The Bishop's Page: Courage to be Catechists

Authored by Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue in Issue #29.4 of The Sower

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As the Bishop of Lancaster, I published my teaching document Fit for Mission? Schools on Catholic education and the ethos of Catholic schools in November 2007.  It was distributed to all parents, teachers, and school governors in my diocese. 

To be honest, my document isn’t groundbreaking, just a simple and clear presentation of the Church’s understanding of the identity and role of Catholic schools, and a frank assessment of problems, with some practical suggestions.

We need a renaissance of catechesis in Catholic schools

To put it simply, the purpose of Fit for Mission? Schools is to promote a renaissance of evangelisation and catechesis in Catholic schools.  If a school does not present the fullness of Catholic faith to our students, so that they have the opportunity of entering into a living relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, then they offer nothing worthy of the name ‘Catholic’.

At the heart of my strategy is the expectation that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is placed at the heart of the life of schools and colleges in my diocese.  Little did I realise the reaction such a proposal would cause in my own country and around the world.  Nowadays for a bishop to insist that schools present the fullness of Catholic faith with clarity and conviction is to invite controversy, opposition and hostility, from both inside and outside the Church – from those Catholics who dissent from the teaching of the Church and from powerful groups in secular society.

Subsequent events have convinced me that in order to face such challenges catechists, more than ever, need to deepen their co-operation with the gifts of the Holy Spirit received through the sacrament of Confirmation, especially the gift of courage.  The sacrament of Confirmation is a much neglected and underdeveloped source of grace and strength in the life of the Church.

Summoned before Parliament

By Christmas 2007, my office was inundated with congratulations, enquiries, and requests for copies of Fit for Mission? Schools. I even received support from various Dicasteries of the Holy See – the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Congregation for Clergy, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the CDF, kindly wrote a foreword for the expanded edition published by the Catholic Truth Society in January 2008. 

By December 2007 I had also been accused of being a Catholic ‘fundamentalist’ in the national press by the Right Honourable Barry Sheerman, a Member of Parliament and Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families.  Unhappy about my insistence that Catholic schools teach the Church’s doctrine on sexual morality, reject so-called ‘safe sex’, no longer support charities involved in anti-life activities, such as Amnesty International, and that crucifixes should be displayed in every classroom, the Member of Parliament made this rather remarkable statement:

‘It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked.  It does become worrying when you get a new push from more fundamentalist bishops.  This is taxpayers’ money after all.’ (The Observer, 30.12.07).

On the 12th March 2008 I was invited to appear before the House of Commons Select Committee to submit myself to questioning in a public forum by Members of Parliament and to defend my document Fit for Mission? Schools.

Let it be clear here: all I had done was confidently present the teachings of the Church and insist that Catholic schools do likewise.  I was determined to uphold my right as a bishop to oversee all Catholic schools committed to my care and to act freely and without interference as the prime teacher of the Catholic faith in my diocese.

Challenging Secular Myths

Before the committee, I challenged the common belief that only a secular ethos that maintained so-called ‘neutrality’ about God and personal morality was appropriate in education.  I made the following statement:

Every school has a philosophy. And a philosophy which puts God at the centre and morality as objective, is no less powerful than that which says God is irrelevant and morality is up to the individual choice. The role of democracy is to embrace all views, and not to infringe on basic human rights...some people seem to think that the only true democratic stance is the latter, namely that God is irrelevant and that morality is up to the individual.

Among some members of the Committee there appeared to be an a priori suspicion, and scepticism about the motives and practices of faith schools in general, and Catholic schools and the Church in particular. Any hint of evangelisation or catechesis, even within our Catholic schools, is increasingly viewed as intolerable indoctrination and proselytism.

The need for Courage

I must admit that it was a daunting experience to be summoned before an influential committee of MPs to undergo hostile questioning in a public forum before the media. It was a test of my courage but I knew it had to be done.

