most parishes were so focused on the elementary education of children that few resources were left to devote to the ongoing formation of adults through the various stages of their lives.

Even if adults had some access to the “nuts and bolts” of elementary doctrine from their childhood instruction, there was little capacity for most to build upon this foundation and apply the faith to the increasingly complex moral issues of the modern world.

Frankly, most parents were poorly equipped to be spiritual leaders in the home (and their children did not look to them for instruction in the faith). Neither were they equipped to be spiritual leaders in the community or to apply their faith to the temporal order or within the community. Some of this explains why, despite so many Catholics in this land, we have so little influence within the temporal order, the political realm, and so forth. Many Catholics make little or no connection between their faith and how they vote or how they think about any number of worldly topics or matters. Quite frankly, most were not taught to do so. Faith was something discussed “down at the parish” by priests, nuns, and catechists. At home and out in the world, the laity had not been encouraged to say or do much other than to engage in a few pious practices (e.g., saying the rosary, not eating meat on Fridays, and attending Mass on a few holy days here and there).

Living or discussing the faith outside the parish was minimal. And inside the parish, the faith was taught almost exclusively to children. Add to this the tendency, even the demand, for short sermons and Masses, and adults were left largely on the margins of educational outreach.

This child-centered focus of Catholic education was not only unhealthy but practically guaranteed that Catholics would be (and still are) sitting ducks when error and demanded compromise came knocking at ever increasing levels as the culture melted down.

III. The process was perfunctory Rote learning through the use of memorized questions and answers was the common method of educating youngsters in the first half of the 20th century. Two factors influenced this: the focus on children and the size of parishes.

As we have seen, with the focus of religious education almost entirely on children, there developed an educational model that best fit children. The “rote learning” of the Baltimore Catechism was good in itself. It presented the basics of the faith well in a concise question and answer format. As a rule, children are much better at memorization than are adults. Further, it is appropriate to provide them with basic principles as a foundation on which to build.

But therein lies the weakness as well. If all that is done is to memorize pithy questions and answers, much is left undone. For example, what do the answers mean at a deeper level? What are the consequences for our spiritual, moral, social, and emotional lives? It is true that “God is everywhere,” but what are the implications of that? Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became flesh and dwelt among us. But more deeply, who is Jesus Christ and what does it mean to call him Lord and God, yet also our brother? How do we experience Him? The rote method of memorizing questions and answers can supply substance but is there time for adequate reflection? Usually there was not.

And that leads to the second factor that influenced this quick, rote method: huge parishes. Many of the parishes of the immigrant period and up to the middle of the 20th century were huge. Some of the ethnic parishes of Chicago had as many as 20,000 members. Some of the parishes took up an entire city block, with the parish and school buildings along with convents and rectories (housing armies of priests and religious). Many parishes had gymnasiums, credit unions, and social halls as well. Imagine the Mass schedules and confessions in parishes of this size! Many parishes had as many as 15 Masses on Sunday in the upper and lower churches and sometimes in the school hall—all celebrated before noon. Confessions were heard for as long as six hours on Saturdays with as many as six priests in the boxes. Parochial schools sometimes had double shifts in order to accommodate the large number of students, and there were as many as 60 children per classroom.

It’s an amazing picture, but it also shows how and why a “quick and basic” approach to just about everything took hold. These parishes were too easily like factories, quickly churning out product. Masses were usually low Masses, and the confessions were often hurried. Religious instruction had to be quick and focused. There is little time to go deeper in such a “factory system,” in which quantity too easily eclipses quality.

In reaction to this atmosphere, the Baltimore Catechism was pure genius. It captured a lot of content and memorably set it before students. But the questions posed in the catechism weren’t always the questions that the world was increasingly asking, as a cultural storm brewed heading toward the 1960s.

The depth of knowledge needed to apply the faith to changing and complex situations was not the strong point of the rote system. Add to this the fact that the home was seldom a place for further discussion of the faith and you get a generation or two that is schooled in the basics but has no model to apply them to daily life. Such models are best seen in family settings.

IV. The premise was authority, not truth itself – Before the cultural revolution that threw out (among other things) respect for authority, an argument made from a position of authority carried a certain amount of weight. One might be exhorted to go to Mass, or to believe a certain doctrine because “the Church said so.” Such exhortations were common because they worked.

