When my kids were little, I had the privilege of serving as a catechist at my parish. My experience as a catechist and then later as a DRE and a diocesan leader convinced me that something more was needed in the process of faith formation to help children make their faith real. Year after year, I witnessed children completing their lessons and receiving the sacraments, without any visible sign of conversion or attachment to the person of Jesus Christ. It was like pouring water on a rock; nothing seemed to stick. My experience is not uncommon. In my role as a Regional Coordinator of Catechesis in the Archdiocese of Detroit, I meet regularly with faith formation leaders and catechists whose ministry experience is similar to mine.
It is sobering to realize that this dynamic has been in play for decades. In his 1979 Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae, St. John Paul II observes:
A certain number of children baptized in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit . . . Again, many pre-adolescents and adolescents who have been baptized and been given a systematic catechesis and the sacraments still remain hesitant for a long time about committing their whole lives to Jesus Christ . . .
So, what is it that we can do so as to not perpetuate this trend until the Second Coming of Christ? St. John Paul II offers a solution:
This means that “catechesis” must often concern itself not only with nourishing and teaching the faith, but also with arousing it unceasingly with the help of grace, with opening the heart, with converting, and with preparing total adherence to Jesus Christ on the part of those who are still on the threshold of faith.
In short, he is calling us to incorporate evangelization into the faith formation process. Today, almost forty years after the promulgation of Catechesi Tradendae, we are just now beginning to heed his advice, and it seems to be working.
Evangelization is not the same as catechesis. Evangelization is the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ and the response of a person in faith. It aims at initial conversion: the acceptance of a personal relationship with Christ, a sincere adherence to him, and a willingness to conform one’s life to his. Conversion to Christ involves making a genuine commitment to him and a personal decision to follow him as his disciple. Catechesis, on the other hand, is the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life. Catechesis assumes that the person knows Christ. Catechesis is a moment in the process of evangelization, but it is the teaching and maturation stage. It is concerned with ongoing conversion and growth.
An “Ah Ha” Moment
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to facilitate a six-week faith study at a local university chaplaincy that provided great insight into ways in which evangelization can be incorporated into a classroom setting. The faith study, Discovery, is the first level study of a set of resources published by Canadian Catholic Outreach (CCO), a Canadian campus ministry apostolate dedicated to evangelizing young adults. The faith study is designed to proclaim the Gospel and equip participants to become missionary disciples. The six-week study is done in a small group setting to allow for a relatable and dynamic proclamation of the Good News.
As I studied the leader guide in preparation for the sessions, I was intrigued by the method and content of the study. I found this study to be decidedly different than catechesis. Its method was not catechetical; it was evangelistic. What’s more, the impact on the students was transformative. Conversion was happening before my very eyes. The study along with a dynamic worship environment yielded an explosion of faith to what was previously a dead campus ministry.
I must admit that, until I facilitated Discovery, I never really knew what evangelization “looked like,” even though I studied all the Church documents on evangelization in the course of my theological studies. After facilitating Discovery several times, I found that the study consistently yielded the same results.
Five Factors of Fruitfulness
What elements contributed to the conversion process? What was it about the content and method that made this study so fruitful? Five factors rose to the top:
1. An experience of the personal love of God – Students, for the first time in their lives, had the opportunity to experience God’s personal love. The study created an environment of “encounter” through Scripture and prayer. God spoke into the hearts of these students through his living Word and drew them to himself. No longer did they need to be convinced that God is real; they experienced it first-hand.
2. A realization that they need a Savior – The content of the study clearly spelled out the effect of sin: sin separates us from God, and this separation can be eternal. This realization helped the students realize that they need a Savior and prepared them for the full impact of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
3. The intrinsic power of the kerygma – The study contained a clear proclamation of the kerygma (the Good News of Jesus’ salvific work). An anointed preaching of the kerygma has an intrinsic power to awaken faith. Faith comes alive with the sudden recognition that the cross of Christ has a personal dimension: when Jesus hung on the cross over 2000 years ago, my sins were present to him, and out of love for me, he gave his life to the Father to pay the price for my sins and opened the way to heaven for me.
4. An opportunity to make a choice to surrender one’s whole life to Christ – After experiencing the personal love of God, understanding the consequences of sin, and experiencing the personal dimension of the cross, the study culminated in presenting the following question to each student: Do you want to make Jesus the center of your life and make a decision to follow him as his disciple? If the student said “yes,” he/she was invited to renew their baptismal vows, pray a commitment prayer, and invite Jesus into his/her life. Jesus always shows up when he’s invited, and as a result, the students’ experience of Christ was deepened.
5. An open environment for discussion – Students were encouraged to share openly and honestly during the course of the study. This not only provided a safe environment for discussion but also created opportunities for the students to bond and form friendships.
