On June 25, 2020, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, headed by its president, His Excellency Archbishop Rino Fisichella, presented for the Universal Church a new Directory for Catechesis. The first directory, named the General Catechetical Directory, was issued on April 11, 1971, by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy and approved by His Holiness St. Paul VI. The second directory, named the General Directory for Catechesis, was promulgated by the same Congregation on August 15, 1997, and was approved by Pope St. John Paul II. In 2013, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI transferred the competency of catechesis from the Congregation for the Clergy to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization that he himself had founded in 2010. This transfer placed catechesis in the forefront of the new evangelization with mercy as its paradigm. This brief article will examine the concept of mercy as found in each of the directories in order to highlight the rise of said notion and its relation to catechesis and evangelization.
Mercy in the General Catechetical Directory (1971)
In the General Catechetical Directory of 1971, the words “mercy” and “merciful” are found only four times. In speaking about the Holy Trinity, paragraph forty-eight describes God as merciful in these words: “‘The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Eph. 1:3) is ‘the living God’ (Mt. 16: 16). He is a holy, just, and merciful God; He is God the author of the covenant with men; God who sees, frees, and saves; God who loves as a father, as a spouse. Catechesis joyfully proclaims this God who is the source of our every hope (cf. 1 Pet. 1, 3–4).”[i] Speaking about sacramental catechesis, the directory describes God, once again, as merciful when it states, “Since the life of Christians, which on earth is a warfare, is liable to temptations and sins, the way of the sacrament of Penance is open for them, so that they may obtain pardon from the merciful God and reconcile themselves with the Church.”[ii]
The concept of mercy is found once again in relation to sacramental catechesis where it calls for the baptized to respond to God’s mercy as found in the sacraments. The directory states, “Catechesis will have the duty of presenting the seven sacraments according to their full meaning. First, they must be presented as sacraments of faith. Of themselves, they certainly express the efficacious will of Christ the Savior; but men, on their part, must show a sincere will to respond to God’s love and mercy. Hence, catechesis must concern itself with the acquisition of the proper dispositions, with the stimulation of sincerity and generosity for a worthy reception of the sacraments.”[iii] In the addendum “First reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist,” the directory notes that “When a child begins to offend God by sin, he also begins to have the desire of receiving pardon, not only from parents or relatives, but also from God. . . . The doctrine on the sacrament of Penance is to be presented in a broad framework of affiancing purification and spiritual growth with great confidence in the mercy and love of God. In this way, children not only can little by little acquire a delicate understanding of conscience, but do not lose heart when they fall into some lesser fault.” Catechesis has the task of not only teaching about these sacraments but of preparing children for their reception. Further, in regard to access to the Sacrament of Penance, the directory examined different sacramental practices or “experiments” put in place after the reform of the Second Vatican Council and concluded that children who had reached the use of reason should not be denied God’s pardon, and (one can add) God’s mercy. In the same addendum, the directory stated that baptized children have “the right to confess their sins” and indicated that “the practice now in force in the Church of putting Confession ahead of first Communion should be retained.” In sum, from these passages one can see that God is merciful, that God’s mercy is encountered in the sacraments, and that after a suitable catechesis, this encounter should not be postponed.
In sum, from these passages one can surmise that God is merciful and that one can encounter God’s mercy in the sacraments.
