Many readers of this journal are familiar with how John Paul II describes the definitive aim of catechesis. Our objective as teachers of the faith is to lead those we teach into communion, into real intimacy, with Jesus Christ. He is not only to be our model and example. He is not merely our brother and friend. And he is not only our High Priest and Divine Teacher, revealing to us the right way to see reality and live within it. These are some of the important contours of our relationship with him, but there is more.
Frank Sheed, highly esteemed apologist of the mid-twentieth-century, described Catholicism as “the union of men with God in Christ.” He pressed further, “That is Catholicism. That is all of Catholicism. That is the fact [our students] should have standing up clear and clean from all the mass of things they know.” Catholicism cannot be reduced to a set of moral teachings or sacramental practices, as integrally important as these are. The Catholic life is first union with God, who initiates this union with us. Being a Catholic means welcoming this union, which results from the undeserved gift of grace and our fiat to his initiative. It means leaning into this union, pursuing and prioritizing it above everything else.
Close connection with others changes us. We can think here of how we change by being in deep, authentic friendships. Those called to marriage know that marriage is a deeply challenging school of self-sacrificial love, which has the purpose of growing and stretching us beyond what we would have originally thought possible. But if such experiences of union with another change us, this is infinitely truer when our union is with Another, with the One who made us. God’s intent in drawing us into intimate communion cannot be that we remain passive to the demands of this communion, that we stay unchanged. True union is only possible when it is actively willed, when there is an intentional giving of self and a receiving of the Other. Such an ongoing encounter with the Triune God will have most definite effects.
How could we begin to describe these effects?
This union with God in Christ, through his Mystical Body the Church, gradually heals, ennobles, and perfects us so that we might live within his sovereignty and join him one day in his heavenly glory. First, the disciple who abides in this Trinitarian communion experiences a purifying healing from the wounds and effects of sin, especially his own sin, so that he may become God’s very healing balm for others. Second, the follower of Jesus is ennobled through her cooperation with baptismal grace, which has given her a participation in Christ’s kingship; that is, she comes to see herself as she truly is in the eyes of her Heavenly Father: a much beloved daughter, in possession of the deepest dignity and value. The more she lives in harmony with her baptismal dignity by cooperating with the inestimable gift of her baptismal grace, the more her life will shine with the glory and nobility of Christ the King. Finally, living in close communion with God in Christ—aligning thoughts, choices, relationships, and vocation so that they are in continuity with this new life in God—steadily and gradually perfects the one who lives in God. To see this, we need only examine the life of any saint.
In this way, Christians become a leavening agent within culture. In union with Jesus, leaning into his breast as did John the beloved disciple at the Last Supper, we become a sanctifying influence within culture: first the culture within our homes and friendships, but also within our schools, our workplaces, and our broader cultural milieus. Each of these cultures stands in tremendous need of being healed, ennobled, and perfected, as we ourselves are progressively experiencing through the grace of God.
Even as we come to recognize the true depths of our cultural brokenness today, when Christians become who they were created and re-fashioned to be, God will bring healing, light, truth, mercy, and renewal to these cultures in which we live. This is what happens when we live in close proximity to the One who makes all things new.
Dr. James Pauley is Professor of Theology and Catechetics and author of two books focused on the renewal of catechesis: An Evangelizing Catechesis: Teaching from Your Encounter with Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2020), and Liturgical Catechesis in the 21st Century: A School of Discipleship (Liturgy Training Publications, 2017).