At the end of the six weeks, one could observe the following changes in the students: a change in their priorities and conversation, a hunger for the Word of God, a desire to worship God, and a desire to share their experiences. This is a portrait of an evangelized person. I think it’s safe to say that every catechist and Catholic school teacher longs for the same kind of transformation to happen in their classroom.
Evangelizing in the Classroom
What if we, as faith formation leaders, evangelized children in the manner described above? If we did, would we be more successful in forming children as lifelong disciples? I think so. If the children in our programs have not experienced initial conversion to Christ, then we need to be more intentional about evangelizing in the classroom. It would not be difficult to integrate the elements of personal encounter, proclamation of the kerygma and invitation to response into a catechetical curriculum. It is a new approach with new possibilities.
Recently, Catholic Schools and parish faith formation programs in the Archdiocese of Detroit have begun incorporating evangelization into their faith formation curriculum. The aim is to help children have a life-changing personal encounter with Jesus such that he becomes the Lord of their lives. Our primary method for facilitating such an encounter is guided meditation on Sacred Scripture. Through these meditations on the living Word of God, children come to know that Jesus is real, he is alive, and he loves and knows each of them personally. In addition, we intentionally talk about Jesus in the present tense at a very personal and individual level. The language in traditional catechetical texts tends to refer to Jesus in the past tense and discuss his salvific work as it relates to the whole of humanity. We do not want children to think of Jesus as an historical figure who is dead and gone (e.g., George Washington or Abraham Lincoln), but as their personal Lord who is very much alive and well.
Several years ago, if I would have mentioned the word kerygma to catechetical leaders in the Archdiocese of Detroit, it would have been met with a blank stare. Today, that is not the case. Thanks to the renewal efforts led by our chief shepherd, Archbishop Allen Vigneron through his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, the term kerygma has made its way into the vernacular of catechetical ministry in our local church and catechists are beginning to proclaim the kerygma to children. The kerygma can be described in four essential elements: 1) God’s loving plan for each person, 2) sin and its consequences, 3) God’s remedy for sin by sending his Son Jesus for our salvation, and 4) the response this gift calls for from each person. When proclaiming the kerygma to children, it’s important to adequately explore the notion of sin and its consequences.
Today, we live in a culture that shrugs off sin. If sin doesn’t matter, then we don’t really need a Savior. If this is the prevailing attitude, then it should be no surprise that people are indifferent toward Jesus. But God does not shrug off sin; sin has consequences and those consequences can be eternal. When sin entered the world, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:23), revealing to us that that heaven (symbolized by the garden) is a place without sin. Sin created an impassable division between God and man. St. Catherine of Siena describes this separation as a great raging river that no one can cross. God the Father deals with the problem of sin by sending his Son Jesus into the world. Through his death on the cross, Jesus takes the sins of all people upon himself to ransom us from the enemy of God and deliver us from the power of sin and death. Jesus’ sacrifice atones for our sins, and as a result, he becomes a bridge between heaven and earth making it possible for man to reach God. When proclaiming the kerygma to children it is important for them to understand the impossibility of reaching heaven without Jesus and the necessity of Jesus for our salvation. Further, it must be proclaimed in a way such that children are filled with wonder and awe that a God so big would do that for them. This prepares their hearts to respond to make a commitment to Christ and invite him to be the center of their lives. Catechists in our local church have shared moving testimonies of children who have responded deeply to the message of the kerygma and answered favorably to the invitation to a friendship with Christ.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urges us to rediscover the importance of the announcement of the kerygma: “On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’ ” We must remember that we cannot convert the hearts of children. The Holy Spirit is the agent of conversion; we simply need to create an environment of encounter and present the Gospel message, which in itself has intrinsic power. Let us heed the advice of St. John Paul II and Pope Francis to adapt our catechetical methods to include evangelization so that decades from now, church leaders will no longer lament the “sacramentalization” of our children but see this time period as a positive turning point in the history of catechesis.
Anita Houghton is the author of Kerygma 4 Kids, a new evangelization resource for children published by ministry23 (www.ministry23.com/k4k). Anita is a Regional Coordinator of Catechetics for the Archdiocese of Detroit and serves as a part-time professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
 St. John Paul II, On Catechesis in Our Time, Catechesi Tradendae (CT), art. 19.
 USCCB, National Directory for Catechesis, no. 17B.
 CT, art. 18.
 Allen H. Vigneron, Unleash the Gospel, (Archdiocese of Detroit, 2017), Marker 2.2.
 St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 58-59.
 Pope Francis. The Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), art.164.
This article originally appeared on pages 25-27 of the printed edition.
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann public domain image at Pixabay.com