Going through the General Directory for Catechesis, I’ve picked out the following sections which speak of the pressing need for courage in evangelisation and catechesis:

  • ‘In general it is observed that the first victims of the spiritual and cultural crisis gripping the world are the young... This should stimulate the Church all the more to proclaim the Gospel to the world of youth with courage and creativity’ (GDC 181).
  • ‘The Gospel seeks a catechesis which is open, generous and courageous in reaching people where they live... such as the family, the school, the work environment and free time’ (GDC 211).
  • ‘In order that the parish may succeed in activating effectively the mission of evangelization, some conditions must be fulfilled... With renewed courage, the proclamation of the Gospel to those alienated or who live in religious indifference must be planned’(GDC 265).

The General Directory for Catechesis is clear that catechists need to be courageous in bringing the Gospel to the victims of the current spiritual and cultural crisis – the young, the alienated, the lapsed, and that hardest group of all to reach, the indifferent.

As Catholics we need to face the following hard questions – Do we lack courage to proclaim the fullness of Catholic doctrine?  Do we let our fear of hostility, ridicule, or scornful indifference get the better of us? Are we afraid of being unpopular or shunned for appearing in the eyes of some of being fundamentalists, ignorant or dim-witted?

The General Directory for Catechesis speaks of ‘a certain reticence’ among some baptised Christians ‘to live in contemporary society as believers’, who ‘fail to give explicit and courageous witness in their lives to the faith of Jesus Christ’ (GDC 26).

It views this lack of courage as not only an individual failing, but also as the result of secularism making great inroads into ‘Churches of long-standing Christian tradition’, like the Church in England and Wales.

Pope John Paul II spoke of secularism causing a ‘silent apostasy’ to occur across Europe, with even Christians living ‘as if Christ did not really exist’ (Ecclesia in Europa 26). And Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of secularism profoundly distorting ‘the Christian faith from within, and consequently, the lifestyle and daily behaviour of believers’.  Many Christians live as if:

‘...there is no longer any need for God, to think of Him or to return to Him.  Furthermore, the prevalent hedonistic and consumeristic mindset fosters in the faithful and in Pastors a tendency to superficiality and selfishness that is harmful to ecclesial life’ (Address to the Pontifical Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, March 8th 2008).

All these weaknesses of faith and morals among believers contribute to the general failure to courageously proclaim the Gospel whole and alive.

The Gift of Fortitude

As I have been travelling around the parishes of my diocese to administer the sacrament of Confirmation I have been reflecting on its importance in the life of the catechist. As the General Directory for Catechesis puts it, ‘The vocation of the laity to catechesis springs from the sacrament of Baptism.  It is strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation’ (GDC 231).

The Gospels show us – in the behaviour of the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane and in the aftermath of Jesus’ arrest – that it is very human and understandable for the followers of Jesus to lack the courage to stand by Him in the face of hostility and violence.

The Gospels also show us the courage granted to the apostles through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Men who had run away into the night, stood fearlessly before the crowds and authorities that had mocked Jesus and condemned Him to death. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit they had the courage to proclaim the fullness of the truth – Jesus is the Risen Lord (Acts 2: 14-40).

Through the sacrament of Confirmation we, too, can share in this Pentecost courage if we fully co-operate with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that we received through the anointing with chrism on the forehead, the laying on of hands, and through the words: ‘Accipe signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti’, Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit’.

All seven gifts are integral to the Pentecost courage needed for evangelisation and catechesis before today’s crowds and authorities – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

The Catechism explains this particular effect of Confirmation as giving us the ‘special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross’ (CCC 1303).

Finally, I’d like to share these words from Archbishop Oscar Romero that sum up for me the importance of the sacrament of Confirmation to the vocation of the catechist:

‘When the hour comes may we have the courage that the Holy Spirit gives in the sacrament of confirmation, to make His teaching prevail, to reach hearts and proclaim to them the courage that one must have to defend God’s law’.

Fit for Mission? Schools – Expanded edition, is available from the Catholic Truth Society, £6.95/$13.78 CTS order line: +44 (0)20 7640 0042 or www.cts-online.org.uk

Fit for Mission? Church is available from the Diocese of Lancaster website, www.lancasterrcdiocese.org.uk

This article is originally found on pages 10-11 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact sower@maryvale.ac.uk

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