But after the revolution, not only did the argument from authority carry little weight, it was often an additional reason not to accept something as true, even a reason to scorn it all the more. The argument from authority certainly has a place, but its effectiveness varies a lot from person to person and from culture to culture. Some believers are more prone than others to accept the simple weight of authority. Others seek evidence and demand more reasons.

In the end, the argument from authority has a flawed premise. Something is not true because the Church teaches it; rather, the Church teaches it because it is true. Authority is helpful because issues can be complex and disparate, and authorities or experts can present them coherently. But at the end of the day, something is true of itself, not merely because an authority says so. While the Church is an important vehicle for truth, the truth is from God, and the Church believes, teaches, and proposes something for belief because God has revealed it through the Scriptures, the Book of Creation, and Sacred Tradition.

Pedagogically, this argument from authority, which carried a lot of weight and was a common Catholic appeal, had the drawback of encouraging acceptance of a declaration without going deeper through questions such as these: Why is this so? How is this related to this other teaching that seems to say something different? Are there distinctions to be made and if so what are they? How do we know this is revealed by God and not mere human doctrine? These questions need not be asked in an impudent or contrary way; they are the stuff of rational inquiry, of faith seeking understanding. In the “because the Church says so” mode, one risks accepting a teaching and suffering the same fate as the seed that falls on rocky ground and withers for lack of root, or the seed that falls on the path and is taken away by the the birds of the air, or the seed that falls among thorns and is choked off.

And this is precisely what happened when the revolution hit. The beautiful, docile (docile meaning teachable, not gullible) faith of many Catholics lacked the depth necessary to endure the tsunami that came in successive waves. Thus the generations raised on rote, authority-based systems in which both the questions and the answers were supplied could not withstand the questions raised by a post-revolutionary world. Parents, especially, were ill-equipped to set up a wall of truth for their children, since catechesis had not been their bailiwick for generations and the catechesis they did have was rooted in the child-centered systems of Catholic parishes and schools.

Sadly, as we know, a lot of these structures remain in place today. Family-based catechesis is still rare; whatever religious education does occur is still mostly consigned to schools and parishes rather than taking place in the home. Opportunities for adult education have increased, but most parishes are still heavily focused on catechizing children (not a bad thing) and provide limited opportunities for adults. Further, there is almost no effort made to help parents to be better catechizers of their children at home.

So although the “old days” at least had good content, we know that by the 1970s the content had become quite poor—even in some cases erroneous and heretical.

As a way forward, we need both good content and better support structures. I’ll continue with more on this in Monday’s post.


Decide Now Whom You Will Fear: A Homily for the 12th Sunday of the Year

The Lord speaks to us today of one of the most central struggles in our life: fear. Yes, fear is one of our deepest drives and though it has a positive purpose, too often we miss the mark in directing its energy. The positive role of fear is to alert us that something is wrong and to divert us from danger. With our fallen nature, though, we often fear the wrong things while lacking a sober fear of the right things. We major in the minors of life; we get all worked up about passing things but do not have a sober and reverent fear of eternal things. We fear sinful and weak human beings, but not God, who is just, who sees all, and who will assign us our eternal destiny.

The Lord thus teaches us today in order to help us to “get fear right.” He sets forth the proper object of our fear, points to the outcome of succeeding or failing in this matter, and reminds us of our proper role in this world as we master our fear.

I.  The Object of Fear Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one … And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna … Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Wrong Fear In speaking to the object of fear, Jesus is asking us to consider what and whom we fear most. We are going to fear someone and something. We are just too tiny and weak to be wholly free of fear. Yes, fear has its place and purpose; the problem is that we often fear the wrong things. We are a bit like Chicken Little, who was afraid of an utterly false threat (that the sky was falling) and in her panic ran right into the wolf, who devoured her.

Jesus is clear: Fear no man. The worst thing a human being can do to you is to kill you physically. Even if that happens, though, if you are faithful, dying is the path to Heaven; it’s a maximum promotion! Maybe people can steal your things or make your brief life here a little less pleasant, but life does not consist in our possessions. As an old gospel hymn says, “Trouble don’t last always.”

