The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

From the Shepherds: A Catechesis of Belonging

Authored by Bishop Michael F. Olson in Issue #4.4 of Catechetical Review

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The Role of the Family as the Catechetical Model for Hispanic Ministry

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

When I was about 12 years old, I visited a classmate at his home. He had been born in the United States of America, but his parents were born and raised in Poland and had immigrated to Chicago as young adults. On that afternoon, we were upstairs playing a board game when his mother called up from the basement, where she was finishing up the laundry. She called, “Tony!  Trow me down da stairs a rag!” He and I looked at each other and started to laugh at the image that her grammatical error implied along with the awkward sound of her accent. He and I began to act like we were throwing each other down the stairs. She came upstairs and caught us and at first looked confused but quickly grasped the situation. She frowned and spoke some words of correction to my friend in Polish. I do not speak Polish but I assume that her grammar and syntax were correct because she seemed to convey her point clearly enough to my friend Tony.

This story is an attempt to illustrate three important aspects of catechesis involved in our mission as the Church: language, culture, and family. Among us catechists, the interplay of these three aspects can cause confusion because language and culture are filters in the way faith is presented and practiced. In dealing with those of a different culture and language, we may not fully grasp the aspects and contours of their understanding. Language and culture are essential human characteristics shared by the natural and graced reality of the human family, but manifested in different ways. Hopefully, these thoughts will help us to make some headway in understanding how to prioritize these aspects in order to better evangelize and form the faith life of the Church in the United States of America. The three aspects of language, culture, and family involve delicate attention because they are areas of human life where people are most vulnerable, and thus are precisely the areas where the Gospel message of Christ most intentionally needs to be incarnate.

Family and the Fourth Commandment

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that “the fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal.” The Catechism continues that the fourth commandment also “extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.” Furthermore, “this commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons” (CCC, 2199).

The Catechism calls us to consider that the fourth commandment establishes the foundation and order for the subsequent commandments revealed to Moses. These commandments not only serve for the salvation of the world but also articulate human rights; among these are the right to life, the integrity of human sexuality and marriage, the right to property, the right to be told the truth, and the right to a good name. Thus, the fourth commandment “constitutes one of the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church” (CCC, 2198).

It is important to note that the first three commandments articulate what we justly owe God, which is the virtue of piety. The fourth commandment follows upon this debt to God with what we owe to our parents, which is the virtue of justice. This human debt begins with our  fathers and mothers; and what follows in the subsequent commandments are the just delineations of other human relationships within society.

We must remember that the Ten Commandments are the Covenant made by God with Moses, which makes the disparate group of refugee slaves into one chosen people—God’s chosen people on pilgrimage to the Promised Land. The commandments are not an arbitrarily placed list of single and distinct imperatives united only in that they are ordered by God and intended for human obedience. As the Covenant, they are binding and follow each other in a clearly ordered and inherently united sense. Within God’s Covenant, each one follows the previous one by drawing God’s people more deeply into the loving and just relationship of belonging to him and to each other. The commandments belong to each other in both substance and order; God’s people belong to each other in both the substance of family life and an order of language and culture.

So much of what we see happening at the border of the United States and Mexico, presented through eyewitness accounts of the separation of children of asylum seekers from their parents, offers a living metaphor for the destructive assaults upon family life in the name of individual and state rights. The situation at the border is more than a political conflict regarding the balance between border integrity and the right to asylum; it is more than a clash between language groups or cultures or even a partisan disagreement.

I would like to offer it as an example of a broader and thus more Catholic understanding of family that should underlie matters of pastoral care and catechesis.

Catechesis of Belonging Leads to Communion

First, the current multi-generation Hispanic presence in the Church in the United States provides an opportunity for us to develop a “catechesis of belonging” that reflects the primacy of the family over individual desires and the acquisition of property. This catechesis clarifies the role of the family and provides a healthy understanding of culture rooted in Christ and his Church. It reverses the current secular practice of a culture defining the meaning and role of the family. As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Christian family constitutes the realization of an ecclesial communion called the domestic Church” (CCC, 2204; see also Familiaris Consortio, 21).

Secondly, a catechesis of belonging requires that we understand our responsibility to serve the higher cause of the common good of the family over slavery to self-interests. Theologically this may be highlighted by the metaphor of God’s chosen people: they begin as disparate refugees from slavery in Egypt, are gradually formed by their experience in the wilderness under the servant-leadership of Moses, are covenanted with God, and thereby become his pilgrim people through a covenant of belonging, not a contract of reciprocal self-interests. This metaphor of the Old Covenant helps us to understand the New and Eternal Covenant, whereby the Church becomes the Pilgrim People, the New Israel, and God’s family of families. As we read in the Catechism, “Discipleship in Christ leads us to belong to God’s family” (par. 2233).