Mercy in the General Directory for Catechesis (1997)
In the General Directory for Catechesis of 1997, the words “mercy” and “merciful” are also found only four times. This directory references the concept of mercy beginning in its introduction, where it quotes the Parable of the Sower (Mk 4:3–8) and then states, “The purpose of this Introduction is to foster in pastors and catechists a greater consciousness of the necessity to keep in mind the field in which the seed is sown, and to do so with the perspective of faith and mercy.”[iv] Under the section “Revelation and its transmission through evangelization” in chapter one, salvation is presented as part of God’s plan. This “‘providential plan’ [Eph 1:9] . . . implies . . . the offer of salvation to all men, as a gift of God's grace and mercy, which implies freedom from evil, sin and death.”[v] In its introduction, this directory also speaks about the renewal of catechesis and how this renewal has encouraged in children, young people, and adults “a new and vital experience of God as merciful Father; a more profound rediscovery of Jesus Christ, not only in his divinity but also in his humanity; a sense of co-responsibility on the part of all for the mission of the Church in the world; and a raising of consciousness with regard to the social obligations of the faith.”[vi] Lastly, this directory, in part three, chapter one, “Pedagogy of God, source and model of the Pedagogy of the Faith,” states:
The salvation of the person, which is the ultimate purpose of Revelation, is shown as a fruit of an original and efficacious “pedagogy of God” throughout history. Similar to human usage and according to the cultural categories of time, God in Scripture is seen as a merciful Father, teacher and sage. . . . He liberates the person from the bonds of evil and attracts him to himself by bonds of love. . . . God transforms events in the life of his people into lessons of wisdom, adapting himself to the diverse ages and life situations. Thus he entrusts words of instruction and catechesis which are transmitted from generation to generation. . . . Truly, to help a person to encounter God, which is the task of the catechist, means to emphasize above all the relationship that the person has with God so that he can make it his own and allow himself to be guided by God.[vii]
It is clear that, in the General Directory for Catechesis of 1997, the perspective of mercy has been related even more to the Divine Person of the Heavenly Father. The Father offers salvation, which is an act of his mercy. Catechesis fosters and assists the Christian experience of God as a merciful Father. The whole of Scripture leads the baptized to encounter God as a merciful Father who, throughout history, has taught humanity to return to him time and time again. Catechesis echoes this loving salvation history. This second directory has gathered not only the catechesis on mercy found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church[viii] but also the teaching of St. John Paul II, found in his encyclicals Redemotor Hominis (1979)[ix] and Dives in Misericordia (1980).[x] Pope John Paul II writes in Dives in Misericordia, “It is ‘God, who is rich in mercy’ whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father: it is His very Son who, in Himself, has manifested Him and made Him known to us.”[xi] The paradigm of mercy stressed by St. John Paul II in all his writings and ministry was to be gathered, embraced, expanded, and proposed even further by the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, as is now certainly apparent.
Mercy in the new Directory for Catechesis of 2020[xii]
The paradigm of mercy, and therefore its presence in this new directory, cannot be understood without highlighting important events in the Universal Church that have taken place in the last twenty years that have influenced the field of catechesis and evangelization. Among these are:
- the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000;
- the canonization of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska on April 30, 2000, and the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday;
- the 2008 Synod of Bishops on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church;
- the First World Apostolic Congress on Mercy (WACOM I) held in Rome that same year;[xiii]
- and the 2010 establishment of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.
Influencing also the relationship between mercy, evangelization, and catechesis were:
- the celebration of the Year of Faith in 2012;[xiv]
- the Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, also in 2012;
- Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium;
- the regulation of catechesis was transferred from the Congregation of the Clergy to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization that same year;
- the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy of 2015–2016;[xv]
- and the ministry of priests as Missionaries of Mercy that continued after the Jubilee of Mercy.[xvi]
In light of these events, it is not surprising that the new Directory for Catechesis of 2020 incorporates the paradigm of mercy extensively and explicitly: Mercy is the core of the Gospel and of the kerygma (DC 41, 175), the source of salvation (DC 14), and Jesus Christ is its full manifestation (DC 15). The evangelization of “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him”[xvii] proposes the Good News, which includes the concrete manifestation of mercy (DC 41). The Christian faith finds its synthesis in mercy made visible in Jesus Christ (DC 51).[xviii] Mercy reveals the mystery of the Holy Trinity and it is the center of the Revelation of Christ (DC 51). Jesus Christ reveals the infinite mercy of the Father (DC 58, 158). The Gospel must be proclaimed through the language of mercy, with gestures and acts of mercy, more than just through words (DC 51, 102). Mercy is the nucleus of Revelation and therefore should be the condition for its proclamation and the style of its pedagogy (DC 52). God’s mercy is unmerited, unconditional, and free (DC 234).
Further, the new Directory teaches that catechesis ought to educate in the knowledge and practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy (DC 52). Catechesis itself can be considered a work of mercy since its action liberates and leads to a proper human identity and vocation (DC 52). In giving personal testimony of their faith, catechists are called to examine their weaknesses in the light of God’s infinite mercy and, in so doing, they become signs of hope for their brothers and sisters (DC 113). It is in the local Christian community, the place and goal of catechesis, that the mercy of God is concretely experienced through mutual welcoming and forgiveness (DC 133). Catechesis assists the local community in its process of becoming a place where God’s unmerited mercy is experienced (DC 234). Catechesis with marginalized persons necessarily includes the approach of mercy and the search for new works of mercy since the credibility of the Gospel message depends strongly on the testimony of deeds (DC 279, 280, 328). Catechesis with those in prison should communicate the freely given mercy of God (DC 281). Catechesis promotes the teaching of the Church related to the sacred and inviolable dignity of the human person. Catechesis, therefore, should announce God’s merciful love in the face of the death penalty and in relation to all matters contrary to the dignity and integrity of the human person (DC 380).
