No one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 3:11)
Introduction: The Kerygma
The election of Pope Francis has brought with it a renewed focus on the attractiveness of the Christian message. There are already two magisterial documents from this pope’s hand offering insights into his vision for catechesis. Perhaps the best known of his observations can be found in Evangelii Gaudium, where he has drawn attention to the fundamental bedrock of what we ought to be passing on—the Kerygma:
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.
The structure is disarmingly simple, and yet it allows us to touch on every important aspect of the Christian life. We are reminded that the foundation of all we do as Christians is the love of Christ. Before every program, prior to any inspirational conference, above all petty politics or personal clashes of any kind, we do what we do because Jesus Christ loves you. This finds its most powerful expression in what Christ did: he gave his life to save you. This is not some distant event that is no longer relevant, for Jesus is living at your side every day—made present mysteriously through the sacraments and made personal through our ongoing dialogue in prayer. Finally, there must be some element of struggle and personal transformation involved in this; for Christ stands by us for a good purpose: to enlighten, strengthen and free you. This is an incredibly powerful summary of what we are trying to pass on to those in our care, by living it out ourselves. It is so important that “all Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma.”
The Sacramental Structure of Faith
Whereas the kerygma gives us insight into what we are doing, in Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis reminds us how this is to be done. Here he points out that the Church is a family, which must pass on the full store of its memories in a way that nothing is lost. But how? The Church has access to a special means for passing on this fullness, one that is capable of “engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others.”
What is this special means? It is none other than what it has always been, “the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy.” Christ is not a distant memory; he is a real presence. Our senses give genuine access to the Savior himself, no less real now than he was when he travelled the pathways of the Holy Land. The Lord himself, on the road to Emmaus, concretely demonstrates this truth. Though Jesus is still present on the earth, even speaking to the disciples, it is not until the sacramental sign, the “breaking of bread,” that they really know who he is! Thus shall it be until the end of time.
Essentially, the pope is drawing attention to the fact that faith itself has a sacramental structure: “The awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal.”
The Place of Doctrinal Content
In Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis makes it clear that what the Church is handing on is not solely a doctrinal content for which a book or the repetition of an idea might suffice. Rather, it is about “the new light born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion.”
In making this point he has no intention of denigrating the importance of systematically passing on the doctrine of the Church:
Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole…hence the need for vigilance in ensuring that the deposit of faith is passed on in its entirety…and that all aspects of the profession of faith are duly emphasized.
Via Pulchritudinis: The Way of Beauty
Pope Francis advises that in proclaiming Christ, we are not only concerned with what is right and good, but also with the beautiful. He affirms that “every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.” He warns that this must never become some kind of relativist asceticism, where beauty is isolated from its inseparable bonds with truth and goodness. It is nevertheless a valuable tool; it is a means by which catechists can attract the attention of their students by appealing to their senses.
I, like many others, have certainly noticed that modern young people are incredibly attentive to the visual image. To attract their attention, it is usually sufficient to allow them to hold beautifully presented pieces of art work, mounted on wood if possible. By simply asking what they think the artist is trying to tell us, a remarkable discussion almost invariably follows. Students who cannot be reached by fine words can often be touched by beautiful images. For this reason, Pope Francis advises that “a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith.”
The Moral Dimension of Catechesis
Pope Francis also gives attention to the moral component of catechesis. Changes in behavior ought to follow from one’s relationship with Christ. This is the motive for rejecting the evils and sins that endanger our life with Christ. To put it in the words of the Gospel, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).
In our teaching of the moral ramifications of life in Christ, we are told to avoid striking the pose of “dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation.” Instead, we should appear as “joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”
Finally, Pope Francis expresses a preference for a catechetical methodology: mystogogical renewal. “This basically has to do with two things: a progressive experience of formation involving the entire community, and a renewed appreciation of the liturgical signs of Christian initiation.”
How can we ensure that the faith is being passed on in a way that involves the entire community? How can we induct children into a proper understanding of the liturgical signs and allow them to see the link between this and the Revelation of God revealed in the Bible? In posing these challenges, Pope Francis is merely presenting the ancient teaching of the Church, reiterated most recently in Verbum Domini in 2010. Mystagogical renewal aims to emphasize the link between the Scriptures and the liturgy and make this explicit in our catechetical practice: “To understand the Word of God, then, we need to appreciate and experience the essential meaning and value of the liturgical action.”
We could, then, sum up the vision of Pope Francis for catechesis in four simple statements.
- We need to begin with the Kerygma, and continually reflect on it.
- Catechesis requires an attractive presentation and the integration of every dimension of the person within a community journeying towards God.
- We must emphasize “mystagogy”—working through the concrete liturgical signs we find in the sacraments and linking these with the mysteries revealed in the scriptures.
- The sacraments are indispensable in passing on the faith of the Church, as they draw people to Christ’s ongoing real presence in the world.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2013), art. 164.
 Ibid., art. 165.
 Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2013), art. 40.
 Ibid., art. 40.
 Ibid., art. 48.
 Evangelii Gaudium, art. 167.
 Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2013), art. 52.
Dr. Gerard O’Shea is a Catholic School Principal and Part-time Lecturer at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne. For more information on this initiative, please contact Gerard O’Shea on firstname.lastname@example.org or The Marriage and Family Office at the Maryvale Institute: email@example.com.
This article was originally on pages 12-13 of the printed edition.