In a moment, Jesus will tell us whom we should fear. For now, consider again Jesus’ teaching: Fear no man. Yet the fact is that we do fear human beings. It’s incredible to find out how afraid we are. We’re afraid of everybody and everything! We’re more afraid of men than we are of God. We’re afraid of physical dangers, certainly, but even more so we’re afraid of being rejected by other people; of not being liked by others. We’ll do just about anything to ingratiate ourselves to others and to assuage our fear of being rejected or laughed at. We’ll gossip and lie; we’ll spend a lot of money on clothes, cosmetics, fancy cars, big houses, or the latest iPhone. Desperate to fit in, young people may join gangs, drop out of school, use drugs, fornicate, and/or engage in self-destructive behaviors, all in a desperate quest to be thought “hip” and loved.

Yes, too many of all ages have a mighty fear of rejection and humiliation by other human beings. And because we’re afraid of not being liked, we’ll do almost anything.

Not only does this fear drive us to do many things we shouldn’t, it also keeps us from doing many things we ought to do such as preaching the Gospel and insisting on what is right. Think of the martyrs of old who died professing the faith, and here we are afraid that someone will raise an eyebrow!

Fear is one of the chief habit patterns of sin, and it brings about countless other sins. It has to go.

Thus Jesus says, “Fear no one.” That is, fear no man. Whom do you fear more, men or God? Honestly?

Right Fear God is the proper object of our fear.

Jesus teaches very provocatively, … rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna …

Some think that this text refers to Satan, but it does not. Luke’s version makes this even clearer: But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear the One who, after you have been killed, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him (Luke 12:5).

This cannot be Satan because Satan is not our judge. Although he can tempt us, he has no authority to determine our final destiny. Scripture says that Satan, our accuser, has been cast out (see Rev 12:10). Further, it declares, The Father judges no one, but has consigned all judgment to the Son that the world may revere him (Jn 5:22).

Many are uncomfortable thinking of the Lord in this way. They prefer to think of Him as an affable fellow, a harmless hippie who’s not all that concerned with things like holiness and conversion, and who in the end will just wave everyone through.

This is simply not what Scripture teaches. God is holy, and His holiness exudes a power and glory that we must be purified in order to endure, let alone enjoy. Frankly, Heaven would be a miserable place for anyone who has not been brought up to the temperature of Heaven or been accustomed to the bright light of God’s truth. Heaven is not our personal “designer paradise.” It is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness and with all its values: forgiveness, generosity, love of one’s enemies, chastity, and so forth. There are many who don’t want anything to do with some or any of these values. They are much like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, the one who stands outside angry and unwilling to the enter the feast given by his father. He finds forgiveness untenable; he loathes the feast because his wayward brother is honored there. Judgment Day is something to have a holy fear about, for it is the day when God will ask this question: “Do you want the Heaven I offer on its terms or not?” On the Day of Judgment, God will assess what our decision has amounted. He will either welcome us into the feast or close the door and consign us to the “other arrangements” we ourselves have made and perversely preferred. Jesus says, As for anyone who hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him… The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day (John 12:47-48).

Balanced Fear This proper fear is not a cringing one, rooted only in the dread of punishment (though if that’s all you’ve got, go with it). Rather, it is a reverential fear that remembers God’s love for us and His desire to save us. Jesus says, Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Although this proper fear remembers God’s love and does not give way to the imbalance of purely servile fear, neither does it swing to the other imbalance, which disregards the loving respect we should have for God and His holiness. God is who He is and Heaven is what it is. We simply cannot endure such realities without being purified and prepared for them first. God must have our repentance in order to do the work necessary to enable us for Heaven’s brightness and His fiery glory.

A reverential and balanced fear acknowledges God’s love and mercy, but also His awesome glory. Such a fear takes seriously our need to prepare for judgment and to avail ourselves of God’s graces in the sacraments, the Liturgy, His Word, and prayer.

II.  The Outcome of Fear Jesus adds, There is nothing that is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known … Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.

Our fear is going to have an outcome for either good or ill. If we have the wrong fear (fearing man more than God), it will lead us to silence and even outright denial of God and His truth before others. Fearing the opinion of the world and human beings more than God makes us silent and too easily conformed to a world opposed to Him. This amounts to a tacit denial (by silence) or to an outright denial wherein we publicly scorn God and/or His revealed truth in order to ingratiate ourselves to this world. The consequence of this denial is Jesus’ affirmation of our denial of God the Day of Judgment. The martyrs and confessors of the faith shine brightly before God, but we cannot endure their brightness because we have hidden out in the dark places and preferred the darkness of error to the light of truth.

