This year marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the most important publications the U.S. Bishops have ever written: Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us. The ideals and principles expressed in this document are deeply convicting and can be summed up with these stirring words: “adult faith formation is essential to who we are and what we do as Church and must be situated not at the periphery of the Church’s educational mission but at its center.”
Clergy and catechists have collectively awakened to this need to help Catholic adults (and not just children and teens!) encounter Christ and grow in the faith he has entrusted to us. We have seen this awakening: in the groundswell of support for Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series; in the many conversations that have taken place at the parish and diocesan levels as a result of Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and Fr. James Mallon’s Divine Renovation; in the inspiring vision of the Amazing Parish conferences; in how many adults have benefitted from Alpha and Formed; and in the publication of many other extraordinary books, programs, and resources. In fact, we are living in a kind of “golden age” of Catholic resources intended to call adults to a deeper faith and life in Christ.
In many ways, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us was a precursor to all of this development and inspiration, by identifying some significant needs. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, many new initiatives have arisen in these past twenty years to be placed at the service of Catholic adults.
However, in many of our parishes and schools, this treasury of new resources has not made a demonstrable “dent” in the unconscious Catholicism lived by so many. This is because a deeply rooted cultural problem cannot be fixed by throwing books, resources, and programs at it.
The majority of Catholic adults in the United States operate under two misconceptions regarding the need for catechesis. These misconceptions surface in how we might answer this question: when is catechesis important? Many would respond that the faith should be “studied” when we are children and when we are preparing for a sacrament.
First, catechesis is for children only. A former supervisor in a previous job of mine frequently joked that we ought to rename it “kiddy-chesis” due to this prevalent mindset within Catholic parish culture.
A second misconception: catechesis is reducible to sacramental preparation. The idea becomes ingrained that we are catechized when it’s time to prepare for a sacrament. Policies and programs are created to prepare young Catholics to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Communion, and Confirmation. Later, should they decide to marry in the Church, they are required to attend marriage preparation. Finally, they might go through one last round of sacramental preparation if they have their children baptized. Most catechetical leaders face the challenge of a precipitous drop in catechetical participation post-Confirmation and throughout adulthood, because why would we be catechized if we’re not preparing for a sacrament?
These are powerful undercurrents. Of course, children’s catechesis and sacramental preparation are both important and deserve our best efforts. But, with a few notable exceptions, the Gospels show us that Jesus primarily engaged adults—and certainly today’s adults stand in tremendous need of being challenged by his truth and presence. Years ago, I used to marvel at a non-denominational church down the street from a parish where I worked. Three times a week, their parking lots were full in the evenings, with adults attending various bible studies. Our parish parking lot was also very busy three nights a week, but only for twenty minutes each night, as parents dropped off and picked up their children for parish catechesis and youth ministry.
What must we strive for today? Culture change. For diocesan and parish catechetical leaders, the questions that must define our work are these: how do we establish a culture in our parishes and schools where encountering Christ and maturing in our understanding of his teaching—his way of seeing the world—is embraced as a lifelong responsibility and adventure? How do we prioritize opportunities for adults to encounter and be changed by God? How do we adjust our catechesis so that it stirs up a deep desire for God and for a vibrant Catholic life? How do we raise up witnesses who can speak from their own experience of how growing in faith has improved their relationships—with God, within their families, with their brothers and sisters in their parishes, and with the broader community?
These are just a few of the important questions provoked by Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us. Today, these questions must receive our full attention and creativity.
Dr. James Pauley is Professor of Theology and Catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of Liturgical Catechesis in the 21st Century: A School of Discipleship (Liturgy Training Publications, 2017).
 USCCB, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us (1999), par. 42, accessible at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catechesis/adult-faith-formation/our-hearts.cfm
This article orginally appeared on page 5 of the printed edition.