Finally, God brings us into communion with him through grace. We belong to him and to each other. This communion provides the foundation for the successful integration of the family within society and rooted in Christ. As we read in paragraph 781 of the Catechism, the people of God are rooted in the Church formed via a new covenant in Christ. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that Peter proclaimed, “Whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35).

The Primacy of Family

To develop a systematized catechesis of belonging requires that we begin with a consideration of my first point regarding our contemporary situation as the Church in the United States of America: the current multi-generation Hispanic presence in the Church in the United States provides an opportunity for us to develop a catechesis of belonging that reflects the primacy of the family over individual desires and acquisition.

We Catholics in the United States of America pride ourselves as being an “immigrant church” or a “church of immigrants.” Although this is true, how we catechists understand this is critical in developing an effective strategy today as a local and diverse church charged with the evangelization of a society increasingly lost in the egoism of postmodern individualism.

When our ancestors came as immigrants to the United States to escape oppression and persecution, they also experienced a traumatic change to the fabric of family life. Our immigrant ancestors were forced to learn a new language and many times were forced to forget a familiar language, but in doing so were also forced culturally to conform to the philosophy of individualism while being confronted by the societal trauma of the industrial revolution. These experiences damaged the role and responsibility of the father as teaching the wisdom of a trade within family life, and to the mother as providing the domestic history of family life and faith. It was a subtle shift but a shift nonetheless.

Modern British political philosophy, engendered in the Constitution of the United States, enshrined the rights of individuals as primary to responsibilities of members of a community directed to the common good, including the common good of the family. The common good became, in practice, reduced to its material dimensions. Jacques Maritain pointed out in his work, The Range of Reason, “As concerns civilization, modern man had in the bourgeois state a social and political life, a life in common without common good or common work, for the aim of common life consisted only of preserving everyone’s freedom to enjoy private ownership, acquire wealth, and seek his own pleasure.”[i] The pursuit of happiness soon came to be measured materially by property acquisition, protected by legislation and judicial decisions.

Likewise, the industrial revolution with its need for many workers prompted the breakup of families. This need of the industrial revolution drew individuals away from traditional family farms and immigrants away from traditional family trades. This rupture of the family was for the sake of material production directed to the acquisition of wealth by the likes of such historical figures as Carnegie, Mellon, and Rockefeller.

Social policy makers soon discovered that the family was theoretically needed in society for a new purpose: to raise individuals for the sake of national security and for the development of a workforce.[ii] Thus, the modern understanding of the nuclear family developed, whereby the family became an aggregate of individuals based on a contract of marriage between individuals. Familes were no longer viewed as a unified whole, but instead as parts of a society designed and structured to protect the rights of these individuals. Family members would be bearers of individual rights and derivative responsibilities, established in shared and agreed upon self-interest, but the value (and frequently the size) of family itself diminished. To summarize, families became understood to be aggregates of individuals making more individuals to form a society that served individual needs and identity. It sounds a lot like the right to privacy that has produced destructive abortion rights and same sex marriage. “Belonging” is optional and temporary but mutually offered through individual contract. Education and human formation, removed from a communal context and purpose, became directed towards industry and commerce.

Past methods of catechesis have neglected to uncover this presupposition on which modern and contemporary education rests. The Hispanic presence—devoid of the effects of the industrial revolution and the influence of modern British and continental political theory, but resting upon the experience of covenant and refuge from oppression—shine a light upon this previously overlooked foundation. It invites a new approach to catechesis that begins with the covenantal belonging established in baptism. The geographical proximity of their homelands, as opposed to the distance of Europe, has helped to maintain this primary sense of belonging to family and not to the modern nation state or to a postmodern and bifurcated culture. Now catechesis can and should be structured to include parents, grandparents, and children simultaneously, as well as groups based upon age and language.

I return to Tony’s mother in my opening story. When she spoke to Tony in Polish, she claimed her maternal rights and executed her maternal responsibility in bringing Tony back into right relationship. She reminded him that he belonged to her as her son and she belonged to him as his mother, and that they belonged together to God. Together they belonged to a broader society with attendant responsibilities to others in that society.

Our Responsibility to Serve the Family

A catechesis of belonging requires that we understand our responsibility to serve the higher cause of the common good of the family over slavery to self-interests. This is different than what has been practically done in recent catechesis. For example, much of our catechetical practice for the Sacrament of Confirmation has involved completing requisite class hours, retreat time, and service hours in order to “earn” the right to belong through full initiation to the Church. Likewise, when approaching the Sacrament of Matrimony, couples are too frequently confronted by a list of rules involving peripheral matters (e.g., hiring of an organist), by which they must contractually abide in order to have their wedding at the church—a parish to which they belong by contract (i.e., through registration and agreement for stewardship). This sends the message: “Grace is free but not cheap.” There appears to be little difference between education, which is purchased like a commodity, and belonging, which is earned through will power and choice.