If we have the right fear, we want to please God rather than man. We delight in representing Him and His teachings before others, even joyfully enduring the world’s scorn. If we fear God, we fear no one else. If we can kneel before God, we can stand before any man. If we fearlessly, charitably, and joyfully acknowledge God before others, we will be acknowledged before God the Father as someone who truly sought Him and witnessed to Him. A proper and balanced fear brings an outcome of glory and happiness. An improper fear (of man rather than God) brings denial, because we fear and prefer the opinions of men and this world rather than God. On Judgment Day the Lord will acknowledge our preference to His Father.

For a good outcome, make sure you have the right and balanced fear!

III. The Office of Holy Fear What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.

The Lord is summoning us to speak fearlessly to the world on account of a holy fear of Him.

1. But in the face of strong opposition, we were bold in our God to speak the gospel of God to you. … We speak … not in order to please men but God, who examines our hearts. As you know, we never used words of flattery or any pretext for greed. God is our witness! Nor did we seek praise from you or from anyone else (1 Thess 2:2-6).

2. Do you think I am seeking the approval of men, or of God?… I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10).

3. From henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear in my body the brand marks of the Lord Jesus (Gal 6:17).

4. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God. For we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

What about you? Do you speak the word of God to an often-scoffing world? Or do you fear the world more than God, and therefore stay silent, hiding out? If we reverently fear God more than the world, then we will speak out even in the face of opposition. We love the Lord more than we love the world. Therefore, we speak!

Summation – Make sure you fear the right thing, in this case the right One. Here is what Jesus teaches: Do not fear man. Rather, have a holy reverent fear of God. Get fear right. Stop getting so anxious about what mere mortals think of you. Your destiny will hinge on getting fear right. Fear the Lord; acknowledge Him before men and proclaim His world, and you be acknowledged greatly by him in Heaven. If you fear men and the world, just watch how quickly cave in, compromise, and deny the Lord, preferring worldly trinkets and the praise to eternal glories. But if you go that route, that’s all you’ll get. Beware, the Lord will one day have to acknowledge your preference: “Father He denied. He said no to our offer.”

Decide now whom you will fear. Your destiny depends on that decision.

On the Longing of Creation To Be Set Free

St. Paul speaks of the longing of creation to be set free. He almost personifies creation:

For indeed, creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:19-21).

Yes, creation itself eagerly awaits the day when God will say (in the words of an old spiritual), “Oh, Preacher, fold your Bible, for the last soul’s converted!” Then creation itself will be set free from its bondage to death and decay and will be gloriously remade into its original harmony and the life-possessing glory that was once paradise.

Isaiah takes up a similar theme we often hear in Advent”

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9).

Hence, when Christ from His judgment seat shall finally say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5), and when with John we see “a new heavens and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), I have little doubt that animals will share in that recreated and renewed kingdom where death shall be no more (Rev 21:4).

In numerous posts I have raised alarms about the anti-human dimensions of much of the environmentalist and climate change agendas. But none of this should be taken to mean that I don’t love the beautiful works of God’s creation. I love the passages above about how creation is longing and yearning.

Call me a bit sentimental but I have often thought that perhaps, in our interaction with our pets, God is giving us a glimpse of the harmony we will one day enjoy with all creation. Perhaps our pets are ambassadors for the rest of creation, a kind of early delegation sent by God to prepare the way and begin to forge the connections of the new and restored creation. Maybe they are urging us on in our task of making the number of the elect complete so that all creation can sooner receive its renewal and be restored to the glory and harmony it once had. Who knows? But I see a kind of urgency in the pets I have had over the years. They are filled with joy, enthusiasm, and the expectation of something great.

They show joyful expectation! Yes, there was a kind of joyful expectation in the dogs of my youth: running in circles around me, dashing to greet me when I arrived home, and jumping for joy when I announced a car ride or a walk. My cats have always sauntered over to meet me at the door with a meow, an arched back, and a rub up against my leg. Somehow our pets manifest the passage above: creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed (Romans 8:19).

While I realize that we humans often project what we want their behavior to mean, I am still fascinated by the way our pets come to “know” us and set up a kind of communication with us.

Dogs, especially, are very demonstrative, interactive, and able to make knowing responses. Cats are more subtle. My cat, Jewel, knows my patterns. She also knows how to communicate to me that she wants water, food, or just a back rub. She’s a big talker, too, meowing each time I enter the room. Sometimes I wish she could just tell me what she wanted!