The new Directory for Catechesis of 2020 incorporates the paradigm of mercy in evangelization and catechesis. God is merciful. Mercy is encountered in the sacraments. Salvation is the ultimate end of God’s merciful plan. Catechesis helps people encounter God and experience the mercy of the Father. The previous directories have prepared the way for a more thorough integration of mercy in the new directory; however, by stating that the kerygma in fact proclaims the gratuitous and merciful love of God fully manifested in Jesus Christ (DC 175), the Directory has moved the paradigm of mercy to center stage. Mercy, in word and in deed, permeates the proclamation of the Gospel, and its importance is fundamental since, without it, the proclamation would lack credibility. Lastly, the Directory explicitly calls for catechesis to educate the “missionary disciple” in order to help them become merciful, as the Father is merciful (DC 52). If all catechesis is called to be kerygmatic (DC 57-60),[xix] then all catechesis is called to espouse the paradigm of mercy.
In sum, the Directory expresses and develops further the paradigm of mercy and the latter can be summed up in these words: the Gospel is a message of mercy where one encounters the Father’s mercy, salvation, and forgiveness made one of us in the Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose from death, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit we can journey on the road to holiness, becoming merciful as the Father is merciful. Let us all pray that this new Directory for Catechesis, with its paradigm of mercy, be fully embraced by all local churches throughout the world!
Rev. Martín I. Esguerra-López, M.Id, L.M.S.W., D.Min., is a member of the Idente Missionaries. He has catechetical experience with children, teenagers, and adults and has ministered as a Director of Religious Education in two New York City parishes. He has been a parochial vicar, a pastor, and is currently a week-end assistant at an urban parish in Rome. Since November of 2018 he is an official at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization and in March of 2019, Pope Francis nominated him Missionary of Mercy.
[i] Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, General Catechetical Directory (1971), no. 48, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con..., accessed July 28, 2020. Hereafter cited in endnotes as GCD
[ii] GCD, no. 57.
[iii] GCD, no. 56.
[iv] Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (1997), no. 14, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con..., accessed July 29, 2020. Hereafter cited in endnotes as GDC.
[v] GDC, no. 37.
[vi] GDC, no. 24.
[vii] GDC, no. 139.
[viii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 53, 122, 684, 708, 1145, 1609, 1950, 1964.
[ix] “Above all, love is greater than sin, than weakness, than the ‘futility of creation,’ it is stronger than death; it is a love always ready to raise up and forgive, always ready to go to meet the prodigal son, always looking for ‘the revealing of the sons of God,’ who are called to ‘the glory that is to be revealed.’ This revelation of love is also described as mercy; and in man's history this revelation of love and mercy has taken a form and a name: that of Jesus Christ” (John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, no. 9, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j..., accessed July 29, 2020).
[x] The paradigm of mercy in the Universal Church cannot be understood without reference to this encyclical, where a theological and pastoral exploration of mercy is thoroughly proposed.
[xi] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Dives in Miserecordia, no. 1, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j..., accessed July 29, 2020.
[xii] Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, Direttorio per la Catechesi (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2020). The Italian original was the text used in this article. Cited in text as DC.
[xiii] Similar World Apostolic Congresses on Mercy have taken place in the Archdiocese of Krakow, October 1–5, 2011 (WACOM II); in the Archdiocese of Bogotá, August 15–19, 2014 (WACOM III); and in the Archdiocese of Manila and other Philippine dioceses, January 16–20, 2017 (WACOM IV). These events gather participants from around the world devoted to a spirituality of mercy, and they always include a catechesis on mercy.
[xiv] Note that the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the same council charged with preparing the new directory, spearheaded this initiative for the entire Church.
[xv] Note, once again, that the same Pontifical Council, charged with the preparation of the new directory, coordinated all the events related to the Jubilee of Mercy.
[xvi] Missionaries of Mercy are charged with preaching about mercy and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
[xvii] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 14, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/p..., accessed July 30, 2020. Italics in the original.
[xviii] The Directory quotes Pope Francis’ Misericordiae Vultus (April 11, 2015) in this paragraph and in other places. This Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy expands the Holy Father’s thought on mercy and is a perfect complement to Pope John Paul II’s Dives in Misericordia.
[xix] See also Evangelii Gaudium, no. 164: “In catechesis too, we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal. . .. This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment”; and no. 165: “All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats,” http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/p..., accessed July 30, 2020.
This article originally appeared on pages 26-29 in the print edition.
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