Catechists do two things. They announce the faith of the Church; and they assist those whom they are catechising to recognise the presence and work of God in their – the catechumens’ - lives and in the world so that the catechumens can learn that docility and receptivity which God so desires of us. The General Directory for Catechesis puts it like this:
‘Truly, to help a person encounter God, which is the task of the catechist, means to emphasise above all 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).
To be able to help others in this second task we must, of course, be able to recognise God in our own lives and be able to place ourselves gladly and easily under his guidance. Attentiveness to one’s own life is at the heart of any formation one undertakes with others. St Bernard of Clairvaux famously said,
‘The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself.’[i]
Seeing God at work
God is ceaselessly at work, to bring us to himself. The whole of our earthly time is for this, as is all of creation. And yet we do not see. Our eyes are closed. ‘We had the experience, but missed the meaning’.[ii] The role of the catechist is to learn to turn towards the light and open our eyes. Then we can assist others in seeing, too. For the key is which direction we look: Frederick Langridge wrote the following well-known lines:
‘Two men look out through the same bars:
One sees the mud, and one the stars’.
The point that he is making is the two people can see things differently depending upon their outlook. Or, we might say, their ‘worldview’ – or which way they are looking. Many people only look down: the mud is the ‘real’. Catholics look up: the fullness of reality lies in God. They do not deny the mud, but a true vision of the world is gained only by uniting oneself to the perspective of the God who, from on high, from the ‘realms of endless day’, stooped down to the very depths, ‘assuming’ the mud, the dust of mortality, and raising it up with himself to the heavens. The mud is real. But we need to get the mud into perspective. The key to a Catholic worldview lies precisely in gaining this Christ-centred perspective that enables us to see the activity and will of God and his loving presence in our lives and in the world around us.
The Compendium of the Catechism was published, the Moto Proprio of Pope Benedict tells us, to provide for us a ‘panorama’ of the faith. It was given, in other words, to enable us to gain exactly the perspective we need to have so that we can focus realistically and truly on the world. From this perspective we can ‘comprehend’ our lives and the world. We need this breadth of perspective for a full understanding, for the word ‘comprehend’ is related, of course, to ‘comprehensiveness’. We can ‘grasp’ things only when our vision is large enough, only when we can see far enough, when the patterns fall into place and things appear in their proper perspective and order. And then we can encounter God, who has never left us, and can allow ourselves to be guided by him, for we have a sense of his purpose and plan.
Gaining this sense of perspective enables us to help others see God at work in their lives. It enables us to assist others in gaining a Catholic experience of life, for experience and interpretation are inextricably linked. We fear and resent those whom we believe are out to cheat or betray us. Our feelings and experiences follow our views. And if our views and perspective change, our feelings and experiences can alter also. Perhaps when my friend ignored me the other day it was not an intended slight, but only the sign of a worried preoccupation with some other matter, unrelated to me? I can re-read my life, see it differently, and from there new ways of living can emerge.
This is where catechists are called to help. They offer the interpretative keys that others can use to provide the true framework within which a properly Catholic experience of life can develop. It is the true framework because it is revealed by God, who is truth itself. The General Directory for Catechesis explains the point in this way:
‘…experience, assumed by faith becomes in a certain manner a locus for the manifestation and realisation of salvation, where God consistently with the pedagogy of the Incarnation, reaches man with his grace and saves him. The catechist must teach the person to read his own lived experience in this regard, so as to accept the invitation of the Holy Spirit to conversion, to commitment, to hope, and to discover more and more in his life God’s plan for him’.[iii]
This is not a theology of ‘on-going revelation’ in the sense that new truths are taught to the person. The fullness of revealed, objective truth is contained in the Deposit of Faith. Rather, it is that God is acting as an educator and pedagogue in the person’s life, seeking to arouse faith, hope and love in the person through the events of daily life. The catechist can help the person to see God at work in these events. The task is to assist others in seeing more, and seeing more truly. And so ‘interpreting and illuminating experience with the data of faith is a constant task of catechetical pedagogy – even if with difficulty.’[iv]
It is not that catechists presume to offer definitive interpretations of particular encounters, sufferings or joys in the lives of others – this would normally seem intrusive and presumptuous. But they can and should be able to set out the overarching truths of the faith and principles of God’s activity and plan that have been revealed so that those being catechised can enter into a real dialogue with the God who is reaching out to them with his grace to save them.
There are, then, many valid, but limited, perspectives. The secret is to be able to use the full Catholic worldview to gain an overarching understanding. The recent papal visit to the United Kingdom was a good example of the difficulty and yet the importance of appreciating a Catholic worldview. There were economic perspectives on the visit; media perspectives; moral debates and viewpoints – all of these offering real, but limited insights into the reality of the visit. To see the visit within the Father’s providential plan, with the sending of the Vicar of Christ to bring Christ’s teaching to these islands and to release the graces of beatification – this required that larger vision and more adequate set of interpretative keys, to fill out and complete the limited views of the event being promoted from within a more secular perspective.
The significant and life-changing truths of: God’s establishing of the human person in his own image; his providential care for the least, as well as the greatest of events; the redemptive work of the Son, communicated through the grace of the sacraments; the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given to cure our inattentiveness to the voice of God in our lives; the shaping ‘hands’ of the Father – the beloved Son and Spirit – patiently repairing and healing the disfigurements to the divine image; the manifestations of God’s ceaseless activity, witnessed in the blessings of the beatitudes and the fruits of the Spirit: these are some of the core interpretative truths on which we can catechise to help the person ‘read his own lived experience’, to have the experience and not to miss the meaning.
‘Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. So urgent is the charity of those through whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us, that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves.
‘You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God. The reservoir resembles the fountain that runs to form a stream or spreads to form a pool only when its own waters are brimming over. The reservoir is not ashamed to be no more lavish than the spring that fills it.’
St Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 18 on the Song of Songs
[i] Sermon 18 on the Song of Songs.
[ii] T.S.Eliot, The Dry Salvages’.
[iii] GDC 153c.
[iv] GDC 153c.
This article is originally found on pages 4-5 of the printed edition.