Yes, this interaction with our pets is indeed mysterious. I am not suggesting that animals are on a par with humans intellectually or morally; Scripture is unambiguous that animals are given to us by God and that we are sovereign stewards over them. However, animals—especially our pets—are to be appreciated as gifts from Him. Scripture is also clear that animals will be part of the renewed creation that God will bring about when Christ comes again in glory.

They are part of the Kingdom! Without elevating pets (no matter how precious to us) to the full dignity of human beings, it is not wrong to think that they will be part of the Kingdom of God in all its restored harmony and beauty.

One day when Christ comes again, creation, now yearning, will receive the healing for which it longs.

The Call to Integrity in Worship

The opening of the Book of Isaiah is provocative, especially for those of us who hold the Liturgy in high esteem, as well we should. However, it is possible for us to distort even great things like the Mass and the sacraments.

Let’s look at the reading and then draw a few teachings from it:

Hear the word of the Lord, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:10-19).

Our worship can lack integrity. That which is supposed to glorify God and bring forth in us a holy obedience can become lip service. God seeks hearts that are humble, docile, loving, and repentant. We cannot satisfy Him just by singing a few hymns, saying some prayers, or attending Mass. These things, good though they are, are meant to bring about a conversion in us that makes us more loving of both God and neighbor, less violent, more just, more merciful, more generous, and more holy. Our worship should effect change in us such that we cease doing evil, learn to do good, strive for justice, address injustice, and defend and help the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the dying, and the helpless.

An additional problem with our worship today is that God has become almost an afterthought. Much of our liturgy is self-centered, self-congratulatory, and anthropocentric (rather than theocentric). We are “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” While the Mass should focus on God and summon us to humility and joy before Him, too often it seems more an exercise in self-congratulation. We are very narcissistic, even in a communal setting.

God cannot be pleased with all of this. Even if our worship is rightly ordered, we are not going to buy Him off that easily. God wants an obedient heart more than sacrifice. Sacrifice without obedience is a sham.

We need God to restore our integrity and give us a new heart. We are “dis-integrated,” in the sense that pieces of our life that should be together (e.g., worship and obedience, liturgy and healing) are not. Too often our worship does just the opposite of what it should. Instead of drawing us more deeply into the love and obedience of God, it becomes the very occasion of keeping Him at a distance and seeking to placate Him with superficial gestures. This makes our worship a lie and an insult to Him. God doesn’t mince words in the passage above when He says how displeased He is.

We need God to give us a new heart, one that loves Him as well as the people and things that He loves. Only then will our worship will truly reflect the heart that God seeks: a loving, humble, and generous one.

May our worship give us a new heart and deepen our commitment to God and neighbor!

Four Fundamentals of our Faith – A Homily for the 11th Sunday of the Year

The Second reading today from St. Paul to the Romans speaks to important truths that we should know: 

OUR DESTITUTION – Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly…..while we were  still sinners Christ died for us.  The full reading calls us: helpless, ungodly, unjust and sinners. This was our condition before Christ. St Paul says elsewhere,  “You were dead in your sins” (Eph 2:1). Psalm 14 observed that among the children of men: “they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one.” (Ps 14:2) And Isaiah observes that even “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is 64:4). Do you get it. This was our state before Jesus, and our state apart from him. We had nothing we can bring to either earn salvation or to raise ourselves from moral death. It was only the pure mercy and grace of God that could set us free. It is a pure gift of God. 

OUR DELIVERANCE –  How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Notice that little word, “now.” Since Christ has come it is now possible for us be delivered. The text says we are “justified.” In St. Paul’s use of this word it is always more than some legal declaration, it is a relational justice. We are justified by baptism into Christ’s death and by being made a member of his Body. We enter into a life-changing transformative relationship with the Lord. The text says that Jesus accomplishes this “by his blood.” Jesus was obedient even unto death on a cross and his shed blood washes away our sins and restores us to the Father. The text adds further that we are saved from the “wrath.” The wrath is our experience of our inability to be in God’s presence in a sinful state. Jesus makes it possible for us endure the heat and light of God’s majesty! 