The baptized Catholic’s “rights” to the sacraments become misunderstood in terms of modern rights that take precedence over and only tenuously establish belonging. Likewise, a catechesis that is reduced to merely an articulation of abstract, theoretical doctrinal knowledge or moral rules doesn’t manifest or strengthen belonging.. In either case, the focus of the Gospel is lost or appears meaningless to the lives of those preparing to receive the sacraments.

The catechesis of belonging begins with responsibility to serve the common good of the family and the common good of the communion of the Church. We are baptized, chrismated, and married to be inconvenienced for the sake of others with whom we share communion, not to receive grace that helps us to be strong, autonomous Christians. We are entrusted with the mission of Christ, of communion, of the common good. It turns us outward in evangelization and ministry and not inward toward introspection and self-fulfillment.

Communion: Formation of Society in Nature and Grace

Finally, God, through his grace, helps us to belong in communion with him. This communion provides the means for the formation of society in nature and grace, understood by faith and reason as providing the foundation for the successful integration of the family within society and rooted in Christ.

When we belong in the ordered way to our families, as the fourth commandment teaches, we belong to the Church and to society with responsibilities and rights. The obligations of charity, delineated by justice in our communion in the Church, provide the impetus of evangelization through word and action within the broader society.

 It is this evangelization that threatens our postmodern judicial and legislative process, which craves the privatization of our faith so that we belong to nobody but our private interests. The family is required to bring this evangelization to fruition, not as the modern incubator of individuals but rather as the womb of graced persons living in communion within society in harmony with God and neighbor. Such a family, mindful of their weakest members, teaches society to be mindful of its weakest members. The substance and order of our catechesis must involve shared word and action through teaching, and also through outreach anchored in the specificity of the Gospel message. This is in contradistinction to the cold and sterile social ideology and outreach of antiseptic government services that provide a one size fits none approach to human needs. Such an outreach is not measured by justice or charity but by instruments of economic commodities of private interest. This ethic could be described well as, “When I was hungry, you gave me the pill.” 

When we Catholics unquestioningly accept the secular definition of the family as our presupposition for the moral and sacramental life, we run the risk of losing our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ. When we catechists of the Church intentionally fail to question this secular presupposition, we commit scandal against the Truth, as known by right reason and revealed fully in Jesus Christ. When we begin our catechesis with the family—belonging in communion with Christ and each other—we foster the family unit as the cell of society bridled by responsibilities of justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance.

The individual person—including the weak, the elderly, the infirmed, the unborn—then belongs to and plays a needed role within the family who, as an integrated whole, play a role within society. This role emphasizes formation in love of God and neighbor, respect for life, the integrity of conscience, the responsibility to respect the reputation of others, and the proper use of property that develops human flourishing. We subsequently cease living within our families as an aggregate of individuals without the naturally defined roles of husband and wife, father and daughter, mother and son, brother and sister; instead we receive our relationally defined mantel as part of the family of God.

With this renewed understanding of the family, presupposed by the catechetical teaching of the Church, the doctrine and sacramental teachings lose their theoretical and sclerosing tedium. These teachings now become practically understood, since they reveal the relational character of that which is covenantal, communal, ecclesial, and social. The truth of Catholic doctrine and sacrament are seen to inhere in the character of each catechized person, and in the moral and social fabric of the family and of the broader community wherein we have purpose, responsibility, and belonging. This manner of living and teaching sacramental doctrine and morality saves us from the possible sins of nationalism and statism and returns us to the virtue of patriotism.[iii]

In conclusion, the border conflict involves more than national security, business interests, or even the right to asylum. In this, we see the historically familiar hostility directed towards a Catholic and natural anthropology by a secular and individualized society that would rather live by the power of Alexa or Siri than the by the wisdom of Paul or Sirach. We see an attack not only on family order and structure but on belonging itself. The responsibility of faith and right reason forms our conscience and prompts us towards greater belonging through our ability to change our catechetical approach in accord with a more Christian and realistic anthropology. The Hispanic presence within the Catholic Church and in the society of the United States of America—whether it makes itself known in Spanish, English, “Tex-Mex,” or “Spanglish,” through immigrants or grandchildren of immigrants, documented people or undocumented people—is “the Catholic moment” about which the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote at the end of the last century. It looks much different than what we might have expected, but make no mistake that it has arrived at the right time for our salvation. It is a graced opportunity that calls each of us back to our Catholic roots and strengthens our nation through married life and the family at a time of urgent and critical need.

The Most Reverend Michael F. Olson, S.T.D., is Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas. This article is adapted from his keynote presentation to Diocesan Directors at the St. John Bosco Conference for Evangelization and Catechesis at Franciscan University of Steubenville, July 16, 2018.


[i]Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), 197.

[ii] Charles H. Cooley, Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909).

[iii] See Pope St. John Paul II, Address to the Fiftieth  General Assembly of the United Nations, October 5, 1995, in L'Osservatore Romano. Weekly Edition in English n. 41:8-10.

This article appeared on pages 25-28 of the printed edition. Photo credit: public domain image from


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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