The Church, in her teaching documents, places significant emphasis on the lifelong nature of catechesis. Catechesis accompanies each person from the cradle to the grave. It is pertinent to note that this dedicated accompaniment of every man and woman is envisaged by the Church to be a kind of journey in reverse, a journey from the grave to the cradle.
The reverse journey
The journey gets underway with our release from the grave, in which we are dead to sin through our share in Adam’s fallen nature. Thereafter, by degrees, we are raised by grace to the triumphant status of a child. The patient work of God’s healing and teaching ‘causes the person to grow progressively and patiently towards the maturity of a free son’ (GDC 139). Catechesis is provided in the Church to assist each person on the journey towards the Father (see GDC 143), to encourage in each of us the trusting, persistent nature of a child so that, at the end of all things, we may find the embrace and gaze of the Father.
The journey is beautifully described in The Golden Key, a short work by George MacDonald, the Scottish story-teller. In this tale two children, Tangle and Mossy, find a golden key and set out to discover the lock which the key will open. In their travels they are guided and counselled by one who is simply described as ‘the lady’. She speaks to Tangle:
‘How old are you?’
‘Ten’, answered Tangle.
‘You don’t look like it,’ said the lady.
‘How old are you, please?’ returned Tangle.
‘Thousands of years old,’ answered the lady.
‘You don’t look like it,’ said Tangle.
‘Don’t I? I think I do. Don’t you see how beautiful I am?’
Within a Catholic understanding, of course, ‘the lady’ is Mary, the one who is the most beautiful, tota pulchra, and the youngest creature of all. Because of her immaculate conception, the French novelist, George Bernarnos calls her, in his The Diary of a Country Priest ‘younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang, and though a mother, by grace, Mother of all grace, our little youngest sister.’
The new man, reborn and restored to his God by grace,
says ‘Father!’ because he has now begun to be a son.
Growing young again
Growing young again takes effort. In MacDonald’s story, the ‘lady’ leads the children to understand that it is ‘very idle to grow old’ – a point confirmed for them as they near their final destination when they are led into the presence of ‘the oldest man of all’ and find that he is ‘a little naked child’. The child is tireless, busy, diligently attentive, and yet also has an ‘awfulness of absolute repose’ on his face.
‘He had no smile, but the love in his large grey eyes was deep as the centre. And with the repose there lay on his face a shimmer as of moonlight, which seemed as if any moment it might break into such a ravishing smile as would cause the beholder to weep himself to death. But the smile never came, and the moonlight lay there unbroken. For the heart of the child was too deep for any smile to reach from it to his face.’
‘For my part’, MacDonald insisted, ‘I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.’ He set himself to write for all who wished to respond to the call of Christ to become like children, that they might enter the Kingdom.
Jesus is himself the ‘Little Child, God eternal’ (CCC 525) and his characteristic address to God was ‘Abba’, ‘Father’. United to this Child, says Clement of Alexandria, every Christian can enjoy ‘the exuberance of life’s morning prime which knows no old age; in which we are always growing to maturity in intelligence, are always young, always mild, always new’.
The work of catechesis can be conceived, then, as enabling the development of a mature childlikeness in the one Body of Christ, a childlikeness before the Father. In this development we are responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit who ‘permits the Church to keep the freshness of youth’ (Lumen Gentium 4).
Finally, we might wish to focus the attention of those we catechize on a particular quality which the Letter to the Ephesians identifies for us. In Greek, the word is ‘parrhesia’ (see Eph.3:12) and the Catechism recommends the childlike qualities expressed by this word: ‘straightforward simplicity, filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being loved’ (CCC 2778).
This article is originally found on page 4 of the printed edition.