OUR DESTINY-  The text says, once reconciled, will we are saved by his life. We are called to life in the sense that Jesus’ life replaces our own. Increasingly through the work of Jesus’ saving grace our life is conformed to his. We begin to love and desire newer and better things; to Love what he loves and who he loves. We see our priorities and thoughts change. Note too that eternal life does not simply refer to the length of life, but to the fullness of life. In Jesus’ life we begin to live more fully, more richly as the days go by. One day in heaven we will experience this fully, but even now, our life begins to change.

Our Declaration  Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Notice that our boast is in what God has done for us. Scripture says elsewhere:  This presupposes that we know what God has done for us  and are seeing our life changed. Do you notice? Are you excited about what the Lord is doing in your life?  Is there a joy and a peace within you?  Are you glad to be forgiven and reconciled?  Do you have a testimony to give? Do you boast of what God has done for you? Scripture says, Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15) Is there a hope in you that others can notice? 

Consider the testimony, the declaration of this song:

Why Does Jesus Say That the Father Is Greater Than He If the Members of the Trinity Are Equal?

A common question arising around the time of Trinity Sunday is rooted in this passage from John’s Gospel:

If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I (Jn 14:28).

This is somewhat puzzling because we are taught that each Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity fully possesses the nature of God and is equally to be adored and glorified. What, then, did Jesus mean when He said, “the Father is greater than I”?

The most common (and correct) answer is that in this passage Jesus was speaking in reference to His human nature, in which He is inferior to the Father; in His divine nature He is equal to the Father. Many of the Church Fathers spoke in this way. For example,

    • St Augustine said, Let us acknowledge then the twofold substance of Christ, the divine, which is equal to the Father, and the human, which is inferior. But Christ is both together, not two, but one Christ: else the Godhead is a quaternity, not a Trinity. Wherefore He says, If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go to the Father; for human nature should exult at being thus taken up by the Only Begotten Word, and made immortal in heaven; at earth being raised to heaven, and dust sitting incorruptible at the right hand of the Father. Who, that loves Christ, will not rejoice at this, seeing, as he doth, his own nature immortal in Christ, and hoping that He Himself will be so by Christ (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at John 14:28).
    • Didymus the Blind said, When he says “greater” he indicates that his divinity can be equaled to the Father, since he is of the same substance as him, but the Father is greater because the Son accepted a body…The Son’s nature is understood to be less than that of the Father inasmuch as the Son became man (Fragments on John at 14).
    • Hilary of Poitiers said, By the birth of the Son the Father is constituted greater … in that the Son, born of the Father, after assuming an earthly body, is taken back to the glory of the Father (On the Trinity, 9:56).
    • Theodoret of Cyr had Jesus speak, saying, Sometimes therefore I, [Jesus] say that I am equal to the Father, and at other times say that the Father is greater than I. I am not contradicting myself, but I am showing that I am God and a human being … If you want to know how the Father is greater than I, I was talking from the flesh, not from the person of the Divinity (Dialogue 1:56).

Thus, the first answer is clear: As God, Jesus is equal to the Father, but as Man, He is inferior to the Father.

In a qualified way, however, it is also possible to speak of a particular greatness of the Father even within the Trinity. While all three persons of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Source in the Deity). So, although the members of the Trinity are all equal in dignity, there are processions in the Trinity. The Father is the Principium, the Son eternally proceeds from Him and is eternally begotten by Him (Jn 8:42); the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one principal (Jn 15:26).

Thus, even from the perspective of His divinity it is possible for Jesus to say, “I delight that the Father is the eternal principal of my being. Even though I have no origin in time, I do eternally proceed from Him.”

The Athanasian Creed says the following regarding these processions:

The Father is made by none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, neither made nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, not made, nor created, nor begotten, but he proceeds from them.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks poetically of the Trinity in the familiar hymn “Tantum Ergo”:

Genitori, Genitoque … Procedenti ab utroque … compar sit laudautio.
(To the One Who Begets, and to the Begotten One, and to the One who proceeds from them both, be equal praise.)

So, although the Persons of the Trinity are equal, the processions within the Trinity do have an order. The Father is “greater” in the very qualified sense that He is the Principium Deitatis, the Principal of the Deity, but is co-eternal and equal in dignity to the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Devotionally, Jesus may also be speaking of the Father as greater in the sense that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father; He’s crazy about Him. He is always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father “greater,” Jesus says (in effect), “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). As God, we share one will; as human, my human will and His will are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”